Nebraska Football: Key Questions for Cornhuskers Against BYU

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Nebraska football fans have just one more week to wait before BYU week beginning. As a result, it’s not too early to start looking ahead and wondering what it might take for new head coach Mike Riley to lead Nebraska to a victory to start the 2015 season. Here are three questions that will be answered – one way or the other – in Nebraska’s lid-lifter.

Can the Blackshirts Stop Hill?

Even before the coaching change, this was the biggest question coming into the contest against BYU. Quarterback Taysom Hill is a remarkable talent, particularly as a runner. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports talks about Hill as a darkhorse Heisman candidate, and Matt Brown of SB Nation argues that Hill is BYU’s most talented quarterback since Steve Young (even if he doesn’t win the Heisman).

That’s a tall order for Nebraska’s first opponent of the season, particularly when NU will be putting a brand new defensive scheme in place. While the quarters scheme run by defensive coordinator Mark Banker should be more effective against the run (as observed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), how the Blackshirts fare against Hill will be the primary determining factor in whether Nebraska can start 2015 with a win.

How Will the Offense Work?

There’s been encouraging signs coming out of fall camp for Nebraska’s offense, particularly for fans who can remember an offensive sea-change under a certain Bill Callahan. In reporting that Nebraska’s offense is “fully installed” for the 2015 season, the Best College Sports News Network quoted offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf as follows:

As we narrow our game plan down a lot, we want to make sure he [quarterback Tommy Armstrong] is comfortable, give him some thoughts and then really rank them (plays) that he likes. We get into a game, we have a menu of plays—we want to make sure the quarterback that is making the decision is comfortable with the play and feels good about it.

That’s just a little bit different than when Callahan showed up in 2004 and tried to pound a Joe Dailey-shaped peg into a West Coast Offense-shaped hole, with predictable results. Predictable, as in a 19 completions from 42 (!) passing attempts performance on a windy November afternoon in Ames, en route to a 34-27 loss.

So at least we know Riley and company are attempting to tailor Nebraska’s new-look offense to the talent on the roster, rather than installing his preferred pro-style offense. How that hybrid will work, especially against a BYU defense with a national recruiting base, will be a fascinating question to answer.

How Will Nebraska Replace Pierson-El?

As the 2014 season wore on, De’Mornay Pierson-El evolved from an option on special teams, to a game-changing punt returner, to Nebraska’s leading receiver against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Losing Pierson-El for six to eight weeks is a big blow, then, for a coaching staff already struggling to find an identity (as well as filling an Ameer Abdullah-shaped hole in last year’s offensive production). As a result, Nebraska will need to find a player (or collection of players) to fill that void.

First in line might be senior wide receiver Jamal Turner, who had a strong performance in an inter-squad scrimmage, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald. If Turner, in his sixth season after getting a medical hardship from last season’s campaign, can live up to some of his untapped potential, Nebraska might have a chance to replace some of Pierson-El’s playmaking skills.

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Nebraska Football: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Secret Weapons

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp under new head coach Mike Riley. As they wait, they will be looking through the roster and wondering what the secrets to a successful Nebraska season could be in 2015.

What will be Nebraska’s strengths to exploit? Its weaknesses to avoid? And what secret weapons can Nebraska fans talk about and look smart to their friends around a late summer barbecue? Here are a few options to consider.

Strength: Defensive Tackle

An argument could be made that the strongest overall position might be at defensive tackle. Maliek Collins is getting rave pre-season reviews, pegged by ESPN NFL analyst Todd McShay as a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Alongside Collins will be Vincent Valentine, who was tabbed as a third-string all-Big Ten player by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.

Being dominant on the interior of a defensive line can help a team stop the run and get a straight-line pass rush. It frees up defensive ends and linebackers, makes play-action passing less effective, and helps a secondary by decreasing the amount of time needed to cover receivers. Nebraska fans have seen what a dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh can do for the rest of a defensive unit.

No, neither Collins nor Valentine are in Suh’s class. But seeing how Suh affected the Blackshirts – and opposing offenses – gives some idea of how important Collins and Valentine could be to Nebraska.

Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s not exactly breaking news that Pierson-El is Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon returning. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah and the questions surrounding Nebraska at quarterback (more on that in a bit), Pierson-El provides the kind of threat NU will need to attack opposing defenses.

Pierson-El’s value goes up when you consider what Riley’s offenses, and the players who have succeeded in those offenses, have looked like. At Oregon State, Riley used a steady diet of screen passes and jet sweeps designed to get shifty playmakers the ball in space and challenge defenses horizontally. Pierson-El’s speed and elusiveness make him ideally suited for those roles, or as a decoy in a straight-ahead rushing attack.

