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.