Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As the calendar turns to July, Nebraska football fans can start to see the 2015 season take shape. So as they wonder what the first season under new head coach Mike Riley will be like, it’s a good time to look at the schedule game-by-game and figure out which contests look to be the toughest.

Sure, there’s a long time between now and when a football is kicked in anger this September. But given what we know now, here’s how Nebraska’s schedule looks in terms of its degree of difficulty from game to game.

No. 12: Southern Mississippi (home, Sep. 26)

Yes, you read that right. The Golden Eagles, not a South Alabama program which was born in 2009 and transitioned to the FBS in 2013, are Nebraska’s softest opponent this season. After spending years as a solid program, Southern Miss fell on hard times, going 4-32 (!) since 2012.

While the Golden Eagles have improved from last year (1-11 in 2013, 3-9 in 2014), there’s still a long way between here and respectability for Southern Miss. Cashing a check for a visit to Lincoln this season may help in the long run, but it won’t make what gets put out on the field in 2015 any prettier.

No. 11: South Alabama (home, Sep. 12)

Sure, the Jaguars are only in their sixth season of existence overall, and second in the FBS. But South Alabama went 6-6 last season and made a bowl game. And this year’s squad has eleven transfers, including seven from UAB after the school dropped football (and then un-dropped football six months later, in what might be the weirdest college athletics story of the season).

But that influx of FBS talent should help to improve an already-feisty Jaguar program. Couple that influx with South Alabama being a quintessential trap game, nestled between BYU and Miami on Nebraska’s schedule, and the Jaguars are at least enough of a challenge to avoid being tabbed as NU’s easiest contest of 2015.

No. 10: Purdue (away, Oct. 31)

I’ll save you the jokes about fearing a trip to West Lafayette on Halloween. While the first half of 2014 signaled at least some signs of life from the Boilermakers, injuries mounted and the second half of the season was a disaster. Purdue scored in the 30s in respectable losses to Michigan State and Minnesota, then limped through its last four games without topping 16 on the scoreboard.

Absent a dramatic turnaround—without the recruiting evidence to suggest such a feat given Purdue’s 5-year recruiting rank of 61, according to SB Nation—the Boilermakers look to be Nebraska’s softest conference opponent next season.

No. 9: Illinois (away, Oct. 3)

It was very tempting to put Illinois, not Purdue, in the bottom spot in terms of Nebraska’s conference opponents. The Illini haven’t been very good for a while now, needing a late-season surge to make a bowl last season. And head coach Tim Beckman has been dogged by stories (such as from Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports) that he has mistreated players under his care.

That’s not good for any coach. But for a coach in his fourth season with a 12-25 record, it sets up a dead-man-walking scenario for Beckman that can be a huge distraction. Still, the Illini have a talented backfield with Wes Lunt at quarterback and Josh Ferguson at tailback. That alone is enough to move Illinois up the list, at least a little bit.

No. 8: Rutgers (away, Nov. 14)

Yep, Nebraska’s going to New Jersey for a conference game. Conference realignment, ladies and gentlemen.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights looked salty, going 5-1 with a win over Michigan and Washington State. But then Rutgers hit a murderer’s row of a three-game portion of its schedule, losing to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin by a combined 135-41.

Still, Rutgers has some talent, evidenced by a no. 48 5-year talent ranking from SB Nation. Combine that with a long trip to an unfamiliar destination and coming off a slugfest against Michigan State the week before, and Rutgers becomes a little more challenging.

No. 7: Northwestern (home, Oct. 24)

October 5, 2013, wasn’t that long ago. Northwestern was no. 16 in the country, and ESPN’s College Gameday was in Evanston to see the Purples face off against no. 4 Ohio State. It was Northwestern’s chance to really seize the moment and stake a claim as Chicago’s Big Ten Team and a player in the conference.

Ohio State won the game, 40-30. Since then, Northwestern has gone 6-13.

Prior to last year, Northwestern had a history of giving Nebraska fits, beating them in 2011 and losing heartbreakers in 2012 and 2013. But last year, Nebraska comfortably beat the Purples in Evanston, 38-17. Look for that trend to continue when Northwestern arrives in Lincoln this year.

No. 6: Iowa (home, Nov. 27)

Fans of both schools were left scratching their heads after Nebraska beat Iowa in double overtime last year, and it was the scarlet and cream that fired its head coach. After 13 (!) seasons in charge in Iowa City, the seat under Kirk Ferentz might finally be starting to warm a little after a lackluster 2014 campaign.

Iowa will be turning the reins over to sophomore quarterback C.J. Beathard, and trying to shore up an offensive line after the departure of both tackles, including Brandon Sherff. Running behind that line will be two-star running backs (according to 247 Sports) Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley.

