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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

I-Back

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive End

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

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

Linebacker

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

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

Secondary

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

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

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Nebraska Football: Five Former Top Recruits Who Will Finally Shine in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are not alone in feeling burned by the recruiting process. After spending months getting excited about four- and five-star prospects arriving, fans have to wait—sometimes for years—before those prospects actually produce something on the field.

A new season, and a new head coach in Mike Riley, is on the horizon. So let’s take a look back at Nebraska’s recent recruiting history and see which highly-touted recruits might get their chance to come good for NU.

Star and composite rankings from 247 Sports.

Jamal Turner

Class of 2011, four-star, .9658 composite.

In 2011, Turner showed up in Lincoln intending to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback position. When that didn’t work out, Turner moved to wide receiver. Between struggles with learning the position and recurring injuries, Turner’s career at Nebraska has never caught fire.

But being given an extra year’s eligibility through a medical hardship gives Turner a new lease on life. Turner will likely be a starting wide receiver along with Jordan Westerkamp (more of a possession receiver) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (whose slight frame should limit his usage). This provides a huge opportunity for Turner to make a big impact in his swan-song season.

Charles Jackson

Class of 2011, four-star, .9605 composite

Much like Turner, Jackson’s career in Lincoln has been a struggle with injuries. In August of 2014, when he was in line to be Nebraska’s starting nickel back, Jackson suffered a knee injury that cost him the entirety of the season.

His misfortunes with injuries have continued into 2015, with another knee injury keeping him out of spring practice. But according to John Taylor of NBC Sports, this time around the injury isn’t as serious and Jackson should be at full strength coming into fall camp.

Jackson will be competing in a crowded and talented backfield for playing time. But he’s also a freakish athlete who will have every opportunity to earn his moment in the sun.

Paul Thurston

Class of 2012, four-star, .9357 composite

It’s not unusual for offensive linemen to take time before they are ready to produce at a collegiate level. Indeed, it’s the rare player who is able to contribute in the trenches as an underclassman. But Thurston looks ready, after seeing limited time as a backup last season, to press for the starting job at center in 2015.

With a line that will be looking for experience after losing starters at both guard positions, having Thurston emerge and produce at center would be a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in 2015.

Josh Banderas

Class of 2012, four-star, .9053 composite

When Riley was hired, much was made of Banderas’ status with the Nebraska program. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald discussed how Banderas was close to leaving the program after being “jerked around” by former head coach Bo Pelini’s staff.  Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star wrote about Banderas being “mismanaged” by Pelini.

Given that track record, a new coaching staff would be reason enough to be optimistic about Banderas’ prospects in 2015. But when you combine that with a thin linebacking corps (Nebraska in 2015 will have five scholarship linebackers who are not true freshmen) and a quarters defensive scheme from new coordinator Mark Banker that focuses on three linebackers on the field, and Banderas’ opportunity next season becomes apparent.

Terrell Newby

Class of 2013, four-star, .9404 composite

Newby has always been a tantalizing talent for Nebraska fans. He was a higher-rated prospect than Randy Gregory (according to 247 Sports), and has flashed the kind of game-breaking speed that could make him a dominant threat at I-back.

But Newby’s performance hasn’t matched that promise. A big part of that is being behind Ameer Abdullah in Nebraska’s backfield, of course. Newby has averaged just 4.65 carries per game, and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

This year, though, Abdullah is gone and Newby looks primed to win the starting I-back job (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst). While Newby will have a crowded backfield competing with him for playing time, 2015 looks to be his year to shine.

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: 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.

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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