Nebraska Football: Takeaways from First Scrimmage

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As the 2016 season comes closer, Nebraska is getting ready by scrimmaging in addition to position-specific work. Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald said head coach Mike Riley’s summary of the scrimmage was “efficient.”

That’s good news for a team that (put gently) struggled with efficiency in 2015, losing five of its first eight games in the final minute – before enduring one of Nebraska’s worst losses in a decade by dropping a game to Purdue. But what should we make of the news coming out of Nebraska camp? What are the most important takeaways?

Rule no. 1: Don’t put much stock in most of this

If there’s anything to take away from news coming out of fall camp, it’s this one. Any news coming out of camp should be viewed with suspicion, simply because all this is still just practice. This rule is especially true when it comes to good news, as at this point in the pre-season everyone is optimistic and hoping for the best. This is the sunshine-pumping season, and all the news coming from camp should be viewed through that lens.

An absence of turnovers is encouraging

Over 100 plays, Nebraska had no turnovers. No interceptions, no fumbles lost, none. Bill Connelly, master of the advanced statistics for SB Nation, said Nebraska can contend for the B1G West by making one fewer mistake per game. As anyone who watched Nebraska’s game last year against Iowa (or Northwestern, or Purdue, or Miami, or …) can attest, eliminating turnovers would make the difference in those contests.

But again, refer to Rule no. 1.

The secondary seems to be progressing

Over the course of the scrimmage, Nebraska’s quarterbacks never hit any home-run balls over the top. And, according to McKewon’s recap, it wasn’t because the quarterbacks were inaccurate, but because the receivers were well covered. Again, anyone watching Nebraska’s game last year against BYU (or Illinois, or Wisconsin, or Miami, or …) an ability to shut down the long pass. An improvement in that category can do nothing but encourage the Nebraska faithful.

But, again, refer to Rule no. 1.

Injuries are a concern

A number of players missed the most recent scrimmage, including Michael Rose-Ivey with a knee , Jordan Westerkamp with a groin, and Cethan Carter going through the concussion protocol.

Of the three, Westerkamp’s is probably the least concerning, as we knew he was coming back from injury already. Rose-Ivey missing time is always a concern given his injury history – and the kind of contributions he can make when he’s on the field.

Carter’s injury is more concerning, simply because of the nature of concussions. Hopefully Carter can get cleared and be able to participate fully, especially given the sky-high expectations for his 2016 campaign. But we won’t know until we see him back on the field.

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Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against Miami

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Nebraska faces its first road test of the season and with new head coach Mike Riley in charge, traveling to Coral Gables to face the Miami Hurricanes. For Nebraska fans watching the game at 2:30 p.m. central time on ABC:

You’ll Be Happy If …

Tommy Continues His Progress. Coming into the season, this dope thought that Tommy Armstrong could be a weakness for Nebraska, given his struggles with completion percentages and interceptions. But in two games, Armstrong has a completion percentage of 63.4 percent and a 5/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Those are numbers good enough to win a divisional title, and compete for a conference title. And if Armstrong can keep those numbers up against the most talented team Nebraska has faced so far this season – and on the road for the first time as well – Nebraska will be in great shape.

Kaaya Gets Heated Up. Yes, Nebraska’s secondary has struggled mightily this year. But that comes in large part from Nebraska unable to generate a pass rush, especially with only its front four. That’s got to change if Nebraska is going to be successful against Miami. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is too talented and has too many weapons to be allowed time in the pocket.

So whether it’s Maliek Collins in the middle learning how to deal with double and triple teams, or defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun translating his athletic ability into quarterback pressure, the Blackshirts’ ability to put Kaaya on the ground will be critical for a Nebraska win.

Carter’s Return Is Triumphant. After a two-game suspension, tight end Cethan Carter returns to the lineup for Nebraska. That’s a big deal for a Nebraska squad already thin from injuries with Sam Cotton lost against BYU. Plus, even with Nebraska’s tight end squad fully healthy, Carter is by far the most dangerous offensive weapon of the bunch.

Miami hasn’t seen any tape of Carter in Riley’s offense, and Carter will have a point to prove after missing the first two games. Don’t be surprised if he ends up a huge factor in a Nebraska victory.

