Nebraska Football: What to Watch For at the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will conclude Spring Practice with the annual Red-White Spring Game. Of course, it’s not exactly a game, more the final practice of the season with 90,000 fans watching. So everything about the Spring Game should be taken with that particular grain of salt in mind.

Of course, the most important thing to watch for on Saturday is simply this – we get to see Nebraska football again. We haven’t seen Nebraska football since Black Friday in Iowa City, so getting this fix will help tide us all over until it’s South Alabama week.

But there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch head coach Scott Frost run his second Spring Game at Nebraska.

Standout Freshmen

One of the most exciting parts about the Spring Game is the chance to see the early-enrollee freshman on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, of course, is the crowning jewel of these freshmen, although injuries may limit what he’s able to accomplish on Saturday. Receiver Jaime Nance and tight end Chris Hickman could also provide a view of what’s to come for Nebraska as additional offensive weapons. And Nebraska fans could be very excited to see a glimpse of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and if nothing else have some faith that Nebraska’s offense won’t fall off a cliff if something happens to Adrian Martinez.

A Number One in the Making?

Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is the only real certainty coming back at wide receiver for Nebraska. After that, there’s a whole bunch of questions. And Spielman, while a dangerous receiver, doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to be a true number one receiver, with the body size and type to absorb that level of completions

So who on the spring roster could make a move for that position? According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said that Andre Hunt has been continuing to improve. Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams never really grabbed their opportunity last year. Jaevon McQuitty should have his first real opportunity this year after injury.  Kade Warner got plenty of playing time last year, but would need to show he’s got the skill set to step up into that expanded role.

Running Back Opportunity

One of Nebraska’s biggest question marks next year will be at running back. Maurice Washington is clearly the best returning back, but the uncertainty regarding his legal situation in California leaves his ability to contribute next season in doubt. In the fall, Nebraska should have transfer Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to compete for playing time.

That means this spring will be critical for sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley, along with redshirt freshman Brody Belt and senior Wyatt Mazour, to make their mark. Keep your eye on these players to see if they will be able to stake a claim for a spot on the depth chart once the running back room fills up this fall.

Offensive Line Composition

It might not be easy to get a handle on what the starting offensive lineup is looking to be, in part because the depth chart is still in flux, according to Hail Varsity. Competition for center should be one of the most fascinating, to see if Cameron Jurgens can complete his transition from tight end (!) to center. Walkons Hunter Miller and Trent Hixson look like they have real shots to earn playing time. Brendan Jaimes should be locked in at tackle, but it will be interesting to see if Matt Farniok can stick at the other tackle spot, or ultimately move inside once freshman phenom Bryce Benhart arrives this fall.

Second Season Chances

Either through injury or getting buried on the depth chart, there’s a number of players who didn’t meet their potential in their first year in Lincoln last year. 2019 provides a fresh start and, for many of them, a second chance to make their mark on the program.

Redshirt freshman Miles Jones, with his combination of speed and elusiveness, looked tailor made to play in Frost’s offense, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. Same for junior middle linebacker Will Honas, who was thought to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s transition last season, but was sidelined by injury. When sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Ole Miss, it was hard not to be excited about a player with SEC speed being added to the depth chart. Dixon was never able to find much in the way of playing time last year, though, and 2019 should give him a chance to be the answer to Nebraska’s pass rush problems.

Keep your eye on these three and whether they are able to lay a claim to playing time this fall.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ 3 Most Underrated Recruits of 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been watching the 2015 class take shape as National Signing Day on February 4 approaches. Currently, the class sits at 14, and is ranked no. 36 nationally and no. 5 in the Big Ten by 247 Sports. New Nebraska head coach Mike Riley will be working hard to make up those numbers before National Signing Day.

While the ranking is alarmingly low, the small number of commits (no school ahead of Nebraska has fewer than 16) should help boost the number by the end of the process. But what shouldn’t be lost in the worry about the overall ranking is the quality of prospects already in the class. Here are three that haven’t received the attention they deserve.

All measurables and rankings from 247 Sports

Daishon Neal (Defensive End, 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, three-star, 89 composite)

It might not be entirely fair to list Neal here, as there has been much real and virtual ink spilled about Neal’s flirting with other programs (such as this article from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald discussing Michigan’s overtures to Neal).

