Why Nebraska Should Be Favored To Win The B1G West in 2016

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Nebraska football fans have been enduring a horrible, surreal season, seeing their Cornhuskers stumble out of the gate and be sitting at 4-6 with two games remaining. For many, the shock of this season has yet to wear off, and watching loss after loss has dulled their ability to see many good things coming in the future.

Well, keep your chins up, Husker fan. There’s plenty of reason to expect Nebraska to not only rebound from this year, but to be at the top and looking for a trip to Indianapolis next season. Here’s why.

Returning Starters

Here’s a list of Nebraska’s starters that likely will not be back in 2016, either through graduation or leaving early for the NFL

Offense: Alex Lewis (LT), Ryne Reeves (C), Chongo Kondolo (RG), Andy Janovich (FB)

Defense: Maliek Collins (DT), Jack Gangwish (DE), Byerson Cockrell (S)

That means Nebraska should have at least 15 returning starters next season. Yes, Collins will be a big loss if he does leave early for the NFL. And the turnover on the offensive line is a worry, particularly with the lack of rotation we’ve seen this season.

But outside of Janovich, all of Nebraska’s offensive skill position starters will be back next year. The secondary loses only one starter, and should improve after another full season of working in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system.

And the redshirts from 2015 should begin to pay dividends next year. The Davis brothers (Carlos and Khalil) should be ready to contribute, and have the recruiting pedigree to suggest they can provide some help with Nebraska’s struggling pass rush. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of the highest-rated recruits in last year’s class, will have another year learning the system and should be primed to shore up Nebraska’s pass defense. And the three redshirt offensive linemen, combined with the three redshirt freshmen currently on the roster, should provide some cover for the linemen Nebraska will lose after this season.

So next season Nebraska’s roster should be deeper and more balanced, as well as having more experience in Mike Riley’s system.

Coach Effect

I know Nebraska fans frustrated with losing six games before November don’t want to hear about what a good coach Riley is. And there’s plenty of room to criticize Riley’s handling of the team this year, rest assured.

But if we look at Riley’s performance over his career, those numbers suggest reasons for optimism. Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix has created a metric called “Coach Effect” which uses past performances, talent ratings, and game locations to determine how well coaches do in comparison to how an “average” coach would do.

As of 2014, the most recent data available, Riley is the no. 11 coach in the country in terms of Coach Effect, with a 1.50 score. That means, all else being equal, a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 games more per season than an “average” coach given the talent and schedule of a particular team.

Riley’s Coach Effect score will likely come down after this season, but his number should still be one of the best in the nation. That suggests Riley should have the ability, with a huge number of returning starters next season, to be successful in 2016.

Talent Level

In addition to coaching, Bartoo’s theory of college football involves the teams with the best talent winning. Like his Coach Effect, Bartoo measures a team’s talent level by aggregating recruiting service rankings. As of 2014, Nebraska’s talent rating was no. 24 nationally. That was third in the B1G, and significantly better than Nebraska’s closest B1G West rivals, Wisconsin (no. 40), Iowa (no. 42) and Northwestern (no. 52).

This year’s preliminary recruiting classes suggest Nebraska’s talent edge should continue. According to 247 Sports, Nebraska has the no. 25 class nationally in 2016 recruiting. That puts Nebraska ahead of all its B1G West rivals, like Wisconsin (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Northwestern (no. 48).

So coming into next season, the data suggests that Nebraska’s roster should be as talented – if not more so – than any B1G West team it will face in 2016.

What 2015 Really Means

Yeah, yeah, all of that happy talk is great. But Nebraska is 4-6 with two games to go in 2015. Isn’t it a pretty big leap to expect Nebraska to go from needing a four-game winning streak (including a bowl) to avoid a losing record to a division title?

Well, that would be assuming that Nebraska’s struggles this year are indicative of the program’s true position. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they are not.