You’ll Be Sad If …

There’s A Banderas-sized Hole. Middle linebacker Josh Banderas has been struggling with injury all week, but is expected to play against Miami on Saturday (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star). That’s a big deal, as Nebraska has not yet been able to see its two most experienced linebackers – Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey – on the field at the same time.

But expected to play doesn’t necessarily mean fully healed. And if Banderas is limited, or has a setback and isn’t able to play at all, then Nebraska’s defense is significantly hampered against the most talented offense NU has faced all season.

The Yellow Emerges. Against BYU, Nebraska had 12 penalties for 90 yards, and it’s hard not to see that as a factor in NU’s razor-thin loss to the Cougars. Against South Alabama, Nebraska was better – but still not good – in penalties, drawing 7 flags for 80 yards.

This game already looks to be chippy, after a fiercely competitive matchup last year in Lincoln. But Nebraska can’t afford to give yardage away against Miami with a flurry of penalties. If the yellow comes out in large quantities for Nebraska, Miami has a huge advantage.

Golden Is, Well … Miami coach Al Golden has struggled to return the Hurricanes to glory. SB Nation posted an interview with Golden that discussed whether he was on the hot seat as a result of his relative underachievement.

Dave Bartoo of the CFB Matrix has developed an analytical tool to tell how much difference – positive or negative – a coach can make on a team’s success in what he calls the “Coach Effect.” Last year’s coach effect saw Riley (then at Oregon State) at no. 11 amongst power-five schools, and Golden at no. 41.

Those numbers suggest that, all things being equal, a Riley-coached team should beat a Golden-coached team. And Miami and Nebraska are pretty equal, talent-wise. But the game is in Miami, and if Golden is able to over-perform his coaching history, Nebraska is likely to struggle.

Investment Advice

Miami is a three-point favorite at home (according to Covers), suggesting that the gamblers view the two teams as nearly even. But Nebraska looks like it is building steam and starting to settle in to what Riley is asking for on offense and defense. And Golden’s coaching history does not inspire confidence. Take Nebraska and the points.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, Miami 28.

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: Why Cethan Carter Will Be Cornhuskers’ X-Factor in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the college football season truly is right around the corner, and are trying to prepare themselves. Amidst the barbecues and swimming pools, fans are combing through the roster for 2015 and trying to determine who (in addition to new head coach Mike Riley) they can look to as the reason why Nebraska will take the next step and contend for a Big Ten title.

One candidate for next year is tight end Cethan Carter. Here’s why.

We haven’t seen his best yet

Carter will be a junior in 2015, but his production in his first two years at Nebraska has been limited. As a true freshman in 2013, Carter played in all 13 games, having 10 catches for 127. Coming into his sophomore season, it was hoped that Carter would continue the momentum from his freshman campaign and become a difference-maker for Nebraska.

But a combination of injuries and offensive scheme blunted Carter’s impact. He played in only nine games, catching six passes for 98 yards. So while the potential is there for Carter, we certainly haven’t seen it translate to production on the field as of yet.

He’s got the talent to succeed

But look at what Carter did when he returned from injury last year. Four of his six receptions last year were in Nebraska’s last two games, for a total of 73 yards. Sure, no one is going to mistake that production for a scarlet and cream Rob Gronkowski, but those numbers suggest at least the possibility of things to come.

Coming out of high school, Carter was a three-star prospect (according to 247 Sports) who projected as a pass-catching tight end. His size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) and athletic ability make him the perfect matchup problem for opposing defenses, being too athletic to be covered by a linebacker and too big to be covered by a safety. If he can stay healthy, he should have the offensive structure around him to succeed.

He’s got the opportunity

Nebraska’s transition from Bo Pelini to Riley might benefit the tight ends more than any other offensive position. Under Pelini, offensive weapons at tight end would frequently evaporate from the game plan (otherwise known as the “Mike McNeil effect”). But according to Michael Bruntz of 247 Sports, tight ends under Riley are more of a focal point offensively.

Riley’s teams at Oregon State, according to Bruntz, tended to throw out of 12 personnel (meaning one running back and two tight ends) and other run-heavy formations. This spring, tight ends saw more work, including (gasp) tight end screens.  So Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seem primed to utilize the tight end in Nebraska’s new offense.

