Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Pro Prospects on the Cornhuskers

DSC00045

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans, still smarting from seeing Melvin Gordon score again (and again, and again) on the Blackshirts, are looking for anything to distract them from Saturday’s debacle. One exercise is to take a look at Nebraska’s roster and think about who the best NFL prospects are in scarlet and cream.

Judging NFL prospects has some subjectivity to it, of course, particularly when you look at younger kids who have not had an opportunity to see the field. Sometimes experience and what you have seen on film can rule the day, while other times raw potential can make a player an exciting prospect.

So, trying to balance all of those considerations, here are Nebraska’s five best pro prospects.

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

No. 5: Kenny Bell (WR, senior)

Even as the school’s record-holder for touchdown receptions, Bell has been far from a dominant force in Nebraska’s offense this year. Much of that, however, stems from the run-heavy nature of Nebraska’s offensive scheme combined with quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s inefficiencies (which is the nicest possible way to say it) as a passer.

At the next level, though, Bell has the speed and hands to get drafted. He is currently projected as a fifth-round selection in next year’s draft. His desire and competitiveness—demonstrated by his ferocious devotion to blocking, if nothing else—should help him stick on an NFL roster next season.

No. 4: Vincent Valentine (DT, sophomore)

Valentine’s status on this list is a little bit of a projection, but there is plenty on which to base that speculation. For starters, his size (six-foot-two, 320 pounds) give him an idea frame as a run-stuffing defensive tackle. And this year, in his first full season as a starter, Valentine’s talent and athleticism have started to show through.

Placing him this high on the list, of course, is having faith that his skill level will continue to increase until the 2017 NFL Draft. But given his physical makeup and the improvement we’ve seen thus far, it’s a leap worth taking.

No. 3: Greg Hart (TE, redshirt freshman)

If Valentine’s inclusion on this list is a leap of faith, then including Hart on the list is a blindfolded jump off of a bridge. But there are reasons why such a jump might be worth it.

First of all, a big pass-catching tight end can be a game-changer for an NFL offense. Players like Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots and Jimmy Graham for the Saints have demonstrated how those types of players (and the matchup nightmares they create for opposing defenses) can change the entire construct of an offense.

Yes, Nebraska already has one of those on its roster in Cethan Carter. And Carter is certainly a talent, although injuries, offensive design, and poor quarterback performance have limited his contributions.

But Hart is an inch taller, and has a 40-yard-dash time almost a full tenth of a second faster than Carter. Obviously, we haven’t seen Hart on the field much. But we’ve seen precious little of Carter (much to the chagrin of Nebraska fans), so there’s a lot of speculation as to both players as to what they will look like as finished products.

So in guessing between the two, I’m going to lean on the player with the better measurables.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah (IB, senior)

Does it seem that long ago when Abdullah was considered a Heisman candidate and looked to be establishing something special in his senior campaign? After an injury against Purdue, combined with Nebraska’s humiliation at the hands of Wisconsin, Abdullah’s performances seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

But Abdullah is still a remarkable talent, with balance, speed, and deceptive power combined with a low center of gravity that should make him an interesting prospect at the next level. Currently viewed as a second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Abdullah should hear his name called on the draft’s second day and factor heavily into an NFL squad’s future plans.

No. 1: Randy Gregory (DE, junior)

One of the very few silver linings of Nebraska’s evisceration at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday was the fleeting thought that it looked so bad it might convince Gregory to stick around for his senior campaign. After all, the wishful thinking goes, the defense looked so bad that it might hurt Gregory’s stock with NFL clubs.

Fat chance. Not only is Gregory a first-round projections, many analysts see him going in the first few picks of the draft. Given his combination of size, speed, length, and instinct, it’s not hard to see how he draws comparisons to Jadaveon Clowney and Javon Kearse (according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com). Gregory looks to be the highest-picked Nebraska player since Ndamukong Suh went no. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions in 2010.

Which makes Saturday’s defensive embarrassment against Wisconsin all the sadder for Nebraska fans, as it likely is a waste of Gregory’s remarkable talents in scarlet and cream.

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

DSC00027

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans well remember the Huskers’ last trip to Madison, which resulted in a 48-17 shellacking at the hands of the Badgers. So as they prepare for the return trip (and with echoes of Wisconsin’s 70-31 humiliation of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championships still ringing in their ears), Nebraska fans will be looking for how NU can win on Saturday and stay on track for a return trip to Indianapolis.

