Nebraska Football: Five Things For the Cornhuskers To Improve During the Bye Week

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans endured (that’s really the correct term for it) a sloppy 35-14 victory over Purdue to see NU head into its second bye week at 8-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play. But with the meat of its conference schedule ahead of it, how Nebraska performs in the final three games of the regular season will determine if NU breaks out of its four-loss rut and makes a run at a conference championship.

So what has to happen in this bye week to get Nebraska ready for its final gauntlet? Here are five things the Cornhuskers should be looking to improve.

Ameer Abdullah’s Knee

It’s not exactly rocket science to diagnose that a healthy Ameer Abdullah would do wonders for Nebraska’s chances against a suddenly-resurgent Wisconsin. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Abdullah had a mild knee sprain and head coach Bo Pelini is “optimistic” about his return for Wisconsin.

Nebraska fans should hope his optimism is well founded. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are nice replacement options, but neither is the kind of game-changer a healthy Abdullah is when on the field. And with Wisconsin in the last few weeks looking like the Badger crew we thought we would see at the start of the season, Nebraska might need that game-changer to escape Madison with a win.

Drew Brown’s Foot

True freshman Drew Brown missed a makeable field goal in each of Nebraska’s last three games, putting him at a less-than-stellar 9-of-14 in field goals for the season. In each of the contests, the misses ended up making no difference in the outcome. But that doesn’t mean the time won’t come this year where Nebraska’s hopes for a conference title will rest on a kicker’s foot.

It’s difficult to replicate game conditions and game pressures in a bye week, of course. But Nebraska will certainly go into this off week hoping to find some confidence in its placekicking game.

Tommy Armstrong’s Rapport

When you see a quarterback throw a horrific interception—or two—it’s easy to point the finger at him and ask what in the world he is seeing. But many times, a throw is made before a receiver makes a cut or a move. If the quarterback and receiver are thinking two different things—in other words, if the receiver zags when the quarterback expects him to zig—then you can end up with some pretty horrific throws into a waiting defender’s arms.

According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Armstrong’s two interceptions against Purdue came from receivers running the wrong routes. That’s certainly possible, and Armstrong is not solely to blame for his struggles. But if Nebraska is going to survive the three-game gauntlet before it (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa) and win the Big Ten West, Armstrong and his receivers must be on the same metaphorical page.

Mark Pelini and Ryne Reeve’s Snapping

Against Michigan State, the center-quarterback exchange problem was blamed on renegade clapping by Spartans defenders, mimicking Nebraska’s snap signal. But “clap-gate” doesn’t explain the ongoing problems with the exchange against Rutgers and Purdue. Botched snaps cost Nebraska points and set up opposing scores. Against Rutgers and Purdue, those mistakes did not make a difference in the final outcome. Against better opponents, like Nebraska will be facing to end the season, those mistakes almost certainly will make a bigger difference.

According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, the snap issues are “mystifying” and not showing up in practice. That might make fixing the problem in the bye week challenging, but it is an issue that simply must be solved if Nebraska wants to return from Madison with a victory.

Tim Beck’s Preparation

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck gets credit for being honest, sometimes to his own detriment. According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Beck said that he “confused” the offense by giving them too much to work on, rather than simplifying the message and making adjustments throughout the game.

Sound familiar? It’s the same mea culpa he gave after the Michigan State game to explain Nebraska’s sluggish offensive performance.

I remain a little skeptical that being over-prepared is the primary culprit for Nebraska’s offensive woes post Michigan State. Outside of Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance and a solid half of play from Tommy Armstrong against Northwestern, Nebraska’s offense has looked disjointed and out of rhythm since returning from East Lansing.

Nebraska fans certainly hope, though, that a simplification of preparation during the bye week will be the tonic for NU’s offensive struggles.