And the tight end is a natural fall-back for a quarterback learning a new offense. Tommy Armstrong struggles with accuracy to start with, and between those struggles and the new offensive scheme, it’s a natural fit for him to look to a player like Carter who tends to run more routes and presents size mismatches to make easier throws for the quarterback.

In the NFL, we’ve seen how a pass-catching tight end can transform an offense. Carter (along with incoming freshman Matt Snyder) have the body type and skill set to provide Nebraska with the possibilities to ask those questions of opposing defenses. Given the absence of such a threat in the past, look for Carter to get his opportunity in 2015.

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: 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 Cornhuskers’ Position Group’s 2015 Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have put 2015’s spring practice in the rear view mirror, settling in for a long summer of barbecues, baseball and an absence of football. So before we let spring practice go, let’s take a look back and see how Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley did this spring.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is one area where it’s very hard to get a read on where players stand. It does look like Alex Lewis has solidified his position at left tackle. Paul Thurston made a good case for himself at center with the injury to Ryne Reeves. And Chongo Kondolo looked like he made progress at tackle. But with injuries to Reeves and David Knevel, it’s hard to know just where the offensive line sits after spring practice.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska established that it has depth in the backfield. At quarterback, no one has jumped up and taken the job by the horns, although junior Tommy Armstrong still looks to be in pole position as a starter given his experience. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush seemed to be impressive in camp, but struggled in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman Zack Darlington had almost the opposite trajectory, although it did seem like he improved as spring practice wore on. While the depth is good, some down-grade has to be given for an absence of a starting quarterback that truly inspires confidence.

As for the running backs, the four scholarship players (Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon) all staked their claim for the position, along with walk-ons Graham Nabity and Jordan Nelson. Nebraska looks to be settling into a committee approach to I-back, keeping legs fresh and allowing players to be inserted to maximize their particular skill sets.

Grade: B

Receivers

The receiving corps took one of the biggest hits over the spring when junior tight end Cethan Carter was lost to injury. While Carter should be back in time for fall practice (according to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald), it prevented fans at the Spring Game from getting a good look at what could be a crucial cog in Nebraska’s offense.

There’s plenty of receiver news that was positive, though. Senior Jamal Turner looks ready to go after an injury-plagued career. Redshirt freshman Jariah Tolbert made an impact at the Spring Game, catching three balls for 55 yards and a touchdown, and looking to be a legitimate option in the passing game. Mainstays like Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El are still on track to be part of Riley’s new-look offense as well.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Nebraska’s defensive line might be the hardest to grade, simply because of the difference between the inside and outside of the line. At tackle, Nebraska might have the best tandem in the conference with Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins. But at end, big questions remain. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be the starters, but in terms of both depth and overall talent level defensive end remains one of Nebraska’s biggest uncertainties going into 2015.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Outside of the freshman class, Nebraska has five scholarship linebackers, including one (senior David Santos) who missed most of spring practice due to injury. Combine that with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme which tends to play three linebackers, and you put a lot of pressure on the few experienced players on the roster or on true freshman to contribute at a key position.

Junior Josh Banderas seems to be settling in for his second go-around as middle linebacker, while junior Michael Rose-Ivey is still working his way back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season. So coming out of spring practice, linebacker still has to be one of the big question mark areas for Nebraska

Grade: B-

Secondary

If depth is a theme for Nebraska’s roster, the secondary has it in spades. How deep? Well, LeRoy Alexander is returning from a year’s suspension, but is one of the most talented players on the roster. He was on the White Team roster for the Spring Game, and is not at all guaranteed to get his starting job back in 2015.

The same can be said for Daniel Davie, arguably Nebraska’s best cornerback last year. An injury has kept him out of practice this spring, and given the competition level at the position it is entirely plausible that he will not be a starter next season.

So while the depth chart itself is still being sorted out, Nebraska’s embarrassment of riches in the secondary qualifies as a “good problem” for Riley and his staff.

Grade: A

Special Teams

Half of Nebraska’s special teams looks to be dominant. Sam Foltz might be the best punter in the country, and his strength and accuracy (not to mention tackling acumen) was on display at the Spring Game. De’Mornay Pierson-El is a game-changer at punt returner and kick returner, giving Nebraska a huge advantage in field position.

