Nebraska Football: JUCO Transfer Talk Highlight Needs on Defensive Line

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Over the last week, Nebraska has brought in two junior-college transfer candidates on the defensive line for a look at the Huskers. Graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu came to Lincoln for his first of five potential visits after receiving his degree from Utah, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star. And defensive end Raveon Hoston from Valley College of Los Angeles said on Facebook that he has received an offer from Nebraska, according to Sam McEwon of the Omaha World-Herald.

It’s not a huge surprise, of course, that Nebraska is looking for a “break glass in case of emergency” option on the defensive line. The departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine to the NFL were not unexpected, but left a big hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front. Kevin Williams followed up with his transfer from Nebraska to Michigan State, which put even more stress on the defensive line.

How much stress? Well, only three defensive linemen (Freedom Akinmoladun, Kevin Maurice, and Ross Dzuris) will be back in 2016. According to Athlon Sports, Maurice – the only returning tackle – has one start, while defensive ends Akinmoladun and Dzuris have eight each.

That’s mighty thin for such an important position on the field. At the moment, Nebraska will be leaning heavily on redshirt freshmen Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis and untested sophomores Peyton Newell and Mick Stoltenberg to solidify things up the middle.

So the signing of Tu’ikolovatu for Nebraska would be a massive (literally and figuratively) addition to Nebraska’s defensive line. He played in all 13 games for Utah last year, a team that finished sixth (!) nationally in rushing defense. If Tu’ikolovatu does pick Nebraska, he would almost certainly walk into Lincoln as a starting defensive tackle and give the Davis twins an additional year to develop before being asked to perform as starters.

The pursuit of Hoston is a little more interesting, as Nebraska’s depth at defensive end is (slightly) better than at tackle. Sedrick King, A.J. Natter, and DaiShon Neal should all be competing for playing time, although the experience of Akinmoladun and Dzuris should pencil them in as starters for next season.

Still, Nebraska’s pass rush in 2015 was woeful, checking in at no. 78 nationally in sacks. Nebraska was also no. 122 in pass defense overall, no. 123 in pass defense on third down, and no. 122 in pass defense on third down and 10 or more yards to go. Sure, some of those struggles can be laid at the feet of the secondary, but the lack of a consistent pass rush (which Nebraska struggled with all season) makes the secondary’s job a lot harder.

Hoston had 19 tackles, three sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. His addition to Nebraska’s roster, if it comes to pass, wouldn’t be the obvious shot in the arm at end that Tu’ikolovatu’s would be at tackle.

But at the very least, the fact that Nebraska is exploring at least two junior college transfers on the defensive line suggests the coaching staff recognizes one of NU’s biggest weaknesses coming into the 2016 campaign. And is looking for a means to address that weakness immediately.

(All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated).

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Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Get to Ten Wins in 2016

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Earlier this week, the sports gambling site Five Dimes set Nebraska’s over-under total at 9.5 for wins in 2016. For the non-gamblers among you, the bet is just what the name of it suggests – you put your money down as to whether you think Nebraska’s win total will be over or under the number selected, in this case nine-and-a-half.

That means this particular sports book thinks the most likely scenario for Nebraska in 2016 is to win between nine and ten games. That’s a pretty bold statement for a team coming off a 6-7 season in 2015.

So, is Five Dimes just counting on rabid Nebraska fans making irrationally exuberant investment decisions? Maybe to an extent, although “souvenir” bets like that are usually on tickets to win a national title put down by chumps like me on trips to Las Vegas. An over-under line set too high will be pounced on by sharks, and could end up costing a sports book lots of money.

That means the book makers at Five Dimes must have some confidence that Nebraska can get to ten wins in 2016 – besides just listening to this smart and particularly handsome analyst who picked Nebraska as the B1G West favorite next season. Here’s what has to happen for Nebraska to get ten wins next season.