But it’s big news for a reason. Check out this Scholarship Distribution Chart done by the Omaha World-Herald, a phenomenal resource you should have bookmarked. After 2015, Nebraska will only have three (!) scholarship defensive ends. Other than Neal, Nebraska only has one other defensive end commit in Carlos Davis (three-star, 89 composite), so a second defensive end commit is a must-have for NU to fill out its class.

The down-to-the-wire chasing of recruits happens every year, but given Nebraska’s lack of depth at the position and how slim the pickings are if Neal de-commits, it’s almost hard to over-state the importance of Neil for this class.

Jalin Barnett (Offensive Guard, 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, four-star, 92 composite)

Why is the second-highest rated prospect in Nebraska’s 2015 class consider underrated? Well, it’s not because we don’t know about his skills and how he projects at the next level.

What’s underrated about Barrett, at least to this point, is when he was signed. Barrett wasn’t a Bo Pelini recruit that Riley has held onto. Barrett signed for Riley, not for Pelini, a sign that the man from Corvalis, Oregon, is able to convince top-flight talent to come to Lincoln.

Whether a flow of four-stars to Lincoln under Riley will continue is a question that will be answered in part this February, and in more detail with next year’s class. But the fact that Riley was able to land one so quickly after taking charge bodes well for his future.

Stanley Morgan (Wide Receiver, 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, three-star, 87 composite)

Nebraska’s senior-laden defensive end class has been well documents, but less attention has been paid to thirty percent of NU’s scholarship wide receivers being seniors in 2015. After this year, though, Nebraska will be down to seven scholarship wide receivers, two of them (Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly) having a history of injuries.

Which makes having just one wide receiver in the 2015 class (at least to this point) a bit of a gamble. Morgan looks to be a good addition to Nebraska’s wide receiving corps, with the potential to fight for playing time right away. But given Nebraska’s impending lack of depth at wide receiver, coupled with a likely shift to more of a passing attack under Riley, Morgan’s addition to the class becomes incredibly important.

Nebraska Football: Who Will Be The Huskers’ Starting Quarterback in 2015?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans looking forward to the 2015 season will have one question on their minds over almost all others: who will be the starting quarterback?

There are five candidates on the roster as we speak. Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent, having started 21 games over the last two years. Waiting in the wings are Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, and Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush, who redshirted last year.

Of course, it’s a big guessing game at this point as to who will win the job, as we don’t know what type of offense new head coach Mike Riley will be playing. We also don’t know how each of the quarterback prospects will perform this spring or this fall.

But based on what we know now, we can at least make some educated guesses as to where the quarterbacks currently on the roster stand.

Tommy Armstrong

As the incumbent starter, Armstrong has to open as the favorite to win the job in 2015. And there’s a lot of reasons to like Armstrong. He’s 16-5 as a starter. He’s led Nebraska on gutty comeback performances, either in victory (Iowa) or close defeat (Michigan State, USC). He’s a leader on the field who commands respect from his team-mates.

But there are also reasons to question whether Armstrong will be the guy who gets the nod next year. He has a 52.9 percent career completion rate, which is simply not good enough to win a conference title. As thrilling as the comeback against USC in the Holiday Bowl was, don’t forget that the Trojans also dropped a host of interceptions that would have put the game truly out of reach at halftime.

That’s not to say Armstrong can’t get better, particularly with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator who are both skilled in working with quarterbacks. Given his experience, Armstrong is still the clear favorite to win the job next year.

But given the new staff coming in and looking at things with fresh eyes and installing a new offensive system, it’s a lot closer than it would be otherwise.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 50 percent.

Johnny Stanton

If there’s anyone that has benefited from the transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley, it’s Stanton. Until the very end of last year, Stanton was unable to even win the backup job, ceding that role to walk-on Ryker Fyfe. But the Elite-11 prospect has the kind of underlying skills that made Riley want him very badly at Oregon State, meaning Riley arrived in Lincoln aware of his skills.

If Stanton couldn’t see the field last year because he struggled picking up Tim Beck’s system, then a change in offensive coordinators gives him a fresh start. And given his unquestioned physical talents, that might be enough to create some real drama this spring.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 25 percent

Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe looked to be playing the role of Joe Ganz from a few years earlier, being the plucky kid who worked hard in the shadow of much higher-regarded quarterback prospects until he got his chance to shine. When Armstrong was injured against Michigan State, it was Fyfe who got the nod and led Nebraska to a score to keep the game competitive.

