Nebraska Football: Ranking Huskers’ Top 10 Players Heading Into 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know how close the 2014 season is, and fans are already looking forward to seeing their heroes on the field. While the roster is full, there are some players that stand above the others as players to watch. When combining athletic ability with opportunity to play, here are the top 10 Huskers for 2014.

No. 10: Maliek Collins

Collins makes this list in large part because of his versatility. He will likely be starting, or at least in the rotation, as a starting defensive tackle alongside Vincent Valentine. But the staff has also experimented with moving Collins out on the edge as a specialized pass rusher. Collins doesn’t get the kind of attention as his more-famous defensive end, but he could be a key part of a dominant front four for Nebraska.

No. 9: Cethan Carter

Nebraska hasn’t really had a good history of using dangerous tight ends. Call it the “Mike McNeil” effect, to which Kyler Reed fell victim. So it’s a little scary to include a tight end on this list.

But Carter has the kind of athleticism to be a real Rob Gronkowski-like game changer for Nebraska’s offense. And now that Nebraska is in year one of the true post-Taylor Martinez era, perhaps a little more sanity in NU’s offensive structure can be restored and Carter can grow into the offense.

No. 8: Kenny Bell

Kenny Bell the personality (and the hair!) is so big that it might just overshadow the talent of Kenny Bell the football player. Ironically enough, it was a special teams play against Penn State that was last year’s real reminder of how dangerous Bell can be (although this catch comes pretty close).

Coming into 2014, Bell is Nebraska’s most explosive weapon, and will likely get nearly as much attention from opposing defensive coordinators as Ameer Abdullah. That in and of itself should tell you how good Bell the player really is.

No. 7: Vincent Valentine

It’s a cliché that you can’t coach speed. Well, it’s pretty hard to coach size, and Valentine (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) has size to spare. Of course, size without skill and experience isn’t much help, but Valentine demonstrated skill and got experience in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line as the 2013 season wore on.

Now looking to be a fixture in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front, Valentine gives NU the opportunity to present more three-man looks and free up pass rush specialists like Maliek Collins or Marcus Newby to put additional pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While Valentine’s contributions may not show up on a stat sheet, his success could be one of the most critical factors for the Blackshirts in 2014.

No. 6: Corey Cooper

In the course of 48 hours, Nebraska lost two likely starters (LeRoy Alexander to suspension, Charles Jackson to injury) in the secondary. That’s going to make the returning starters, particularly Corey Cooper at safety, even more important. Cooper has the athleticism to play against both the run and the pass, a critical need for safety in Bo Pelini’s defense. A full season as a starter, and a leader, should give Cooper the chance to really shine.

No. 5: Tommy Armstrong

I think Armstrong right now is suffering from what a lot of college players encounter when they go back to school for a final year rather than head to the professional ranks. Familiarity breeds contempt, as we in the media and in a fanbase become inured to a player’s skills, overlook the mitigating circumstances, and focus on the flaws in a player’s game.

There are certainly flaws in Armstrong’s game. A 51.9 percent completion percentage and a 9/8 TD/INT ratio (from CFBStats.com) is simply not good enough for Nebraska to win a division, much less a conference championship.

But Armstrong is also 7-1 as a starter. He led Nebraska to a win over Georgia (which, last I checked, was an SEC team) in last year’s Gator Bowl. He was thrown in as the starter last year with no real training camp and running an offense designed for the unique skills of Taylor Martinez.

This year, Armstrong will have the benefit of all those factors, as well as a year of experience under his belt. 2014 will be his time to shine.

No. 4: Alex Lewis

Lewis should be a player that gives Nebraska fans pause. Not only is he a former Colorado Buffalo, He had to serve a jail sentence this offseason for his part in an assault. He’s the type of transfer that other schools can use as an example of a “win at all costs mindset.”

His arrival hasn’t generated much hand-wringing, though, perhaps in part because he’s an offensive lineman and not a high-profile player. But he looks to be slotting in at left tackle, the most important position on the offensive line. And he could provide the bedrock for a punishing Nebraska rushing attack

No. 3: Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s primary concern at linebacker in 2014 has to be youth. The starting SAM spot looks to be in question, and it was sophomores Michael Rose and Josh Banderas battling out for the starting MIKE position before Rose’s season-ending injury.

But at the WILL? It appears Anderson has that spot taken up, and he looks to have the senior leadership and athletic ability to anchor the middle of Nebraska’s defense.

No. 2: Randy Gregory

Gregory might be the best football player on the 2014 Nebraska squad. Indeed, some analysts (like Brent Sobleski of the Detroit Free Press) have already tapped him as a potential no. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

No, not the first pick from the Big Ten, or the first defensive player. The no. 1 overall pick.

