Nebraska Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Cornhuskers This Spring

DSC00736

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are just now settling in for a long summer’s absence of football. And with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska fans have had a lot of change to absorb.

But before we let spring football for 2015 go, let’s take time to look back and see what we’ve learned about the new-look Nebraska.

The Offense Will Fit The Players

After the Bill Callahan experience, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for their concern about a coaching change. Nebraska’s 2004 campaign was a disaster, with Callahan attempting to force the square peg of quarterback Joe Dailey into the round hold of Callahan’s West Coast offense. The result was a 5-6 season and a poisoning of the well between Callahan and the fan base.

Riley looks to understand the folly of that arrogance. According to Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf look to be tailoring Nebraska’s 2015 offense to the strengths of its talents, rather than trying to force them into a rigid system. For example, Nebraska looks to be operating more out of a shotgun this year, even though it appears that Riley and Langsdorf would prefer a quarterback operating under center.

“That is what they (quarterbacks) feel comfortable with,” Langsdorf said. “I’m OK with (shotgun).”

The Defense Will Be Simpler

Bo Pelini’s defensive scheme was very effective, no one will deny that. But it was also very complicated, and relied on players (particularly safeties) to make reads and respond accordingly. A mistake on those reads could be catastrophic.

New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system looks to be simpler, relying more on the athleticism of its players to be effective. Linebacker Josh Banderas compared Banker’s system to Pelini’s (according to Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald) and his thoughts were revealing.

“But now I feel like I can just play football instead of a scheme. I’m a lot more fluid and can have more fun.”

Now, simpler and more fluid can be a two-edged sword. Nebraska may be vulnerable to being out-schemed offensively, or just out-matched athletically. But at the very least, the Blackshirts will look very different under the new regime.

Tommy Armstrong Will (Probably) Be The Starter

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

– Rita Mae Brown (and probably not Albert Einstein)

Armstrong has a career completion percentage of 52.9 percent. At the Spring Game, his completion percentage was 50 percent. While Riley has a history of working with and improving quarterbacks, and Langsdorf arrives in Lincoln after coaching quarterbacks for the New York Giants, the idea of Armstrong dramatically improving his accuracy is still worthy of skepticism.

As a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, that’s just not good enough for Nebraska to win a conference title.

And yet, everyone from Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald to Mitch Sherman of ESPN to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star remain convinced that the starting quarterback’s job is Armstrong’s to lose. Certainly, Armstrong’s experience and success as a starter are huge advantages for him. Perhaps Armstrong can make strides in Riley’s offense. Or perhaps the other quarterbacks on the roster simply haven’t been capable of showing enough in practice to unseat the incumbent.

So absent a huge shakeup in fall camp, look for Armstrong to lead the line for Nebraska against BYU in September.

The Sweep is Here To Stay

Nebraska fans can be forgiven for having nightmares about the jet sweep, after Wisconsin ground the Blackshirts to a fine red mist deploying it with Melvin Gordon in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game.

Well, it looks like Nebraska will finally be joining that party. At the Spring Game, we saw the jet sweep deployed a number of times, to great effect. Combining a jet sweep or a fake sweep with an inside zone running game gives Nebraska an opportunity to put defenders in a quandary, forcing them to make a decision and perhaps be a step or two behind the ball carrier.

According to Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, don’t be surprised to see the jet sweep as a staple of Nebraska’s offensive attack.

“I think that sweep play is always going to be something that is part of our identity,” said Riley. “There’s some other stuff that goes with it that has always been fun to do, and it’s nice to see it take shape like that because when it’s going it gives you another running weapon in your offense.”

Mike Riley is not Bo Pelini

If nothing else, Pelini’s departure has freed some of the journalists covering Nebraska to lift the curtain and show off some of the warts that were present under his leadership. Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star discussed the “mismanagement” of linebacker Josh Banderas, to the point of him nearing a transfer. Perhaps more damning, Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald wrote about Pelini’s “loser’s limp” of complaining how hard it was to recruit to Lincoln, and about the “frat house” atmosphere in the football program without “adult” leadership.

Citing as an example of the “frat house” atmosphere, Barfknecht referred to an interview with defensive tackle Kevin Williams this spring, where Williams said “meetings actually start on time now.”

Is that a little thing? Of course it is. But big things are nothing more than a collection of little things put in the proper order.

Riley’s arrival does not, of course, guarantee success for Nebraska. Indeed, in 2015 Riley will face a challenge to even equal Pelini’s win-loss total from the previous season.