But with a new staff and a new system coming in, Fyfe will be starting from scratch, much like all of the other quarterback prospects. That means the same hurdles he needed to clear last year will be facing him again. That’s not to say he can’t be successful. It’s just a lot more difficult for him.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 5 percent

Zack Darlington

Darlington has been lost in the shuffle a bit, in part because of his redshirt and in part because his concussion history had many wondering if he would be able to play quarterback at all for Nebraska. But he’s still here, with the same three-star dual-threat quarterback pedigree (according to 247 Sports) that made him a target for schools like Ohio State, Arizona, and Mississippi State.

He’s also a coach’s son, which would tend to suggest he might have a leg up in terms of picking up a new system and understanding the game as a whole. Maybe he’s not as flashy as some of the other signal-callers on Nebraska’s roster, but Darlington might be a bit of a sleeper.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

A.J. Bush

If Darlington is the sleeper pick, Bush is the trendy redshirt to back for next season. During bowl preparation, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “intriguing” and praised his athleticism and work ethic in preparation for the Holiday Bowl (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

Hearing the praise about Bush’s work ethic certainly would have to bode well for his chances to make a splash with Nebraska’s new coaches. Combine that with his physical skills, and he should have a fighting chance to make an impression.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

Nebraska Football: Reasonable Goals for Huskers’ Offseason

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are now officially settled in for a long offseason, and the first step of any offseason is to define some goals. Sure, winning a national title in 2015 would be awesome, but Nebraska’s odds of doing so are pretty remote.

So what are some realistic goals new head coach Mike Riley can accomplish before the 2015 season starts? Here are three baseline goals that will go a long way towards building a foundation for Riley in Lincoln.

Recruit Strong

In the brief few weeks since Riley arrived in Lincoln, his job got a lot more complicated. Ohio State won the national championship, demonstrating (if you didn’t realize it already) that the Buckeyes have a talent pool that can compete with anyone in the country. Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, who has won big every place he has gone and looks to take the Wolverines’ top-ten recruiting classes and have them competing with That School Down South in a hurry. Add into the mix Penn State, with a top-flight recruiter in James Franklin, being freed from the Sandusky-era sanctions and a Michigan State squad that has lived in the top ten for the last few years, and you can see the B1G isn’t quite the cakewalk it seemed to be.

That said, Riley landed four-star offensive guard Jalin Barrett this week, the highest-ranked recruit of the 2015 class. Nebraska’s class, according to 247 Sports, sits at no. 27 nationally and no. 3 in the B1G. With a small class and a short recruiting period, a gaudy recruiting ranking for Nebraska is unlikely.

But if Nebraska could at least crack the top 25 with its 2015 class, it would be a promising sign going forward.

Get To Know the Roster

Yes, that goal sounds quite banal and obvious. But it’s also one of the biggest and most important things Riley and his staff will be doing this offseason. Riley was known as running a pro-style offense at Oregon State, and many were fearful upon hearing of his hire that he would attempt to take Nebraska’s squar-peg roster of zone read players and force it into the round hole of a pro-style offense.

New offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seemed to quell those fears (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald).

“We haven’t necessarily been a huge zone-read team (at Oregon State), more because we haven’t had necessarily the right person to do that,” Langsdorf said. “I think here, it looks like there’s a little bit more possibility of that. So we’ll definitely look at that and consider more with who we have.”

It’s fair to assume that Nebraska’s defense will have the same adjustment, even with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s preference for quarters coverage. Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity has an excellent summary of the similarities and differences between what look to be Banker’s philosophies and what Bo Pelini did on defense.

But that means Riley and his staff will have to very quickly get a handle on the strengths and weaknesses of Nebraska’s current roster, so it can start making offensive and defensive plans accordingly.

Choose a Quarterback

Goal number three comes right on the heels of goal number two, of course. One of the biggest decisions that Riley and his staff will be making this offseason is about the nature of Nebraska’s offense. And what that offense will look like should inform the skill-set of the quarterback that wins the starting job.

But it might not be that simple. With a new staff arriving, the door will be more open than ever for a new person to win the starting quarterback job. As the coaches look at all five quarterbacks on the roster (Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fife, Johnny Stanton, Zack Darlington, and AJ Bush), they will be able to assess each of their skills and sculpt an offensive philosophy around the one that they believe gives Nebraska the best chance to succeed in 2015.

So deciding on a starting quarterback not only will be a roster decision, but will also likely be an indicator of what Nebraska’s offensive identity will be next season.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Redshirt Freshmen for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have long memories, long enough to remember the recruiting hype for the freshmen who redshirted last year and have extended their careers in Lincoln as a result. Of course, there is no real data available to make any kind of informed analysis of where the redshirt freshmen stand.