Unless Iowa can put together a surprise campaign like 2013, it’s likely that the Hawkeyes will come to Lincoln with a great deal more pressure on Ferentz. That does not bode well for a team to repeat its defeat of Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

No. 5: Minnesota (away, Oct. 17)

Say this for the Golden Gophers under head coach Jerry Kill. They know who they are, they know what they’re good at, and they stick with it. For two years in a row, Minnesota has translated a bruising ground game and a stifling defense into a two-game winning streak over Nebraska.

But this year, Minnesota will be without tailback David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, both playing in the NFL. And Nebraska’s defense has transitioned from former head coach Bo Pelini’s stop-the-pass-first philosophy to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s nine-in-the-box quarters scheme.

The Gophers will still be a tough out for any opponent. But a combination of Minnesota’s likely regression (particularly on offense) and a Nebraska defensive scheme that presents a better matchup makes this game more manageable for NU, even in Minneapolis.

No. 4: BYU (home, Sep. 5)

Welcome to Nebraska, Coach Riley. Here’s a darkhorse Heisman contender and a matchup nightmare for you to handle in your first game. Have fun.

Cougars’ quarterback Taysom Hill is a beast running the ball. He averages 7.4 yards per carry if you eliminate sacks from consideration, according to SB Nation. And before his injury last year, Hill was completing passes at a 66.7 percent clip, with a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ration (according to CFB Stats).

That’s a big ask for a defense playing its first game under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s tutelage. And while BYU’s defense isn’t exactly a world-beater (no. 58 nationally in total defense and no. 73 in scoring defense, according to CFB Stats), drawing the Cougars as an opening act for Nebraska is a huge challenge.

No. 3: Miami (away, Sep. 19)

If Nebraska’s first home game is a big challenge in 2015, its first road game is a bigger one. Miami is an immensely talented program (no. 17 nationally in the CFBMatrix talent ranking, the best of any Nebraska opponent this year). At quarterback for the Hurricanes will be sophomore Brad Kaaya, who gave Nebraska fits last year as a true freshman in Lincoln.

Yes, Miami might be under-coached. Al Golden has a -1.00 coach effect from the CFBMatrix, meaning he can be expected to cost his team a full game (!) per season. But Miami is still the most talented team Nebraska will be facing in 2015, and as the first road game of Riley’s tenure.

No. 2: Wisconsin (home, Oct. 10)

There’s no sugar-coating this fact for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU arrived in the conference. Wisconsin has gone 3-1 against Nebraska in that span, outscoring NU 204-102. In the last two games, the Badgers have outscored Nebraska 129-55.

Ouch.

There is room for optimism for Nebraska fans this time around against the Badgers, though. The game is in Lincoln, home of Nebraska’s only win in the series. Melvin Gordon will be in San Diego (at least this year) playing for the Chargers. Nebraska’s defensive scheme under new coordinator Mark Banker should be far better structured to stop Wisconsin’s power rushing attack. And Wisconsin, like Nebraska, will be adjusting to a new head coach.

Still, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for waiting to see NU succeed against the Badgers before they believe it.

No. 1: Michigan State (home, Nov. 7)

The Spartans are still the class of Nebraska’s 2015 schedule, even after NU nearly pulled off an improbably comeback in East Lansing last season. Although tailback Jeremy Langford is gone, returning is quarterback Connor Cook to guide the surprisingly-lively Spartan offense. And under head coach Mark D’Antonio, the Spartans defense has been its calling card (no. 1 in rushing defense and no. 8 in total defense last year, according to CFB Stats).

With an experienced quarterback and a top-flight defense coming to Lincoln, Michigan State looks to pose Nebraska’s toughest challenge in 2015.

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Nebraska Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans already know they are in for big changes with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley. But after being caught in a “Groundhog Day” type of almost-but-not-quite-good-enough seasons in the past, it’s a legitimate question to ask why fans should expect a breakthrough in 2015.

One reason for optimism might be true freshman seeing the field and making a difference. Last year, we saw what a difference De’Mornay Pierson-El made for Nebraska. Here are five (well, not exactly) true freshman who could see themselves as starters in 2015.

Dedrick Young, LB

Of all Nebraska’s incoming freshman, Young might be the one the team most desperately needs. With the departure of David Santos, Nebraska is down to four scholarship linebackers who aren’t true freshmen. One (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off a missed season due to injury, one (Marcus Newby) saw limited playing time last season as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) redshirted last year.

Oh, and Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator Mark Banker uses a quarters defensive structure that favors three linebackers on the field for most plays.

So Nebraska is transitioning to a defensive scheme that puts an extra demand (as opposed to former head coach Bo Pelini’s preference for a fifth defensive back) on an area of the roster particularly thin this season. As a result, the young guys are going to have an opportunity early.