But there is no question that Nebraska under Riley will look and feel radically different than it did under Pelini.

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: NFL Draft Projections for Every Former Cornhusker

DSC05059
photo and story by Patrick Runge

On Thursday, the 2015 NFL Draft will begin, and Nebraska fans will be keeping an eye out to see where former Cornhuskers land. Ever since the Bill Callahan era, Nebraska has touted the success of its alumni in the NFL, and there are at least three players who look likely to join their ranks.

Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter at NFL.com put together a seven-round mock draft showing where each player could land. While mock drafts are notoriously unreliable in terms of their predictive accuracy, they are interesting as a starting point to think about how players could fill needs on a certain team. So an exercise like the one on NFL.com is useful as a discussion point.

With that caveat in place, let’s take a look at where this year’s crop of ex-Cornhuskers might land on Sundays.

Randy Gregory

New Orleans Saints (first round, no. 13 overall)

After the regular season, Gregory was considered by some to be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. But a positive marijuana test at the NFL Combine has dropped perception of him out of the top ten, in large part due to the irresponsibility of allowing himself to have the drug in his system when he knew he was going to be tested.

But while that will likely cost Gregory a healthy sum in terms of his rookie contract, it also pushes him down the board and likely to a better team. The Saints are a team re-tooling after a disastrous 7-9 season which kept them out of the playoffs (even in the comically-inept NFC South, which was won by a 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers).

In this offseason, the Saints traded their most explosive offensive weapon in tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for picks and a Pro Bowl caliber center in Max Unger. It may be a signal that the Saints are moving towards more of a focus on defense and running the ball. Given that the Saints were no. 25 in the NFL last year in sacks, a pass-rushing specialist would fill a big need.

And if Gregory’s indiscretion at the Combine drops a top-five level talent to New Orleans at 13, it makes a lot of sense for the Saints to jump on him there.

Ameer Abdullah

Detroit Lions (third round, no. 88 overall)

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska fans could keep the Lions as their adopted NFL team, trading their Ndamukong Suh shirts (who went to the Miami Dolphins in free agency this offseason) for Abdullah ones.

Upgrading at running back makes a lot of sense for the Lions, especially as their defense will of necessity take a hit after losing Suh. With Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at wideout, the Lions already have some effective offensive weapons. But their only rostered running backs at this point are Joique Bell, Theo Riddick, and George Wynn. There is a huge opportunity for a running back to earn playing time (at the very least in a committee with Bell), one that Abdullah would be well-poised to exploit.

Kenny Bell

Buffalo Bills (fifth round, no. 155 overall)

Bell to Buffalo is an intriguing prospect. Given his injury history and lack of size, a fifth-round grade is probably fair. And yet, throughout his career at Nebraska, fans saw his speed, route-running, and hands on display, as well as his toughness and leadership.

Going to Buffalo would put him on the field with a number of other exciting offensive weapons, such as Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy. If Bell can make the team as a third or fourth wideout, he could have the opportunity to exploit matchups against linebackers or safeties, with the other team’s best cover corners on Watkins and Harvin.

Of course, he would also have guys like Matt Cassel and E.J. Manuel throwing him the ball, which right now is the biggest limiting factor in the Bills’ offensive future. Still, given what the Bills look to be building on offense, Bell makes a lot of sense in Buffalo.

Free Agents

According to CBS Sports, here are the other Nebraska players who have a shot at earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.

Player Position Positional Rank
Trevor Roach ILB 21
Zaire Anderson OLB 44
Josh Mitchell CB 64
Corey Cooper SS 28
Jake Cotton OG 51

Nebraska Football: Five Things Standing in The Way of a B1G Championship

DSC00174

photo and story by Patrick Runge

For the most part, Nebraska football fans aren’t unrealistic. Honest. They don’t expect to see Nebraska winning national titles like in the late nineties. They do expect, however, to see Nebraska competing for conference titles, especially seeing other schools in similar situations (such as Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Oregon) able to do the same.

This year, new head coach Mike Riley will be trying to do what three coaches before him were unable to accomplish. So what’s standing between Nebraska and a conference crown? Here are five of the biggest hurdles.

Consistent Quarterback Play

If the website would permit it, I would have this headline in bright flashing neon with a klaxon alarm blaring in the background.

(Hey, webmasters, get on that, wouldya?)