Having said that, we do have recruiting rankings available, to give at least some idea of a player’s potential. We can also look at the opportunities available to the players, either from roster attrition, a new coaching staff, or both, and make some informed projections about how these players may fit in next season.

All ratings from 247 Sports.

No. 5: Mick Stoltenberg (DT)

Stoltenberg was a three-star recruit (.8296 composite) coming out of high school, and plays a position that should see a lot of competition prior to the 2015 season. With Randy Gregory declaring for the NFL draft, Greg McMullen looks to be the only sure-fire starter returning for Nebraska.

Stoltenberg will be competing with Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, and A.J. Natter, all who saw playing time last season.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun (TE)

Let’s agree at the start that guessing what new head coach Mike Riley’s offense will look like in 2015 is a fool’s errand. Having said that, given Riley’s history and the fact that his new offensive coordinator is a quarterback coach, it’s a fair conclusion that Nebraska will lean more on the passing game than it did under Bo Pelini.

And if we take past as prologue, we see that the tight end in Oregon State’s offense in the last three years has been either third or fourth in receptions. Compare that to Nebraska’s offense over the same time period, where the tight end has only been fourth one year (Kyler Reed in 2012) and sixth every other year.

In 2015, Nebraska will have a dangerous receiving threat at tight end returning in Cethan Carter. But Akinmoladun looks to be cut from the same mold as Carter, and should have a chance to shine.

No. 3: A.J. Bush (QB)

Bush might be the biggest wild card of all Nebraska’s redshirt freshman. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense is going to look like next year, so it’s hard to guess what skill set the next NU quarterback will need. Tommy Armstrong has off-the-chart intangibles and nearly two years of starting experience under his belt. Johnny Stanton was recruited by Riley at Oregon State, so there’s no question Riley likes what Stanton has to offer.

And yet Bush’s name keeps coming up, even over Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Darlington. During preparation for this year’s Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “an intriguing guy” (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

With a new coaching staff coming in, all the quarterbacks will be starting with a clean slate. That may give this “intriguing guy” a chance to make an impression and work his way up the depth chart next season.

No. 2: Mikale Wilbon (RB)

The graduation of Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge hole at Nebraska’s I-back position. Returners Imani Cross and Terrell Newby certainly have the advantage of game experience. But that experience has also shown some of the weaknesses in both of their games.

Adam Taylor, if he is able to bounce back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season, looks to provide a middle-ground in skill sets between a bruiser like Cross and a scatback like Newby. A three-star prospect (.8822 composite), Wilbon will have the chance to impress the new coaching staff and make an immediate impact in 2015.

No. 1: Tanner Farmer (OL)

In some ways, picking the redshirt offensive lineman for this list was a challenge, as Nick Gates and Jerald Foster will be in the mix as well. But Farmer’s recruiting pedigree (four-star, .9021 composite) along with his size (six-foot-four, 310 pounds) give him the slight nod in this contest.

Farmer’s familiarity at guard should help, as Nebraska is returning both starting tackles for 2014. But the depth of talent and competition for playing time should be a good problem for new Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

Nebraska Football: 5 New Years’ Resolutions for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been looking forward to the new year even more than usual with the firing of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley. So as a new year dawns, it’s a good time to look forward and see what kind of resolutions for 2015 would help move things forward and make things better for the Cornhuskers.

Here are five to consider—and hopefully keep in place longer than the two weeks my “do sit-ups every night” resolution is likely to survive.

Keep the Class Together

The first thing Riley has to do is help protect and preserve Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class. The dismissal of Pelini has already cost Nebraska standout running back prospect Kendall Bussey, although there was always some question as to whether Nebraska could have kept him even if Pelini stayed.

But there are other critical parts of the 2015 recruiting class assembled by Pelini that Riley needs to keep committed to the Big Red. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, along with the Davis brothers Khalil and Carlos (both defensive tackles) are critical parts of the recruiting class, and Riley’s first priority must be to get their signatures in February.

Find a Quarterback

Riley is known for operating a pro-style offense at Oregon State. His most recent quarterback, Sean Mannion, just broke the Pac-12 record for passing yards in a career. While it is not clear what Nebraska’s offense will look like next season (more on that later), it’s a safe bet that Nebraska will be throwing the ball more under Riley.  Combine Riley’s talent in developing quarterbacks with the recent hiring of Danny Langsdorf—who was quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants last year—as offensive coordinator suggest the passing game will be a big focus for Nebraska in 2015.

