Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 54, Illinois 35

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Nebraska’s alternate uniforms were a throwback to 1923, but the game in which the uniforms were worn was very much a creature of the 21st century, with Nebraska winning a shootout over Illinois, 54-35.

Nebraska’s offense was humming, notching 606 total yards, while the defense struggled some, surrendering 509 yards. But Nebraska was plus-three in turnover margin, which helped NU avoid any risk of an upset bid from the Illini.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s third win of the 2018 season …

THE GOOD

Divine Devine. Hey, remember when this dope looked at senior I-back Devine Ozigbo and just saw him and Mikale Wilbon as “returning with the most experience?”

Well, Ozigbo proved that dope wrong. He’s currently no. 25 nationally in rushing yards per game at 95.8. He’s been both the chain-mover and the homerun threat out of the backfield that Nebraska has been needing. He’s been a revelation and, as head coach Scott Frost said, looks very much like a Sunday kind of guy next year.

Nine-Tenths of the Law. One of the fears about Nebraska’s tempo spread attack is whether NU would be able to protect its struggling defense by possessing the ball. Early in the season, that was an active question when Nebraska was in position to win.

But in the last two games, Nebraska was able to execute clock-chewing drives. Against Ohio State, in the second quarter Nebraska had a 10-play, 64 yard drive taking 4:00, and an eight-play, 47 yard drive taking 3:54, both resulting in touchdowns. Against Illinois, in the third quarter Nebraska had a seventeen-play (!), 82 yard drive for a touchdown that took a full 7:48 (!!) off the clock – and included three fourth-down conversions.

Those time of possession numbers aren’t mind-boggling, but they are evidence that Nebraska’s offense does have the ability to keep its defense off the field for at least a little while, minimizing the stress being put on an already thin unit. Seeing this kind of complimentary football is both reassuring and encouraging going forward.

Special Teams. Against Bethune-Cookman, Nebraska returned a punt for a touchdown. This week, Nebraska blocked a punt. More importantly though, it looks like Nebraska has solved to a large degree its issue with kickoff return coverage. Against Illinois, Nebraska averaged 13.8 yards per return, and only 9.3 yards per return against Ohio State.

Against Troy? 25.5 yards per return.

THE BAD

Homecoming. Welcome home, AJ Bush. After a couple of stops, the Nebraska transfer started a game at quarterback in Memorial Stadium, but for Illinois. And he had himself a game, rushing for 187 (!) yards on 25 attempts with three (!!) touchdowns. He added in 126 yards through the air, but on an 11-for-25 day with two interceptions (although, in fairness, his receivers didn’t exactly help him out).

For Nebraska fans with a sentimental streak, it was the best of both worlds. A former Husker got to have his day in the sun and put up some numbers, while Nebraska was still able to notch a win. That, of course, is easier to say after the game as opposed to when Bush was running wild and answering Nebraska score-for-score.

Walking Wounded. Both receiver JD Spielman and I-back Maurice Washington appeared to suffer injuries against Illinois. Washington has struggled with staying on the field all year, which is not a huge surprise for a true freshman with a slight frame. But losing both – and losing Spielman, in particular – against a stout Michigan State defense would be a huge challenge for Nebraska.

AND THE NEW NORMAL

Blackshirts. Tradition of Toughness. Throw the Bones. In the nineties, much of Nebraska’s identity was defined by defensive prowess. If you play word-association with “Nebraska football,” one of the first images you’ll get is a gleeful Nebraska defender crossing his arms and screaming after a sack.

That’s not where Nebraska is now. Nebraska is currently no. nationally in scoring defense, no. 90 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 101 nationally in passing defense.

Sure, some of that is a transition year, and likely has to do with a talent deficit on the defensive side of the ball. But some of it is structural, too.

Take a look at the national rankings of UCF’s defensive performance last year, when the Knights went 13-0 (and won the national championship, amirite?)

Total defense 91
Rushing defense 59
Passing defense 49

That’s better than Nebraska’s rankings this year, of course. But it’s not elite. At best it’s middle-of-the-pack good. And that’s in a year where UCF went undefeated.