Young, as an early enrollee, should have the first shot at earning a starting role. Yes, he’s a true freshman, but it looks like he may be competing with a redshirt freshman and a bunch of walk-ons for that starting job.

All the other freshmen linebackers

In addition to Young, Nebraska signed four other linebackers in the 2015 class, Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan. Given the borderline crisis Nebraska is facing with its linebacker depth chart, it’s not inconceivable that one of these true freshmen could have a breakout performance in fall camp and find his way onto the depth chart.

Admittedly, it will probably take some additional injuries (or a truly monumental fall camp) before any of the other freshmen linebackers could be considered a starter. But given Nebraska’s perilous lack of depth at linebacker, and history of linebacker injuries prior to the start of a season (Michael Rose-Ivey in 2014, Trevor Roach in 2013), that scenario isn’t inconceivable.

Matt Snyder, TE

Under Riley, it appears that the tight end might be a renewed source of interest. For the 2016 class, Nebraska has already signed two tight end prospects, perhaps signaling an end to the “Mike McNeil” syndrome of talented offensive weapons at tight end disappearing from Nebraska’s game plan.

Currently there are three scholarship tight ends on Nebraska’s roster. Only one, Cethan Carter, is the kind of offensive weapon Snyder projects to be. And Carter has struggled with injuries throughout his career at Nebraska.

As of right now, Carter’s experience gives him the clear starting nod. But should Carter be unavailable, don’t be surprised if Snyder is next in line to start at tight end for Nebraska.

DaiShon Neal, DE

Neal’s path to a starting position is more circuitous than some of the others on this list. But Nebraska’s lack of proven depth at the position provides Neal with at least a plausible means to get there.

Really, Nebraska only has one defensive end returning who is truly proven in Greg McMullen. Jack Gangwish’s play at the end of last season was solid enough to make him the likely starter opposite McMullen, but we haven’t seen enough of Gangwish over the course of a season to know what to expect.

Behind McMullen and Gangwish are a number of players, but with significant questions. Senior Joe Keels and sophomore A.J. Natter have been on the squad long enough to know they have failed to earn significant playing time, at least to date. And the two redshirt freshmen, Sedrick King and Freedom Akinmoladun, have a year learning the previous system but no playing experience. Akinmoladun is also trying to learn a new position, converting from tight end.

So Neal has a number of hurdles to get from where he is now to a starter. But certainly in comparison to some other true freshman on the roster, there is at least some opportunity for Neal to clear those hurdles in fall camp.

Jordan Ober, LS

Of all the incoming freshmen, Ober might have the clearest path to a starting job in 2015. With the loss of Gabriel Miller, Nebraska was without a scholarship long snapper coming into the season. The signing of Ober recognizes the importance of the specialty position, and signals the likelihood that he should win the starting position over walk-on freshman Chase Urbach.

Don’t dismiss the importance of this development. A long snapper is an easy position to ignore. But think about how critical a consistently accurate long snap is for field goals and punts. The consequences of a bad snap in those situations is disastrous for field position, or for surrendering potential points on the board. There’s a reason Nebraska burned a scholarship on a specialist like Ober, and it would be quite an upset (and likely represent a big failure in scouting) if Ober wasn’t Nebraska’s starting long snapper in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Most Important Player At Each Position

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are well into barbecue season, enjoying the warm weather and wondering why the American League All-Star team will be almost entirely populated by Kansas City Royals. But the 2015 depth chart is never far from their minds, and over these lazy summer months it’s a useful exercise to think about which players are most important at each position.

It’s not necessarily a consideration of who is the best player, mind you, although it usually works out that way. Rather, it’s a question of who is the most important—which player at each position Nebraska (and new head coach Mike Riley) needs the most. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the roster.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis

While Nebraska has decent depth on the offensive line, there is a concern about the lack of returning starters (at least based on the Holiday Bowl depth chart). Lewis is the only returning starter who held down a starting position the entire year in 2014. Givens Price and Matt Finnin were listed at right tackle for the Holiday Bowl, while Paul Thurston and Dylan Utter were listed at center.

None of those four spent the season at their position, and Finnin will likely not be in the mix at tackle in 2015. Lewis, on the other hand, was Nebraska’s starting left tackle throughout 2014. Combine that experience with the importance of the position (between left tackle for a right-handed quarterback and center arguably being the most important) and Lewis is the first name to consider at offensive line for Nebraska in 2015.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong

The no-brainer to end all no-brainers, particularly given how none of the other quarterbacks on the roster appeared to seriously challenge Armstrong’s position in the spring. While Nebraska does have good depth at quarterback—perhaps for the first time since before former head coach Bo Pelini arrived in 2008—the 2015 season will likely rise and fall with Armstrong’s performance.