Here are three X-factors fans should  be looking for to key a Nebraska victory on Saturday.

Ameer Abdullah

According to Steven Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said that he “anticipates” I-back Ameer Abdullah to play against Wisconsin, but said that he did not practice with the team during the week. That’s far less definitive than Pelini was earlier, when he said he anticipated Abdullah to be close to 100 percent for the Wisconsin game.

So what does that mean? The likelihood is that Abdullah is going to be limited by the knee injury that kept him out of the game against Purdue two weeks ago. How limited? That’s the big question. If he is significantly limited, then we saw a glimpse of what Nebraska’s offense looks like sans Abdullah.

If he is able to provide something close to full fitness, though (or if Pelini is playing games with Wisconsin head coach Gary Anderson), then Abdullah has the chance to be the difference in the game on Saturday.

Cethan Carter

Pelini has been optimistic that tight end Cethan Carter would be back for the Wisconsin game, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star. Even though his contributions offensively have been sparse (two catches for 25 yards and one touchdown), Carter’s presence provides Nebraska with a downfield threat that no other tight end on the roster can give.

Carter’s absence (along with the injury to Kenny Bell early in the first quarter) may have been a big part of Nebraska’s offensive struggles against Michigan State. If Carter is back, Nebraska may have an unexpected weapon added to its arsenal as it travels to Madison.

Tim Beck

Against Purdue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he made the same mistake he made against Michigan State by overloading and over-complicating the offensive game plan. Nebraska’s offense has demonstrated the ability to be very effective against elite-level athletes, putting up 41 points and 456 yards against Miami.

Wisconsin’s defense is no. 5 nationally in rush defense and no. 3 nationally in pass defense. If Nebraska is going to beat the Badgers in Madison, Beck’s game plan and preparation will have to be top notch to get NU over the hump and stay on top of the B1G West.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

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

DSC09539

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.

Five Bold Predictions for Nebraska’s 2014 Season

DSC05548

photo and story by Patrick Runge

The long wait is over, and Nebraska’s 2014 season is about to begin. As Nebraska prepares to face Florida Atlantic for this year’s lid-lifter, it’s time to get crazy and think about what might happen as the season unfolds. So here are five bold, but mostly plausible bold predictions for the upcoming campaign.

(Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from cfbstats.com)

Randy Gregory breaks Nebraska’s sack record

Nebraska’s current sack record for a season is 15, held jointly by Jim Skow (from 1985) and Trev Alberts (from 1993). Last year, Gregory had 9.5 sacks in 13 games. But that was with Gregory arriving in Lincoln just before camp started, having almost no time to learn a new system, and less than a year off of a horrific injury.

The numbers show that it took a little while for Gregory to get into the swing of things. Nine of his 9.5 sacks last year came in the last eight games of the 2013 season (including the Gator Bowl). Assuming that Gregory is able to start strong in 2014 and have the benefit of a full offseason’s work in the training room and with the playbook, a sixteen-plus sack season is not at all unlikely.

Nebraska goes to East Lansing and wins

Everyone loves Michigan State. Especially with the season-ending injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, the Spartans have now become the consensus pick to win the Big Ten (as evidenced by a re-vote of B1G media reported by Cleveland.com).

But Nebraska has enjoyed particularly good success against Sparty since joining the B1G. Nebraska registered a comfortable win against Michigan State in Lincoln three years ago, and won a nailbiter in East Lansing the following year.

Yes, the Spartans beat Nebraska 41-24 in Lincoln last year. But in that game, Nebraska was minus-five in turnovers, and provided Michigan State with countless short fields to score. Absent the turnovers, Nebraska was at least the equal of Michigan State on the field.

Look for Nebraska to get what is likely to be considered an upset win over the defending B1G champion.

Kickers will cost Nebraska an otherwise-winnable game

Nebraska fans were not happy at the end of an 8-4 campaign last year. How much worse would it have been, though, if Nebraska ended 2013 at 7-5 instead of 8-4? Would head coach Bo Pelini, who barely kept his job at 8-4, have survived with a 7-5 mark?

Well, you can thank a reliable kicker for getting Nebraska to 8-4 last year. In between the Michigan State and Iowa games was an overtime win over Penn State on the road, where transfer kicker Pat Smith had to hit a clutch field goal twice (due to a penalty on Nebraska) to seal the victory.