I know, you’ve heard all the excuses about Nebraska’s 2015 struggles. But the fact is, five of Nebraska’s six losses were functional coin-flips. A Hail Mary against BYU, one poor decision against Miami, a missed two-point conversion against Northwestern, all the fine margins between a disappointing season and the burning tire-fire of 2015. And the one really ugly blemish on Nebraska’s record, a 10-point loss to a 1-6 Purdue, was on the road with a backup quarterback, a backup running back, and losing NU’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

That’s not to absolve Riley and his staff of responsibility for those losses, of course. But over the course of this year, as the losses have piled up, a malaise has set in on the fanbase. People assumed the worst, that Nebraska’s struggles over this season have become the new normal, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

The underlying fundamentals of the program, though, suggest that 2015 is an anomaly. Nebraska was a nine-win program last year, will be in the second year of a coaching change next year, has a historically over-performing coach, and has equal or better talent than every other team in the division.

That’s not the recipe for a rebuilding year (never mind what a certain athletic director, for reasons known only to him, said earlier). That’s a recipe for a team to bounce back to at least where it was before. And with a coach who has a better track record of performance (Bo Pelini’s coach effect as of 2014 was -0.33, in comparison), it’s not unreasonable to think Nebraska could be primed to break through its glass ceiling in 2016.

Is it a guarantee? Of course not. But Nebraska fans enduring the 2015 season should take heart. As crazy as it might sound now, there is no reason not to expect – to demand, actually – that Nebraska challenge for a divisional title in 2016.

Nebraska Football: ReView Of Cornhuskers’ 36-33 Overtime Loss To Miami

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On Saturday, Nebraska lost in overtime, 36-33, to the Hurricanes in Miami. After being down 33-10 with just over 11 minutes in the game, Nebraska stormed back with three touchdowns to tie the contest.

But on the first play in overtime, Tommy Armstrong threw an interception, and a personal foul by left tackle Alex Lewis for a late hit set Miami up for a chip-shot field goal to win the game.

The Good

Tommy! Armstong’s numbers weren’t the best. He was 21-for-45, for 309 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. But those numbers are a little deceiving, as Armstrong was plagued with drops early in the contest.

But the statistics almost don’t matter. Armstrong was Nebraska’s best player on the field, and it was on his shoulders – and his legs – upon which Nebraska was able to make a comeback. Yes, it was his mistake that functionally ended the game. But without Armstrong, Nebraska gets blown out. And even in a loss, this was Armstrong’s coming-out performance as a quarterback that can get Nebraska to Indianapolis.

The Comeback. Anyone else have a flashback to Michigan State last year? Or Iowa? After looking punch-drunk at times in Miami, the last eleven minutes of regulation showed the kind of potential this new-look offense can have when it is working. It showed that the mental toughness Nebraska showed last year. And it showed Nebraska would not allow itself to be embarrassed on national television as it had been last year.

Brown’s Bomb. When Drew Brown trotted on to the field in the middle of the second quarter, it felt more like a surrender. Nebraska had been blitzed for 17 points in the first quarter, and was only able to get the ball to Miami’s 32 before needing to kick a field goal.

And seeing Brown take the field did not inspire confidence. Two weeks ago, it was Brown missing a 40-yard and a 41-yard field goal that put BYU in a position to win the game on a Hail Mary. So Nebraska fans were justified in holding their collective breath when he swung his leg at a 49-yarder.

But Brown’s kick was true, and would have been good from over 50. It ended up to be very important in the game against Miami. But perhaps even more importantly, Nebraska fans – and coaches – have now seen Brown take the field in a hostile environment and be true from long distance. Even in terms of decision-making and giving coaches enough confidence to give him a chance in the future, that’s a big deal.

The Bad

Another Bad Quarter. Against BYU, Nebraska gave up 17 points and looked like it was helpless defensively in the second quarter. Against Miami, the Blackshirts’ dreadful 17-point performance came in the first quarter, and put Nebraska on its back foot the rest of the game.

Yes, Nebraska was able to staunch the bleeding, making schematic and personnel adjustments to neutralize (at some level) Miami’s offense. But Nebraska’s propensity to get bombed early in a game is distressing.