That may be Gregory’s ceiling, but I’m not quite ready to place him there based on one season’s work. There’s plenty of reason to think improvement is on the way for Gregory, not the least of which is that he will have a full preseason of preparation and last year’s experience to draw from.

But until I see it on the field, I still think there’s one player on the roster I would say is better than Gregory.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

There’s been a lot of superlatives thrown Abdullah’s way, for his play on the field and his amazing off-the-field representation of Nebraska. He could end his career being the first player to get 1,000 rushing yards in three seasons, and needs 1,804 rushing yards—a huge, but not inconceivable number—to become NU’s all-time leading rusher.

That’s pretty good.

But why I think Abdullah is Nebraska’s best player on the 2014 roster has to do with more than that. It’s summarized by the video (check the 2:47 mark), which is of Abdullah’s first down run against Northwestern to keep the drive alive and make the Kellogg-to-Westerkamp hail mary possible. Just watch it again, and marvel how he basically on his own made three defenders miss and got the yardage needed to keep the drive alive.

That’s what Abdullah brings, and what makes him Nebraska’s best football player on this year’s roster.

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Five Nebraska Players Sure to Surprise at Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are always looking for surprises as fall camp opens. While the established stars are well known, fall camp provides an opportunity for new play-makers to arise and take the stage for the upcoming season.

So while “sure to surprise” is a bit of a contradiction in terms (much like the advice from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to “expect the unexpected”), here are five players that might be a bit off fans’ radar screens but could play a major role this season.

Alex Lewis

Lewis has had a remarkable impact as a newcomer, unseating David Knevel (which ain’t easy to do, as Knevel is six-foot-9 and 310 pounds) and coming into fall camp as the likely starter at left tackle. But as can be seen from the Lincoln Journal-Star’s Steven Sipple, Lewis had a great spring.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p>My read is DE Randy Gregory is hitting on all cylinders this spring. Fast and tenacious. I'm guessing Alex Lewis would concur. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Huskers?src=hash”>#Huskers</a></p>&mdash; Steven M. Sipple (@HuskerExtraSip) <a href=”https://twitter.com/HuskerExtraSip/statuses/451533159931584512″>April 3, 2014</a></blockquote>

<script async src=”//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

If he’s able to continue that into the fall, Lewis could become one of the key contributors on Nebraska’s offensive line—and perhaps one of the most important players on offense, period.

Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s linebacker corps is something of a muddle, with a lot of talented and young players competing for positions. The one exception to that might be Anderson, who along with Trevor Roach is the only senior linebacker on the roster.

Anderson’s career at Nebraska has been marred with injuries, but his talent is unmistakable. If he is able to stay healthy, Anderson could become the standout linebacker Nebraska fans have been looking for.

Terrell Newby

A smart and particularly handsome analyst opined that Newby would be Nebraska’s x-factor in 2014. While he will likely start the season as third string (or at least an “-OR-“ second-string) on the depth chart, Newby looks to have an expanded role on offense and on special teams. With his explosiveness, it won’t be a shock to see Newby as the talk of this year’s fall camp.

Charles Jackson

Ciante Evans held down Nebraska’s NICKEL position with experience and intelligence, helping to hold things together and make the smart play in the secondary. His graduation leaves a big hole for Nebraska to fill.

Jackson, who looks to be filling Evans’ spot at NICKEL, in some ways is Evans’ opposite. He has struggled throughout his Nebraska career with discipline on the field. But he is a freakish athletic talent, in a way that Evans simply was not. If he is able to bring at least some of Evans’ vision and experience to the NICKEL role combined with his athleticism and playmaking ability, he could be a remarkable weapon for the Blackshirts.

Alonzo Moore

Imagine a receiver with Kenny Bell’s speed, but with an extra inch of height and ten pounds of weight. In potential, at least, that’s Moore. Injuries have kept Moore from being able to work his way up the depth chart, but he looks to be coming into fall camp healthy. If he can stay that way, and demonstrate route-running and pass-catching to go with his speed, Moore could be one of the big surprises this fall.

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Nebraska Football: Projecting Who Will Win Cornhuskers’ Open Starting Positions

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have a number of ways to get through the summer months, and one of them is to figure out who will be starting for the Scarlet and Cream in the upcoming season. Rather than looking at box scores, Nebraska fans will pore through recruiting magazines and rosters from the season past to get an idea of what the next season’s crop of Cornhuskers will look like on the field.