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

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

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Offensive Line – B

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

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

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

Offensive Backs – B

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

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

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

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

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

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

Receivers – Incomplete

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

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

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

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

Defensive Line – A-plus

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

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

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

Linebackers – C

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

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

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

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

Defensive Backs – B-minus

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

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

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

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

Special Teams – A-minus

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

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

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

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Grading The Performance Of Each New Starter

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans got to see their Cornhuskers get off to a good start, beating Florida Atlantic 55-7 in Lincoln. In that game, a number of starters got their first chance to shine under the spotlight. Here’s how they graded out.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, LT: A+

Jake Cotton, LG: A+

Mike Moudy, RG: A

Givens Price, RT: A

With 498 yards of total offense, it’s clear that the offensive line had a good day. Watching the game, you could see that the left side of the offensive line (led by Lewis) was getting a stronger push and imposing its will more than the right side. But that’s all a question of degree, as both sides of the line were as imposing as a Nebraska offensive line has been in quite some time.

Receivers

Alonzo Moore, WR: C

Making the starting lineup amidst a jumble of receivers was quite an accomplishment for Moore. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to cash in on the stat sheet after the game. Moore was targeted in the red zone and would have scored, had Tommy Armstrong’s pass been on target, which does increase his grade slightly.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen: A+

Vincent Valentine: A

Yes, the loss of Randy Gregory was frightening for Nebraska fans. But the emergence of McMullen, at least for this game, as a nearly unstoppable force on the other end of the defensive line was an exciting thing to see. Both in the backfield and, at times, dropping into coverage. McMullen was the defensive standout of the game.

And Valentine, while playing in a less glamourous but no less important hole, was stout up the middle, and was able to get into the backfield at times and disrupt the Owls’ offense.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle “Mike” linebacker: A-

Zaire Anderson, weak-side “Will” linebacker: A

Florida Atlantic’s first defensive series saw the Owls drive right down the field, 75 yards, to tie the score at seven. After than, FAU only gained 125 of total yards—and much of that was late in the fourth quarter when the result was well in hand.

While the defense as a whole performed well, which is a good sign for the middle linebacker who helps direct everything, Banderas did not have a stellar individual day. He had no individual tackles, and three assists, making for 1.5 total tackles on the day. Anderson, on the other hand, was effective in coverage and disruptive in the backfield.

Defensive Backs

Nathan Gerry, S: A

Daniel Davie, CB: A

Byerson Cockrell, NICKEL: A

Davie was a surprise start, with many (including this dope) thinking that Jonathan Rose would end up winning the starting cornerback position. But Davie came up with a great game, as did Gerry who was all over the field making plays. Cockrell fitted in well at NICKEL, both in run support and pass coverage, making the sting of Charles Jackson’s injury a little less painful.

Specialists:

Drew Brown, PK: B+

Brown got the first chance at placekicking, drilling a 44-yard field goal along with the extra point duties until the fourth quarter. Mauro Bondi did come out and kick a fourth-quarter extra point, showing that there is at least competition for the placekicking role and lowering Brown’s grade slightly.

Five Bold Predictions for Nebraska’s 2014 Season

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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.

Meet Nebraska’s New Starters for 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Just like the changing of the leaves, every year Nebraska fans can count on seeing new starters shine. So as the new season is less than two weeks (!!) away, it’s time to look and see which new players will be getting the nod to start for Nebraska.

Of course, without an official depth chart, some of these are guesses (or as we call them in the business, “informed analytical speculation”). Areas of the team that are unlisted have all returning starters.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, left tackle: If there’s any new starter to be excited about this year, it might be Lewis. After transferring from Colorado, many thought he might be struggling to supplant David Knevel for the starting tackle position. Instead, he’s become what BTN’s Tom Dienhart called potentially “one of the Big Ten’s best” at the position.

Mike Moudy, right guard: Although getting a stiff challenge from Chongo Kondolo, look for the senior to come back from his injury and claim the starting right guard position. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Moudy now is fully healed from a season-ending ACL tear. His experience should be enough to give him the nod.

Givens Price, right tackle: Sometimes a change of position can do a world of good. Price has shifted positions throughout his Nebraska career, but according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star his shift from guard to tackle may have elevated Price to a starter in his senior season.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen, defensive end: Sure, you’re excited about that other guy on the end of Nebraska’s defensive line. But McMullen is no slouch himself, and the senior’s talent and experience should provide a solid anchor opposite the destruction Randy Gregory looks to wreak.