Ultimately, a football team reflects the nature of its coach. Under a defensive-minded coach like Bo Pelini, Nebraska would take its cues from its defense, and Nebraska’s 10-3 upset of Oklahoma should be looked at as a model for how Pelini’s teams would win.

Frost is, schematically, the opposite of Pelini. He’s an offensive mind who wants to outscore you – and is perfectly content to let you score a few points in the process. UCF’s 62-55 overtime win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game might have been an extreme version of it, but it still fits into the template of how Frost’s teams win games.

This isn’t to say that Nebraska fans shouldn’t expect – shouldn’t demand – better defensive play. Overall, Nebraska’s defense has not been good enough and needs to be better both this year and going forward. But expectations need to be calibrated for the Blackshirts.

If defensive coordinator Erik Chinander can get his unit into the top-50 nationally defensively, in combination with what Frost’s offense, that should be enough for Nebraska to win a lot of games. But it’s going to look different from what winning Nebraska teams have looked in the recent past.

In other words, Husker Fan, get used to seeing a lot of points on the scoreboard – for both teams. My guess is that as long as Nebraska has more of those points most of the time, though, y’all should be fine.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football 2015 Quarterback Fall Practice Preview: Depth Chart and Analysis

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As we get closer to the start of fall practice, now is a good time to start looking at the Nebraska football roster and depth chart to get a better idea of what we might see this season. There’s no more important position on the field than quarterback, so it makes sense to start with the signal-caller.

New head coach Mike Riley will be bringing a different offensive philosophy to Lincoln, so it’s still a little difficult to guess what Nebraska will look like on that side of the ball. But given what we know so far, here is what Nebraska’s depth chart should look like—and why.

Starter: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Armstrong’s experience makes him the clear choice to start the season under center for Nebraska. After the Spring Game (according to the Omaha World-Herald), Riley said of Armstrong that “[t]he thing that never wavered about Tommy was, and is a separator for him right now, and that’s his confidence. He’s a confident guy and he plays like it.”

As a starter, Armstrong is 15-5. His underlying statistics, though, do not inspire confidence. He has a 52.9 completion percentage, and has a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It is very hard to construct a scenario where Nebraska wins a conference title when its quarterback has those statistics.

Riley has a history of producing quarterbacks, though. His most recent protégé, Sean Mannion, broke the Pac-12’s all-time passing record and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Riley will need to work that magic on Armstrong’s efficiency numbers to get Nebraska where it wants to go in 2015.

No. 2: A.J. Bush OR Zack Darlington

At the Spring Game, it was pretty clear that Bush and Darlington were next in line at quarterback for Nebraska. The two quarterbacks have very different skill sets. Bush, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is much more imposing and able to move the ball with his legs. Darlington, while able to move, looks to be more effective in the pocket throwing the ball.

Admittedly, the Spring Game is a terribly small sample size, and as such should be used with caution to make any judgments. But from that limited data set, Darlington was the only quarterback on Nebraska’s roster who appeared to have the accuracy and arm strength to make the throws NU will need to be successful next season.

Player Comp. Att. Yds. TD Int
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 1 0

Again, small sample size. Darlington isn’t going to be considered as a starter just because of a good Spring Game performance. But it is that type of performance Nebraska will need from its quarterback to be successful going forward.

No. 4: Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe’s standout performance as a walkon freshman earned him a scholarship, and playing time in a live game against Michigan State last season. He has the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and physical ability to compete as a Nebraska quarterback, an impressive accomplishment for a walk-on. And he played well enough to keep an Elite-11 participant in Johnny Stanton behind him on the depth chart, ultimately causing him to transfer.

But while Fyfe’s accomplishments are impressive, he still is behind the other three on the depth chart. Armstrong’s experience gives him a clear advantage over all the quarterbacks on the roster. And the athleticism and potential of both Bush and Darlington give them the advantage over Fyfe.

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of Cornhuskers’ 2015 Roster

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have settled into June, knowing that football season is still some ways away. So while they enjoy their afternoons at the pool, baseball games, and endless yardwork, never far from their minds is the composition of Nebraska’s roster for the upcoming season.

Because, in many ways, spending time in June thinking about the Cornhuskers’ backup right guard is part of what defines a Nebraskan.

