Nebraska Football: The Five Most Indispensable Cornhuskers

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Nebraska football fans have endured a strange season, with a win over Minnesota last week lifting the team to 3-4 on the 2015 campaign. But now that we are into the second half of the season, we’ve seen the players that are most important to Nebraska’s success. These five are the players Nebraska can least live without for the rest of 2015.

All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated.

No. 5: Alonzo Moore

When wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El was lost for the start of the season, many Nebraska fans worried who would fill his role. But after struggling with injuries and performance on the field, junior receiver Alonzo Moore stepped in right away and provided a spark to Nebraska’s offense. He’s been effective in what many envisioned Pierson-El’s role in the jet sweep – Moore is Nebraska’s sixth-leading rusher, and second in yards per carry only to Andy Janovich.

And as a receiver, Moore is third on the team in total yardage. He is second in yards per reception to – you guessed it – big-play fullback Janovich. Moore provides a stretch-the-field speed threat that can help open running lanes, and his consistency this year has been an unheralded cog in the transition to new head coach Mike Riley’s offense.

No. 4: Josh Kalu

Yes, I am fully aware that cornerback Josh Kalu is a member of a secondary that boasts the worst pass defense in the FBS. But remember that the transition to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme asks the most of the secondary. Sure, it’s been harder (OK, fine, a lot harder) than most anticipated, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.

And it’s been Kalu that has made the most progress to date in that secondary. As the season has gone on, you can see Kalu doing better in single coverage technique, and getting more confident in making plays on the ball. Ultimately, Nebraska’s pass defense is only going to improve with superior play in the secondary. And Kalu, right now, provides Nebraska’s best shot at getting that level of performance.

No. 3: Jordan Westerkamp

It’s easy to dismiss a guy like Westerkamp as a possession receiver, a steady-Eddie type who won’t ever make the splash plays but is super dependable. Of course, we know that Westerkamp can make plays that are behind-the-back sensational and game-winning critical.

But even with the spectacular in his locker, it is Westerkamp’s consistency which makes him so valuable. He leads the team in reception yardage, and is second only to Moore in touchdown receptions. Westerkamp is a reliable third-down target, crucial for Nebraska’s offense to stay on the field and keep pressure off a beleaguered defense.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

Don’t let the statistics fool you. Right now, defensive tackle Maliek Collins is seventh on the team in tackles, second in tackles for loss, and fourth in sacks. But his presence in the middle is affecting everything else on the front end of Nebraska’s defense.  Collins has been a lynchpin of Nebraska’s rushing defense, currently no. 7 nationally. And as the season is wearing on, you can start to see him becoming more and more of a disruptive force. Particularly against Minnesota last week, you saw Collins able to break through and apply pressure to the quarterback through the middle. And when he has been split outside, Collins has been able to wreak havoc as a pass rusher.

With the return of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, Collins may get some additional space to work against opposing offenses. Regardless, his play has been instrumental in Nebraska’s defense, and his loss would be catastrophic going forward.

No. 1: Tommy Armstrong

This one wasn’t really close. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how critical Armstrong’s performance has been for Nebraska this year.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2

Games won are in bold.

The analysis is pretty straightforward. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. When he doesn’t, Nebraska loses.

Of course, it’s not just Armstrong’s passing that makes him important to Nebraska. Armstrong’s rushing ability has been crucial, and the inclusion of that element (both planned and unplanned) has been the biggest area of growth in Riley’s new offense.

Losing any other player for Nebraska would be costly, but would leave NU with options. If something happens to Armstrong, though, it’s hard to see how Nebraska would recover.

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Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 33-28 Loss to BYU

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Nebraska lost to BYU, 33-28, on a last-second pass (probably rude to call it a “Hail Mary” from BYU) from backup quarterback Tanner Magnum to Mitch Mathews. It’s a rough start for head coach Mike Riley as head coach of Nebraska, and there’s a lot to digest from the game (not to mention a few game-day snacks that remained un-digestible after Mathews’ receptions).