Throughout the Bo Pelini era, nothing held Nebraska’s progression back more than its signal-caller. In 2009, Nebraska’s defense was historically good with a once-in-a-generation talent in Ndamukong Suh. But a near-absence at quarterback (an injured Zac Lee) and an additional one second in Dallas doomed Nebraska’s chances for a conference title.

Starting in 2010, the Taylor Martinez era began. For the next four years, Martinez’s dazzling athleticism covered his deficiencies as a signal-caller, placing a ceiling on Nebraska’s accomplishments. And last year, Tommy Armstrong’s toughness and leadership were not enough to overcome his 52-percent completion percentage and his 22/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Combine that with the loss of Ameer Abdullah, who was arguably Nebraska’s best I-back since Ahman Green, and NU’s drought of conference titles since 1999 continued.

Riley has five scholarship quarterbacks to pick from in 2015. But there is no evidence—yet—to suggest that Nebraska fans can expect dramatic improvements from its signal-caller. If Riley can be the quarterback-whisperer and boost the performance of Armstrong (or whomever ends up winning the job), then Nebraska may finally have a shot at replenishing the trophy cabinet.

Mental Mistakes

If inconsistent quarterback play was the primary reason for Pelini’s teams to struggle, mental mistakes might have been a close second. Consider these stats for the Pelini era (courtesy CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

Ugly stuff. The numbers in bold italics represent the times (once in seven years for penalties, twice for turnover margin) when Nebraska was in the top half nationally. Or, put less delicately, when Nebraska wasn’t below average in two of the statistical categories most closely aligned with mental mistakes.

To win a conference title, Nebraska will be competing against schools with better talent. Until Nebraska can stop beating itself, there is no reasonable likelihood it can even hope to win at the levels necessary to win a conference title.

A Reliable Placekicker

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Nebraska has been blessed throughout its history with great placekickers. Last year was the first in some time that Nebraska’s placekicker could not be counted on to deliver in clutch situations.

It’s not that true freshman Drew Brown was horrible in 2014. Brown went 14-for-21 in field goals, for a respectable 66.7 percent. Overall, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in field goal percentage, meaning it was slightly below average.

But as with mental mistakes, Nebraska’s talent deficiencies at the highest level mean that it must excel in other areas to win conference titles. And that means Nebraska must be able to count on putting points on the board, even from long distance, from its kicker.

Wisconsin

204-102. 1407-818.

What are those numbers? The aggregate final score and rushing totals of Nebraska’s four games against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU’s arrival in the B1G. Even with Nebraska’s victory over the Badgers in 2012, Wisconsin has utterly humiliated Nebraska’s defense on three separate occasions. There’s a good case to be made that the 581 rushing yards (!) that the Badgers hung on the Blackshirts in 2014 did as much to get Pelini fired as his legendary tirades.

And Nebraska can’t get to Indianapolis without going through Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers come to Lincoln this year with a new coach and without Melvin Gordon. But unless Riley can do what Pelini could not and solve the Wisconsin riddle, Nebraska’s dreams of a conference title will go unfulfilled.

That School Down South

Assuming Nebraska can finally slay the beast from Madison that has been haunting it for the last three years, there’s another fairly imposing hurdle to clear. Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State hasn’t lost a regular season conference game, is the defending national champion, and could very well have gone two-for-three had the Buckeyes not chosen to play in the 2011 Gator Bowl and therefore been ineligible for the BCS the following year.

And they might have been a year early in winning the title last year, given the talent coming back.

Nebraska has a number of hurdles to clear to give some company to the lonely “1999” on the façade of the West Stadium on the “conference champions” line. But the biggest hurdle might be the scarlet-and-grey monster from Columbus.

(The “team down south” moniker, by the way, comes from the legendary Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, in which partisans from each school will refuse to call the other school by name.)

Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Post Spring Two-Deep Depth Chart

DSC00794

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know already that new head coach Mike Riley won’t be putting out a two-deep after spring practice. So apparently it’s up to us to fill that urgent need. Of course, this is filled with speculation in terms of where the players stand now in the eyes of the new coaching staff, and could change dramatically by September.

But, come on, it’s April. Let’s live a little given how long we have to wait for football to come back.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis might be the only certain starter of the bunch, so this position group looks to be in flux between now and fall camp. The return of Ryne Reeves will make a particular difference both for depth and competition at center.