It’s hard not to see a little of Jacquizz Rodgers when you see Pierson-El. Rodgers, like Pierson-El, is small, shifty, and lightning-fast. At Oregon State, Riley was able to ride Rodgers to a win over then-no. 1 USC and make him the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2008.

Weakness: Tommy Armstrong

Hear me out on this one. Yes, Armstrong has been successful as Nebraska’s quarterback. Yes, he’s the guy with the most experience and the most ready to take on the starting job next season.

But you can’t get away from the numbers. Armstrong has a career 52.9 percent completion rate, and a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to compete for a conference title.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, it’s entirely possible that Armstrong’s numbers could improve next season. Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a history of success with signal-callers. Armstrong, with an off-season of work with Riley and Langsdorf, may be the beneficiary of that skill.

If Nebraska wants to contend for a conference title in 2015, he’ll need to be.

Weakness: New Coaching Staff

Debate over the wisdom of firing Bo Pelini and hiring Riley started almost immediately after Pelini’s dismissal, and will not be resolved for some years to come. But whether the decision was wise or foolish in the long term, for this year there is no escaping the fact that Nebraska will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive scheme. Not only that, but Nebraska will be in the no-man’s land of trying to fit players from an old scheme into a new game plan, and fitting a new scheme around the talents of the players currently on the roster.

In other words, year one of any new coaching staff has unique challenges. And given the front-loaded nature of Nebraska’s schedule, with games against BYU and at Miami in the first three contests, NU will have to be ready to play right away.

Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth

Sure, we know Pierson-El is an amazing talent. But look past him on the depth chart and Nebraska has a sneaky-good roster at receiver.

Jordan Westerkamp returns as one of Nebraska’s most reliable targets. Jamal Turner gets an extra year of eligibility and will have his final chance to be the breakout talent he was seen to be when he arrived in Lincoln. Cethan Carter has the athletic skills to create mismatches at tight end, and should be healthy enough (and in an offense which can feature a tight end) to be a factor. Alonzo Moore has speed to rival Kenny Bell, but has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a true impact.

Until the season starts, we’re not going to know how Nebraska’s run-pass balance will look on offense. But when Nebraska does decide to air it out, there will be lots of receiving options to work with.

Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz

Yes, a punter can be a weapon. Get used to it.

Field position matters in football. Take a look at a site like FBSDriveStats.com, and you can take a look at average starting field position and what a difference it makes to a team’s bottom line. The efficiency ratings from advanced analytical sites like Football Outsiders take field position into account as a primary indicia of a team’s success. Bill Connelly lists field position as one of the five most important statistics in understanding the relative merits of college football teams.

Connelly summarizes the importance of field position in one sentence. “If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.”

A punter is a crucial weapon in that field position battle. According to the NCAA, last year the difference between the no. 1 and no. 50 teams in terms of net punting average was 6.22 yards, while the difference in kick returns was only 4.74 yards.

That differential suggests that a punter, more than any other single specialist, can affect a team’s field position. And a team’s field position, as we have seen, can lead to wins.

Foltz is set up to be one of the conference’s best punters, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Sure, punters get no respect, even less than placekickers in the eyes of most football fans. But if Foltz is able to help Nebraska win field position battles, his foot might carry NU to wins it would not otherwise achieve next season.

Nebraska Football: Projecting Who Will Win The Open Starting Positions

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been looking at the roster, seeing who graduated, and thinking about who might step in and be a new starter in 2015. With new head coach Mike Riley, it’s even harder to guess where players might slot in under a new system with a new set of coaches doing the evaluations.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, most positions are up for grabs. But for purposes of this exercise, we will work of the Holiday Bowl depth chart to determine which positions are open. With that understanding, let’s take a look at the rosters.

Offensive Line

Open positions: Left guard, right guard

Center and right tackle may be positions that shift during the course of fall camp, but for purposes of this exercise the only open positions are at guard with the graduation of Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy.

Chongo Kondolo saw quite a bit of time last season, and looks likely to be first man up in 2015. Given that guard is an easier position for a young player to step into, it would not be a surprise to see one of last year’s offensive line recruits step in and win a starting position. Given that Tanner Farmer was the highest rated of those prospects (according to 247 Sports), he gets the nod for now.

Projected starters: Chongo Kondolo, Tanner Farmer

Backfield

Open position: I-back

Ameer Abdullah’s departure leaves a huge hole at I-back to fill. Nebraska has at least four I-backs with the potential to step in and start, although it seems likely that none will have the same kind of work-load that Abdullah did.