Tommy Armstrong will be the incumbent coming into next year, but he will also be bringing in a 53 percent completion rating. Behind him will be Johnny Stanton, who Riley tried very hard to get to Corvallis, along with unknown quantities in Ryker Fife, Zack Darlington, and A.J. Bush. Riley and his staff will have this offseason to see what they have to work with as Nebraska’s signal-caller for 2015.

Play the Hand You’re Dealt

Yes, Riley is known as running a pro-style offense. But there is no question that Nebraska does not have a pro-style collection of talent. Nebraska fans are scarred with the memory of a new coach trying to shoehorn a quarterback into a system that does not fit his skill set (see Dailey, Joe).

So while Riley will be tasked with installing his system in Lincoln, he will also need to make sure he takes into account the talent on his roster when developing his game plan.

Avoid Lazy Comparisons

This one’s not for Riley, it’s for Nebraska fans. While the goodbye speech helped turned public opinion against Pelini, the fact remains that Riley is taking over for a coach that never won fewer than nine games. Nebraska opens next year against BYU, South Alabama (who played in a bowl game) and at Miami. While unlikely, it’s not inconceivable that Nebraska could start 2015 at 1-2.

If that happens, Nebraska fans need to take some advice from Aaron Rodgers. R-E-L-A-X.

Transitions take time, and there are bumps in the road. While I don’t think it’s likely, it’s not at all inconceivable that Nebraska’s record could end up worse in 2015 than it did in 2014. So if that does happen, Nebraska fan, take a step back.

Much like the record in and of itself didn’t tell the whole story about the Pelini era, the record in and of itself won’t tell the whole story about Riley’s first season. Certainly Riley isn’t above criticism, but judge Nebraska’s performance in year one of the Riley era on performances, not just results.

Let It Go

I know, I’m sick of hearing this song too. But it’s good advice, particularly for Nebraska’s returning players.

Pelini did a lot of good things about creating a family atmosphere around his team. But one of his primary motivating tactics was creating an “us-against-the-world” mentality, and his goodbye address made it very clear that Pelini thought Nebraska’s administration (as opposed to Pelini) was responsible for NU’s struggles and his own dismissal.

Of course, he’s entitled to that opinion. But by explicitly telling that to his players—right after his firing, when they were angry and emotionally vulnerable—Pelini set all kinds of psychological land mines in place that could go off when Nebraska faces adversity next season.

Ultimately, it will be up to the players next year—and specifically to the senior leaders that arise on the team—to flush that kind of victimization and make sure the team remains accountable to itself and avoid the easy-out scapegoating that looked to consume it at times under Pelini.

Nebraska Football: 5 Takeaways From The Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans saw the Bo Pelini tenure in microcosm while watching NU’s 45-42 loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl. Ugly offensive performances. Head-scratching playcalling decisions. A defense gouged by a power rushing attack. A furious comeback fueled by heart that came achingly close to success.

And, of course, a fourth loss to a season.

Yes, the next time Nebraska takes the field there will be a new coaching staff in place. But there are still things that can be learned from Nebraska’s performance going forward.

Tommy Armstrong’s Job Isn’t Secure

Armstrong’s stats for the Holiday Bowl were impressive. He was 32-51 (!) for 382 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, with 41 yards rushing and another touchdown to boot. But those statistics might be a little misleading.

In the first half, USC defenders dropped no less than four sure-fire interceptions. If those picks are made—heck, if even half of those picks are made—the Trojans would have had the opportunity to bury Nebraska in the first half and put a very different shine on the game.

In late-game situations needing a comeback (Michigan State, Iowa, USC), Armstrong has been at his best. But he’s also been hopelessly, dangerously erratic and inaccurate early in games.  Armstrong has earned his season-long 53.3 completion percentage, which is not going to be good enough to win conference titles.

This isn’t to say that Armstrong won’t be the starter. His intangibles are off the charts, and Armstrong does have the experience of a year-and-a-half of starting games. But given the flaws in Armstrong’s game—coupled with the fact that his backup in Johnny Stanton was heavily recruited by incoming head coach Mike Riley when he was at Oregon State—suggest that Armstrong’s game will have to improve if he wants to keep the starting job in 2015.