So let’s take some time and, position-by-position, go through Nebraska’s 2015 roster as it might look under new head coach Mike Riley.

Quarterback

It seems clear that, barring injury, Tommy Armstrong will be Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2015. BTN’s Tom Dienhart is one of many who believes that Armstrong’s experience will be crucial in retaining the starting job.

Behind Armstrong is a massive amount of depth, all unproven. Junior Ryker Fyfe has the most experience, which isn’t much, and was a walk-on for a reason. Sophomore Johnny Stanton has all the talent in the world with his Elite 11 background, but has struggled to make a dent on Nebraska’s depth chart. He made a cameo appearance at this year’s Spring Game for a reason as well. Redshirt freshmen Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush saw significant playing time at the Spring Game, but both are raw talents and it would be a big ask for them to overtake Armstrong and his experience.

I-Back

Nebraska has four I-backs on the roster that are legitimate threats for significant playing time; senior Imani Cross, junior Terrell Newby, sophomore Adam Taylor, and redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon.

Given the distribution of carries at the Spring Game, it’s fair to suspect that Newby will be Nebraska’s starting I-back next season. But that may not mean a lot. Even removing from consideration the changes which could come in the depth chart as a result of fall camp, don’t be surprised to see Nebraska employ a significant rotation of I-backs.

Particularly given the difference in skill-sets (Cross being a bruiser, Newby more of a scat-back speedster, and Taylor and Wilbon something of a mix between the two), Nebraska’s I-back carries are likely to be far more evenly distributed than in years past.

Receivers

Nebraska’s starting lineup at wide receiver looks fairly straightforward. In Jordan Westerkamp and Jamal Turner, Nebraska has two experienced and talented wideouts to lean on.

And then Nebraska has its x-factor, De’Mornay Pierson-El. His dominance as a kick returner and flashes of brilliance on offense have sent Nebraska fans into a tizzy. But exactly how Pierson-El will be deployed on the field remains a mystery.

Will he run the ball out of the jet sweep? Does he have the frame at five-foot-nine and 185 pounds to be an every-down wideout? How Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf choose to utilize Pierson-El’s skill-set may well be one of the biggest determining factors in Nebraska’s success in 2015.

Nebraska should be well placed with depth, as well, turning to players like Taariq Allen, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, and Sam Burtch as part of a rotation. All of these players have struggled with injuries at one point in their careers, and have the potential to press for playing time if fully healthy.

Tight End

Cethan Carter stands out amongst Nebraska’s current tight ends as the one true down-the-field receiving threat. Injuries—and a baffling refusal from Nebraska’s previous staff to utilize the tight end—limited Carter’s production last year, but he looks to be ready for 2015.

Behind Carter are a number of capable players—Sam Cotton, David Sutton, and Trey Foster—but none are offensive threats like Carter. Incoming freshman Matt Snyder looks to be that type of player, though, and could see the field early if he is able to make an impression in fall camp.

Offensive Line

At tackle and center, Nebraska will be returning players with at least some starting experience. Left tackle Alex Lewis will likely be the most experienced, with Paul Thurston having a good shot to start at center and right tackle up for grabs between Givens Price and Zach Sterup.

Guard is a bigger question mark given Nebraska’s attrition to graduation. Chongo Kondolo should make a good case at one starter, while Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson, and Ryne Reeves could all be part of the mix at tackle as well.

Nebraska’s 2014 class of offensive linemen—Tanner Farmer, Nick Gates, and Jerald Foster—could also have an opportunity to step forward and earn significant playing time, particularly at some of the unsettled positions on the line.

Defensive Line

The middle of Nebraska’s line is pretty clear cut. Vincent Valentine is a monster of a man (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) who got better and better throughout 2014. And Maliek Collins is already a 2016 NFL first round projected draft pick, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.

Defensive end remains far murkier in terms of who Nebraska will lean on. Based on experience, Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish will likely open the season as starters. Marcus Newby saw time last year as a pass rush specialist, so don’t be shocked to see him drop in the mix at defensive end, along with Peyton Newell. The biggest wild card might be converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athleticism might help him stand out amongst a competitive field.