Riley had a history of developing quarterbacks in his time at Oregon State, most recently shepherding Sean Mannion to breaking the Pac-12 career yardage record and being an NFL draft pick. Armstrong will need the same kind of tutelage if Nebraska is to be successful in 2015.

I-Back

Terrell Newby

If there was any position where one person isn’t as important for Nebraska this year, it might be I-Back.  Based on observations from the spring (including the Omaha World-Herald’s Sam McKewon and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst), Newby looks the early favorite to win the starting I-Back position.

But Nebraska has amazing depth at the position, with Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon all competing for carries (and that’s not counting walk-ons like Graham Nabity who could be in the mix as well). So while Newby at this stage is the most important given his likely starting status, there are a number of contenders waiting in the wings.

Receiver

De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tempting at this point to think outside the box a little and select Jordan Westerkamp for his consistency or Jamal Turner for his potential and his senior leadership. It may very well be that both of those players will be cruicial cogs in Nebraska’s offense this season.

But, come on, let’s be real. Pierson-El is without question Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic offensive weapon. And Riley will likely find creative ways to get Pierson-El the ball, such as the jet sweeps we saw in the Spring Game. Pierson-El might not have the most touches for Nebraska next season. But he will be the one that will affect opposing defenses more than any other player.

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins

Last year, Nebraska had a beast at defensive end in Randy Gregory, and was worried about interior defensive line play. This year, Nebraska has two beasts on the inside in Vincent Valentine and Collins, with questions on the exterior.

While it’s hard not to view Valentine and Collins as a unit, it’s Collins that is getting the pre-season attention. Collins is a first-round NFL draft pick according to ESPN’s Todd McShay, and just misses the first-round cut according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

Based on that projection alone, then, Collins nudges Valentine in importance for Nebraska in 2015.

Linebacker

Josh Banderas

It was tempting to put “a warm body” in place here, as Nebraska only has four scholarship linebackers who are not true freshman on the roster after the departure of David Santos. Of those four, one (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off missing a season to injury, one (Marcus Newby) played sparingly as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) is a redshirt freshman after sitting out last season.

That means Nebraska only has one (!) linebacker on the roster with any meaningful playing experience since 2013. Banderas will be pressed into a leadership role, anchoring Nebraska’s linebacker corps as the young players behind him (hopefully) grow up in a hurry.

Secondary                          

Daniel Davie

It was very tempting to pick Nate Gerry at safety, as it could have been argued he was Nebraska’s defensive MVP last year. But with a transition to Mark Bankers’ new quarters defensive scheme, the importance of the safety will likely be diminished with the amount of time all three linebackers should be on the field, placing more emphasis on the cornerback being able to take away an opponent’s primary receiving threat.

That task will fall to Davie, taking over from Josh Mitchell as Nebraska’s primary cornerback this season. Davie was a consistent performer for Nebraska last year, and the Blackshirts will need him to stand up against the best receivers they will face if NU is to be successful next year.

Special Teams

De’Mornay Pierson-El

Yes, it’s him again. Pierson-El might be Nebraska’s most important weapon on offense next year. But there’s no doubt he will be a game-changer for Nebraska as a punt returner. His ability to flip the field—and score—off a punt return gives Nebraska so many different benefits. Against Michigan State, it was Pierson-El’s return that put Nebraska in position to win after being dominated for most of the game. And against Iowa, it was Pierson-El’s return that keyed Nebraska’s comeback, ultimately returning the Heroes Game trophy to Lincoln.

(I know. It’s a ridiculously anodyne and sanitized thing. But admit it, Husker fan. It burned you to see the Hawkeyes race across the turf in Memorial Stadium in 2013, grab the trophy, and carry it back to their locker room. And it felt good to see the boys in scarlet and cream return the favor in 2014.)

A strong case could be made for Sam Foltz, who could end the season as the nation’s best punter. But Pierson-El’s returns—and the field position that comes from the mere intimidation of opposing punters—gives him the nod in this category.

Nebraska Football: Ranking The Five Most Consistent Players on the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are a slightly different breed than most other college football fans. While other fan bases will lionize the highlight-reel escapades of their superstars, Nebraska fans celebrate offensive linemen and the tough guys who do the dirty work, day in and day out, to help their team succeed.

In that vein, let’s take a look at the guys new head coach Mike Riley has inherited who are the most consistent performers on the roster.

No. 5: Daniel Davie

Last year, Nebraska was blessed with a returning senior at cornerback in Josh Mitchell. But starting opposite Mitchell for all thirteen games last year was Daniel Davie. He had 41 total tackles last year, with five tackles for loss. Davie also had two interceptions and five tackles for loss.

Next year, Davie will be one of two returning starters in Nebraska’s secondary. That continuity will be important for Nebraska as it adopts a new defensive scheme under coordinator Mark Banker.