The Good …

Second-Half Adjustments. After coming out like a house on fire, Nebraska looked for all the world like a team about to collapse in the second quarter. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and likely left more on the field when running back Algernon Brown dropped a wheel route on fourth down near the end of the quarter. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was having his way with Nebraska’s defense, and Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong reverted to his 2014 form.

But in the third quarter, after Nate Gerry intercepted Hill, the worm turned. Hill was only 3-7 passing before being replaced by Magnum, and BYU’s offense stalled. The Blackshirts were able to apply pressure, sacking Hill twice in the third quarter. Nebraska was able to establish a rushing attack, and Armstrong rediscovered his first-quarter passing mojo.

Welcome Back, Alonzo. When kick returner and wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El went down with injury, one of the many questions raised was who would fill his role as a speed threat for Nebraska’s offense. Against BYU, we may have learned that junior wide receiver Alonzo Moore might be a big answer to that question.

Moore had three receptions for 48 yards, including a sideline-threading touchdown scamper. He was also utilized (along with Jamal Turner) in the running game, getting two carries for 24 yards. Injuries have prevented Moore from making a contribution in previous years. But a healthy Moore might well be a huge part of bridging the gap until Pierson-El’s return.

Freshman Performances. Nebraska had standout performances from true freshmen on both sides of the ball against BYU. Dedrick Young was pressed into service at linebacker, even when Nebraska played more nickel sets than we would normally see from defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Young was ready for the moment, able to make plays in space and stay on his feet to keep lane containment. In quite a trial by fire against BYU, Young has put his name in ink on the depth chart for the foreseeable future.

On offense, wide receiver Stanley Morgan was exactly as advertised. The star of fall camp, Morgan found his way onto the field in the second half, ending the game with two receptions for 19 yards. Tellingly, he was also the guy called on to be the second punt returner (along with Jordan Westerkamp) in response to BYU’s rugby-style punter.

Nebraska has good depth at wide receiver, even with Pierson-El’s injury. But Morgan’s emergence should get the attention of Nebraska fans – not to mention Nebraska recruits like Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (in response to a suggestion that he notice how the #Huskers were using their wide receivers).

The Bad …

The Second Quarter. As the game opened up, it looked like the team with the ball last might win the game, with each team exchanging scores. But then, in the second quarter, things began to unravel. Armstrong started missing receivers high. Running lanes opened against the Blackshirts, and receivers became uncoverable. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and looked like it was going to run away and hide with the contest.

Anyone having flashbacks of Nebraska’s second quarter in Madison last year could have been forgiven.

This year was always going to be a challenge for Nebraska, trying to transition from Bo Pelini’s schemes and philosophies to Riley’s. It was hard not to see some of the traits of a Pelini-led team in that second quarter, and it allowed BYU to put enough points on the board to ultimately win the game.

Knock It Down! A smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about what could be a deciding factor of this game:

Combine that with BYU’s big receivers (six-foot-six Nick Kurtz and six-foot-six Mitch Mathews) against Nebraska’s cornerbacks (six-foot-one Daniel Davie and six-foot-one Joshua Kalu) and the Cougars could have a favorable matchup to exploit.

(Emphasis added)

It was the aforementioned Mathews who was able to use his big frame to block out Daniel Davie and Nate Gerry to haul in the winning pass.

Kickers. Yikes, does Nebraska have problems kicking the ball now. An injury to punter Sam Foltz has pressed scout team quarterback Tyson Brokemeyer into duty. An area that was one of huge strength for Nebraska in terms of field position has now become a glaring weakness, particularly if Foltz’s injury will keep him out for any length of time.

But what might be more disturbing is the performance of sophomore placekicker Drew Brown, who went 0-2 against BYU. Brown missed both kicks badly, the first a 40-yarder into the wind as time expired in the first half, and the second a 41-yarder with the wind in the fourth quarter as Nebraska was trying to ice the game.

Not to be churlish, but if both those kicks are made – and 40-yard field goals should be an expectation for a kicker on a team intending to win things – then the worst BYU could have done with that last play was a tie.

All of a sudden, Nebraska has a huge question mark in a critical phase of the game.