So let’s put our guessing hats on and see if we can determine who will win the open starting jobs this fall. Note the emphasis on open starting jobs—you don’t need me to tell you that Ameer Abdullah will be the starting I-back and Randy Gregory will get the nod at defensive end.

If a position is missing, that’s because I don’t view it as an open starting position. Yes, that means there is an entire position group (offensive backs) that gets omitted as a result. But it helps keep our focus on the positions that are truly up in the air, at least based on what we know now before the start of fall camp.

Offensive Line

Tackle: Alex Lewis

Guard: Jake Cotton, Ryne Reeves

Center: Mark Pelini

Sometimes taking a chance on a kid pays off. Yeah, it’s not great PR to have a transfer like Lewis have to serve a jail sentence for an assault before he can start playing for your football team. But the fact remains that Lewis looks to have beaten David Knevel for the starting left guard position, acquitting himself well in practice against no less than Randy Gregory.

Having two new guards to break in on an offensive line never bodes well. But Cotton and Reeves do look like they should be able to settle in, keeping junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo on the bench and in the rotation.

As for center, you’d think that Bo Pelini might want sophomore Paul Thurston to win the job simply to avoid the need to break in another new center next year. But Pelini’s experience at that crucial position should be enough to earn him the starting spot.

Receivers

WR Z: Alonzo Moore

WR A: Jordan Westerkamp

Moore has always been an enticing option, combining size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) with speed. But he’s never been able to stay healthy enough to make a contribution on the field. A healthy summer should see Moore hold off Taariq Allen, another big-bodied receiver who has struggled to stay healthy.

The battle for starting at the slot could be one of the most fascinating in fall camp. Jamal Turner has been a ball of potential ever since he arrived—but has never been able to convert that potential into production on the field. Westerkamp, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a safe pair of hands. Look for that reliability to earn Westerkamp the nod over Turner, although both should see the field a lot.

Defensive Line

Defensive End: Greg McMullen

Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry

McMullen’s experience should help him hold off junior college transfer Joe Keels, at least initially, and hang on to the starter’s job. Pelini has also demonstrated some willingness to experiment with hybrid players like Maliek Collins and Marcus Newby at rush end, meaning that the end position opposite Randy Gregory could be highly flexible.

Vincent Valentine looks to have one position at defensive tackle locked up, and the battle for the second position between Curry, Collins, and Kevin Maurice should rage throughout fall camp. Look for Curry to win the position by a nose based on his experience, and Pelini’s desire to use Collins as an edge pass rusher at times.

Linebackers

WILL: Zaire Anderson

BUCK: David Santos

MIKE: Michael Rose

As a senior, 2014 is Anderson’s year to shine. He may be the most talented of all Nebraska’s linebacker corps, but he has struggled with injuries since his transfer from junior college. A healthy season could see Anderson becoming one of Nebraska’s surprise stars on defense.

Santos will have to work to keep a hard-charging Josh Banderas out of the starting lineup at WILL, not to mention younger talent like Courtney Love and Marcus Newby. But as one of the most experienced linebackers in the corps, Santos is the best bet to keep the position.

Rose began to shine at the end of 2013, and could very easily emerge as a leader next year. His play in the middle of the field helped shift Banderas from MIKE to WILL, helping to cement Rose’s position going forward.

Secondary

Cornerback: Jonathan Rose

Safety: Nathan Gerry

Nickel: Charles Jackson

At corner, Rose and Byerson Cockrell will be fighting for the starting corner spot opposite Josh Mitchell right up until the first game of the season. I would give Rose the nod simply because of the extra year he’s had in the program, but don’t be shocked if both see extensive playing time.

Corey Cooper looks entrenched in one safety spot, so I would see Gerry and LeRoy Alexander battling for the other spot. It’s clear the coaches like Gerry’s talent, as he saw the field last year at linebacker. Safety looks to be a better fit for Gerry, and the versatility he brings in being able to play multiple positions makes him incredibly valuable.

Jackson has always been a special talent, and it looks like he may finally have the discipline to get on the field and stay there. Replacing Ciante Evans will be a tall task, but Jackson’s physical skills could be a huge weapon in that position.

Special Teams

Placekicker: Drew Brown

Kick Returner: Jamal Turner

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s kicking game could be a huge problem in 2014. Mauro Bondi, Nebraska’s scholarship kicker, wasn’t able to beat out Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith last year, and has done little to inspire confidence from what we have seen of him in 2014. Look for Brown, younger brother of former Husker and NFL kicker Kris Brown, to beat out Bondi and win the placekicking job as a true freshman.