Vincent Valentine, defensive tackle: If Alex Lewis isn’t enough of a hipster new starter to be excited about Valentine should be. A prototypical defensive tackle in size (six-foot-three, 325 pounds), Valentine gives Nebraska the option to use him as a true nose tackle, allowing NU to play with a three-man front and freeing up pass-rushing specialists (like Maliek Collins or Marcus Newby) as outside linebackers.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle (MIKE) linebacker: The loss of Michael Rose to a season-ending injury was certainly a setback, given the grasp of the position and the leadership required that Rose was building at the end of 2013. But it does open the door for Banderas, who earned playing time at the position last year as a true freshman. Hopefully for Nebraska, the extra year of experience will help Banderas take over as leader of the linebacking corps.

Zaire Anderson, weak-side (WILL) linebacker: Take a look at Nebraska’s linebacker unit, and you’ll see it littered with freshmen and sophomores. Anderson (along with Trevor Roach) are the greybeards of the unit, seniors who are likely to see playing time. With injuries claiming parts of the last two seasons, Anderson is hopeful that his senior campaign can be uninterrupted and show the productivity he did at the end of 2013.

Defensive Backs

Jonathan Rose, cornerback: For much of the spring, the competition between Rose and Byerson Cockrell for a starting cornerback position was one of the closest on the team. But with the season-ending injury to Charles Jackson and Cockrell shifting to nickel, Rose looks to have secured the starting cornerback position opposite Charles Jackson.

Nathan Gerry, safety: Last year, Gerry saw playing time as a true freshman at linebacker, but always looked to be a hybrid-type player without the requisite size to play in the middle of the field. Now he has relocated to safety, where his speed and hard-hitting ability should allow him to flourish.

Byerson Cockrell, nickel: The loss of Charles Jackson, one of Nebraska’s best overall athletes, to a season-ending injury just as he was about to see significant playing time at nickel was one of the most disappointing developments of fall camp. But Cockrell has been impressing Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis (according to Huskers.com), and his play may soothe some of the fears that arose with Jackson’s injury.

Special Teams

Drew Brown, placekicker: Yes, I know that Brown is still locked in a battle with junior Mauro Bondi for the starting placekicker position. But if Bondi hasn’t done enough in the previous two years to lock down the position—and the coaching staff has felt the need to bring kickers in each of the two years after signing Bondi—then I think the smart money is on the true freshman winning the job.

Nebraska Football: Special Teams Are Cornhuskers’ Biggest Question in 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been freaking out a little about injuries, and rightfully so. Over the course of last week, Nebraska lost a likely starting NICKEL (Charles Jackson), MIKE linebacker (Michael Rose), and backup I-back (Adam Taylor) to injury, in addition to likely starting safety LeRoy Alexander to a suspension.

The reaction was predictable.

Those losses are all important, and could impact Nebraska significantly in 2014. But there is one loss to injury that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention, one that could cost Nebraska wins.

Gabe Miller.

Who, you might ask? (Go to 0:41 of the video for the uber-geek reference). Well, he’s Nebraska’s long snapper, and he’s going to be out for “a while” according to Brian Towles of Corn Nation.

That’s bad news for a special teams department that at almost every level should terrify Nebraska fans. About the only area where Nebraska excelled was Mauro Bondi as a kickoff specialist, with Nebraska no. 10 nationally in touchback percentage on kickoffs at 61.54 percent. Nebraska’s was fairly average in kickoff returns (no. 41 nationally at a 22.78/return average), opponent’s kick returns (also no. 41 nationally at 20.21/return) and opponent’s punt returns (no. 68 nationally at 8.07 yards/return).

And we know how disastrous Nebraska was at punt returns, where NU was no. 123 (!) nationally at 3.04 yards/returns. Luminaries such as Tom Osborne (as reported by Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald) and Brandon Vogel (of Hail Varsity) have pointed out the critical importance of field position in a team’s ability to succeed.

(So has this guy, but who has time for that?)

The placekicking job was already a huge worry. Nebraska coaches clearly did not have confidence enough in scholarship kicker Bondi, as they brought in transfer Pat Smith in 2013 who won the job (and ultimately the game for Nebraska at Penn State).