No. 4: Nathan Gerry

The other returning starter, Nate Gerry, has flourished after spending his freshman season as an undersized linebacker. As a sophomore, Gerry was one of the defensive leaders, with 88 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also had one fumble recovery and five interceptions, one for a touchdown.

Like with Davie, Gerry’s status as a returning starter in the Nebraska defense will be crucial as the Blackshirts transition to Banker’s quarters defensive scheme.

No. 3: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tough to think of a true freshman earning consideration as a consistent player. But Pierson-El’s contributions after earning his way onto the field early in the seasons are hard to overestimate. His punt returns, of course, are already stuff of legends. He kept Nebraska in the game against Michigan State and went a long way towards winning the game against Iowa by going the distance.

But it wasn’t just as a punt returner that Pierson-El showed his ability. He caught 23 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver, working his way onto the field later in the season. And he even went 1-1 as a passer for a touchdown, with a sparkling 564.40 quarterback rating.

Pierson-El is certainly Nebraska’s most dynamic offensive weapon. But part of the reason he is so dynamic—and therefore so dangerous—is because he is so consistent.

No. 2: Andy Janovich

It’s hard to find statistics to back up a claim like this, but Janovich has been a model of consistency at a position where consistency, rather than flair, is the greatest attribute. He gets precious few opportunities to touch the ball (three carries and three receptions in his three years in Lincoln), and yet has made 37 appearances for Nebraska.

It’s possible that the fullback may get a more expanded role in Riley’s new offensive structure. Regardless, though, Janovich can be counted on to make the tough blocks and clear the way for Nebraska’s more explosive offensive weapons in his senior campaign.

No. 1: Jordan Westerkamp

For all of the amazing plays Westerkamp has made, it’s remarkable how easily he is overlooked. And it’s not like he doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic. He made this remarkable behind-the-back catch against Florida Atlantic last year. And he was on the end of one of the most exciting plays Memorial Stadium has ever seen when he caught Ron Kellogg’s Hail Mary to win the game on the final play against Northwestern in 2013.

But that’s not Westerkamp’s game in general. For the most part, Westerkamp runs the precise routes and makes the tough catches on passes which might not be exactly on target. He helps make his quarterbacks look better, and has a knack for finding the first down marker on third down. He’s not Nebraska’s flashiest wide receiver, but he might be the team’s most consistent player.

Stats courtesy of cfbstats.com or huskers.com.

Nebraska Football: Assessing the Loss of Tolbert, Alexander, and Santos from Huskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were jolted out of a sleepy June afternoon to learn that the Huskers lost three players from the 2015 roster. According to Husker Online, wide receiver Jariah Tolbert and defensive back LeRoy Alexander will be transferring, and linebacker David Santos has left the team.

No reasons were given by Nebraska head coach Mike Riley for the departures of the three players. And while we don’t know the reasons why these three left the team, we can take a look at the impact their departure will have on Nebraska in 2015.

Jariah Tolbert

Of the three, Tolbert’s loss should have the least immediate impact. While Tolbert did look promising in this year’s Spring Game (3 catches for 55 yards and one touchdown), it did not look likely that he would press for a starter’s position this year. Likely behind Jamal Turner, Jordan Westerkamp, and De’Mornay Pierson-El, Tolbert would likely have been a rotation player in the wide receiver corps.

While losing Tolbert certainly isn’t good news, of the three his loss should be the least noticeable next season. We don’t have any information from the coaching staff as to why Tolbert is transferring. But we do know (according to Husker Online) that Tolbert had a drug charge on April 30, and was caught by university police with marijuana in February. Whether those incidents were part of the reason for Tolbert’s transfer is unknown at this time.

LeRoy Alexander

Alexander’s departure from the team has the potential to make a bigger difference for Nebraska in 2015. Some people (including this dope) thought that Alexander had a good chance to win one of the starting jobs at safety this year. Alexander was suspended for the 2014 by former head coach Bo Pelini, although the specific reasons for the suspension were never made public. While Alexander only started one game in 2013, he was a regular contributor, playing in 13 games with 34 total tackles.

According to 247 Sports, Alexander was working out primarily with the second team defense this spring.  But Nebraska’s secondary is one of the deepest units on the squad. So even though Alexander had the potential to be a major player in Nebraska’s defense, the depth of the secondary makes his transfer easier to absorb.

David Santos

Of the three, Santos’ departure is by far the most concerning. Other than the true freshmen coming in, before Santos left Nebraska only had five scholarship linebackers. Now, with Santos leaving, that total drops to four.  And considering that Luke Gifford redshirted last year, there are only three (!) linebackers on Nebraska’s roster with any playing experience. One of those three, Marcus Newby, has only played in nine games, making three tackles, and was rotated between linebacker and defensive end.