A Bad Mix. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that the lack of a pass rush and the struggles in the secondary go hand-in-hand. That dynamic was on display again on Saturday. With a four-man rush, Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya had all the time in the world to wait for his receivers to come open.

And while Nebraska’s secondary (particularly Daniel Davie) struggled, it’s unfair to ask them to play single coverage against talented receivers for as long as they are being forced to do so. Nebraska has answered with some blitzes and additional safety help in coverage, which seemed to make some improvements later in the game.

Yellow Rain. And, they’re back. Nebraska improved – sort of – its penalty-committing ways against South Alabama in game two, going from 12 penalties for 90 yards against BYU to 7 penalties for 80 yards against the Jaguars.

But against Miami, the numbers blossomed to the worst performance of the year, 12 penalties for 98 yards. And while some of the penalties were of the spectacularly foolish and damaging kind (looking at you, Alex Lewis), many were still disturbing signs of a transition not yet complete. Nebraska was caught numerous times with an illegal formation on offense, and a substitution infraction for 12 men on the field. Lewis ended the game with two (!) personal foul penalties and an ineligible man downfield.

In fairness, Miami was worse, with 13 penalties for 114 yards, including two ejections for targeting fouls. But given how razor-thin the margin was, even a slightly cleaner game from Nebraska might have made the difference.

And the B1G West Champions-In-Waiting

After the first quarter against Miami, it seemed ludicrous to think that Nebraska would win another game, much less a divisional title this year. It was that bad, reminiscent of the embarrass-the-program performances that ran Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini out of town.

But, much like with BYU, Nebraska was able to steady the ship and come oh-so-close to a grand comeback. The win puts Miami at 3-0 in a navigable ACC conference. BYU is 2-1, with a one-point loss in the Rose Bowl to a UCLA squad many (like Kyle Bonagura of ESPN) are projecting as a playoff team.

Take a look at the rest of Nebraska’s divisional foes. Wisconsin has been far from impressive, most recently beating Troy 28-3 in Madison. If the Badgers are relying on the arm of Joel Stave to win in Lincoln, Nebraska fans have to like their chances. Minnesota, after raising a few eyebrows with a game effort against TCU in week one, haven’t looked worldbeaters either, recently squeaking by Kent State, 10-7, at home.

Northwestern has the best resume, by far, with its 16-6 win over Stanford (made even more impressive by Stanford beating USC in Los Angeles) and a 19-10 win over Duke on the road. Iowa has held serve as well, including wins over an Iowa State squad that regularly gives the Hawkeyes fits and an Alex Henery moment in beating Pitt with a walk-off field goal.

(Save your energy, commenters, I know that Henery’s kick against Colorado wasn’t a walk-off. Same basic idea, though.)

But both Northwestern and Iowa are in Lincoln. Yes, Michigan State looks like a big ask for Nebraska, but it is unlikely that any B1G West squad will have a perfect in-conference record. And if Nebraska can run the table against the division – a result I would say is still more likely than not – then a trip to Indianapolis in December for Nebraska is on the cards even with a 1-2 start.

Nebraska Football: The 5 Most Indispensable Cornhuskers in 2015

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Nebraska football fans know that in an era of scholarship limits, it’s hard to lose any players. But some players on a roster are harder to lose than others, and the effect of their absence on the squad is greater. As we prepare for new head coach Mike Riley’s first test, here are five of the players that Nebraska can least afford to lose.

No. 5 : De’Mornay Pierson-El

I know, I know, he’s hurt and is going to miss six to eight weeks (according to the Omaha World-Herald). But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed already, if that timetable holds true then Nebraska might be well set to withstand his loss for those games, getting him back for the real meat of the season.

And make no mistake, Nebraska is much better with a healthy Pierson-El. More than anyone else on the roster, Pierson-El is a proven game-changer in the return game, and was beginning to show his promise as a receiver. Add him in to Riley’s offense (with the jet sweeps alone) and he changes Nebraska’s offense and how defenses have to react.