And Taylor Swift

We’re in uncharted territory, Husker fan. As ABC seemed intent on reminding everyone, Nebraska hadn’t lost a season opener for 29 years. Assuming a win over South Alabama next week, Nebraska will still need a win on the road in Miami to avoid a 1-2 start to the 2015 campaign.

Time to panic? Absolutely not. Remember, this was game one of the Riley era. In the second quarter, you could see Nebraska reverting to form from last season, both offensively and defensively. So that halftime response, where Nebraska came out and dominated on both sides of the ball, was instructive.

You can see what Nebraska is trying to do on offense, stretching the field horizontally with the jet sweep action. You could see Armstrong making anticipation throws, and being effective when in rhythm and not under too much duress.

Defensively, it was a little harder to get a feel for what Nebraska wanted to do. The suspension of linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey likely forced Nebraska into more nickel coverage than it would have otherwise liked, to avoid asking freshmen Young and Luke Gifford to shoulder too much of a load against a stout BYU offense.

Losing an opening game stinks, especially in the manner in which the game was lost. But this loss does nothing to dent Nebraska’s chances at a division title. And Nebraska’s second-half response to BYU should provide hope for a fanbase dealing with being on the other end of a last-second desperation heave.

So shake it off, Husker fan. And mark this game down in a few weeks’ time, when Wisconsin rolls into Lincoln, and see if the tough lessons learned against the Cougars pay dividends against the Badgers.

Nebraska Football: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Secret Weapons

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp under new head coach Mike Riley. As they wait, they will be looking through the roster and wondering what the secrets to a successful Nebraska season could be in 2015.

What will be Nebraska’s strengths to exploit? Its weaknesses to avoid? And what secret weapons can Nebraska fans talk about and look smart to their friends around a late summer barbecue? Here are a few options to consider.

Strength: Defensive Tackle

An argument could be made that the strongest overall position might be at defensive tackle. Maliek Collins is getting rave pre-season reviews, pegged by ESPN NFL analyst Todd McShay as a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Alongside Collins will be Vincent Valentine, who was tabbed as a third-string all-Big Ten player by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.

Being dominant on the interior of a defensive line can help a team stop the run and get a straight-line pass rush. It frees up defensive ends and linebackers, makes play-action passing less effective, and helps a secondary by decreasing the amount of time needed to cover receivers. Nebraska fans have seen what a dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh can do for the rest of a defensive unit.

No, neither Collins nor Valentine are in Suh’s class. But seeing how Suh affected the Blackshirts – and opposing offenses – gives some idea of how important Collins and Valentine could be to Nebraska.

Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s not exactly breaking news that Pierson-El is Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon returning. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah and the questions surrounding Nebraska at quarterback (more on that in a bit), Pierson-El provides the kind of threat NU will need to attack opposing defenses.

Pierson-El’s value goes up when you consider what Riley’s offenses, and the players who have succeeded in those offenses, have looked like. At Oregon State, Riley used a steady diet of screen passes and jet sweeps designed to get shifty playmakers the ball in space and challenge defenses horizontally. Pierson-El’s speed and elusiveness make him ideally suited for those roles, or as a decoy in a straight-ahead rushing attack.

It’s hard not to see a little of Jacquizz Rodgers when you see Pierson-El. Rodgers, like Pierson-El, is small, shifty, and lightning-fast. At Oregon State, Riley was able to ride Rodgers to a win over then-no. 1 USC and make him the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2008.

Weakness: Tommy Armstrong

Hear me out on this one. Yes, Armstrong has been successful as Nebraska’s quarterback. Yes, he’s the guy with the most experience and the most ready to take on the starting job next season.

But you can’t get away from the numbers. Armstrong has a career 52.9 percent completion rate, and a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to compete for a conference title.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, it’s entirely possible that Armstrong’s numbers could improve next season. Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a history of success with signal-callers. Armstrong, with an off-season of work with Riley and Langsdorf, may be the beneficiary of that skill.

If Nebraska wants to contend for a conference title in 2015, he’ll need to be.