This year, they’ve brought in another kicker, this time true freshman Drew Brown. While nothing has yet to be announced, it’s hard not to see Brown having every chance to win the starting job.

That would mean Nebraska would be rolling into the 2014 season with a true freshman as a placekicker. We saw last year how a win in overtime in a hostile environment rested on the foot of a kicker. How much harder will that be if that kicker is less than a year removed from his high school senior prom—and with questions at long snapper to get him the ball in the first place?

So, let’s assess. Awesome at getting touchbacks on kickoffs. Average (at best) in other areas. Monstrous questions at placekicker (either a true freshman or a second choice kicker and an untested long snapper), the one area where stability and confidence is desperately needed. And a punt return game that was an unmitigated disaster last year.

Forget about worries in the secondary. If Nebraska fans are going to panic about something, panic about special teams.

Nebraska Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is about to start, and with fall camp comes the depth chart battles that will help define the 2014 season. So while there are no official depth charts, we can speculate as to where things are at least starting out as fall camp opens. Of course, the battles in fall camp will go a long way towards determining what Nebraska’s depth chart will look like on August 30 when NU tees the ball up against Florida Atlantic.

But until then, here’s at least a glimpse of where things might stand. Returning starters are in italics.

Offensive Line

While the offensive line will be seeing a lot of new starters, thanks to the injuries many of this year’s pipeline will have gained valuable experience last year. Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, should he hold the job through fall camp, could be one of the most valuable additions to Nebraska’s roster in 2014.

Left Tackle: Alex Lewis, David Knevel

Left Guard: Jake Cotton, Chongo Kondolo

Center: Mark Pelini, Ryne Reeves

Right Guard: Mike Moudy, Dwayne Johnson

Right Tackle: Zach Sterup, Tanner Farmer

Offensive Backs

While Johnny Stanton may have the talent to be the next guy, it seems as if Ryker Fife has the inside track on the backup spot given his mastery of the playbook. Backups to Ameer Abdullah should be fluid, with Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby seeing packages specific for them.

Quarterback: Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fife

I-Back: Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross

Fullback: Andy Janovic, Mitch McCann

Receivers

Kenny Bell is the undisputed leader of Nebraska’s receiver corps, but after Bell the depth chart should be fluid throughout the season. Perhaps the most fascinating battle will be at the slot receiver position between Jamal Turner and Jordan Westerkamp—will Turner’s as-of-yet unrealized potential outweigh Westerkamp’s consistency?

Wide Receiver (X): Kenny Bell, Brandon Reilly

Wide Receiver (Z): Alonzo Moore, Taariq Allen

Wide Receiver (A): Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner

Tight End: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

Randy Gregory will be the first name written on any depth chart, but behind him fall camp will go a long way to sort things out. Look for Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen to take advantage of the time to solidify their positions

Defensive End: Randy Gregory, A.J. Natter

Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry, Maliek Collins

Defensive Tackle: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Maurice

Defensive End: Greg McMullen, Joe Keels

Linebackers

Linebacker is a peculiar position for Nebraska. There is a lot of talent, but there is very little in terms of clearly-won positions. Zaire Anderson looks to be the strongest overall talent, and Michael Rose did a lot to win the MIKE position last year. After that, the depth chart could be in play throughout the linebacker corps.

BUCK Linebacker: Josh Banderas, Courtney Love

MIKE Linebacker: Michael Rose, Trevor Roach

WILL Linebacker: Zaire Anderson, David Santos

Defensive Backs

Nebraska does have some returning experience in the secondary with cornerback Josh Mitchell and safety Corey Cooper. The battle for the other starting cornerback position between Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell could be one of the most entertaining of the fall camp. And seeing the amazing athletic talent of Charles Jackson replace Ciante Evans at NICKEL could be a difference-making change for the Blackshirts.

Cornerback: Josh Mitchell, Boaz Joseph

Safety: Corey Cooper, Nathan Gerry

Safety: LeRoy Alexander, D.J. Singleton

Cornerback: Jonathan Rose, Byerson Cockrell

NICKEL: Charles Jackson

Specialists

Hold your breath, Nebraska fans, we’re likely to see a true freshman enter fall camp as the de facto starting placekicker. How Drew Brown holds up to the pressure could be a defining element of Nebraska’s 2014 campaign. And look for some game-breaking talent to take the reins of the return game, helping to improve from last season.