With recent news that Pierson-El might be out longer than the original timeframe given (according to Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald), Nebraska fans are rightly concerned about what impact the injury will have on the 2015 season. And while Riley should not give in to temptation and leave Pierson-El on the sideline until he can return without unreasonable risk of re-injury, his loss will be keenly felt if it does go longer than six to eight games.

No. 4: Tommy Armstrong

Armstrong might not be the quarterback Riley would have picked to run his offense, but he’s the quarterback Riley has inherited. And given the in ability of any other quarterback on the roster to legitimately challenge Armstrong for the position, it has to be assumed that Riley and his staff have concluded that Armstrong’s skill set gives Nebraska its best chance to be successful on offense.

Indeed, in the installation of this year’s offense, the scheme is tailored to fit Armstrong’s strengths and desires. According to The Best College Sports News Network, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said that he makes sure Armstrong is comfortable with a particular play before putting it into a game plan.

That’s great news for Nebraska fans having nervous flashbacks to 2004, watching Joe Dailey try to run a Bill Callahan offense for which he was woefully unsuited. But it also means big trouble for Nebraska if Armstrong goes down and one of the backups has to get significant playing time.

No. 3: Alex Lewis

There’s good news coming from Nebraska camp about the NU offensive line coming into the season. According to 247 Sports, the offensive line is “beginning to gel,” which is crucial for Nebraska to have any chance at offensive success in a year when an new system is being implemented.

But there’s only one returning starter on that line, senior left tackle Alex Lewis. His presence, particularly at such a crucially important position on the line for a right-handed quarterback, is central to Nebraska’s ability to get good play from its offensive line. And without that good play, it’s very difficult to see how Nebraska will succeed either running or throwing the ball.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

A survey of most reports from Nebraska’s fall camp has defensive tackle Collins being the best player on the team. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Collins was one of the players cited by the Big Ten Network’s crew in their annual pre-season visit of B1G teams. And ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay has Collins as a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

That’s the kind of talent that is hard to replace. While defensive line is an area of strength for Nebraska, particularly on the interior with Vincent Valentine and Kevin Williams, the loss of Collins would be a huge step backwards.

No. 1: Josh Banderas

OK, so maybe the emergence of freshmen like Dedrick Young, Tyrin Ferguson, and Luke Gifford (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star) can help quell the tinges of panic felt by Nebraska fans when they realize that there’s only one linebacker on the roster who started a game last year.

But if something happens to that guy – specifically, middle linebacker Josh Banderas – then feel free to resume full-blown panic. Nebraska would then be left without any returning experience at a position of critical importance, particularly in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme.

Which, of course is why practice reports from 247 Sports about Banderas being “day to day” with a groin injury should be terrifying for Nebraska fans. Less than two weeks away from taking the field against Taysom Hill and a solid BYU club, Nebraska’s only returning starter at linebacker isn’t practicing. According to 247 Sports, if Banderas couldn’t play then the middle linebacker spot would likely be filled by Ferguson or Chris Weber.

Wrap your head around that, Husker fan. Nebraska could be facing BYU with a middle linebacker – you know, the guy who runs the back half of the defense – who is either a true freshman or a sophomore with a grand total of six career tackles.

It may turn out to be nothing, but this groin injury to Banderas may very well be the biggest story being ignored in the run-up to the start of the 2015 season.

Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Most Important Player At Each Position

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are well into barbecue season, enjoying the warm weather and wondering why the American League All-Star team will be almost entirely populated by Kansas City Royals. But the 2015 depth chart is never far from their minds, and over these lazy summer months it’s a useful exercise to think about which players are most important at each position.

It’s not necessarily a consideration of who is the best player, mind you, although it usually works out that way. Rather, it’s a question of who is the most important—which player at each position Nebraska (and new head coach Mike Riley) needs the most. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the roster.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis

While Nebraska has decent depth on the offensive line, there is a concern about the lack of returning starters (at least based on the Holiday Bowl depth chart). Lewis is the only returning starter who held down a starting position the entire year in 2014. Givens Price and Matt Finnin were listed at right tackle for the Holiday Bowl, while Paul Thurston and Dylan Utter were listed at center.

