photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska fans have been pleasantly surprised by a number of players in 2014. While stars like Randy Gregory, Ameer Abdullah, and Kenny Bell have been (in the immortal words of former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green) who we thought they were, some Cornhuskers have either stepped up performances from previous years or come completely out of the blue to become stars.
Here are five Cornhuskers who have given Nebraska fans far more than they expected this season.
No. 5: Greg McMullen
Sure, we knew Randy Gregory was a beast at defensive end. So when Gregory went down early in the season, Nebraska fans were rightfully concerned at what his absence would do to the defensive line.
But throughout this season, Greg McMullen has more than held his own on the other end of the defensive line. He’s eighth on the team in tackles with 27, four in tackles for loss with 5.5, and third in sacks with 2.5. Gregory is quite rightly getting the lion’s share of praise, but McMullen’s contributions this year have been quietly critical for Nebraska.
No. 4: Trevor Roach
In fall practice, Nebraska lost three defensive players—nickel back Charles Jackson, middle linebacker Michael Rose, and safety LeRoy Alexander—either to injury or to suspension. As the season has unfolded, it’s become clear that Rose’s loss has been the most damaging for Nebraska.
The Blackshirts have struggled at linebacker, in large part due to a lack of production from the middle linebacker position. Josh Banderas, who had an lost the position last year as a true freshman, has struggled again this season.
Up stepped senior Trevor Roach, particularly against Michigan State, and demonstrated that knowledge of the defensive system and being in the right place can make up for some athletic deficiencies. Roach and Banderas are now neck and neck for the starting middle linebacker position, as Roach has struggled some after his breakout performance against the Spartans.
But the fact that Roach is in the conversation with Banderas at all is, at least to some, quite a surprise.
No. 3: Maliek Collins
Much like with Gregory and McMullen, many thought that Vincent Valentine was going to be the key cog of the interior defensive line for Nebraska. And while Valentine has played very well, Maliek Collins has excelled at defensive tackle as well.
Collins has the same number of tackles (24) as Valentine, and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 6. Against Rutgers last week, Collins spent a good portion of the game in the Scarlet Knights’ backfield, disrupting any attempt of a comeback.
Much like at defensive end, the unexpected performance of the “other” guy has been a large part of why Nebraska’s defensive line has been so effective in 2014.
No. 2: Nathan Gerry
Last year’s experiment with Gerry as a linebacker didn’t work out so well, with Gerry not being able to produce well enough stay on the field. But Gerry’s move this year to safety has paid dividends. He has been all over the field, is second on the team in tackles with 23, and leads the team in interceptions with three (and that’s not counting the totally bogus one taken away from him against Miami).
Gerry’s move to safety certainly had the promise of success. But particularly with a mostly-anonymous season from Corey Cooper, Gerry’s performance in 2014 has been a crucial and pleasant surprise for Nebraska.
No. 1: De’Mornay Pierson-El
You’re not shocked at this one, are you?
True freshman Pierson-El was a ways down the pecking order in terms of punt returns. Indeed, it wasn’t until Pierson-El flashed his brilliance against Fresno State that Nebraska truly realized what a weapon it had on its hands.
Now, Pierson-El is so intimidating opponents that they are punting short and out of bounds (like Northwestern), giving Nebraska free yardage without the risk of turnover or injury, or kicking off to Ameer Abdullah (like Rutgers) with predictable results.
Pierson-El is just starting to be integrated into Nebraska’s offense, including the amazing return of Black Flash 41 Reverse where he threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong. But there’s little doubt that the true freshman who only got into his first game against Florida Atlantic in garbage time is becoming one of Nebraska’s biggest offensive weapons.
Stats from CFBStats.com.