Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against BYU

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Nebraska will be playing its first game of the season at home against BYU on Saturday, as new head coach Mike Riley gets his first chance to see his Cornhusker squad in a game that counts. For Cornhusker fans watching the game …

You’ll Be Happy If …

BYU misses Jamaal Williams. Yes, quarterback Taysom Hill is a fearsome running threat. But Williams was easily the Cougars’ best rushing option behind Hill, and his decision to withdraw from school and redshirt this season (according to the Salt Lake City Tribune) will be a significant blow to BYU’s offense.  The Cougars’ starting tailback (according to BYU’s depth chart per SB Nation) is Algernon Brown, a junior who had 68 total carries last season.

That’s not the same kind of threat Williams would have provided. If the Blackshirts are able to focus on Hill away from BYU as a runner, and still handle Brown and the rest of the Cougars’ rushing attack, Nebraska’s chances for success increase dramatically.

Collins Makes The Breakthrough. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins looks to be the Blackshirts’ leading light. He’s been touted as Nebraska’s best player, with ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay putting him in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.

But Collins has loftier goals. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Collins is aiming for “Suh-like stats” in his final year at Nebraska. If Collins is able to approach those numbers – and, more importantly, be the kind of disruptive force up the middle Suh was in 2010 – then BYU has a big problem on Saturday.

The Kids Are Alright. Take a look at Nebraska’s depth chart for BYU (from HuskerMax.com), and one thing you’ll notice is a lot of youth.  Redshirt freshman Nick Gates starting at right tackle. True freshman (!) Dedrick Young starting at weak-side linebacker. True freshman Jordan Ober starting at long snapper.  Redshirt freshman Jerald Foster at backup right guard.  Redshirt freshman Trai Mosley as a third cornerback. True freshman Aaron Williams as a third safety.

You get the idea. This is a big stage and a tough opponent for newbies to shine. If Nebraska’s youth movement pays dividends on Saturday, Nebraska’s chances of victory increase significantly.

You’ll Be Sad If …

Taysom Throws It. We’ve heard all offseason about Hill being a dangerous rushing threat. But if Hill is able to throw the ball effectively, BYU could cause real problems for Nebraska. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme works in part by sneaking a safety into the box to play the run, which means there is extra stress put on the secondary in pass coverage.

Combine that with BYU’s big receivers (six-foot-six Nick Kurtz and six-foot-six Mitch Mathews) against Nebraska’s cornerbacks (six-foot-one Daniel Davie and six-foot-one Joshua Kalu) and the Cougars could have a favorable matchup to exploit. If BYU is able to get a passing attack started, forcing Nebraska defenders out of the box, Hill should have more space to run and gouge the Blackshirts on the ground.

Tommy Turns It Over. This dope has written incessantly over the offseason about Armstrong’s struggles with turnovers, carrying a career 1.55 touchdown-to-interception ratio (31 TD, 20 INT) into this season. While we don’t know what Riley’s offense will look like this year, we know at Oregon State he favored a pro-style offense with short, controlled passing – the kind of passes that Armstrong has struggled with in the past.

If Armstrong struggles picking up the new offense, and gives the ball to BYU a few times, the Cougars have more than enough talent to pull off an upset.

Opening Day Jitters Strike. Saturday will mark the start of a new era for Nebraska football. But it will also be the first time that both Riley’s new offense and Banker’s new defense have been tested out against a team wearing different colors. And not just any team. BYU has plenty of talent and one of the best quarterbacks Nebraska will face all year.

If there’s growing pains for either the offense or defense – or both – then Nebraska could easily be staring down the barrel of an 0-1 start to the 2015 season.

Fearless Forecast

Nebraska 31, BYU 24

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Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ 2015 Offseason Checklist

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans settling in to summer are well versed with checklists, having time in the offseason to get their gutters cleaned and barbecues fired up.

New Nebraska head coach Mike Riley has a big to-do list on his desk as he takes the reins in Lincoln. And while there are a number of demands on his attention, here are five things that he has been (or will be) working on between now and September.

Get the New Guy Settled In

Seven years of Bo Pelini’s leadership in Lincoln ended in stormy fashion with the release of a (shock of shocks) profanity-laced self-indulgent tirade from Pelini masquerading as a farewell address to his team.

So when athletic director Shawn Eichorst announced the surprise hire of Riley, Nebraska fans weren’t quite sure what to think. As a result, Riley needed to win the press conference and inspire some confidence in the Children of the Corn as the offseason settled in.

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, many of Nebraska fans’ concerns about Riley are misguided. But his easy-going manner and openness with the fans have gone a long way towards helping him be accepted in Lincoln.

Of course, that all goes out the window if Nebraska goes 1-2 in its first three games this season—which is not impossible to imagine, given the way the schedule lays out. But at least for now, Riley has done what he needed to do.

Status: Done

Settle on a Quarterback

When Riley and his pro-style offense arrived, many Nebraska fans wondered how NU’s quarterback situation would look in 2015. But as the spring unfolded (as observed by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and others), it became clear that Tommy Armstrong was the strong favorite to retain his starting job.

But when combined with Nebraska’s commitment from dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson, a picture emerges that NU will at least incorporate elements of a quarterback run game in its offense going forward. Early indications suggest that Riley will not take the same tack as Bill Callahan, who tried to force a mobile quarterback prospect like Joe Dailey into a pass-heavy West Coast offensive structure, with disastrous results.

So perhaps it’s not so much that Riley is sold on Armstrong per se, but more that Armstrong is the best candidate available to build an offense around.