None of those four spent the season at their position, and Finnin will likely not be in the mix at tackle in 2015. Lewis, on the other hand, was Nebraska’s starting left tackle throughout 2014. Combine that experience with the importance of the position (between left tackle for a right-handed quarterback and center arguably being the most important) and Lewis is the first name to consider at offensive line for Nebraska in 2015.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong

The no-brainer to end all no-brainers, particularly given how none of the other quarterbacks on the roster appeared to seriously challenge Armstrong’s position in the spring. While Nebraska does have good depth at quarterback—perhaps for the first time since before former head coach Bo Pelini arrived in 2008—the 2015 season will likely rise and fall with Armstrong’s performance.

Riley had a history of developing quarterbacks in his time at Oregon State, most recently shepherding Sean Mannion to breaking the Pac-12 career yardage record and being an NFL draft pick. Armstrong will need the same kind of tutelage if Nebraska is to be successful in 2015.

I-Back

Terrell Newby

If there was any position where one person isn’t as important for Nebraska this year, it might be I-Back.  Based on observations from the spring (including the Omaha World-Herald’s Sam McKewon and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst), Newby looks the early favorite to win the starting I-Back position.

But Nebraska has amazing depth at the position, with Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon all competing for carries (and that’s not counting walk-ons like Graham Nabity who could be in the mix as well). So while Newby at this stage is the most important given his likely starting status, there are a number of contenders waiting in the wings.

Receiver

De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tempting at this point to think outside the box a little and select Jordan Westerkamp for his consistency or Jamal Turner for his potential and his senior leadership. It may very well be that both of those players will be cruicial cogs in Nebraska’s offense this season.

But, come on, let’s be real. Pierson-El is without question Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic offensive weapon. And Riley will likely find creative ways to get Pierson-El the ball, such as the jet sweeps we saw in the Spring Game. Pierson-El might not have the most touches for Nebraska next season. But he will be the one that will affect opposing defenses more than any other player.

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins

Last year, Nebraska had a beast at defensive end in Randy Gregory, and was worried about interior defensive line play. This year, Nebraska has two beasts on the inside in Vincent Valentine and Collins, with questions on the exterior.

While it’s hard not to view Valentine and Collins as a unit, it’s Collins that is getting the pre-season attention. Collins is a first-round NFL draft pick according to ESPN’s Todd McShay, and just misses the first-round cut according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

Based on that projection alone, then, Collins nudges Valentine in importance for Nebraska in 2015.

Linebacker

Josh Banderas

It was tempting to put “a warm body” in place here, as Nebraska only has four scholarship linebackers who are not true freshman on the roster after the departure of David Santos. Of those four, one (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off missing a season to injury, one (Marcus Newby) played sparingly as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) is a redshirt freshman after sitting out last season.

That means Nebraska only has one (!) linebacker on the roster with any meaningful playing experience since 2013. Banderas will be pressed into a leadership role, anchoring Nebraska’s linebacker corps as the young players behind him (hopefully) grow up in a hurry.

Secondary                          

Daniel Davie

It was very tempting to pick Nate Gerry at safety, as it could have been argued he was Nebraska’s defensive MVP last year. But with a transition to Mark Bankers’ new quarters defensive scheme, the importance of the safety will likely be diminished with the amount of time all three linebackers should be on the field, placing more emphasis on the cornerback being able to take away an opponent’s primary receiving threat.

That task will fall to Davie, taking over from Josh Mitchell as Nebraska’s primary cornerback this season. Davie was a consistent performer for Nebraska last year, and the Blackshirts will need him to stand up against the best receivers they will face if NU is to be successful next year.