Weakness: New Coaching Staff

Debate over the wisdom of firing Bo Pelini and hiring Riley started almost immediately after Pelini’s dismissal, and will not be resolved for some years to come. But whether the decision was wise or foolish in the long term, for this year there is no escaping the fact that Nebraska will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive scheme. Not only that, but Nebraska will be in the no-man’s land of trying to fit players from an old scheme into a new game plan, and fitting a new scheme around the talents of the players currently on the roster.

In other words, year one of any new coaching staff has unique challenges. And given the front-loaded nature of Nebraska’s schedule, with games against BYU and at Miami in the first three contests, NU will have to be ready to play right away.

Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth

Sure, we know Pierson-El is an amazing talent. But look past him on the depth chart and Nebraska has a sneaky-good roster at receiver.

Jordan Westerkamp returns as one of Nebraska’s most reliable targets. Jamal Turner gets an extra year of eligibility and will have his final chance to be the breakout talent he was seen to be when he arrived in Lincoln. Cethan Carter has the athletic skills to create mismatches at tight end, and should be healthy enough (and in an offense which can feature a tight end) to be a factor. Alonzo Moore has speed to rival Kenny Bell, but has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a true impact.

Until the season starts, we’re not going to know how Nebraska’s run-pass balance will look on offense. But when Nebraska does decide to air it out, there will be lots of receiving options to work with.

Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz

Yes, a punter can be a weapon. Get used to it.

Field position matters in football. Take a look at a site like FBSDriveStats.com, and you can take a look at average starting field position and what a difference it makes to a team’s bottom line. The efficiency ratings from advanced analytical sites like Football Outsiders take field position into account as a primary indicia of a team’s success. Bill Connelly lists field position as one of the five most important statistics in understanding the relative merits of college football teams.

Connelly summarizes the importance of field position in one sentence. “If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.”

A punter is a crucial weapon in that field position battle. According to the NCAA, last year the difference between the no. 1 and no. 50 teams in terms of net punting average was 6.22 yards, while the difference in kick returns was only 4.74 yards.

That differential suggests that a punter, more than any other single specialist, can affect a team’s field position. And a team’s field position, as we have seen, can lead to wins.

Foltz is set up to be one of the conference’s best punters, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Sure, punters get no respect, even less than placekickers in the eyes of most football fans. But if Foltz is able to help Nebraska win field position battles, his foot might carry NU to wins it would not otherwise achieve next season.

Nebraska Football: Who Benefits Most From Each Departed Player

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen six players depart from the team after spring practice. And while those attritions do ease fears in terms of the 85-man scholarship limit, the question inevitably arises as to who benefits from those departures.

So let’s take a look at Nebraska’s roster and make some determinations as to who might benefit the most from each of the six departures this offseason.

Marcus Newby for David Santos

Of all the departures, Santos might have the most effect on this year’s Nebraska squad. Nebraska now only has four scholarship athletes outside of the incoming freshman class. Three of those four returning linebackers have little or no playing experience.

So there will be plenty of playing time to find for linebackers. Michael Rose-Ivey will likely be a starter after spending the season injured last year. That leaves one space left for competition, and Newby has shown the most potential. Newby did see the field last year, but almost entirely as a pass rush specialist.

Lane Hovey for Jariah Tolbert

Tolbert’s size (six-foot-three, 190 pounds) suggested he would be used more as a possession receiver, his height being an advantage in catching passes in traffic against smaller defensive backs. While Nebraska has a number of players who might be able to benefit from Tolbert’s departure, Hovey might be the best suited.

Hovey’s size (six-foot-four, 205 pounds) certainly is similar to Tolbert’s. And Hovey does have some experience last season, seeing playing time in every game and hauling in five catches for 69 yards. If he’s already earned himself a place in the mix, Tolbert’s departure opens the door further for Hovey to cement his place on the depth chart.

Byerson Cockrell for LeRoy Alexander

Nebraska was without Alexander’s services last year after a suspension, so it may not have been the biggest surprise that he is no longer on the roster. Given Nebraska’s depth in the secondary, Alexander’s loss is one NU can absorb, even though Alexander is a talented and promising defensive back.