Status: Mostly Complete

Fill Depth at Linebacker

Even without a change in defense, Nebraska would have struggled with linebacker depth next season. Not counting the incoming recruiting class, Nebraska only has five scholarship linebackers, with two coming off major injuries.

Add in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters system which has three linebackers on the field most of the time, and Nebraska’s linebacker depth becomes a significant concern.

The 2015 recruiting class, started by Pelini and concluded by Riley, signed five linebackers (as classified by the Omaha World-Herald). As an early enrollee, Dedrick Young has a chance to be in the mix to start as a true freshman next season, particularly if either Michael Rose-Ivey or David Santos aren’t able to fully recover from last year’s injuries.

As for the rest of the incoming freshman, it’s hard to know if they will be able to contribute right away—or if they will even remain at linebacker. So Nebraska has certainly made a start in terms of addressing linebacker depth, but there’s a long way left to go.

Status: Incomplete

Hit the Recruiting Trail

Nebraska under Pelini never hit the heights in terms of recruiting prowess that it did under Callahan before him. And while Callahan has been rightly vilified by Nebraska fans, the fact remains that it will be very difficult for NU to reach the level of a conference champion contender recruiting at Pelini’s level.

Take a look at where Nebraska’s recruiting classes for each of Pelini’s seasons were ranked, according to 247 Sports.

Year National Recruiting Ranking
2008 25
2009 42
2010 27
2011 16
2012 30
2013 22
2014 35

Those are the results for a team that can challenge for a divisional title from time to time, but isn’t ever going to be a serious contender for a conference or national title. Take a look at Dave Bartoo’s work at CFBMatrix, and you’ll see how closely aggregate recruiting rankings—and therefore overall talent level—correlate to wins and losses on the field.

If Riley is going to get Nebraska to where Eichorst expects—challenging for conference and national titles—NU’s recruiting numbers need to improve.

Status: Incomplete

Get the Roster Right

If you look at Nebraska’s current roster distribution (courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald), you’ll see one very disturbing number.

88.

That’s the number of scholarship players currently on Nebraska’s roster. That’s three over the maximum of 85, which means in short order Nebraska’s roster needs to be trimmed. Whether it is from attrition, medical hardship, or transfers, Riley must find a way to remove three current scholarship players.

At present, Riley knows of no players with plans to transfer, according to Eric Olsen of the Associated Press. But this item on Riley’s to-do list isn’t optional, it must be completed before the start of next season.

Status: Incomplete

Nebraska Football: 5 Players Poised to Break Out in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans will have watched the College Football Playoff National Championship Game (which desperately needs a better name) and spend some time dreaming about what it would be like to see NU in that game. To get there, Nebraska will need some new stars, particularly to replace players like Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory.
Nebraska’s roster has plenty of talent for new head coach Mike Riley to use next year. Here are five players who could be breakout stars for Nebraska in 2015.
De’Mornay Pierson-El
OK, it’s fair to say that Pierson-El already has broken out, given his phenomenal freshman campaign. But his performance in the Holiday Bowl (8 catches, 102 yards, 1 touchdown) suggests that he can play a larger role in Nebraska’s offensive game plan. Combine that with Riley’s history of a pass-heavy offense, and Pierson-El could develop into more than just a game-changing returner.
Add in the benefits of another off-season in the weight room to increase his durability, and Pierson-El could go from an exciting addition to a main weapon in Nebraska’s offensive arsenal.
Cethan Carter
Under Bo Pelini, tight ends frequently suffered from what I called “Mike McNeil syndrome,” when a promising receiving target would disappear from the game plan.
Carter certainly looked like he was falling victim to that syndrome. Before his two catches against Iowa (which was a season best, telling you all you need to know), Carter hadn’t caught a ball since Fresno State. Sure, some of that was due to injury, but much of it was due to the tight end just not being a part of the game plan.
Look for that to change under Riley’s system, whatever it may end up looking like. Any tight end usually presents simpler targets for a quarterback, and a tight end like Carter who can be a receiving threat and cause matchup nightmares can become a huge part of an offensive game plan.
Michael Rose-Ivey
If there was one position where Nebraska really struggled last season, it was at linebacker. Other than Zaire Anderson, the linebackers for Nebraska really didn’t make much of an impact for the Blackshirts.
But much of that came from Nebraska never really getting settled at middle linebacker. Towards the end of 2013, Rose-Ivey began to look comfortable at the position, helping to orchestrate the defense as well as making plays on his own.
An injury cost Rose-Ivey the 2014 season. But with a year to heal and prepare, look for Rose-Ivey to be a lynchpin for the Blackshirts in 2015.
Mikale Wilbon
Nebraska’s offense next year will have an Abdullah-shaped hole right in the middle. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby were called to action to replace Abdullah after his injury against Purdue, but neither of them were able to truly take advantage of that opportunity. Adam Taylor was lost in fall practice to an injury, but was struggling to crack the depth chart even before he got hurt.
So maybe it’s Wilbon, who spent his redshirt season last year on the scout team, who will be the one to rise and shine.
Johnny Stanton
Yeah, this one is kind of taking the obvious leap. Tommy Armstrong will be returning at quarterback with almost two years of experience, and the confidence of his team in large part due to his off-the-charts intangibles.
But he’s also never finished a season with better than a 53.3 completion percentage. And even with his late-game heroics, the fact remains that Nebraska will not win a conference title if its quarterback is completing passes at that percentage.
Maybe Riley and his staff comes in, works on Armstrong’s mechanics, and makes him a more accurate quarterback. But the door is open much more than it would have been without a coaching change for a new starting quarterback in 2015. Stanton—who Riley recruited hard when he was head man for Oregon State—could very well end up winning the position and taking over as Nebraska’s signal-caller next season.