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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.