But Nebraska’s placekicking position remains a question. Drew Brown and Mauro Bondi remain the scholarship kickers, and neither were standouts in 2014. Nebraska was a pedestrian no. 70 nationally in touchback percentage and no. 80 in field goal percentage, according to CFBStats.com.

So if you take two parts of special teams play that are elite at a national level, and two parts which are (at best) average, then a middling B grade seems about fair.

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: Final Spring Practice Stock Report

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As Nebraska football fans enter Spring Game Week, it’s time to take a final stock of how spring practice has gone under new head coach Mike Riley. Between a new coaching staff and a new split-schedule practice, Nebraska fans have had a lot of changes to adjust to this spring.

So as we prepare for this weekend’s Spring Game, here is a look at some winners and losers as spring practice for 2015 concludes.

Stock Up: Graham Nabity

Spring football frequently produces surprise stories. And when you combine an undecided position like I-back with a new coaching staff having no pre-conceived judgments about players on the roster, surprise moves are even more likely.

(In other words, as Douglas Adams would say, expect the unexpected).

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that junior walk-on Graham Nabity is getting outsized attention from Riley and the coaching staff. According to Robin Washut of HuskerOnline, Nabity’s consistency and performance has helped him to stand out, even from the four scholarship I-backs.

Take it for what it’s worth, of course. Two years ago, a smart and particularly handsome analyst mentioned Nabity but was talking up King Frazier as a player in the I-back depth chart. But at the very least, Nabity has an opportunity few would have expected coming into this season.

Stock Down: Cethan Carter

In what has been the worst injury news of the spring practice season, junior tight end Cethan Carter will miss the rest of spring practice with an injured foot. According to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, Carter should be recovered from surgery in time for fall practice.

Of course, it’s hard for Nebraska fans not to flash back to the last tight end who wore no. 11 for the scarlet and cream.  In 2004, Matt Herian looked like he was going to be a crucial part of Nebraska’s renaissance as a West Coast offensive powerhouse. But a leg injury against Missouri robbed him of the 2004 and 2005 season, and Herian was never the same player even after his rehabilitation.

At this point, it sounds like Carter’s injury is nowhere near as serious as Herian’s. Nebraska fans are certainly hopeful that is the case, particularly given what Carter can bring to Riley’s pro-style offense this fall.

Stock Up: Jamal Turner

If Carter is on the very front end of an injury, then Turner is on the back end of a number of them.  After getting a medical hardship for missing most of the 2014 season, Turner is ready to take advantage of his final year in Lincoln.

According to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Turner believes the coaching change will help his performance.

“I feel like the receivers are going to play a big part in the offense this year,” Turner said. “Before, we kind of did, like on third downs. I didn’t like that. Who wants to be a second option, you know?”

Stock Down: The Scrambled Eggs and Toast Crew

Nebraska fans love their traditions, and one that has spanned four decades looks to be a casualty of the new coaching regime. As discussed by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, the Big Red Breakfast looks to be a thing of the past. A combination of Nebraska’s radio rights moving away from KFAB and a decision by Riley to not make assistant coaches available for public speaking engagements during the season seems to have spelt the end to the breakfast meetings.

Sipple is probably right about the need for the breakfast meetings to continue, or at least that it would be good for them to do so. The people who attend those tend to be active boosters, the type that Riley will need on his side if he struggles early in his career at Nebraska. If nothing else than for self-preservation, finding a way to continue the breakfast tradition might be a smart call for Riley early in his Nebraska career.

Nebraska Football: Who Has A Starting Role Locked Up?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been watching spring practice closely, looking for clues as to what the team will look like under new head coach Mike Riley. And while there are many more uncertainties this year, given new offensive and defensive schemes, we still have a good idea of at least a few starters for next season. Here are four players who are likely to be on the depth chart next August.

Jordan Westerkamp

Wide receiver is a tricky position to handicap for Nebraska, as there are a number of talented veterans returning in 2015. De’Mornay Pierson-El is easily Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon, but his size means his use will likely be limited on offense. He will play, most certainly, but will likely only be seen in particular packages.

Jamal Turner is another talented veteran who will very likely see the field in 2015. But even though all reports are positive, we still don’t know if he has fully recovered from the injury that cost him the bulk of last season. So it’s hard to call Turner a certain starter until we know his health status.