This year, Nebraska’s placekicking battle is between junior Mauro Bondi, who has never inspired enough confidence from the coaches to give him the job outright, and true freshman Drew Brown. And long-snapper Gabe Miller has been out the entire fall camp with injury (although is working hard at a comeback, according to Mike Schaefer of 247 Sports.)

Nebraska has been living on the edge for some time, going 9-1 in games decided by three points or less. With questions in the kicking game, this is the year those numbers bite Nebraska.

Cethan Carter will have at least 10 touchdown receptions

I’ve made references before to Nebraska’s coaches falling victim to “Mike McNeil syndrome,” where a talented and dangerous tight end emerges, and then quickly evaporates from the offense. It happened with McNeil, and with Kyler Reed the year after his eight-touchdown performance in 2010.

Sophomore tight end Cethan Carter looks to have as much, if not more, athletic ability than McNeil and Reed. Couple that with a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong still looking to find his feet as a passer, and an expansion of Carter’s role (especially taking advantage of mismatches in either size or speed, depending on the defensive matchup) looks to be on the cards.

We know that Nebraska’s offense can generate an eight-touchdown season from a tight end. Carter looks to be the type of talent that could break out and snag ten this year.

Zaire Anderson will lead the team in tackles

It’s not a stretch to think that a linebacker will lead the team in tackles. In the last five years, a linebacker has been either first or second in tackles on the team.

And this year looks like Anderson’s time to shine. As a senior amongst a group of almost entirely underclassmen, Anderson will be the most experience linebacker of the crew likely to see playing time. And according to Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity, Anderson could be a “surprise” in blitz packages.

Last year, 36 of Anderson’s 52 tackles came in the second half of the season and the bowl game. Look for him to continue the strong finish to the season he showed last year.

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

DSC05465

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.

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

Or you can use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

Nebraska Football: 5 Cornhuskers Primed for Breakout Seasons

IMG_2110

photo and stories by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will be anxiously watching the 2014 season to see which players will become breakout stars. It’s the breakout stars, not the proven commodities, that can help propel a team like Nebraska from almost-there to contending for conference and national titles.

So who are the Cornhuskers primed for a breakout season? Here are five candidates.

Terrell Newby

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has already tapped Newby as Nebraska’s x-factor for the 2014 season. It’s not hard to see why, given his ability to score every time he touches the ball, and given the trust he’s already earned from the coaches given his playing time last year as a true freshman.

Ameer Abdullah is the undisputed leader of Nebraska’s offense, and Imani Cross is a capable backup and change-of-pace back. But Newby should still get his chance to shine, both on offense and on special teams. If he takes advantage of those opportunities, he could be—well, could be the x-factor for Nebraska’s offense.

Vincent Valentine

Valentine has always had the size (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) to excel as an interior defensive lineman. But towards the end of his freshman campaign last year, Valentine began to show flashes of talent and understanding that could make him a true anchor for Nebraska’s defensive line.

With the size of a true nose tackle, Valentine gives Nebraska the option to run a three-man front and put more pass-rushing specialists on the field. While that might not show up on the stat sheet, Valentine could end up giving the Blackshirts a flexibility to attack opposing offenses not seen in some time.

Cethan Carter

For some reason, Nebraska under Bo Pelini sems hell-bent to ignore talented offensively-minded tight ends. From Mike McNeil to Kyler Reed, Nebraska has discovered true mismatch weapons at tight end—then proceeded to let them wither on the vine.

Nebraska has another opportunity with Cethan Carter, who has the size, speed, and athleticism to be the kind of weapon for NU that Rob Gronkowski is for the New England Patriots. At some point, Nebraska’s coaching staff has to take advantage of an offensive-minded tight end like Carter—right?

Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s linebacker corps is a mess, but in a good way. So much of Nebraska’s linebacker talent is young, and has yet to truly seize a starting job and a position on the field. Michael Rose may be an exception at MIKE, but other than that the depth chart is pretty fluid.

The exception other than Rose, of course, is Anderson.  As a senior with three years in the program, Anderson should have the experience to help him excel. And if 2014 can keep him free from injuries that have derailed his previous two campaigns, Anderson has the talent to become the true star of Nebraska’s linebacker corps.

Nathan Gerry

Last year, Gerry was able to earn playing time as a true freshman at linebacker. But his size (six-foot-two, 205 pounds) and lack of experience led him to struggle and ultimately lose his playing time.

This year, he has moved from linebacker to safety, a position his size and speed more naturally fit. Opposite Corey Cooper there is a safety spot open to be won, and Gerry has every opportunity to win the job and earn a Black Shirt.