Placekicker: Drew Brown

Kickoff Specialist: Mauro Bondi

Punter: Sam Foltz

Holder: Sam Foltz

Long Snapper: Gabriel Miller

Punt Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby

Kick Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby

Nebraska Football: Five Reasons Cornhuskers Will Flop in 2014

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are eternal optimists, looking forward to the 2014 season with excitement and hope for future glories. But in every season, there is always the risk of things going south. Nebraska fans need only to remember 2007 to see how quickly the air can escape from the metaphorical balloon.

Certainly, that’s not what Nebraska fans want to see. But the danger is out there. Here are five sharks in the water that could devour the 2014 season.

Tommy Armstrong

Armstrong is a pretty beloved character at this point in his Nebraska career. He is following Taylor Martinez, who was one of the most polarizing figures amongst the Husker faithful. He answered the bell as a freshman, and went 7-1 as a starter. He’s got the charisma and the leadership to take charge of the team and inspire confidence.

But his underlying statistics are disturbing. Last year, he completed less than 52 percent of his passes. Even more worrisome, his touchdown to interception ratio was a terrifying 9/8. While his moxie, his intangibles, and his record as a starter are very encouraging, those numbers are not the stats of a quarterback who will lead a team to a conference title.

Statistics from cfbstats.com.

An Untested Kicking Game

Nebraska’s overtime win over Penn State on the foot of Pat Smith was the most obvious reason as to why a dependable kicking game Alex Henery’s 57-yard bomb against Colorado, in many ways, changed the direction of Nebraska football. So Nebraska fans know how important a reliable kicking game is to the Huskers’ success.

But there is little reason for optimism that Nebraska will have a dependable kicking game in 2014. Mauro Bondi has done nothing to inspire confidence, nor have any of the other kickers on the roster. Many have pinned their hopes on true freshman Drew Brown to answer Nebraska’s kicker needs. But that’s a big ask for a kid less than a year removed from his high school prom to walk on the field in Happy Valley and win a game.

A Green Offensive Line

Nebraska has some exciting things happening on the offensive line, led by Colorado transfer Alex Lewis. But the fact remains that four out of the five starters from last year’s offensive line have graduated. While many on the line do have experience, the fact remains that Nebraska will be breaking in functionally a new offensive line, including a new center.

If that offensive line isn’t able to gel, that struggle will cascade to cause problems with Nebraska’s offense, which in turn will put even more pressure on a defense that was up and down in 2013.

Dark Pelini Returns

This spring, Bo Pelini went through one of the most remarkable public relations rehabilitation in modern history. At the end of the Iowa game, “Coach Chickenbleep” looked like he was about to get fired after an ugly loss and a profanity-laced postgame press conference where Pelini all but challenged Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him.

Between his tweets during Nebraska basketball’s NCAA tournament game, his embrace of the popular Twitter parody account FauxPelini, and ultimately him carrying a cat out on the field at the Spring Game, Pelini looks far more relaxed and likeable.

But we have seen what Pelini looks like when things go south. After a tough loss or what he perceives to be a raw deal from the officials, it’s not impossible to imagine the post-Iowa Pelini coming out. And if that Pelini surfaces in the middle of a struggling season for Nebraska, the response from the fanbase and the national media could help to pull the 2014 season under the water.

The Chickens Come Home to Roost

In the last three years, Nebraska has played in eight games decided by four points or less. NU is 7-1 in those games. You can look at that in a positive light, showing Nebraska’s internal strength to find ways to win when the going gets tough.

But it can also be seen as riding your luck, big time. And at the risk of succumbing to the gambler’s fallacy, it’s not at all hard to see a circumstance where those close games go the wrong way for Nebraska. Think about what 2013 would have looked like if Ron Kellogg’s prayer to Jordan Westerkamp against Northwestern hadn’t been answered, and if Pat Smith’s kick against Penn State hadn’t gone through the uprights. Nebraska would have ended the season at 6-6, and the ugly loss to Iowa might have had a very different ending for Bo Pelini.