Cockrell played at nickel for most of the season last year, but Nebraska under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker will likely use far fewer five-DB sets in favor of extra linebackers. So Cockrell’s experience will put him in prime position to compete for a starting safety position opposite Nate Gerry next season.

Zack Darlington for Johnny Stanton

There’s an argument to be made that Stanton’s departure really doesn’t affect anyone, as he found himself so far buried on the depth chart that he wasn’t really in competition for playing time.

So if you’re going to pick a quarterback to benefit from Stanton’s departure, it’s probably the one that looks to be second on the depth chart. And if I had to guess now, that’s Darlington. Using only the Spring Game as first-hand observation, Darlington was the one quarterback on the roster (including, disturbingly enough, presumed starter Tommy Armstrong) that could make all the throws Nebraska will need to succeed.

Alonzo Moore for Glenn Irons

If Tolbert looked to be a possession receiver, Irons projected as a burner to take the top off opposing defenses. While Irons’ skill set is a little reminiscent of De’Mornay Pierson-El, it’s unlikely there is much that could be done to affect Pierson-El’s critical role in next year’s offense.

So let’s go instead to Moore, a receiver who has the speed and skill set in the mold of Kenny Bell. But injuries have derailed Moore’s ability to stay on the field and make a contribution. If he’s able to do so this year, Moore has a shot to be a playmaker at receiver.

Drew Brown for Mauro Bondi

Much like with Stanton’s departure, it’s hard to find too much benefit for Bondi’s leaving given how far down the depth chart he found himself. But with Bondi leaving the program, all of the placekicking duties should now fall to Brown. This can do nothing but help Brown stay involved throughout the game, keeping him warm and included throughout the contest.

Nebraska Football: Week 2 Spring Practice Stock Report

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been relishing the second week of spring practice, getting a little fix of Husker football before having to settle in for a long summer. Before the Spring Game on April 11, Nebraska fans will be soaking up as much information as they can get about how the team is performing under new head coach Mike Riley, and what they can expect next season.

Here are a few stock-up, stock-down reports on what we’ve learned so far.

Stock Up: The fast guys on the team

Sure, we don’t quite know what Nebraska’s offense will look like under Riley’s tutelage. We don’t know how much of the pro-style offense Riley will import from Corvallis to Lincoln.

But based on an article by Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journal-Star, we’ve got a pretty good idea that the deep pass will be a bigger part of Nebraska’s offensive arsenal.

“It’s going to be like a track meet,” [junior wide receiver Alonzo] Moore said last week. “Deep balls are all around. If you would have seen (Wednesday), I ran I don’t know how many go-routes — deep balls. I probably ran over 10.”

It’s looking more and more like part of Nebraska’s offense next year will involve taking shots down the field on a regular basis.

Stock Down: Tommy Armstrong

It’s been conventional wisdom that junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong had a pretty clear leg up on his competition to be Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2015. But BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo, in the midst of BTN’s spring practice visit to Nebraska, tweeted the following:

(We can have a gentle conversation with DiNardo about whether Northwestern or Nebraska deserves the “NU” abbreviation later.)

So an outside observer, a former coach, took a look at Nebraska’s spring practice and said the quarterback decision “isn’t clear.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for Armstrong as a starter—or at least calls into question how close the others are to claiming the job.

Stock Up: Banker’s change in philosophy

Defensive coordinator Mark Banker is bringing a number of new things to Nebraska’s defense. The scheme will be a “quarters” base, with more emphasis on three linebackers on the field.

But more than scheme is an attitude, as can be seen from this excerpt of an article by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald.

Take the first film session after spring’s opening practice. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said his biggest mistake, on day one, wasn’t being undisciplined or forgetting a laundry list of “keys” to a given formation.

He was too deliberate. Too slow.

There will be plenty of time to digest the nuances of defensive changes Banker will make to the Blackshirts (not to mention the changes in how the physical black shirts are handed out). But the change in mindset as evidenced by Rose-Ivey’s comment—a focus on athleticism and instinct, an unleashing of potential—might be the most important change for Nebraska.