Special Teams

De’Mornay Pierson-El

Yes, it’s him again. Pierson-El might be Nebraska’s most important weapon on offense next year. But there’s no doubt he will be a game-changer for Nebraska as a punt returner. His ability to flip the field—and score—off a punt return gives Nebraska so many different benefits. Against Michigan State, it was Pierson-El’s return that put Nebraska in position to win after being dominated for most of the game. And against Iowa, it was Pierson-El’s return that keyed Nebraska’s comeback, ultimately returning the Heroes Game trophy to Lincoln.

(I know. It’s a ridiculously anodyne and sanitized thing. But admit it, Husker fan. It burned you to see the Hawkeyes race across the turf in Memorial Stadium in 2013, grab the trophy, and carry it back to their locker room. And it felt good to see the boys in scarlet and cream return the favor in 2014.)

A strong case could be made for Sam Foltz, who could end the season as the nation’s best punter. But Pierson-El’s returns—and the field position that comes from the mere intimidation of opposing punters—gives him the nod in this category.

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: Cornhuskers’ Top 2016 Draft Prospects

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

The 2015 NFL Draft is less than a week old. So, clearly, it’s time to look at 2016, right?

Well, why not? While it’s hard to know exactly what Nebraska will look like next year under new head coach Mike Riley, we do have some idea of the returning talent. And there are numerous resources looking ahead to 2016 (and beyond) to see what kind of talent is in the pipeline for the NFL.

So let’s take a look to see who on Nebraska’s roster might be hearing their names called next May.

Prospect rankings from NFLDraftScout.com.

Maliek Collins (unranked DT, junior)

This is more than a little projection, given that Collins will be a junior next hear. But throughout spring practice, Collins has been the most disruptive player for the Blackshirts. According to Mitch Sherman of ESPN, Collins was compared by former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini to LSU standout Glenn Dorsey. And he, along with fellow defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, were “the strength” of Nebraska defense this spring.

So if Collins continues his standout performance, don’t be shocked to see him give consideration to leaving after his junior season at Nebraska.

Ryne Reeves (no. 18 OG)

If Reeves can stay healthy, he has an opportunity in his senior season to make a name for himself and perhaps earn a look to playing on Sundays. He has the frame (six-foot-three, 295 pounds) and the skill set to be effective, to be sure. And if Reeves is able to stay upright and on the field this year, he will have the chance to earn his ranking.

Alex Lewis (no. 15 OT)

Talk about a guy who has benefited from a change in scenery. Lewis started his career at Colorado, transferring to Nebraska after a conviction for assault. But since he has arrived, Lewis has stayed out of trouble and been a steady starter at the critical position of left tackle for Nebraska.

If Lewis is able to up his game and have a standout senior campaign, he could be one of the names called next May in the 2016 NFL draft.

Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Post Spring Two-Deep Depth Chart

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know already that new head coach Mike Riley won’t be putting out a two-deep after spring practice. So apparently it’s up to us to fill that urgent need. Of course, this is filled with speculation in terms of where the players stand now in the eyes of the new coaching staff, and could change dramatically by September.

But, come on, it’s April. Let’s live a little given how long we have to wait for football to come back.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis might be the only certain starter of the bunch, so this position group looks to be in flux between now and fall camp. The return of Ryne Reeves will make a particular difference both for depth and competition at center.

LT: Alex Lewis, Zach Sterup

LG: Zach Sterup, DJ Foster

C: Paul Thurston, Ryne Reeves

RG: Chongo Kondolo, Zach Hannon

RT: Givens Mordi Price, David Knevel

Offensive Backs

It’s still Tommy Armstrong’s world, until and unless one of the contenders can step up and take the job away from him. As for I-back, being the starter might not mean a lot as the position will likely be a committee rather than one bell-cow back.

QB: Tommy Armstrong, Zack Darlington

IB: Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor

FB: Andy Janovich, Mitch McCann

Receivers

The starting receivers actually look pretty settled, although there could be quite a bit of competition for the next man up. Cethan Carter’s return should make Nebraska’s offense much more dangerous with what he provides at tight end.