As a result, Westerkamp is the only veteran receiver that looks set to step into the role of starter for Nebraska. He leads all returning receivers in receptions (according to CFBStats.com), and has a history of spectacular and dramatic catches. So while there are a lot of mouths to feed in Nebraska’s receiving corps, it looks like Westerkamp will be first in line.

Cethan Carter

The only other pass-catcher that seems certain for the field is Carter, Nebraska’s most experience pass-catching tight end. Under previous head coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska had a maddening habit of ignoring its tight end for long stretches (call it the Mike McNeil effect).

But Riley likes to put the ball in the air, and likes to utilize an “H-back” by putting a receiver or tight end into the backfield. Carter would be a perfect fit for the H-back role, giving him more opportunities to see the field.

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine

It’s a little strange to think of the rest of Nebraska’s roster as being in flux, and yet having the defensive tackle position clearly locked down. But given the performance of Collins and Valentine in spring practice, that’s exactly what has happened.

Both Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star have observed how Collins and Valentine have been dominating the offensive line all throughout spring practice. So wherever else Nebraska may have questions, defensive tackle is not one of them.

Nate Gerry

Nebraska is loaded with talent in the secondary, so almost all of the starting back four should have intense competition. At corner, there is a possibility of Nebraska being three deep with players that could start with a less-crowded secondary.

But Gerry looks to be the one certainty at safety. His play last year, after moving from linebacker after his freshman year, cemented his place as Nebraska’s most consistent defensive back. Look for him to be the one starter we know at this point in Nebraska’s talented backfield.

Nebraska Football: Three Cornhuskers Who Could Surprise People This Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen the calendar turn to March, and are looking at the roster to see who might be the stars of 2015. The arrival of new head coach Mike Riley makes it hard to look at anyone as a guaranteed starter, although there are some players that fans can be pretty sure will have big roles.

But here are three players who Nebraska fans might not have at the top of their minds, but who could make a huge name for themselves this spring.

Jamal Turner

Over the last few years, few Cornhuskers have offered—and failed to deliver—more than Turner. After converting from quarterback before his freshman year, Turner held out the promise of an electric, game-changing receiver.

But that promise never materialized. Turner struggled to learn the position in his freshman and sophomore year. And seemingly every time it looked like things were turning around for Turner, injuries derailed his progress.

Now, with a medical hardship year, and with Riley’s history of producing wide receivers, Turner has the chance to finally claim the glory that has eluded him throughout his career in Lincoln.

Charles Jackson

Last year, it looked like everything was ready to come together for Jackson. A freak athlete, Jackson looked like he had finally shown enough discipline and gained the coaches’ trust. He looked set to be the starting nickel back and make his mark on the Blackshirts.

Then an injury in spring practice cost him the 2014 season.

Now, with his rehab completed, Jackson is ready to compete in a crowded defensive secondary for a starting job. Whether he ends up at safety, corner, or nickel back, Jackson has the chance to finally make his mark.

Cethan Carter

If there’s any position group that looks to benefit from Nebraska’s coaching change, it’s the tight ends. Under Bo Pelini, talented offensive tight ends like Mike McNeil, Kyler Reed, and Carter were left to wither on the vine. No tight end has notched more than 442 receiving yards for Nebraska since McNeil in 2008.

Of course, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense will look like next year under Riley. But Breakdown Sports does a great job of describing how the tight end has been important in Riley’s offense in the past. Take a look at how the tight end usage between Nebraska and Riley’s Oregon State compare:

Year Rec – NU Rec – OSU Diff. Yards – NU Yards – OSU Diff. TD – NU TD – OSU Diff.
2010 45 37 8 803 451 352 9 7 2
2011 29 43 -14 446 334 112 1 3 -2
2012 48 52 -4 651 558 93 5 4 1
2013 22 91 -69 279 924 -645 1 11 -10
2014 10 55 -45 145 582 -437 3 3 0

 

Pay attention to the differential. In each of the three statistical categories, the differential goes from being in Nebraska’s favor in 2010 to being decidedly in Oregon State’s favor by 2014. It’s fair to expect Riley’s arrival should help Nebraska’s tight end production—and that should mean a huge opportunity for Carter.