Stock Down: Daniel Davie and Charles Jackson

Both Davie and Jackson are vying for a starting cornerback position in an increasingly-competitive defensive backfield. But injuries have kept them off the field, and Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star noted that redshirt freshman Trai Mosely had three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. That’s pressure on players like Davie and Jackson who aren’t on the field to make their claim for playing time.

Stock Up: The split-practice schedule

Riley said that he’s seen dividends being paid from his decision to split the team into two units and practice each one separately. The goal of that decision—to avoid having a number of players standing around watching during practice—seems to be reaching fruition, as Riley was describing as quoted by Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald.

“For the most part, this team’s in good shape. By dividing practice like (NU has), either teams or shotgun snaps, they’re getting a lot of reps — and they’re getting a little bit warmer weather than they’re probably used to, and they’re going for quite a while — so I think they’re in good shape.”

Nebraska Football: Grading Each Positional Unit At The Halfway Point of the Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Now that the Nebraska football season has reached its halfway point, it’s time to think about grades for each positional unit. Six games in, we have enough data now to reach at least some preliminary conclusions about how each unit has performed, and what to expect for the season’s second half.

So, on a standard A-F grading scale, here’s how each unit has graded out for the first half of the 2014 season.

Offensive Line – B

Of all the units, this one was the hardest to grade because of the variance. Nebraska is currently no. 6 nationally in rushing, and no. 28 in sacks allowed. Those are awfully good numbers, and the offensive line deserves much of the credit for those stats.

And yet, we saw what happened in East Lansing. We saw Nebraska’s offensive line get its collective butt kicked—head coach Bo Pelini’s words, not mine, according to the Omaha World-Herald—in NU’s most consequential game of the year. Yes, the Spartans are really good, and yes, it was a sloppy track that contributed to the struggles.

But struggles there were. A “B” feels like a compromise grade, and might be a bit generous.

Offensive Backs – B

Remember, these are the backs in aggregate. I-back Ameer Abdullah has been a revelation, even with his performance against Michigan State factored in, and still can state his case for a Heisman invitation this year. Imani Cross has performed well as Abdullah’s primary backup, while Terrell Newby really hasn’t forced his way onto the field as of yet.

So the question becomes how to grade quarterback Tommy Armstrong. His touchdown-to-interception ratio currently sits at 10/5, which is better than the 9/8 ratio he had at the end of the 2013 season. But his completion percentage of 51.9 percent is identical to where he ended the season last year.

It’s also, just for comparison’s sake, just over four points poorer than the worst completion percentage that Taylor Martinez posted in his career, 56.3 in 2011. And no one would confuse Martinez as a quarterback who could hurt opposing defenses with accurate throws. Nor would they confuse Armstrong with having the electric, game-breaking speed of Martinez that could help justify Martinez’s deficiencies as a passer.

Sure, Nebraska’s decimated receiver corps is in part an explanation for Armstrong’s struggles. But it’s time to retire the “he’s young” canard as a defense for his performance. Armstrong has started or played in 15 games over his career. In college football, that’s a veteran, and it’s fair to start judging Armstrong based on that standard.

It’s hard to criticize Armstrong because he is a likeable kid, a mature leader, and tough as nails (as we were reminded of based on his performance in East Lansing). But is he good enough, right now, to win Nebraska a conference championship? Michigan State didn’t think so, game-planning to take Abdullah away and make Armstrong win the game.

In East Lansing, Armstrong couldn’t answer that bell. Whether he can as the season progresses may very well be the defining question for Nebraska in 2014.

Receivers – Incomplete

Kenny Bell. Jamal Turner. Cethan Carter. Sam Burtch. Brandon Reilly.

Those are all Nebraska receivers who are either out for the season or who have missed significant playing time due to injury. It’s a massive blow to absorb, one that (arguably) was the decisive factor in Nebraska’s loss to Michigan State. Players like Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Cotton, and Taariq Allen have their own talents, but none of them can stretch the field and force defense to honor the deep ball.

If Bell and Reilly are healthy and able to contribute, that could make a huge difference for Nebraska’s offense in the second half of the 2014 season. Additionally, if players like Alonzo Moore and Demornay Pierson-El are able to take their opportunities and become downfield threats, Nebraska’s offense may have more balance and be more difficult to defend.