Linebacker

It might not be Nebraska’s weakest position, but linebacker is certainly Nebraska’s thinnest. Not counting the incoming freshmen, Nebraska has five (!) scholarship linebackers. Two (David Santos and Michael Rose Ivey) are coming off significant injuries, and one (Marcus Newby) was deployed more as a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker than a true linebacker in Nebraska’s 4-3 scheme.

So, yeah, the position is a little thin.

The initial starting lineup looks pretty clear with Josh Banderas in the middle, Santos at the Will, and Rose Ivey at the Sam. Look for early-enrollee Dedrick Young to push for playing time, and it seems almost certain that one of the other freshmen (Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) to contribute in 2015 as well.

Secondary

If linebacker is thin for Nebraska, then the secondary is ridiculously deep. If we assume that returning starters Nate Gerry at safety and Daniel Davey at corner retain their positions, then there should be an amazing competition for playing time. This competition could be highlighted by new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme which focuses on three linebackers on the field.

At corner, Josh Kalu, Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, and Chris Jones all have a legitimate case for playing time. At safety, Byerson Cockrell played well last year but will be competing with LeRoy Alexander after his year’s suspension, as well as Kieron Williams. And incoming freshmen Eric Lee and Avery Anderson have the talent to push for playing time right  away.

Special Teams

Where Nebraska is good on special teams, it’s really good. Where it’s not, it’s decidedly mediocre.

In Sam Foltz and De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska might have the best in the country at punter and punt returner respectively. That’s a huge weapon and a huge advantage for Nebraska on both sides of the ball.

But at placekicker, Nebraska will likely be choosing between sophomore Drew Brown and senior Mauro Bondi. Neither impressed last season, although some of Brown’s struggles may be attributable to his youth. Regardless, placekicker (both for field goals and kickoffs) has to be considered a question mark.

And don’t underestimate the uncertainty at long snapper, with true freshman Jordan Ober competing with sophomore Josh Faulkenberry for the position.

 

 

Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

New head coach Mike Riley presided over his first Spring Game at Nebraska on Saturday. The score (Red 24, White 15) didn’t mean much, but there were a number of lessons to be drawn from the performance.

The most important thing to remember about the Spring Game, though, is that it is really just a glorified practice—one of fifteen in the spring, with another entire camp coming this fall. The results and performances of the Spring Game should be viewed through that lens and weight given accordingly.

Having said that, there are two glaring areas of concern Riley must have after seeing how his team performed under the lights and in front of the crowd. It might only be two areas, but it’s fair to say they’re big ones.

Throwing the Ball

Here’s the stat lines for Nebraska’s quarterbacks at the Spring Game:

Player Comp Att Yrd Comp % TD INT
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 .500 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 .545 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 .636 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 .333 1 0
Tyson Broekemeier 4 6 65 .667 1 0
Johnny Stanton III 3 11 19 .273 0 1
TOTAL 34 68 412 .500 4 3

 

That’s just not good enough. Yes, some of the incompletions were dropped balls (more on that in a bit). But at least on the evidence of one practice (in front of 76,000 people), the only quarterback in whom you could put any faith in accurately delivering the ball was redshirt freshman Zack Darlington.

Again, remember the caveat about this being just one practice. But Armstrong’s completion percentage numbers were about what they have been so far in his career, making fair the question as to whether those can reasonably be expected to markedly improve.

Catching the Ball

Nebraska’s woes with the forward pass on Saturday weren’t limited to the quarterbacks. Time after time, when passes were delivered on target, receivers were unable to make the catch. Wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends were all guilty of drops in situations where a catch should have been made.

Of course, the two concerns run together. Nebraska’s run game looked effective, with jet sweep action (and play fakes off of it) putting stress on a defense horizontally and providing an opportunity to get playmakers like De’Mornay Pierson-El the ball in space.

But if Nebraska’s passing game is as anemic as it appeared on Saturday, it won’t take long for opposing defenses to scheme for the run and dare Nebraska’s quarterbacks to win with their arms. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance (which, again, is limited evidence), it’s hard to have too much faith in their ability to do so.

In other words, Riley and company still have a lot of work to do before Nebraska tees it up against BYU on September 5.