More than likely, Nebraska will have close games again in 2014. If NU isn’t able to keep up its remarkable run in close games, 2014 could be the year when Nebraska’s chickens come home to roost.

Nebraska Football: 5 Freshmen Who Must Shine In Fall Practice

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photo and article by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the beginning of fall practice, when they will start to see which freshmen may shine. While the established stars are known, fall practice is the first real opportunity for the freshmen on the roster to claim a spot on the field.
So who will those freshmen be that shine? Who will be the new stars for Nebraska? Here are five candidates.
Adam Taylor
Once again, Nebraska has a plethora of young I-backs. Behind senior Ameer Abdullah is junior Imani Cross and sophomore Terrell Newby, before getting to redshirt freshman Adam Taylor. While Taylor came in a little ahead of Newby in terms of recruiting rankings, Newby was able to see the field right away given his unique set of skills.
Taylor redshirted, and as a result is looking up at three talented I-backs on the depth chart. If Taylor wants to earn any kind of significant playing time, a strong fall practice will be crucial.
David Knevel
At the start of last season, it would have been pretty easy to pencil in Knevel as a starting tackle. His size alone (six-foot-nine, 305 pounds) makes him an imposing presence on the offensive line.
But then Colorado transfer Alex Lewis shone in spring practice, looking to have won the starting left tackle position. A strong fall practice will help Knevel move his way back up the depth chart, or at least earn himself significant playing time in a rotation.
Drew Brown
It could be argued that Brown might be the most important signing of this year’s class, at least for 2014. Given the departure of Pat Smith, last year’s placekicker, and the failure to impress by Mauro Bondi and the other kickers currently on the roster, it is likely that Brown will come in and have a shot to win the starting job from day one.
For Nebraska’s sake, Brown needs to have a strong fall practice—and a good 2014 campaign.
A.J. Natter
There’s little question that Randy Gregory will be occupying one of the two starting defensive end positions. But the other position looks up for grabs. Junior college transfer Joe Keels should have the inside track on the position, simply given his experience.
But a strong performance from redshirt freshman A.J. Natter could push Keels for playing time, or at least give Bo Pelini and the coaching staff some options to rotate the defensive line. And with three years of eligibility after 2014, a strong showing from Natter this year would provide a good base for years to come.
Marcus Newby
Nebraska is deep and young at linebacker. Other than Zaire Anderson, there looks to be only one upper-classman (junior David Santos) that will be in the starting rotation. So there will be work for Newby to do if he wants to see the field as a linebacker.
But Newby has a bit of a secret weapon in his locker. During the Spring Game, Newby was used as a hybrid defensive end or outside linebacker in a three-man front look. Functionally, though, Newby’s role was as a pure outside pass rusher, and he excelled. While Newby might be a ways down the depth chart as a linebacker, if he can excel as a pass rusher in fall practice he can earn playing time—and provide a real weapon for the Blackshirts in 2014.

Nebraska Football: Projecting Who Will Win Cornhuskers’ Open Starting Positions

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have a number of ways to get through the summer months, and one of them is to figure out who will be starting for the Scarlet and Cream in the upcoming season. Rather than looking at box scores, Nebraska fans will pore through recruiting magazines and rosters from the season past to get an idea of what the next season’s crop of Cornhuskers will look like on the field.

So let’s put our guessing hats on and see if we can determine who will win the open starting jobs this fall. Note the emphasis on open starting jobs—you don’t need me to tell you that Ameer Abdullah will be the starting I-back and Randy Gregory will get the nod at defensive end.

If a position is missing, that’s because I don’t view it as an open starting position. Yes, that means there is an entire position group (offensive backs) that gets omitted as a result. But it helps keep our focus on the positions that are truly up in the air, at least based on what we know now before the start of fall camp.

Offensive Line

Tackle: Alex Lewis

Guard: Jake Cotton, Ryne Reeves

Center: Mark Pelini

Sometimes taking a chance on a kid pays off. Yeah, it’s not great PR to have a transfer like Lewis have to serve a jail sentence for an assault before he can start playing for your football team. But the fact remains that Lewis looks to have beaten David Knevel for the starting left guard position, acquitting himself well in practice against no less than Randy Gregory.

