photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans will have watched the College Football Playoff National Championship Game (which desperately needs a better name) and spend some time dreaming about what it would be like to see NU in that game. To get there, Nebraska will need some new stars, particularly to replace players like Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory.
Nebraska’s roster has plenty of talent for new head coach Mike Riley to use next year. Here are five players who could be breakout stars for Nebraska in 2015.
OK, it’s fair to say that Pierson-El already has broken out, given his phenomenal freshman campaign. But his performance in the Holiday Bowl (8 catches, 102 yards, 1 touchdown) suggests that he can play a larger role in Nebraska’s offensive game plan. Combine that with Riley’s history of a pass-heavy offense, and Pierson-El could develop into more than just a game-changing returner.
Add in the benefits of another off-season in the weight room to increase his durability, and Pierson-El could go from an exciting addition to a main weapon in Nebraska’s offensive arsenal.
Under Bo Pelini, tight ends frequently suffered from what I called “Mike McNeil syndrome,” when a promising receiving target would disappear from the game plan.
Carter certainly looked like he was falling victim to that syndrome. Before his two catches against Iowa (which was a season best, telling you all you need to know), Carter hadn’t caught a ball since Fresno State. Sure, some of that was due to injury, but much of it was due to the tight end just not being a part of the game plan.
Look for that to change under Riley’s system, whatever it may end up looking like. Any tight end usually presents simpler targets for a quarterback, and a tight end like Carter who can be a receiving threat and cause matchup nightmares can become a huge part of an offensive game plan.
If there was one position where Nebraska really struggled last season, it was at linebacker. Other than Zaire Anderson, the linebackers for Nebraska really didn’t make much of an impact for the Blackshirts.
But much of that came from Nebraska never really getting settled at middle linebacker. Towards the end of 2013, Rose-Ivey began to look comfortable at the position, helping to orchestrate the defense as well as making plays on his own.
An injury cost Rose-Ivey the 2014 season. But with a year to heal and prepare, look for Rose-Ivey to be a lynchpin for the Blackshirts in 2015.
Nebraska’s offense next year will have an Abdullah-shaped hole right in the middle. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby were called to action to replace Abdullah after his injury against Purdue, but neither of them were able to truly take advantage of that opportunity. Adam Taylor was lost in fall practice to an injury, but was struggling to crack the depth chart even before he got hurt.
So maybe it’s Wilbon, who spent his redshirt season last year on the scout team, who will be the one to rise and shine.
Yeah, this one is kind of taking the obvious leap. Tommy Armstrong will be returning at quarterback with almost two years of experience, and the confidence of his team in large part due to his off-the-charts intangibles.
But he’s also never finished a season with better than a 53.3 completion percentage. And even with his late-game heroics, the fact remains that Nebraska will not win a conference title if its quarterback is completing passes at that percentage.
Maybe Riley and his staff comes in, works on Armstrong’s mechanics, and makes him a more accurate quarterback. But the door is open much more than it would have been without a coaching change for a new starting quarterback in 2015. Stanton—who Riley recruited hard when he was head man for Oregon State—could very well end up winning the position and taking over as Nebraska’s signal-caller next season.