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.