At this point it’s hard to handicap the I-back race. But given how the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby should be the leader in the clubhouse to win the starting job. Newby has game-breaking speed, and has shown an ability to run between the tackles. Between those skills and Newby’s game experience, he’s the most likely starter at this point.

Projected starter: Terrell Newby

Receivers

Open position: X receiver

Kenny Bell’s graduation opens up one receiver spot for Nebraska next year. And while Nebraska has a number of talented receivers, Jamal Turner is uniquely qualified to slide into a starting role. Turner received a sixth year of eligibility after an injury robbed him of most of the 2014 season. With his experience and ability—assuming he has fully healed—Turner is a natural selection for a starting wideout.

Projected starter: Jamal Turner

Defensive Line

Open position: Defensive end

Nebraska’s interior defensive line is set with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Greg McMullen should hold down one defensive end position, leaving the other—the one that Randy Gregory has vacated—left to fill.

Jack Gangwish ended the season as Gregory’s backup, and performed well. Given the lack of depth at the position, especially proven depth, Gangwish looks to be the natural replacement for Gregory.

Projected starter: Jack Gangwish

Linebackers

Open positions: MIKE and WILL linebacker

Linebacker is Nebraska’s shallowest position, with only five scholarship players outside of true freshmen returning in 2015. Much has been written about how Josh Banderas is thriving in Riley’s new system (including this article by Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), and it seems likely he will return to the role he was used as a true freshman at middle linebacker.

At weak-side linebacker, Michael Rose-Ivey seems the most likely starter. Returning from an injury that cost him all of 2014, Rose-Ivey will look to recapture the form that had him as a fixture in the starting lineup a year earlier. While Banderas should reclaim the middle linebacker position, Rose-Ivey makes a lot of sense slotting in at weak-side linebacker

Projected starters: Josh Banderas, Michael Rose-Ivey

Secondary

Open positions: Cornerback, safety

Nebraska has one player returning at corner (Daniel Davie) and safety (Nate Gerry), so has one each to fill for 2015. Safety looks to be the easier race to handicap, with LeRoy Alexander returning from a one-year suspension. Alexander was a contender to win one of the starting roles last season, and he should start fall camp with a leg up on his competition for the role in 2015.

Cornerback is a muddier picture, with a number of players competing for the role. While any number of players could ultimately win the position, smart money at this point might be on Josh Kalu. As a true freshman, Kalu fought his way onto the field, and showed leadership with his opportunities. While it’s a crowded field, seeing Kalu win a starting role would not be a shock

Projected starters: LeRoy Alexander, Josh Kalu

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of Cornhuskers’ 2015 Roster

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have settled into June, knowing that football season is still some ways away. So while they enjoy their afternoons at the pool, baseball games, and endless yardwork, never far from their minds is the composition of Nebraska’s roster for the upcoming season.

Because, in many ways, spending time in June thinking about the Cornhuskers’ backup right guard is part of what defines a Nebraskan.

So let’s take some time and, position-by-position, go through Nebraska’s 2015 roster as it might look under new head coach Mike Riley.

Quarterback

It seems clear that, barring injury, Tommy Armstrong will be Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2015. BTN’s Tom Dienhart is one of many who believes that Armstrong’s experience will be crucial in retaining the starting job.

Behind Armstrong is a massive amount of depth, all unproven. Junior Ryker Fyfe has the most experience, which isn’t much, and was a walk-on for a reason. Sophomore Johnny Stanton has all the talent in the world with his Elite 11 background, but has struggled to make a dent on Nebraska’s depth chart. He made a cameo appearance at this year’s Spring Game for a reason as well. Redshirt freshmen Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush saw significant playing time at the Spring Game, but both are raw talents and it would be a big ask for them to overtake Armstrong and his experience.

I-Back

Nebraska has four I-backs on the roster that are legitimate threats for significant playing time; senior Imani Cross, junior Terrell Newby, sophomore Adam Taylor, and redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon.

Given the distribution of carries at the Spring Game, it’s fair to suspect that Newby will be Nebraska’s starting I-back next season. But that may not mean a lot. Even removing from consideration the changes which could come in the depth chart as a result of fall camp, don’t be surprised to see Nebraska employ a significant rotation of I-backs.

Particularly given the difference in skill-sets (Cross being a bruiser, Newby more of a scat-back speedster, and Taylor and Wilbon something of a mix between the two), Nebraska’s I-back carries are likely to be far more evenly distributed than in years past.