Nebraska Football: Who Will Be The Huskers’ Starting Quarterback in 2015?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans looking forward to the 2015 season will have one question on their minds over almost all others: who will be the starting quarterback?

There are five candidates on the roster as we speak. Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent, having started 21 games over the last two years. Waiting in the wings are Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, and Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush, who redshirted last year.

Of course, it’s a big guessing game at this point as to who will win the job, as we don’t know what type of offense new head coach Mike Riley will be playing. We also don’t know how each of the quarterback prospects will perform this spring or this fall.

But based on what we know now, we can at least make some educated guesses as to where the quarterbacks currently on the roster stand.

Tommy Armstrong

As the incumbent starter, Armstrong has to open as the favorite to win the job in 2015. And there’s a lot of reasons to like Armstrong. He’s 16-5 as a starter. He’s led Nebraska on gutty comeback performances, either in victory (Iowa) or close defeat (Michigan State, USC). He’s a leader on the field who commands respect from his team-mates.

But there are also reasons to question whether Armstrong will be the guy who gets the nod next year. He has a 52.9 percent career completion rate, which is simply not good enough to win a conference title. As thrilling as the comeback against USC in the Holiday Bowl was, don’t forget that the Trojans also dropped a host of interceptions that would have put the game truly out of reach at halftime.

That’s not to say Armstrong can’t get better, particularly with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator who are both skilled in working with quarterbacks. Given his experience, Armstrong is still the clear favorite to win the job next year.

But given the new staff coming in and looking at things with fresh eyes and installing a new offensive system, it’s a lot closer than it would be otherwise.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 50 percent.

Johnny Stanton

If there’s anyone that has benefited from the transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley, it’s Stanton. Until the very end of last year, Stanton was unable to even win the backup job, ceding that role to walk-on Ryker Fyfe. But the Elite-11 prospect has the kind of underlying skills that made Riley want him very badly at Oregon State, meaning Riley arrived in Lincoln aware of his skills.

If Stanton couldn’t see the field last year because he struggled picking up Tim Beck’s system, then a change in offensive coordinators gives him a fresh start. And given his unquestioned physical talents, that might be enough to create some real drama this spring.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 25 percent

Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe looked to be playing the role of Joe Ganz from a few years earlier, being the plucky kid who worked hard in the shadow of much higher-regarded quarterback prospects until he got his chance to shine. When Armstrong was injured against Michigan State, it was Fyfe who got the nod and led Nebraska to a score to keep the game competitive.

But with a new staff and a new system coming in, Fyfe will be starting from scratch, much like all of the other quarterback prospects. That means the same hurdles he needed to clear last year will be facing him again. That’s not to say he can’t be successful. It’s just a lot more difficult for him.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 5 percent

Zack Darlington

Darlington has been lost in the shuffle a bit, in part because of his redshirt and in part because his concussion history had many wondering if he would be able to play quarterback at all for Nebraska. But he’s still here, with the same three-star dual-threat quarterback pedigree (according to 247 Sports) that made him a target for schools like Ohio State, Arizona, and Mississippi State.

He’s also a coach’s son, which would tend to suggest he might have a leg up in terms of picking up a new system and understanding the game as a whole. Maybe he’s not as flashy as some of the other signal-callers on Nebraska’s roster, but Darlington might be a bit of a sleeper.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

A.J. Bush

If Darlington is the sleeper pick, Bush is the trendy redshirt to back for next season. During bowl preparation, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “intriguing” and praised his athleticism and work ethic in preparation for the Holiday Bowl (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

Hearing the praise about Bush’s work ethic certainly would have to bode well for his chances to make a splash with Nebraska’s new coaches. Combine that with his physical skills, and he should have a fighting chance to make an impression.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

Extra Points 05/28/14

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Some of the best info about Nebraska football from around the web.

Kenny Bell has (gasp!) shaved off his signature afro. (Corn Nation)

Randy Gregory listed by NFL.com as one the fourteen most explosive college football players. (NFL)

AJ Bush looks to make an immediate impact at quarterback next year. (Lincoln Journal-Star)

Game-by-game prediction of Nebraska’s 2014 season. (Bleacher Report)