LT: Alex Lewis, Zach Sterup

LG: Zach Sterup, DJ Foster

C: Paul Thurston, Ryne Reeves

RG: Chongo Kondolo, Zach Hannon

RT: Givens Mordi Price, David Knevel

Offensive Backs

It’s still Tommy Armstrong’s world, until and unless one of the contenders can step up and take the job away from him. As for I-back, being the starter might not mean a lot as the position will likely be a committee rather than one bell-cow back.

QB: Tommy Armstrong, Zack Darlington

IB: Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor

FB: Andy Janovich, Mitch McCann

Receivers

The starting receivers actually look pretty settled, although there could be quite a bit of competition for the next man up. Cethan Carter’s return should make Nebraska’s offense much more dangerous with what he provides at tight end.

WR X: Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly

WR Y: Jamal Turner, Jariah Tolbert

WR A: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Alonzo Moore

TE: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine could be the best defensive end pairing in the Big Ten this season. But who will be in the rotation at defensive end—as well as behind Collins and Valentine—could be quite a question to answer

DE: Jack Gangwish, A.J. Natter

DE: Greg McMullen, Freedom Akinmoladun

DT: Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice

DT: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Williams

Linebackers

If nothing else, the linebacker position might make Riley feel right at home. Given Nebraska’s depth problems, a two-deep at linebacker could prove challenging for NU to field, particularly if there are any injuries of significance.

MIKE: Josh Banderas, David Santos

WILL: Michael Rose-Ivey, Luke Gifford

SAM: Marcus Newby, Dedrick Young

Secondary

It will look a little strange to not see “Nickel” as part of a two-deep for Nebraska, but new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters system will usually keep all three linebackers on the field. Given the depth at this position, the two-deep is likely to exclude a number of talented players.

CB: Daniel Davie, Josh Kalu

CB: Byerson Cockrell, Jonathan Rose

S: Nate Gerry, Charles Jackson

S: LeRoy Alexander, Kieron Williams

Specialists

Not a lot of competition at most of these positions, but excelling on special teams could be a huge competitive advantage for Nebraska in 2015. Assuming it can get the placekicking position sorted out …

PK: Drew Brown, Mauro Bondi

P: Sam Foltz, Mauro Bondi

KOS: Mauro Bondi, Drew Brown

LS: Jordan Ober, Josh Faulkenberry

Punt Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner

Kick Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner

Nebraska Football: Grading Cornhuskers’ Position Group’s 2015 Spring

DSC00808

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have put 2015’s spring practice in the rear view mirror, settling in for a long summer of barbecues, baseball and an absence of football. So before we let spring practice go, let’s take a look back and see how Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley did this spring.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is one area where it’s very hard to get a read on where players stand. It does look like Alex Lewis has solidified his position at left tackle. Paul Thurston made a good case for himself at center with the injury to Ryne Reeves. And Chongo Kondolo looked like he made progress at tackle. But with injuries to Reeves and David Knevel, it’s hard to know just where the offensive line sits after spring practice.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska established that it has depth in the backfield. At quarterback, no one has jumped up and taken the job by the horns, although junior Tommy Armstrong still looks to be in pole position as a starter given his experience. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush seemed to be impressive in camp, but struggled in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman Zack Darlington had almost the opposite trajectory, although it did seem like he improved as spring practice wore on. While the depth is good, some down-grade has to be given for an absence of a starting quarterback that truly inspires confidence.

As for the running backs, the four scholarship players (Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon) all staked their claim for the position, along with walk-ons Graham Nabity and Jordan Nelson. Nebraska looks to be settling into a committee approach to I-back, keeping legs fresh and allowing players to be inserted to maximize their particular skill sets.

Grade: B

Receivers

The receiving corps took one of the biggest hits over the spring when junior tight end Cethan Carter was lost to injury. While Carter should be back in time for fall practice (according to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald), it prevented fans at the Spring Game from getting a good look at what could be a crucial cog in Nebraska’s offense.

There’s plenty of receiver news that was positive, though. Senior Jamal Turner looks ready to go after an injury-plagued career. Redshirt freshman Jariah Tolbert made an impact at the Spring Game, catching three balls for 55 yards and a touchdown, and looking to be a legitimate option in the passing game. Mainstays like Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El are still on track to be part of Riley’s new-look offense as well.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Nebraska’s defensive line might be the hardest to grade, simply because of the difference between the inside and outside of the line. At tackle, Nebraska might have the best tandem in the conference with Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins. But at end, big questions remain. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be the starters, but in terms of both depth and overall talent level defensive end remains one of Nebraska’s biggest uncertainties going into 2015.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Outside of the freshman class, Nebraska has five scholarship linebackers, including one (senior David Santos) who missed most of spring practice due to injury. Combine that with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme which tends to play three linebackers, and you put a lot of pressure on the few experienced players on the roster or on true freshman to contribute at a key position.

