photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp under new head coach Mike Riley. As they wait, they will be looking through the roster and wondering what the secrets to a successful Nebraska season could be in 2015.
What will be Nebraska’s strengths to exploit? Its weaknesses to avoid? And what secret weapons can Nebraska fans talk about and look smart to their friends around a late summer barbecue? Here are a few options to consider.
Strength: Defensive Tackle
An argument could be made that the strongest overall position might be at defensive tackle. Maliek Collins is getting rave pre-season reviews, pegged by ESPN NFL analyst Todd McShay as a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Alongside Collins will be Vincent Valentine, who was tabbed as a third-string all-Big Ten player by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.
Being dominant on the interior of a defensive line can help a team stop the run and get a straight-line pass rush. It frees up defensive ends and linebackers, makes play-action passing less effective, and helps a secondary by decreasing the amount of time needed to cover receivers. Nebraska fans have seen what a dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh can do for the rest of a defensive unit.
No, neither Collins nor Valentine are in Suh’s class. But seeing how Suh affected the Blackshirts – and opposing offenses – gives some idea of how important Collins and Valentine could be to Nebraska.
Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El
It’s not exactly breaking news that Pierson-El is Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon returning. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah and the questions surrounding Nebraska at quarterback (more on that in a bit), Pierson-El provides the kind of threat NU will need to attack opposing defenses.
Pierson-El’s value goes up when you consider what Riley’s offenses, and the players who have succeeded in those offenses, have looked like. At Oregon State, Riley used a steady diet of screen passes and jet sweeps designed to get shifty playmakers the ball in space and challenge defenses horizontally. Pierson-El’s speed and elusiveness make him ideally suited for those roles, or as a decoy in a straight-ahead rushing attack.
It’s hard not to see a little of Jacquizz Rodgers when you see Pierson-El. Rodgers, like Pierson-El, is small, shifty, and lightning-fast. At Oregon State, Riley was able to ride Rodgers to a win over then-no. 1 USC and make him the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2008.
Weakness: Tommy Armstrong
Hear me out on this one. Yes, Armstrong has been successful as Nebraska’s quarterback. Yes, he’s the guy with the most experience and the most ready to take on the starting job next season.
But you can’t get away from the numbers. Armstrong has a career 52.9 percent completion rate, and a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to compete for a conference title.
Of course, with a new coaching staff, it’s entirely possible that Armstrong’s numbers could improve next season. Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a history of success with signal-callers. Armstrong, with an off-season of work with Riley and Langsdorf, may be the beneficiary of that skill.
If Nebraska wants to contend for a conference title in 2015, he’ll need to be.
Weakness: New Coaching Staff
Debate over the wisdom of firing Bo Pelini and hiring Riley started almost immediately after Pelini’s dismissal, and will not be resolved for some years to come. But whether the decision was wise or foolish in the long term, for this year there is no escaping the fact that Nebraska will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive scheme. Not only that, but Nebraska will be in the no-man’s land of trying to fit players from an old scheme into a new game plan, and fitting a new scheme around the talents of the players currently on the roster.
In other words, year one of any new coaching staff has unique challenges. And given the front-loaded nature of Nebraska’s schedule, with games against BYU and at Miami in the first three contests, NU will have to be ready to play right away.
Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth
Sure, we know Pierson-El is an amazing talent. But look past him on the depth chart and Nebraska has a sneaky-good roster at receiver.
Jordan Westerkamp returns as one of Nebraska’s most reliable targets. Jamal Turner gets an extra year of eligibility and will have his final chance to be the breakout talent he was seen to be when he arrived in Lincoln. Cethan Carter has the athletic skills to create mismatches at tight end, and should be healthy enough (and in an offense which can feature a tight end) to be a factor. Alonzo Moore has speed to rival Kenny Bell, but has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a true impact.
Until the season starts, we’re not going to know how Nebraska’s run-pass balance will look on offense. But when Nebraska does decide to air it out, there will be lots of receiving options to work with.
Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz
Yes, a punter can be a weapon. Get used to it.
Field position matters in football. Take a look at a site like FBSDriveStats.com, and you can take a look at average starting field position and what a difference it makes to a team’s bottom line. The efficiency ratings from advanced analytical sites like Football Outsiders take field position into account as a primary indicia of a team’s success. Bill Connelly lists field position as one of the five most important statistics in understanding the relative merits of college football teams.
Connelly summarizes the importance of field position in one sentence. “If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.”
A punter is a crucial weapon in that field position battle. According to the NCAA, last year the difference between the no. 1 and no. 50 teams in terms of net punting average was 6.22 yards, while the difference in kick returns was only 4.74 yards.
That differential suggests that a punter, more than any other single specialist, can affect a team’s field position. And a team’s field position, as we have seen, can lead to wins.
Foltz is set up to be one of the conference’s best punters, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Sure, punters get no respect, even less than placekickers in the eyes of most football fans. But if Foltz is able to help Nebraska win field position battles, his foot might carry NU to wins it would not otherwise achieve next season.