Receivers

Nebraska’s starting lineup at wide receiver looks fairly straightforward. In Jordan Westerkamp and Jamal Turner, Nebraska has two experienced and talented wideouts to lean on.

And then Nebraska has its x-factor, De’Mornay Pierson-El. His dominance as a kick returner and flashes of brilliance on offense have sent Nebraska fans into a tizzy. But exactly how Pierson-El will be deployed on the field remains a mystery.

Will he run the ball out of the jet sweep? Does he have the frame at five-foot-nine and 185 pounds to be an every-down wideout? How Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf choose to utilize Pierson-El’s skill-set may well be one of the biggest determining factors in Nebraska’s success in 2015.

Nebraska should be well placed with depth, as well, turning to players like Taariq Allen, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, and Sam Burtch as part of a rotation. All of these players have struggled with injuries at one point in their careers, and have the potential to press for playing time if fully healthy.

Tight End

Cethan Carter stands out amongst Nebraska’s current tight ends as the one true down-the-field receiving threat. Injuries—and a baffling refusal from Nebraska’s previous staff to utilize the tight end—limited Carter’s production last year, but he looks to be ready for 2015.

Behind Carter are a number of capable players—Sam Cotton, David Sutton, and Trey Foster—but none are offensive threats like Carter. Incoming freshman Matt Snyder looks to be that type of player, though, and could see the field early if he is able to make an impression in fall camp.

Offensive Line

At tackle and center, Nebraska will be returning players with at least some starting experience. Left tackle Alex Lewis will likely be the most experienced, with Paul Thurston having a good shot to start at center and right tackle up for grabs between Givens Price and Zach Sterup.

Guard is a bigger question mark given Nebraska’s attrition to graduation. Chongo Kondolo should make a good case at one starter, while Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson, and Ryne Reeves could all be part of the mix at tackle as well.

Nebraska’s 2014 class of offensive linemen—Tanner Farmer, Nick Gates, and Jerald Foster—could also have an opportunity to step forward and earn significant playing time, particularly at some of the unsettled positions on the line.

Defensive Line

The middle of Nebraska’s line is pretty clear cut. Vincent Valentine is a monster of a man (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) who got better and better throughout 2014. And Maliek Collins is already a 2016 NFL first round projected draft pick, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.

Defensive end remains far murkier in terms of who Nebraska will lean on. Based on experience, Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish will likely open the season as starters. Marcus Newby saw time last year as a pass rush specialist, so don’t be shocked to see him drop in the mix at defensive end, along with Peyton Newell. The biggest wild card might be converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athleticism might help him stand out amongst a competitive field.

Linebacker

It might not be Nebraska’s weakest position, but linebacker is certainly Nebraska’s thinnest. Not counting the incoming freshmen, Nebraska has five (!) scholarship linebackers. Two (David Santos and Michael Rose Ivey) are coming off significant injuries, and one (Marcus Newby) was deployed more as a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker than a true linebacker in Nebraska’s 4-3 scheme.

So, yeah, the position is a little thin.

The initial starting lineup looks pretty clear with Josh Banderas in the middle, Santos at the Will, and Rose Ivey at the Sam. Look for early-enrollee Dedrick Young to push for playing time, and it seems almost certain that one of the other freshmen (Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) to contribute in 2015 as well.

Secondary

If linebacker is thin for Nebraska, then the secondary is ridiculously deep. If we assume that returning starters Nate Gerry at safety and Daniel Davey at corner retain their positions, then there should be an amazing competition for playing time. This competition could be highlighted by new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme which focuses on three linebackers on the field.

At corner, Josh Kalu, Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, and Chris Jones all have a legitimate case for playing time. At safety, Byerson Cockrell played well last year but will be competing with LeRoy Alexander after his year’s suspension, as well as Kieron Williams. And incoming freshmen Eric Lee and Avery Anderson have the talent to push for playing time right  away.

Special Teams

Where Nebraska is good on special teams, it’s really good. Where it’s not, it’s decidedly mediocre.

In Sam Foltz and De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska might have the best in the country at punter and punt returner respectively. That’s a huge weapon and a huge advantage for Nebraska on both sides of the ball.

But at placekicker, Nebraska will likely be choosing between sophomore Drew Brown and senior Mauro Bondi. Neither impressed last season, although some of Brown’s struggles may be attributable to his youth. Regardless, placekicker (both for field goals and kickoffs) has to be considered a question mark.

And don’t underestimate the uncertainty at long snapper, with true freshman Jordan Ober competing with sophomore Josh Faulkenberry for the position.

 

 

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Star and composite rankings from 247 Sports.