But for right now, any judgment about Nebraska’s receiver corps would simply be unfair given the injuries it has seen.

Defensive Line – A-plus

The only reason the defensive line’s grade is an “A+” is because there’s nothing higher to give. (Yes, I suppose I could go with the trite “A++,” but that’s like saying someone is giving “110%” effort, a tired cliché with which I won’t burden you).

Defensive end Randy Gregory already has 4.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 24 total tackles, and that’s with him missing almost two full games out of the six. His opposite number, Greg McMullen, would be an unmitigated star were he not starting on the other end of a likely first-round NFL draft pick. And interior linemen Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have both begun to live up to their potential.

If there is any criticism of the defensive line, it is that it lacks depth, with a fairly significant drop-off in production and performance being seen when the starters are not in the lineup. But that should not take any shine off of what has been the standout positional unit for Nebraska this season.

Linebackers – C

When likely starting nickel back Charles Jackson was lost for the season due to an injury in fall camp, many thought that would be Nebraska’s most significant loss. But as the season has unfolded, it appears that middle linebacker Michael Rose might have been worse for the Blackshirts.

Sophomore Josh Banderas has been tasked to replace Rose, but throughout the season he has struggled at middle linebacker. In both run and pass coverage, Banderas has struggled—at times, to the point of being a liability—which has been a weakness opposing teams from McNeese State to Michigan State have exploited.

Senior Trevor Roach has played very well when called upon at the position, but his lack of speed and athleticism does limit how and where he can be played. David Santos seemed to take a big step forward against Miami, and his loss due to injury against Michigan State may have been an unheralded contributor to Nebraska’s struggles.

While the low grade is probably unfair to Zaire Anderson, who is performing well in his senior campaign, the struggles at a crucial position like middle linebacker make the harsh mark a fair one.

Defensive Backs – B-minus

This is another unit that is difficult to grade. Josh Mitchell has performed well at cornerback. Daniel Davie has surprised many with just winning the other corner position, not to mention his outstanding performance. We got a glimpse of the difference against Michigan State, when Davie went down and the Spartans hit replacement Jonathan Rose for a long touchdown. And the performance of true freshman Joshua Kalu should be a joy to watch for Nebraska fans, and a real glimpse into the future.

The loss of amazingly-talented athlete Charles Jackson at nickel back to injury in fall camp was disappointing, of course. But junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell has filled the position admirably.

At safety, Nathan Gerry has been incredibly impressive, flying over the field and contributing against the run and the pass. Corey Cooper, on the other hand, has been disturbingly anonymous, particularly given his size and senior status. When LeRoy Alexander was suspended for the season, it was thought he was going to compete with Gerry for playing time. Now, it looks like the coaches would love to have Alexander to plug in at safety—for Cooper.

With the wild mix of performances, weighed down by the lack of production from a player like Cooper who was thought to be a key contributor—another composite grade has to be the result.

Special Teams – A-minus

Drew Brown has performed admirably for a true freshman at placekicker, hitting 80 percent of his field goals and being perfect on extra points. With the injury to Mauro Bondi pressing Brown into duty as kickoff specialist, Nebraska’s output has stayed steady, with a 54.55 percent touchback rate.

Punter Sam Foltz was inconsistent last year, but his 2014 campaign has been solid. In Nebraska’s struggles with McNeese State, a good argument could be made that Foltz was the MVP for NU, keeping the Cowboys pinned deep time and time again and helping to prevent them from pulling off the upset.

Nebraska’s kickoff returns haven’t set the world ablaze, resting at no. 93 nationally. But Demornay Pierson-El has transformed Nebraska’s punt return game, taking a huge negative for NU in 2013 and turning it into a positive. No better evidence can be had for Pierson-El’s impact than the Michigan State game. Sure, Nebraska did well to have a chance late in the game. But without Pierson-El’s touchdown return, is Nebraska able to mount that miracle comeback?

Stats from CFBStats.com.

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.

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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