Nebraska Has The Talent To Hang With USC

Sure, Nebraska was facing a USC squad still feeling the effect of a scholarship limit, and was able to wear the Trojans down in the fourth quarter as a result. But athlete-for-athlete, Nebraska was able to stay with USC throughout the game. The game was not a mismatch, which was reflected in the exciting, down-to-the-wire finale.

Incoming coach Mike Riley has some holes to fill, to be sure. But the cupboard in Lincoln is far from bare.

The Offensive Line Needs Work

It was certainly jarring to see Nebraska throw the ball 51 (!) times against USC in the Holiday Bowl. But given how beat up Nebraska’s offensive line was, the run/pass ratio starts to make a little more sense. Nebraska was down to its third-string center (which, unfortunately, was likely part of yet another ball-to-the-facemask incident at the worst possible time), and the struggles on the offensive line were a big part of why Nebraska’s rushing attack struggled to gain traction.

With an influx of young talent (headlined by guard Tanner Farmer), Nebraska’s offensive line could look radically different in 2015. And with Ameer Abdullah’s graduation, it will have to perform radically better for Nebraska’s offense to have a chance.

De’Mornay Pierson-El Will Be Next Year’s Offensive Star

True freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El made a name for himself on special teams this year, but struggled to make an impact on offense. Pierson-El never had more than four catches in a game prior to the Holiday Bowl, and his fumble against Minnesota did display the dangers of inserting a true freshman into the starting lineup.

Against USC, though, Pierson-El had eight receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown. It was Pierson-El, not Ameer Abdullah, whose number was called on a critical fourth down conversion attempt late in the game. It’s hard to know what Nebraska’s offense will look like next year, with a new coaching staff, uncertainty at quarterback, and the return of Jamal Turner.

But it seems likely that Pierson-El will be one of the primary offensive weapons for Nebraska next season.

The Stormtroopers Are Here To Stay

Surrender whites, they’ve been called. The all-white look has been castigated by traditionalists and believers in superstition as a fashion travesty for Nebraska.

Well, get used to it. Nebraska has gone stormtrooper (white shirt, white pants) three times this season. Even with a new coaching staff, look for this development from the 2014 season to stick around.

Nebraska Football: Burning Questions for the Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans may have forgotten a bit about the upcoming Holiday Bowl amidst all of the drama, but there are a number of questions to be answered that will tell how NU will perform this post-season. After the firing of Bo Pelini, more questions that normal surround Nebraska as it prepares for the bowl. Here are three of the biggest ones that will help define Nebraska’s performance in San Diego.

What Will Nebraska’s Motivation Be?

Bowl games are always tricky to forecast because of the motivation question. How hard will a group of college kids, nearly a month removed from the regular season and with the holidays in between, really want to work? Will one team be more willing to pay the price in preparation, and therefore have more chance to be successful?

That’s for any bowl game. Add on top of that a popular head coach being fired. Add on top of that the fired coach being 9-3. And add on top of that a farewell speech from the fired 9-3 coach that further stoked the “us-versus-them” mentality that was one of the defining traits of said fired 9-3 coach’s career.

You could imagine almost anything in terms of how Nebraska will show up for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska could be razor-sharp and wanting to put on the game of its life in honor and support of Bo Pelini and his staff. Nebraska could be completely flat and listless, feeling like their seasons were stolen with Pelini’s firing. Nebraska could come out like wild horses, riding an emotional high, but falling apart at the first sign of trouble.

Each of those scenarios are plausible. Indeed, over the course of Pelini’s career, we’ve seen each of those Nebraska teams take the field. So finding out what Nebraska team comes out of the locker room will be one of the biggest questions to answer in finding out how the Holiday Bowl will play out.

What Will The Game Plan Be?

While Pelini is getting comfortable in Youngstown, the rest of his staff will be preparing Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl. That means that defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be in full charge of the Blackshirts, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be able to call the game he wants.

Throw in a month to prepare—and coaches who will be looking to make a good impression for future employers—and Nebraska could look fairly drastically different than it has at any point this year. How effective that will be, of course, will be anyone’s guess.

How Healthy Will Nebraska Be?

Without the coaching change, this one might have been the biggest question to answer coming into the Holiday Bowl. Ameer Abdullah’s status will be the biggest question, of course, as it was his injury during the Purdue game that really changed the course of Nebraska’s season. But Kenny Bell has struggled with injuries all season, as have a number of other Nebraska stars.

