photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans have a number of ways to get through the summer months, and one of them is to figure out who will be starting for the Scarlet and Cream in the upcoming season. Rather than looking at box scores, Nebraska fans will pore through recruiting magazines and rosters from the season past to get an idea of what the next season’s crop of Cornhuskers will look like on the field.
So let’s put our guessing hats on and see if we can determine who will win the open starting jobs this fall. Note the emphasis on open starting jobs—you don’t need me to tell you that Ameer Abdullah will be the starting I-back and Randy Gregory will get the nod at defensive end.
If a position is missing, that’s because I don’t view it as an open starting position. Yes, that means there is an entire position group (offensive backs) that gets omitted as a result. But it helps keep our focus on the positions that are truly up in the air, at least based on what we know now before the start of fall camp.
Tackle: Alex Lewis
Guard: Jake Cotton, Ryne Reeves
Center: Mark Pelini
Sometimes taking a chance on a kid pays off. Yeah, it’s not great PR to have a transfer like Lewis have to serve a jail sentence for an assault before he can start playing for your football team. But the fact remains that Lewis looks to have beaten David Knevel for the starting left guard position, acquitting himself well in practice against no less than Randy Gregory.
Having two new guards to break in on an offensive line never bodes well. But Cotton and Reeves do look like they should be able to settle in, keeping junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo on the bench and in the rotation.
As for center, you’d think that Bo Pelini might want sophomore Paul Thurston to win the job simply to avoid the need to break in another new center next year. But Pelini’s experience at that crucial position should be enough to earn him the starting spot.
WR Z: Alonzo Moore
WR A: Jordan Westerkamp
Moore has always been an enticing option, combining size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) with speed. But he’s never been able to stay healthy enough to make a contribution on the field. A healthy summer should see Moore hold off Taariq Allen, another big-bodied receiver who has struggled to stay healthy.
The battle for starting at the slot could be one of the most fascinating in fall camp. Jamal Turner has been a ball of potential ever since he arrived—but has never been able to convert that potential into production on the field. Westerkamp, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a safe pair of hands. Look for that reliability to earn Westerkamp the nod over Turner, although both should see the field a lot.
Defensive End: Greg McMullen
Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry
McMullen’s experience should help him hold off junior college transfer Joe Keels, at least initially, and hang on to the starter’s job. Pelini has also demonstrated some willingness to experiment with hybrid players like Maliek Collins and Marcus Newby at rush end, meaning that the end position opposite Randy Gregory could be highly flexible.
Vincent Valentine looks to have one position at defensive tackle locked up, and the battle for the second position between Curry, Collins, and Kevin Maurice should rage throughout fall camp. Look for Curry to win the position by a nose based on his experience, and Pelini’s desire to use Collins as an edge pass rusher at times.
WILL: Zaire Anderson
BUCK: David Santos
MIKE: Michael Rose
As a senior, 2014 is Anderson’s year to shine. He may be the most talented of all Nebraska’s linebacker corps, but he has struggled with injuries since his transfer from junior college. A healthy season could see Anderson becoming one of Nebraska’s surprise stars on defense.
Santos will have to work to keep a hard-charging Josh Banderas out of the starting lineup at WILL, not to mention younger talent like Courtney Love and Marcus Newby. But as one of the most experienced linebackers in the corps, Santos is the best bet to keep the position.
Rose began to shine at the end of 2013, and could very easily emerge as a leader next year. His play in the middle of the field helped shift Banderas from MIKE to WILL, helping to cement Rose’s position going forward.
Cornerback: Jonathan Rose
Safety: Nathan Gerry
Nickel: Charles Jackson
At corner, Rose and Byerson Cockrell will be fighting for the starting corner spot opposite Josh Mitchell right up until the first game of the season. I would give Rose the nod simply because of the extra year he’s had in the program, but don’t be shocked if both see extensive playing time.
Corey Cooper looks entrenched in one safety spot, so I would see Gerry and LeRoy Alexander battling for the other spot. It’s clear the coaches like Gerry’s talent, as he saw the field last year at linebacker. Safety looks to be a better fit for Gerry, and the versatility he brings in being able to play multiple positions makes him incredibly valuable.
Jackson has always been a special talent, and it looks like he may finally have the discipline to get on the field and stay there. Replacing Ciante Evans will be a tall task, but Jackson’s physical skills could be a huge weapon in that position.
Placekicker: Drew Brown
Kick Returner: Jamal Turner
A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s kicking game could be a huge problem in 2014. Mauro Bondi, Nebraska’s scholarship kicker, wasn’t able to beat out Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith last year, and has done little to inspire confidence from what we have seen of him in 2014. Look for Brown, younger brother of former Husker and NFL kicker Kris Brown, to beat out Bondi and win the placekicking job as a true freshman.
As for the return game, it’s not like Nebraska could do much worse in 2014. Turner and Terrell Newby look to be the two most likely candidates, although I’m sure the coaching staff would be tempted to let Abdullah try his hand. But if Turner’s going to be missing out on playing time at receiver—and I have him losing his starting job to Westerkamp, remember—then that gives him more time and energy to make a contribution as a kick returner.