Beat Oregon

A ten-win season almost certainly would require knocking off Oregon in Lincoln on September 16. Given where the two programs have been over the last few years, that sounds like a tall order for Nebraska.

But Oregon isn’t quite what it has been in years past. Quarterback is a huge question mark for the Ducks, hoping FCS transfer Dakota Prukop will be the heir to Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will be taking over Oregon’s defense, bringing his skill set to Eugene but asking the Ducks to learn a new scheme next season.

Nebraska will likely come into this game as an underdog. But with the game in Lincoln, and Nebraska being Oregon’s first big test of 2016 (with no disrespect to UC Davis or Virginia), a win over the Ducks could help put NU on the map. And if the over ticket for Nebraska is to be cashed, NU will almost certainly have to pull the upset.

Avoid the Toe-Stubber

Yeah, a 5-7 regular season was pretty dreadful for Nebraska last season. But that record includes two head-scratching losses to Illinois and Purdue, both on the road.

The two upsets were very different. Nebraska’s loss to Illinois involved asking Tommy Armstrong to make 31 passes in high winds, while the loss to Purdue had much to do with tossing backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe into the fire due to Armstrong’s injury.

Either way, though, those two games were inexplicable losses when comparing the relative talent levels of the two teams. If Nebraska wins those games, even with everything else that went wrong in 2015, the season would have ended at 8-4. The distance between 8-4 and 10-2 seems far more manageable than the actual records earned last year.

Win on the Road

If Nebraska is going to win ten games, it’s going to have to get work done on the road in conference. Trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa will likely determine Nebraska’s fate in the B1G West. Last year, Nebraska had its contests against those divisional rivals in Lincoln, and lost all three in excruciating fashion.

In 2016, the schedule flips and Nebraska will have to face those teams on the road. And if Nebraska is to reach the ten-win plateau, it will have to do better on the road in 2016 than it did at home in 2015.

Get the Bounces

Nebraska’s struggles in close games could not have been more well documented. And it would be falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy to think that Nebraska was due a run of good luck to make up for all the bad bounces it got in 2015.

Instead, perhaps it’s more reasonable to think that Nebraska’s secondary won’t be quite as vulnerable to the deep ball as it was throughout much of 2015 – a weakness that clearly cost it games against BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin, and (exhausted deep breath) Northwestern. Add to that a second year in an offense to help Armstrong avoid at least some of the turnovers that doomed Nebraska (such as against Iowa), and you have a recipe to turn those close losses into wins.

If Nebraska is to win ten games in 2016, it will have to find ways to convert those close losses into victories.

Nebraska Football: Takeaways from the Spring

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Now that spring practice is (yeah, I know, quite a distance) behind us, let’s take a step back and take stock of where Nebraska is heading into the 2016 season. Coming off of a 6-7 campaign, Nebraska fans will be wanting reasons for optimism heading into a new season, so the storylines coming out of this spring will have to tide things over until the autumn.

Armstrong is the man

The arrival of heralded phenom quarterback Patrick O’Brien led some Nebraska fans to wonder if senior-to-be quarterback Tommy Armstrong would have legitimate competition in 2016. While Armstrong’s ability to make a big play has won games for Nebraska during his career, his consistent struggles with accuracy and turnovers lend some (like this smart and particularly handsome analyst) to question whether NU can win trophies with Armstrong at the helm.

But at the Spring Game, we didn’t see O’Brien on the field until the second half. And his performance (6-10 for 59 yards and a game-sealing interception) didn’t exactly light the world on fire.

Sure, it’s the Spring Game, also known as the last in a series of practices. Very little weight should be given to just about anything seen therein.

Still, it’s hard not to get past the fact that Ryker Fyfe and A.J. Bush saw the field before O’Brien did. That suggests O’Brien has a ways to go to see the field in 2016, and could be in line for a redshirt season.