That’s a huge problem, and raises huge question marks for Nebraska’s defense. Nebraska will now be forced to rely on untested players—perhaps some true freshman—to contribute at linebacker in 2015. As an early-enrollee, Daishon Neal is hoping to have a leg up on the other true freshmen in earning playing time. His off-season workout, according to the Omaha World-Herald, has been designed to help him achieve that goal.

But it’s a big ask for a true freshman to come in and succeed at linebacker. Still, given Nebraska’s dangerous lack of depth at linebacker with Santos’ departure, Riley may be left with little choice other than to throw the kids on the field and hope for the best.

Solving the Scholarship Problem

If there is a silver lining from this three-player exodus, it’s that Nebraska is now at the 85-scholarship limit for 2015. Although there was never much doubt, it did seem a little odd that we would be in June and Nebraska was still three scholarships over the 85 limit. Now, with the departures of Tolbert, Alexander, and Santos, at least we will have some certainty as to the composition of Nebraska’s roster in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Projecting Who Will Win The Open Starting Positions

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been looking at the roster, seeing who graduated, and thinking about who might step in and be a new starter in 2015. With new head coach Mike Riley, it’s even harder to guess where players might slot in under a new system with a new set of coaches doing the evaluations.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, most positions are up for grabs. But for purposes of this exercise, we will work of the Holiday Bowl depth chart to determine which positions are open. With that understanding, let’s take a look at the rosters.

Offensive Line

Open positions: Left guard, right guard

Center and right tackle may be positions that shift during the course of fall camp, but for purposes of this exercise the only open positions are at guard with the graduation of Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy.

Chongo Kondolo saw quite a bit of time last season, and looks likely to be first man up in 2015. Given that guard is an easier position for a young player to step into, it would not be a surprise to see one of last year’s offensive line recruits step in and win a starting position. Given that Tanner Farmer was the highest rated of those prospects (according to 247 Sports), he gets the nod for now.

Projected starters: Chongo Kondolo, Tanner Farmer

Backfield

Open position: I-back

Ameer Abdullah’s departure leaves a huge hole at I-back to fill. Nebraska has at least four I-backs with the potential to step in and start, although it seems likely that none will have the same kind of work-load that Abdullah did.

At this point it’s hard to handicap the I-back race. But given how the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby should be the leader in the clubhouse to win the starting job. Newby has game-breaking speed, and has shown an ability to run between the tackles. Between those skills and Newby’s game experience, he’s the most likely starter at this point.

Projected starter: Terrell Newby

Receivers

Open position: X receiver

Kenny Bell’s graduation opens up one receiver spot for Nebraska next year. And while Nebraska has a number of talented receivers, Jamal Turner is uniquely qualified to slide into a starting role. Turner received a sixth year of eligibility after an injury robbed him of most of the 2014 season. With his experience and ability—assuming he has fully healed—Turner is a natural selection for a starting wideout.

Projected starter: Jamal Turner

Defensive Line

Open position: Defensive end

Nebraska’s interior defensive line is set with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Greg McMullen should hold down one defensive end position, leaving the other—the one that Randy Gregory has vacated—left to fill.

Jack Gangwish ended the season as Gregory’s backup, and performed well. Given the lack of depth at the position, especially proven depth, Gangwish looks to be the natural replacement for Gregory.

Projected starter: Jack Gangwish

Linebackers

Open positions: MIKE and WILL linebacker

Linebacker is Nebraska’s shallowest position, with only five scholarship players outside of true freshmen returning in 2015. Much has been written about how Josh Banderas is thriving in Riley’s new system (including this article by Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), and it seems likely he will return to the role he was used as a true freshman at middle linebacker.

At weak-side linebacker, Michael Rose-Ivey seems the most likely starter. Returning from an injury that cost him all of 2014, Rose-Ivey will look to recapture the form that had him as a fixture in the starting lineup a year earlier. While Banderas should reclaim the middle linebacker position, Rose-Ivey makes a lot of sense slotting in at weak-side linebacker

Projected starters: Josh Banderas, Michael Rose-Ivey

Secondary

Open positions: Cornerback, safety

Nebraska has one player returning at corner (Daniel Davie) and safety (Nate Gerry), so has one each to fill for 2015. Safety looks to be the easier race to handicap, with LeRoy Alexander returning from a one-year suspension. Alexander was a contender to win one of the starting roles last season, and he should start fall camp with a leg up on his competition for the role in 2015.

Cornerback is a muddier picture, with a number of players competing for the role. While any number of players could ultimately win the position, smart money at this point might be on Josh Kalu. As a true freshman, Kalu fought his way onto the field, and showed leadership with his opportunities. While it’s a crowded field, seeing Kalu win a starting role would not be a shock

Projected starters: LeRoy Alexander, Josh Kalu

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of Cornhuskers’ 2015 Roster

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have settled into June, knowing that football season is still some ways away. So while they enjoy their afternoons at the pool, baseball games, and endless yardwork, never far from their minds is the composition of Nebraska’s roster for the upcoming season.