Junior Josh Banderas seems to be settling in for his second go-around as middle linebacker, while junior Michael Rose-Ivey is still working his way back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season. So coming out of spring practice, linebacker still has to be one of the big question mark areas for Nebraska

Grade: B-

Secondary

If depth is a theme for Nebraska’s roster, the secondary has it in spades. How deep? Well, LeRoy Alexander is returning from a year’s suspension, but is one of the most talented players on the roster. He was on the White Team roster for the Spring Game, and is not at all guaranteed to get his starting job back in 2015.

The same can be said for Daniel Davie, arguably Nebraska’s best cornerback last year. An injury has kept him out of practice this spring, and given the competition level at the position it is entirely plausible that he will not be a starter next season.

So while the depth chart itself is still being sorted out, Nebraska’s embarrassment of riches in the secondary qualifies as a “good problem” for Riley and his staff.

Grade: A

Special Teams

Half of Nebraska’s special teams looks to be dominant. Sam Foltz might be the best punter in the country, and his strength and accuracy (not to mention tackling acumen) was on display at the Spring Game. De’Mornay Pierson-El is a game-changer at punt returner and kick returner, giving Nebraska a huge advantage in field position.

But Nebraska’s placekicking position remains a question. Drew Brown and Mauro Bondi remain the scholarship kickers, and neither were standouts in 2014. Nebraska was a pedestrian no. 70 nationally in touchback percentage and no. 80 in field goal percentage, according to CFBStats.com.

So if you take two parts of special teams play that are elite at a national level, and two parts which are (at best) average, then a middling B grade seems about fair.

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice

DSC00786

photo and story by Patrick Runge

New head coach Mike Riley presided over his first Spring Game at Nebraska on Saturday. The score (Red 24, White 15) didn’t mean much, but there were a number of lessons to be drawn from the performance.

The most important thing to remember about the Spring Game, though, is that it is really just a glorified practice—one of fifteen in the spring, with another entire camp coming this fall. The results and performances of the Spring Game should be viewed through that lens and weight given accordingly.

Having said that, there are two glaring areas of concern Riley must have after seeing how his team performed under the lights and in front of the crowd. It might only be two areas, but it’s fair to say they’re big ones.

Throwing the Ball

Here’s the stat lines for Nebraska’s quarterbacks at the Spring Game:

Player Comp Att Yrd Comp % TD INT
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 .500 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 .545 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 .636 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 .333 1 0
Tyson Broekemeier 4 6 65 .667 1 0
Johnny Stanton III 3 11 19 .273 0 1
TOTAL 34 68 412 .500 4 3

 

That’s just not good enough. Yes, some of the incompletions were dropped balls (more on that in a bit). But at least on the evidence of one practice (in front of 76,000 people), the only quarterback in whom you could put any faith in accurately delivering the ball was redshirt freshman Zack Darlington.

Again, remember the caveat about this being just one practice. But Armstrong’s completion percentage numbers were about what they have been so far in his career, making fair the question as to whether those can reasonably be expected to markedly improve.

Catching the Ball

Nebraska’s woes with the forward pass on Saturday weren’t limited to the quarterbacks. Time after time, when passes were delivered on target, receivers were unable to make the catch. Wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends were all guilty of drops in situations where a catch should have been made.

Of course, the two concerns run together. Nebraska’s run game looked effective, with jet sweep action (and play fakes off of it) putting stress on a defense horizontally and providing an opportunity to get playmakers like De’Mornay Pierson-El the ball in space.

But if Nebraska’s passing game is as anemic as it appeared on Saturday, it won’t take long for opposing defenses to scheme for the run and dare Nebraska’s quarterbacks to win with their arms. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance (which, again, is limited evidence), it’s hard to have too much faith in their ability to do so.

In other words, Riley and company still have a lot of work to do before Nebraska tees it up against BYU on September 5.

Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch In The Spring Game

DSC06465

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will get their one dose of football on Saturday at the Spring Game to tide them over through the long summer months until football season begins again. So they will be scrutinizing every little piece of information they can find, to get some idea of what Nebraska will look like under new head coach Mike Riley when the 2015 season begins.