With a month to heal, Nebraska will be as healthy as it has been since the start of the season. That will make a significant difference, particularly given the talent level of an opposing team like USC.

Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Last Act One of Selfishness and Childishness

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans thought the dismissal of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley was the end of a tumultuous relationship between Pelini and the outside world. They thought wrong.

Nebraska football fans heard news of another surreptitious recording of Bo Pelini uttering profanities, this time during his half-hour meeting with the team on Dec. 2 after his firing. A transcript of the recording, obtained by the Omaha World-Herald, said that for “the majority” of that meeting, Pelini complained about Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Or, more accurately, he stood in front of a group of college kids and called Eichorst names.

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

One of Pelini’s prime complaints about Eichorst was his lack of public support for Pelini.

“I don’t even really know what those guys do. And I said ‘Hey, you know what, if (Eichorst) ain’t gonna do his job, if he doesn’t have the balls to go out there and support me, to support these kids, support this program, then do me a favor and get rid of me.’”

(This was, of course, the same Eichorst that didn’t fire Pelini after his infamous Coach Chickenbleep press conference after the 2013 Iowa loss.)

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Pelini has been stung by a leaked audio. Last year, Deadspin released an audio tape of Pelini angrily berating Nebraska’s “f—ing fair-weather fanbase” after a comeback win over Ohio State.

Perhaps a bit of advice may be in order. If people are referencing a recording of your embarrassing and profanity-laced tirade, and you have to ask which one they are referring to, you’re probably doing something wrong.

In all honesty, there was probably some merit to Pelini’s complaint about a lack of public support from the top brass at the university (although former Nebraska player Scott Shanle did point out how little that should probably matter to the players on Twitter.) And with two separate releases of damaging and embarrassing audio tapes, the conspiracy theorists will have free reign to craft scenarios about Nebraska brass setting bugs to catch Pelini.

At the end of the day, though, that’s not the point.

Pelini is a 47-year-old man. He’s been one of the most influential leaders in the lives of the players on his team, players who just were shell-shocked to learn that their coach had been fired. They’re looking to Pelini for leadership, for guidance on how to handle a traumatic event in their lives.

How does Pelini respond?

He spends “the majority” of the last meeting he will have with his players venting his spleen, airing his grievances, painting himself as the noble hero in the story dragged down by the “f—ing lawyer” and the people Pelini would “rather f—— work at McDonald’s than work with some of those guys.”

No introspection on what Pelini might have done differently. No advice to his players on how to handle the situation other than a perfunctory do-what-you-want suggestion and an admonition to call him.

Nope. Pelini’s team was a captive audience for the final act in this seven-year drama. As a result, perhaps we shouldn’t be so self-righteously stunned that one of those players recorded and leaked the audio of that final act.

Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star called Pelini’s rant to his players “selfish,” which is the perfect adjective. Sipple went on to defend Pelini in a way, reflecting that the job consumed Pelini, making it impossible for him to continue.

The job consumed Pelini? Or Pelini allowed the job to consume him?

“I have been at LSU, I have been at Oklahoma, I have been to these other places. … The scrutiny, the negativity, it ain’t like that everywhere,” Pelini said to his team.

With all due respect, that’s nonsense. LSU coach Les Miles is under unremittent pressure in Baton Rouge—and he’s won a conference title and a national title. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops feels the heat in Norman—again, with one more national title ring on his finger than Pelini has.

But, again, that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether Pelini was justified in his complaints about Eichorst and the Nebraska brass. What matters is Pelini—after having more than enough time to marshal his emotions and compose his thoughts—chose to teach his players that the way to handle adversity is by dropping c-bombs about another adult in an ostensibly closed-door setting.

It was the same lesson he taught his players when he swung his hat at the referee during the Iowa loss in 2013. It was the same lesson he taught his players when he called out the “f—ing fair-weather fans” whose devotion paid for his salary and the palatial facilities in which the football team operated. When the going gets tough, just lash out blindly.

Bo Pelini had many good qualities and characteristics. He did a lot of good things for a lot of people, there is little doubt about that.

But when push came to shove, Pelini was incapable of responding to pressure and adversity like an adult.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 10 Best Cornhuskers from the 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans can finally take a breath and look back at the 2014 season, taking stock of who the Cornhuskers’ best players were last year. A coaching change, followed with an out-of-left-field hire, can make fans ready to turn the page pretty quickly to 2015 and the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.

But it’s far too soon for that. As Nebraska prepares for its bowl game against USC, let’s take a look back at who the ten best players were for NU in 2014.