Because, in many ways, spending time in June thinking about the Cornhuskers’ backup right guard is part of what defines a Nebraskan.

So let’s take some time and, position-by-position, go through Nebraska’s 2015 roster as it might look under new head coach Mike Riley.

Quarterback

It seems clear that, barring injury, Tommy Armstrong will be Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2015. BTN’s Tom Dienhart is one of many who believes that Armstrong’s experience will be crucial in retaining the starting job.

Behind Armstrong is a massive amount of depth, all unproven. Junior Ryker Fyfe has the most experience, which isn’t much, and was a walk-on for a reason. Sophomore Johnny Stanton has all the talent in the world with his Elite 11 background, but has struggled to make a dent on Nebraska’s depth chart. He made a cameo appearance at this year’s Spring Game for a reason as well. Redshirt freshmen Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush saw significant playing time at the Spring Game, but both are raw talents and it would be a big ask for them to overtake Armstrong and his experience.

I-Back

Nebraska has four I-backs on the roster that are legitimate threats for significant playing time; senior Imani Cross, junior Terrell Newby, sophomore Adam Taylor, and redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon.

Given the distribution of carries at the Spring Game, it’s fair to suspect that Newby will be Nebraska’s starting I-back next season. But that may not mean a lot. Even removing from consideration the changes which could come in the depth chart as a result of fall camp, don’t be surprised to see Nebraska employ a significant rotation of I-backs.

Particularly given the difference in skill-sets (Cross being a bruiser, Newby more of a scat-back speedster, and Taylor and Wilbon something of a mix between the two), Nebraska’s I-back carries are likely to be far more evenly distributed than in years past.

Receivers

Nebraska’s starting lineup at wide receiver looks fairly straightforward. In Jordan Westerkamp and Jamal Turner, Nebraska has two experienced and talented wideouts to lean on.

And then Nebraska has its x-factor, De’Mornay Pierson-El. His dominance as a kick returner and flashes of brilliance on offense have sent Nebraska fans into a tizzy. But exactly how Pierson-El will be deployed on the field remains a mystery.

Will he run the ball out of the jet sweep? Does he have the frame at five-foot-nine and 185 pounds to be an every-down wideout? How Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf choose to utilize Pierson-El’s skill-set may well be one of the biggest determining factors in Nebraska’s success in 2015.

Nebraska should be well placed with depth, as well, turning to players like Taariq Allen, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, and Sam Burtch as part of a rotation. All of these players have struggled with injuries at one point in their careers, and have the potential to press for playing time if fully healthy.

Tight End

Cethan Carter stands out amongst Nebraska’s current tight ends as the one true down-the-field receiving threat. Injuries—and a baffling refusal from Nebraska’s previous staff to utilize the tight end—limited Carter’s production last year, but he looks to be ready for 2015.

Behind Carter are a number of capable players—Sam Cotton, David Sutton, and Trey Foster—but none are offensive threats like Carter. Incoming freshman Matt Snyder looks to be that type of player, though, and could see the field early if he is able to make an impression in fall camp.

Offensive Line

At tackle and center, Nebraska will be returning players with at least some starting experience. Left tackle Alex Lewis will likely be the most experienced, with Paul Thurston having a good shot to start at center and right tackle up for grabs between Givens Price and Zach Sterup.

Guard is a bigger question mark given Nebraska’s attrition to graduation. Chongo Kondolo should make a good case at one starter, while Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson, and Ryne Reeves could all be part of the mix at tackle as well.

Nebraska’s 2014 class of offensive linemen—Tanner Farmer, Nick Gates, and Jerald Foster—could also have an opportunity to step forward and earn significant playing time, particularly at some of the unsettled positions on the line.

Defensive Line

The middle of Nebraska’s line is pretty clear cut. Vincent Valentine is a monster of a man (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) who got better and better throughout 2014. And Maliek Collins is already a 2016 NFL first round projected draft pick, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.

Defensive end remains far murkier in terms of who Nebraska will lean on. Based on experience, Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish will likely open the season as starters. Marcus Newby saw time last year as a pass rush specialist, so don’t be shocked to see him drop in the mix at defensive end, along with Peyton Newell. The biggest wild card might be converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athleticism might help him stand out amongst a competitive field.

Linebacker

It might not be Nebraska’s weakest position, but linebacker is certainly Nebraska’s thinnest. Not counting the incoming freshmen, Nebraska has five (!) scholarship linebackers. Two (David Santos and Michael Rose Ivey) are coming off significant injuries, and one (Marcus Newby) was deployed more as a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker than a true linebacker in Nebraska’s 4-3 scheme.