Having two new guards to break in on an offensive line never bodes well. But Cotton and Reeves do look like they should be able to settle in, keeping junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo on the bench and in the rotation.

As for center, you’d think that Bo Pelini might want sophomore Paul Thurston to win the job simply to avoid the need to break in another new center next year. But Pelini’s experience at that crucial position should be enough to earn him the starting spot.

Receivers

WR Z: Alonzo Moore

WR A: Jordan Westerkamp

Moore has always been an enticing option, combining size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) with speed. But he’s never been able to stay healthy enough to make a contribution on the field. A healthy summer should see Moore hold off Taariq Allen, another big-bodied receiver who has struggled to stay healthy.

The battle for starting at the slot could be one of the most fascinating in fall camp. Jamal Turner has been a ball of potential ever since he arrived—but has never been able to convert that potential into production on the field. Westerkamp, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a safe pair of hands. Look for that reliability to earn Westerkamp the nod over Turner, although both should see the field a lot.

Defensive Line

Defensive End: Greg McMullen

Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry

McMullen’s experience should help him hold off junior college transfer Joe Keels, at least initially, and hang on to the starter’s job. Pelini has also demonstrated some willingness to experiment with hybrid players like Maliek Collins and Marcus Newby at rush end, meaning that the end position opposite Randy Gregory could be highly flexible.

Vincent Valentine looks to have one position at defensive tackle locked up, and the battle for the second position between Curry, Collins, and Kevin Maurice should rage throughout fall camp. Look for Curry to win the position by a nose based on his experience, and Pelini’s desire to use Collins as an edge pass rusher at times.

Linebackers

WILL: Zaire Anderson

BUCK: David Santos

MIKE: Michael Rose

As a senior, 2014 is Anderson’s year to shine. He may be the most talented of all Nebraska’s linebacker corps, but he has struggled with injuries since his transfer from junior college. A healthy season could see Anderson becoming one of Nebraska’s surprise stars on defense.

Santos will have to work to keep a hard-charging Josh Banderas out of the starting lineup at WILL, not to mention younger talent like Courtney Love and Marcus Newby. But as one of the most experienced linebackers in the corps, Santos is the best bet to keep the position.

Rose began to shine at the end of 2013, and could very easily emerge as a leader next year. His play in the middle of the field helped shift Banderas from MIKE to WILL, helping to cement Rose’s position going forward.

Secondary

Cornerback: Jonathan Rose

Safety: Nathan Gerry

Nickel: Charles Jackson

At corner, Rose and Byerson Cockrell will be fighting for the starting corner spot opposite Josh Mitchell right up until the first game of the season. I would give Rose the nod simply because of the extra year he’s had in the program, but don’t be shocked if both see extensive playing time.

Corey Cooper looks entrenched in one safety spot, so I would see Gerry and LeRoy Alexander battling for the other spot. It’s clear the coaches like Gerry’s talent, as he saw the field last year at linebacker. Safety looks to be a better fit for Gerry, and the versatility he brings in being able to play multiple positions makes him incredibly valuable.

Jackson has always been a special talent, and it looks like he may finally have the discipline to get on the field and stay there. Replacing Ciante Evans will be a tall task, but Jackson’s physical skills could be a huge weapon in that position.

Special Teams

Placekicker: Drew Brown

Kick Returner: Jamal Turner

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s kicking game could be a huge problem in 2014. Mauro Bondi, Nebraska’s scholarship kicker, wasn’t able to beat out Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith last year, and has done little to inspire confidence from what we have seen of him in 2014. Look for Brown, younger brother of former Husker and NFL kicker Kris Brown, to beat out Bondi and win the placekicking job as a true freshman.

As for the return game, it’s not like Nebraska could do much worse in 2014. Turner and Terrell Newby look to be the two most likely candidates, although I’m sure the coaching staff would be tempted to let Abdullah try his hand. But if Turner’s going to be missing out on playing time at receiver—and I have him losing his starting job to Westerkamp, remember—then that gives him more time and energy to make a contribution as a kick returner.