WR X: Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly

WR Y: Jamal Turner, Jariah Tolbert

WR A: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Alonzo Moore

TE: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine could be the best defensive end pairing in the Big Ten this season. But who will be in the rotation at defensive end—as well as behind Collins and Valentine—could be quite a question to answer

DE: Jack Gangwish, A.J. Natter

DE: Greg McMullen, Freedom Akinmoladun

DT: Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice

DT: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Williams

Linebackers

If nothing else, the linebacker position might make Riley feel right at home. Given Nebraska’s depth problems, a two-deep at linebacker could prove challenging for NU to field, particularly if there are any injuries of significance.

MIKE: Josh Banderas, David Santos

WILL: Michael Rose-Ivey, Luke Gifford

SAM: Marcus Newby, Dedrick Young

Secondary

It will look a little strange to not see “Nickel” as part of a two-deep for Nebraska, but new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters system will usually keep all three linebackers on the field. Given the depth at this position, the two-deep is likely to exclude a number of talented players.

CB: Daniel Davie, Josh Kalu

CB: Byerson Cockrell, Jonathan Rose

S: Nate Gerry, Charles Jackson

S: LeRoy Alexander, Kieron Williams

Specialists

Not a lot of competition at most of these positions, but excelling on special teams could be a huge competitive advantage for Nebraska in 2015. Assuming it can get the placekicking position sorted out …

PK: Drew Brown, Mauro Bondi

P: Sam Foltz, Mauro Bondi

KOS: Mauro Bondi, Drew Brown

LS: Jordan Ober, Josh Faulkenberry

Punt Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner

Kick Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner

Nebraska Football: Grading The Performance Of Each New Starter

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans got to see their Cornhuskers get off to a good start, beating Florida Atlantic 55-7 in Lincoln. In that game, a number of starters got their first chance to shine under the spotlight. Here’s how they graded out.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, LT: A+

Jake Cotton, LG: A+

Mike Moudy, RG: A

Givens Price, RT: A

With 498 yards of total offense, it’s clear that the offensive line had a good day. Watching the game, you could see that the left side of the offensive line (led by Lewis) was getting a stronger push and imposing its will more than the right side. But that’s all a question of degree, as both sides of the line were as imposing as a Nebraska offensive line has been in quite some time.

Receivers

Alonzo Moore, WR: C

Making the starting lineup amidst a jumble of receivers was quite an accomplishment for Moore. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to cash in on the stat sheet after the game. Moore was targeted in the red zone and would have scored, had Tommy Armstrong’s pass been on target, which does increase his grade slightly.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen: A+

Vincent Valentine: A

Yes, the loss of Randy Gregory was frightening for Nebraska fans. But the emergence of McMullen, at least for this game, as a nearly unstoppable force on the other end of the defensive line was an exciting thing to see. Both in the backfield and, at times, dropping into coverage. McMullen was the defensive standout of the game.

And Valentine, while playing in a less glamourous but no less important hole, was stout up the middle, and was able to get into the backfield at times and disrupt the Owls’ offense.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle “Mike” linebacker: A-

Zaire Anderson, weak-side “Will” linebacker: A

Florida Atlantic’s first defensive series saw the Owls drive right down the field, 75 yards, to tie the score at seven. After than, FAU only gained 125 of total yards—and much of that was late in the fourth quarter when the result was well in hand.

While the defense as a whole performed well, which is a good sign for the middle linebacker who helps direct everything, Banderas did not have a stellar individual day. He had no individual tackles, and three assists, making for 1.5 total tackles on the day. Anderson, on the other hand, was effective in coverage and disruptive in the backfield.

Defensive Backs

Nathan Gerry, S: A

Daniel Davie, CB: A

Byerson Cockrell, NICKEL: A

Davie was a surprise start, with many (including this dope) thinking that Jonathan Rose would end up winning the starting cornerback position. But Davie came up with a great game, as did Gerry who was all over the field making plays. Cockrell fitted in well at NICKEL, both in run support and pass coverage, making the sting of Charles Jackson’s injury a little less painful.