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Of all the players on the roster, Armstrong is probably the hardest to rate. His numbers still aren’t fantastic—a 51.7 percent completion rate and a 19/11 touchdown-to-interception ratio are not going to win any conference titles.

But Armstrong also showed his leadership throughout the season, coming back from injury against Michigan State and holding the team together offensively after the injury to Ameer Abdullah. His toughness and intangibles have to be credited, even if his statistical deliverables have fallen short this year.

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

Westerkamp had a number of games where he was simply a non-factor, although much of that was due to the overall struggles of Nebraska’s offense. But Westerkamp was Nebraska’s most reliable receiver throughout the season, leading the team in receptions and second in yards per game.

Oh, and he also had a catch that was pretty good.

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

Nebraska’s strength in 2014 was certainly its defensive line, and a big part of that was the performance of Valentine. His size (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) makes him a force in the middle, and his development in terms of handing offensive linemen (and therefore freeing up linebackers to make plays) and in making tackles (39 overall) made him a big cog in Nebraska’s defensive performance.

No. 7: Kenny Bell

When Bell is healthy, he was Nebraska’s most dangerous down-field threat. His absence was certainly felt in East Lansing, as Nebraska’s offense evaporated after Bell’s injury removed any deep play threat. Conversely, Bell put Nebraska on his back in Iowa City, making play after play before catching the game winner in overtime.

It will be quite a start for Nebraska fans not to see no. 80 lining up on the outside next season (or see the ‘fro on the sidelines).

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

Going into the 2014 season, many assumed that Nebraska would have a solid performer at safety in Corey Cooper, with Gerry and LeRoy Alexander fighting for the alternate safety spot. Well, it turns out that Nebraska did have a solid performer at safety—Gerry.

After leading the team in interceptions and being second in tackles, an argument could be made that Gerry was Nebraska’s defensive MVP. At the very least, he is one of the shining lights for the Blackshirts coming into 2015.

No. 5: Maliek Collins

While Vincent Valentine made steps in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line stopping things up, Collins got things going in opposing backfields. Finishing the season second in sacks, Collins became a disruptive force up the middle in the second half of the season. With teams focused on slowing down Nebraska’s defensive ends (particularly Randy Gregory), Collins’ ability to get penetration up the middle made a huge difference in NU’s defensive performances.

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

In general, Nebraska’s linebackers were a disappointment. While NU has a wealth of young talent at linebacker, that talent never really developed or matured to a point where it could effectively contribute.

The one exception to that rule was Anderson, who led the team in tackles with 95 total. Throughout the season, Anderson made crucial stops and provided a measure of consistency in the middle of Nebraska’s defense that was sorely needed.

No. 3: Randy Gregory

It might be a measure of Gregory’s greatness that it seemed like his season wasn’t the tour de force we had anticipated, even though he led the team in sacks, was third in tackles for loss, and sixth in tackles overall.

Gregory’s speed and length was a disruptive force for Nebraska’s defense throughout the 2014 season. Assuming Gregory does not return for his senior season, the Blackshirts will have some big shoes to fill next year.

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

How many games can a punt returner affect? Against Michigan State, Pierson-El’s return gave Nebraska a fighting chance after being dominated most of the game. Against Northwestern, the fear of Pierson-El gave Nebraska such good field position that NU was able to wear the Wildcats down. And against Iowa, a game that looked to be slipping away was turned by two long punt returns keying Nebraska’s comeback.

Pierson-El worked his way into the starting lineup as a wide receiver, although he was curiously absent from the offensive game plans after Ameer Abdullah’s injury. Regardless, though, Nebraska’s clear breakout star of 2014 should provide fans with a lot to look forward to next season.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

Nebraska’s season turned on a botched snap early in the game against Purdue. In diving for the loose ball, Abdullah was hurt and was never the same. Nebraska’s offense never recovered, and its offensive ineptitude helped fuel Wisconsin’s mauling of the Blackshirts, as well as Minnesota’s bare-knuckle victory in Lincoln.

Contrast that with Nebraska’s 41-31 win against Miami, where Abdullah ran like a man possessed, notching 229 yards and two touchdowns in NU’s most impressive and complete performance of the season.

Even more than Rex Burkhead’s injury in 2012, Abdullah’s loss at the end of 2014 presents a painful “what if” moment for Nebraska fans wondering how the season would have transpired with a healthy Abdullah in the backfield.