As for the return game, it’s not like Nebraska could do much worse in 2014. Turner and Terrell Newby look to be the two most likely candidates, although I’m sure the coaching staff would be tempted to let Abdullah try his hand. But if Turner’s going to be missing out on playing time at receiver—and I have him losing his starting job to Westerkamp, remember—then that gives him more time and energy to make a contribution as a kick returner.

Nebraska Football:Final Winners And Losers From Spring Ball

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen spring practice for 2014 be put into the books, and are settling in for a long summer’s wait until fall practice begins and the college football season arrives. But before we leave spring practice altogether, it’s worth taking time to review where we stand, see who the winners and the losers are

 

Winner: Alex Lewis

Coming into the start of the season, it looked like David Knevel had the inside track to start at left tackle. Lewis was still resolving his legal troubles, and it appeared that Knevel would do enough to win the job.

But once Lewis got on campus and began competing directly, he shot up the depth chart. By the end of spring, the transfer from Colorado had wrapped up the starting position, giving defensive end Randy Gregory a run for his money in practice.

 

Loser: David Knevel

Knevel’s position is the opposite of Alex Lewis. At six-foot-nine and 305 pounds, Knevel has the physical frame to be dominant as a tackle. After sitting out a redshirt year in 2013, Knevel looked ready to make the jump and compete for a starting job in an offensive line that had plenty of opportunities.

For every winner in the spring, there is a loser. Lewis’ winning of the starting left tackle position, at least at this stage, has come at Knevel’s expense.

 

Winner: Tommy Armstrong

Never mind his less-than-overwhelming performance in the spring game. Before spring practice began, most Nebraska fans expected a two-way battle between Armstrong and Johnny Stanton to win the starting quarterback position in 2014.

But very quickly during spring practice, it became apparent that Armstrong was going to win the starting quarterback position. His experience (including his 7-1 record as a starter), his charisma, and the chemistry he has built with the rest of the team has helped propel him to his role as the heir apparent for Taylor Martinez.

 

Loser: Johnny Stanton

Many Nebraska fans were hoping that Stanton would have a phenomenal spring and take the starting quarterback position away from Tommy Armstrong. But in retrospect, with Stanton learning offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s scheme for the first time after directing the scout team last year, asking him to come in and compete for the starting job in 2014 was a tall order.

Indeed, not only was Stanton not a serious competitor for the starting role, he is currently in a dogfight with sophomore Ryker Fife for the backup position. Perhaps it’s not fair to Stanton, but at least in comparison to where expectations were for many fans at the start of spring, that’s quite a fall.

 

Winner: Bo Pelini

I’m not sure that a coach has ever had a better offseason than Pelini, in terms of where he was to where he is now. At the end of the Iowa game last year, Pelini’s shameful deflection of responsibility and his all but daring athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him led most to think that Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln had come to an end.

But Eichorst stood by Pelini, and between now and then Pelini’s public persona has undergone an extreme makeover. He’s reached out to his Twitter alter ego, @FauxPelini, embracing the parody of himself. He’s opened almost the entire spring practice to the media, something that would be unheard of in years past. And he topped it all off by taking the field at the Spring Game carrying FauxPelini’s cat, pretty much breaking Twitter in the process.

Comparing Pelini’s perception now to the end of last season, it’s almost hard to recognize the same man. After spring, Pelini is clearly doing great. The true test will come when Nebraska loses a game next year.

 

Loser: Shawn Eichorst

In all honesty, adding Eichorst as a loser might be a bit of a stretch. If Pelini’s public relations rehab since the end of last year leads into increased success for Nebraska, Eichorst is going to look like a genius. Instead of firing Pelini, as many urged him to do and thought he would, if Eichorst’s retention of Pelini leads to a division title or perhaps a conference title, then Eichorst will get a lot of the credit for standing by Pelini. And if Pelini melts down next year, making the decision to let him go simple, then Eichorst’s position isn’t really harmed either.

But it’s the status quo that’s scary for Eichorst. Each year of Pelini’s tenure, he has lost four games. What happens if that continues in 2014? What happens if we see the same old Nebraska—decent, but error-prone, and ultimately not good enough to compete at the highest levels?

If that happens, Eichorst is in a bit of a box. He can’t really fire Pelini after delivering functionally the same result as last year. But he also can’t really sit back and do nothing while the Nebraska football program idles in neutral, particularly with schools like Ohio State, Michigan State, and now Penn State moving ahead.

Eichorst has taken a gamble on Pelini, and could find himself in a very difficult situation if that gamble doesn’t pay off.

Post originally appeared at Bleacher Report.