Specialists:

Drew Brown, PK: B+

Brown got the first chance at placekicking, drilling a 44-yard field goal along with the extra point duties until the fourth quarter. Mauro Bondi did come out and kick a fourth-quarter extra point, showing that there is at least competition for the placekicking role and lowering Brown’s grade slightly.

Meet Nebraska’s New Starters for 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Just like the changing of the leaves, every year Nebraska fans can count on seeing new starters shine. So as the new season is less than two weeks (!!) away, it’s time to look and see which new players will be getting the nod to start for Nebraska.

Of course, without an official depth chart, some of these are guesses (or as we call them in the business, “informed analytical speculation”). Areas of the team that are unlisted have all returning starters.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, left tackle: If there’s any new starter to be excited about this year, it might be Lewis. After transferring from Colorado, many thought he might be struggling to supplant David Knevel for the starting tackle position. Instead, he’s become what BTN’s Tom Dienhart called potentially “one of the Big Ten’s best” at the position.

Mike Moudy, right guard: Although getting a stiff challenge from Chongo Kondolo, look for the senior to come back from his injury and claim the starting right guard position. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Moudy now is fully healed from a season-ending ACL tear. His experience should be enough to give him the nod.

Givens Price, right tackle: Sometimes a change of position can do a world of good. Price has shifted positions throughout his Nebraska career, but according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star his shift from guard to tackle may have elevated Price to a starter in his senior season.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen, defensive end: Sure, you’re excited about that other guy on the end of Nebraska’s defensive line. But McMullen is no slouch himself, and the senior’s talent and experience should provide a solid anchor opposite the destruction Randy Gregory looks to wreak.

Vincent Valentine, defensive tackle: If Alex Lewis isn’t enough of a hipster new starter to be excited about Valentine should be. A prototypical defensive tackle in size (six-foot-three, 325 pounds), Valentine gives Nebraska the option to use him as a true nose tackle, allowing NU to play with a three-man front and freeing up pass-rushing specialists (like Maliek Collins or Marcus Newby) as outside linebackers.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle (MIKE) linebacker: The loss of Michael Rose to a season-ending injury was certainly a setback, given the grasp of the position and the leadership required that Rose was building at the end of 2013. But it does open the door for Banderas, who earned playing time at the position last year as a true freshman. Hopefully for Nebraska, the extra year of experience will help Banderas take over as leader of the linebacking corps.

Zaire Anderson, weak-side (WILL) linebacker: Take a look at Nebraska’s linebacker unit, and you’ll see it littered with freshmen and sophomores. Anderson (along with Trevor Roach) are the greybeards of the unit, seniors who are likely to see playing time. With injuries claiming parts of the last two seasons, Anderson is hopeful that his senior campaign can be uninterrupted and show the productivity he did at the end of 2013.

Defensive Backs

Jonathan Rose, cornerback: For much of the spring, the competition between Rose and Byerson Cockrell for a starting cornerback position was one of the closest on the team. But with the season-ending injury to Charles Jackson and Cockrell shifting to nickel, Rose looks to have secured the starting cornerback position opposite Charles Jackson.

Nathan Gerry, safety: Last year, Gerry saw playing time as a true freshman at linebacker, but always looked to be a hybrid-type player without the requisite size to play in the middle of the field. Now he has relocated to safety, where his speed and hard-hitting ability should allow him to flourish.

Byerson Cockrell, nickel: The loss of Charles Jackson, one of Nebraska’s best overall athletes, to a season-ending injury just as he was about to see significant playing time at nickel was one of the most disappointing developments of fall camp. But Cockrell has been impressing Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis (according to Huskers.com), and his play may soothe some of the fears that arose with Jackson’s injury.

Special Teams

Drew Brown, placekicker: Yes, I know that Brown is still locked in a battle with junior Mauro Bondi for the starting placekicker position. But if Bondi hasn’t done enough in the previous two years to lock down the position—and the coaching staff has felt the need to bring kickers in each of the two years after signing Bondi—then I think the smart money is on the true freshman winning the job.