To help, here are five things you can keep your eyes on during the Spring Game, to help give you an insight of things to come for the scarlet and cream.

What Routes Do The Receivers Run?

Yeah, this is a pretty granular thing to be watching. But remember that we’re still early in the installation process of Riley’s new offense. There’s a lot of sorting that needs to happen from the coaching staff just to get a good handle on the quality of the roster and how best to utilize its talents. So it is likely that the offense we see in April will be at best a slimmed-down version of what will take the field this fall.

But one way to get at least a preview of Nebraska’s new-look, pro-style offense should be the types of routes run by receivers. By seeing how Nebraska utilizes its receivers—be it down the field, in high-low schemes, slants, or other route concepts—we can at least get a glimpse of Riley’s ideas of how NU will be attacking defenses in 2015.

How Accurate Are The Quarterbacks?

The signal-callers will likely be the focus of attention at the Spring Game this weekend. Will Tommy Armstrong be unseated by one of the four challengers, all of whom are likely to see the field this Saturday?

It will be hard to tell, of course, given that the Spring Game is really one glorified practice at the end of spring camp, and that everyone will have a summer to digest the playbook before fall camp starts.

But if you want to watch one thing to get some insight as to the quarterback pecking order, keep an eye on the accuracy of the quarterbacks. How well they are able to put the ball on target will speak to two different and critical elements of player development for Riley’s quarterbacks—how well they understand the offense and are therefore able to anticipate where a receiver will be, and how technically proficient they are in delivering the football to its desired location.

Particularly in Riley’s west-coast offense where quarterbacks will no longer be seen as running backs, accuracy will be one of the primary characteristics needed for success. Finding which quarterback can best deliver accurately will go a long way in determining Nebraska’s starting signal-caller in 2015.

How Fast Will the Defense Really Play?

Ever since he was hired, we’ve heard how players in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme will be able to play faster and freer. Most recently, defensive tackle Maliek Collins talked about how the new scheme will mean “no more hesitant play” from the Blackshirts (according to Mitch Sherman of ESPN).

That’s something we should get a glimpse of at the Spring Game. How free does the defense look? And does that freedom mean there will be spaces and gaps for the offense to exploit? At least at some level, we’ll see on Saturday.

How Do the Linebackers Cover in Space?

In addition to playing fast and free, Banker favors a “quarters” defensive structure that keeps three linebackers on the field for the majority of plays. Such a scheme, particularly against teams that play four- and five-receiver sets, will by definition ask linebackers to play pass coverage and have to excel defending in space.

How will Nebraska’s linebackers handle that responsibility? Watch for those situations at the Spring Game to get an idea of the answer to what could be the critical question facing the Blackshirts next season.

Who Stands Out in the Secondary?

Of all the position groups (save perhaps I-back), the secondary looks to be the most spoiled for choice. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, the only starting spot that seems locked up is Nate Gerry at one safety position.

The others are up for grabs, with each position having two (or perhaps three) contenders that would be nailed-on starters in leaner years. It should make for fierce—and fascinating—competition for playing time, which will be on display this Saturday.

Nebraska Football: Final Spring Practice Stock Report

IMG_5384

photo and story by Patrick Runge

As Nebraska football fans enter Spring Game Week, it’s time to take a final stock of how spring practice has gone under new head coach Mike Riley. Between a new coaching staff and a new split-schedule practice, Nebraska fans have had a lot of changes to adjust to this spring.

So as we prepare for this weekend’s Spring Game, here is a look at some winners and losers as spring practice for 2015 concludes.

Stock Up: Graham Nabity

Spring football frequently produces surprise stories. And when you combine an undecided position like I-back with a new coaching staff having no pre-conceived judgments about players on the roster, surprise moves are even more likely.

(In other words, as Douglas Adams would say, expect the unexpected).

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that junior walk-on Graham Nabity is getting outsized attention from Riley and the coaching staff. According to Robin Washut of HuskerOnline, Nabity’s consistency and performance has helped him to stand out, even from the four scholarship I-backs.

Take it for what it’s worth, of course. Two years ago, a smart and particularly handsome analyst mentioned Nabity but was talking up King Frazier as a player in the I-back depth chart. But at the very least, Nabity has an opportunity few would have expected coming into this season.