So, yeah, the position is a little thin.

The initial starting lineup looks pretty clear with Josh Banderas in the middle, Santos at the Will, and Rose Ivey at the Sam. Look for early-enrollee Dedrick Young to push for playing time, and it seems almost certain that one of the other freshmen (Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) to contribute in 2015 as well.

Secondary

If linebacker is thin for Nebraska, then the secondary is ridiculously deep. If we assume that returning starters Nate Gerry at safety and Daniel Davey at corner retain their positions, then there should be an amazing competition for playing time. This competition could be highlighted by new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme which focuses on three linebackers on the field.

At corner, Josh Kalu, Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, and Chris Jones all have a legitimate case for playing time. At safety, Byerson Cockrell played well last year but will be competing with LeRoy Alexander after his year’s suspension, as well as Kieron Williams. And incoming freshmen Eric Lee and Avery Anderson have the talent to push for playing time right  away.

Special Teams

Where Nebraska is good on special teams, it’s really good. Where it’s not, it’s decidedly mediocre.

In Sam Foltz and De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska might have the best in the country at punter and punt returner respectively. That’s a huge weapon and a huge advantage for Nebraska on both sides of the ball.

But at placekicker, Nebraska will likely be choosing between sophomore Drew Brown and senior Mauro Bondi. Neither impressed last season, although some of Brown’s struggles may be attributable to his youth. Regardless, placekicker (both for field goals and kickoffs) has to be considered a question mark.

And don’t underestimate the uncertainty at long snapper, with true freshman Jordan Ober competing with sophomore Josh Faulkenberry for the position.

 

 

Nebraska Football: Five Toughest Quarterbacks Cornhuskers Will Face in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the quarterback is the most important part of an offense, so the teams with the best quarterbacks will be the hardest to beat. Next season, Nebraska will face a number of talented signal-callers as new head coach Mike Riley learns the ropes of his position.

Here are the five quarterbacks Nebraska is likely to have the most trouble with next season.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

No. 5: Mitch Leidner, Minnesota

It seems odd to think of a quarterback from the offensively-challenged Gophers to make this list. But Leidner led Minnesota into Lincoln last year and beat Nebraska, so NU fans should think twice before dismissing his ability.

Leidner’s statistics aren’t jaw-dropping (51.5 percent completion rate, 11/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2014). But in Jerry Kill’s smash-mouth offense the quarterback does not need to be the primary weapon. Instead, the quarterback merely directs the offense and makes plays when necessary.

Which is exactly what Leidner did last year against Nebraska, going 8-of-17 for 135 yards through the air, and carrying the ball 22 times for 111 yards on the ground. If Leidner is able to match those numbers against Nebraska this year, NU will struggle to avoid a third straight defeat.

No. 4: Wes Lunt, Illinois

Injuries derailed Lunt’s 2014 season at Illinois after transferring from Oklahoma State. Even in the eight games he played last year, though, Lunt amassed a 63.5 percent completion rate and a 14/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are enough to make any defensive coordinator nervous.

Although Illinois’ weapons are certainly limited, a healthy Lunt will be able to get the best out of them, and provide a challenge for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

No. 3: Taysom Hill, BYU

Much like Illinois’ Lunt, injuries robbed Hill of what could have been a darkhorse Heisman candidacy last year. Hill’s primary threat is with his legs, having rushed for 463 yards on 86 carries and scoring 8 touchdowns in only seven games last year.

But Hill is also effective as a passer, with a 66.7 completion rate and a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Hill’s dual-threat skill set represents a huge challenge for opposing defenses, and the fact that he is the first quarterback Nebraska will face under Riley’s leadership makes him all the more dangerous.

No. 2: Brad Kaaya, Miami

It’s not like Kaaya had a bad game against Nebraska last year. As a true freshman in a hostile atmosphere, Kaaya went 28-of-42 for 359 yards passing and three touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions, and that in combination with Miami’s inability to stop Ameer Abdullah helped Nebraska to a ten-point victory.

But in 2015, the game will be in Miami. Abdullah will not be wearing scarlet and cream, and Nebraska will be taking its first road trip under Riley. Kaaya will have a full year of experience under his belt, while Nebraska will be in only the third game learning a new defensive scheme. And Miami will be looking for payback after a chippy game in Lincoln last year.

No. 1: Connor Cook, Michigan State

Cook probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He’s not flashy or gaudy, and Michigan State is much more known for its defense than its offense.

But NFL scouts have their eyes on Cook. CBS Sports has Cook as the no. 1 quarterback prospect for 2016, and Walter Football projects Cook as the no. 6 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Between those lofty projections, and the salty defense he will have protecting him, Cook will provide Nebraska with the sternest challenge as a signal-caller in 2015.