That can change, of course. With another phenom quarterback in Tristan Gebbia committing to Nebraska for 2017 and the signing of Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley might well think it worth the risk to give O’Brien playing time next season if he can earn his way up the depth chart.

But if O’Brien wasn’t playing with the first team at the Spring Game, it’s hard to think that he will make enough of a move in the fall to unseat a three-year starter like Armstrong. So it looks a near lock that Armstrong will be leading Nebraska’s offense in 2016.

Questions on the lines and at I-back

Both of Nebraska’s lines will look very different in 2016 than the previous season. The early departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left a gaping hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line that needs filling. Nebraska’s offensive line will likely not have a single starter in the same position from 2015.

That has the potential to be a good thing, particularly on the offensive line where players like David Knevel, Tanner Farmer, and DJ Foster are likely to get a chance to shine. But it’s a frightening scenario to have no returning experience up front on offense.

At I-back, there looks to be an impressive array of talent, but little clarity in terms of how it will be used. Senior back Terrell Newby may have missed his chance to seize the reins of a starting job last year, and now looks to be fending off challenges from sophomore Devine Ozigbo and junior Adam Taylor.

How those backs will be used — and whether Nebraska will truly take a committee approach at I-back in 2016 — is an open question after this spring.

Strength on the edges

If the interior of Nebraska’s offense and defense is a question, the exterior of the offense is not. Nebraska’s wide receiver corps looks to be the strongest unit on the team — and maybe the strongest set of receivers in school history.

Jordan Westerkamp should lead the unit with his remarkable hands and his chemistry with Armstrong. Brandon Reilly is a dangerous deep threat, as is the oft-injured Alonzo Moore. Stanley Morgan was a revelation in his freshman season last year, and should force his way on to the field. Tight end Cethan Carter began coming on at the end of 2015 as a matchup nightmare. And with a year to recover and other weapons around him, De’Mornay Pierson-El may be Nebraska’s secret weapon.

Of course, that presents a challenge for offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, as (see above) the almost-certain starting quarterback for Nebraska in 2016 has a career completion percentage of 54 percent.

Waiting for 2017

In many ways, Nebraska’s 2016 campaign may be another season of transition. With Armstrong as the starting quarterback, Langsdorf will almost certainly tailor his offensive philosophy to suit Armstrong’s strengths as a runner and minimize his weaknesses regarding his accuracy as a passer. Some form of spread-option attack will be grafted in to the offensive scheme Riley and Langsdorf prefer.

Starting in 2017, though, the offense should look far more like what we have seen from Riley at Oregon State. If you look at the quarterbacks Nebraska has lined up for 2017 and beyond (like O’Brien, Lee, and Gebbia) you can see into the future for what NU’s offense will look like — short, accurate passing from the pocket as a key element of the attack.

In addition, Nebraska’s overall talent level in 2017 may start to look more like a team ready to contend for conference honors. Currently — with only eight commits — Nebraska sits at no. 21 nationally for its 2017 class, according to 247Sports. If Nebraska is able to use its success with players like Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Gebbia to lure other talented players (like five-star cornerback Darnay Holmes, from the same Calabasas High School as Johnson and Gebbia), then NU’s 2017 could end up in the top-15 or even top-10.

And that’s critical for Nebraska to return to national prominence. As observed by many, including Dave Bartoo’s CFBMatrix, success in recruiting has a direct correlation to success on the field. Of course, signing class after class of top-10 talent is no guarantee of on-field victories (see, e.g., Texas).

But it’s a heck of a lot more likely to win on the field if you have the athletes to at least compete with top-tier teams in your conference. Since the Callahan era, Nebraska’s recruiting has lagged in the twenties to thirties nationally — and Nebraska has struggled in that time to compete against top-tier competition.

If things continue as they have this off-season, 2017 may be the year Nebraska turns the corner in recruiting and puts talent on the field that gives NU a legitimate shot to compete for conference and national titles in the coming years.

 

The Double Extra Point 2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.