Stock Down: Cethan Carter

In what has been the worst injury news of the spring practice season, junior tight end Cethan Carter will miss the rest of spring practice with an injured foot. According to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, Carter should be recovered from surgery in time for fall practice.

Of course, it’s hard for Nebraska fans not to flash back to the last tight end who wore no. 11 for the scarlet and cream.  In 2004, Matt Herian looked like he was going to be a crucial part of Nebraska’s renaissance as a West Coast offensive powerhouse. But a leg injury against Missouri robbed him of the 2004 and 2005 season, and Herian was never the same player even after his rehabilitation.

At this point, it sounds like Carter’s injury is nowhere near as serious as Herian’s. Nebraska fans are certainly hopeful that is the case, particularly given what Carter can bring to Riley’s pro-style offense this fall.

Stock Up: Jamal Turner

If Carter is on the very front end of an injury, then Turner is on the back end of a number of them.  After getting a medical hardship for missing most of the 2014 season, Turner is ready to take advantage of his final year in Lincoln.

According to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Turner believes the coaching change will help his performance.

“I feel like the receivers are going to play a big part in the offense this year,” Turner said. “Before, we kind of did, like on third downs. I didn’t like that. Who wants to be a second option, you know?”

Stock Down: The Scrambled Eggs and Toast Crew

Nebraska fans love their traditions, and one that has spanned four decades looks to be a casualty of the new coaching regime. As discussed by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, the Big Red Breakfast looks to be a thing of the past. A combination of Nebraska’s radio rights moving away from KFAB and a decision by Riley to not make assistant coaches available for public speaking engagements during the season seems to have spelt the end to the breakfast meetings.

Sipple is probably right about the need for the breakfast meetings to continue, or at least that it would be good for them to do so. The people who attend those tend to be active boosters, the type that Riley will need on his side if he struggles early in his career at Nebraska. If nothing else than for self-preservation, finding a way to continue the breakfast tradition might be a smart call for Riley early in his Nebraska career.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers Poised for a Bounceback Year in 2015

DSC08934

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are gearing up for the Spring Game on April 11, knowing they are in for a long summer to wait before getting more football in the fall. If you’ve been following a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst, you know we’ve already discussed players who need to step up, players who have a starting role locked up, and players we have questions about, amongst other spring quandaries.

But who is poised for a bounce-back year for Nebraska. Who is ready to get off the map and reclaim their place in the spotlight for the scarlet and cream? Here are three candidates.

Jamal Turner

Turner is probably the clearest bounce-back candidate for Nebraska, simply because of how far he’s fallen. When he arrived on campus, he looked briefly to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback job (and if you want to cue up a fascinating “what if” scenario, there’s a good one for you).

But when it was clear that Martinez was going to be the signal-caller, Turner shifted to wideout. By his sophomore year, he looked to be establishing himself at the position. But injuries derailed his progression, hampering his junior year and costing him the entirety of 2014.

Now, with a medical hardship in hand, Turner has an opportunity to establish himself in Riley’s pro-style offense. If he can retain the speed and quickness that made him such an electric prospect when he arrived in Lincoln, he might finally have the chance to be the star Nebraska fans have thought him to be.

Tommy Armstrong

It’s an interesting philosophical discussion to consider whether Armstrong needs to “bounce back” or not. He’s 16-5 as a starter, with a career passer rating of 130.64. But he also has a career completion rate of 52.9 percent, and a disturbing 31/20 touchdown/interception ratio.

So perhaps it’s unfair to label Armstrong as a bounce-back player in terms of the wins and losses he is a part of. But it is fair to tag him with that label in terms of his accuracy and decision-making, two elements that will be critical in Riley’s offense.

Riley has a history of developing quarterbacks, most recently Sean Mannion at Oregon State. While Armstrong’s winning percentage doesn’t need a bounce-back, his efficiency and decision-making do if Nebraska is to compete for conference titles.

Josh Banderas

Few players in scarlet and cream have had the highs and lows that Banderas has in his young Nebraska career. He was a starting middle linebacker as a true freshman. He was put into the doghouse and wouldn’t see the field for weeks at a time due to a lack of performance. He was, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, mishandled by Bo Pelini and his staff.

But now he’s getting his chance to shine under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. According to reports from spring practice (including the Fremont Tribune), Banderas is settling into his role at middle linebacker. And given Nebraska’s lack of depth at linebacker, Banderas will have a long leash to get the position right this time.