Jamal Turner

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

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

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

Charles Jackson

Class of 2011, four-star, .9605 composite

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

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

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

Paul Thurston

Class of 2012, four-star, .9357 composite

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

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

Josh Banderas

Class of 2012, four-star, .9053 composite

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

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

Terrell Newby

Class of 2013, four-star, .9404 composite

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: Who Is Replacing Every Former Husker Taken in the 2015 NFL Draft?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans watching the NFL draft had to wait until the second day to see the first Cornhusker alum go off the board. Ameer Abdullah went in the second round to the Lions, Randy Gregory went (finally) in the second round to the Cowboys, and Kenny Bell went in the fifth round to the Buccaneers.

So who will take their place? Which players will step up and replace the NFL-level production provided by Abdullah, Gregory, and Bell last season? With the help of a projected depth chart from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, here’s at least some potential replacements.

Terrell Newby for Ameer Abdullah

This is probably a little misleading. Newby looks to be in prime position to get the first crack at taking the lead I-back role for Nebraska in 2015. But McKewon thinks (and with good reason) that Newby will be at least the nominal starter net season.

That may not mean as much with Nebraska’s stable of backs (and with a new head coach and offensive philosophy). And there’s no doubt that none of Nebraska’s I-backs will be focus of NU’s offense and a team leader the way Abdullah was last year.

But if there’s anyone that will fill the Ameer-shaped hole for Nebraska next year, Newby looks like the man to get the first shot at it.

Marcus Newby for Randy Gregory

OK, hear me out. I know Newby is a linebacker, and isn’t even guaranteed a starting job next year. But Gregory was always undersized for a defensive end, making up for his lack of size with freakish athletic ability.

What Gregory’s real talent was for the Blackshirts was rushing the passer. In both 2013 and 2014 (according to CFBStats.com), Gregory led Nebraska in sacks. Newby had one sack in eight appearances. More importantly, though, his appearances were mainly limited to passing situations where his role was to rush the passer.

Sure, Gregory was an every-down defensive lineman at the collegiate level, not just a pass-rush specialist. But where Gregory will be most missed by Nebraska is his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Don’t be surprised to see Newby fill that role next year, if he doesn’t beat David Santos out for the weakside linebacker job altogether.

Jamal Turner for Kenny Bell

Yes, De’Mornay Pierson-El is likely to be Nebraska’s most dangerous weapon at receiver. But Bell provided more than just a deep threat. He was also provided leadership and toughness. And while Pierson-El’s talent is undeniable, he hasn’t even played a full year at receiver.

Turner, on the other hand, will be starting his sixth year in the program after receiving a medical hardship. And with the injuries he has fought through, Turner has demonstrated a toughness and tenacity which the rest of the receiving corps can look to and emulate.

Admittedly, Turner doesn’t have Bell’s amazing hair. But Turner, more than anyone else on the roster, can replace Bell’s combination of playmaking speed and senior leadership.

Nebraska Football: Grading Cornhuskers’ Position Group’s 2015 Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

Offensive Line

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

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

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

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

Grade: B

Receivers

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

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

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

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

Grade: C+

Linebackers

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

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

Grade: B-

Secondary

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

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

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

Grade: A

Special Teams

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

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

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

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: Final Spring Practice Stock Report

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Stock Up: Graham Nabity

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

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

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

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

Stock Down: Cethan Carter

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

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

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

Stock Up: Jamal Turner

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

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

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

Stock Down: The Scrambled Eggs and Toast Crew

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

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

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers Poised for a Bounceback Year in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are gearing up for the Spring Game on April 11, knowing they are in for a long summer to wait before getting more football in the fall. If you’ve been following a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst, you know we’ve already discussed players who need to step up, players who have a starting role locked up, and players we have questions about, amongst other spring quandaries.

But who is poised for a bounce-back year for Nebraska. Who is ready to get off the map and reclaim their place in the spotlight for the scarlet and cream? Here are three candidates.

Jamal Turner

Turner is probably the clearest bounce-back candidate for Nebraska, simply because of how far he’s fallen. When he arrived on campus, he looked briefly to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback job (and if you want to cue up a fascinating “what if” scenario, there’s a good one for you).

But when it was clear that Martinez was going to be the signal-caller, Turner shifted to wideout. By his sophomore year, he looked to be establishing himself at the position. But injuries derailed his progression, hampering his junior year and costing him the entirety of 2014.

Now, with a medical hardship in hand, Turner has an opportunity to establish himself in Riley’s pro-style offense. If he can retain the speed and quickness that made him such an electric prospect when he arrived in Lincoln, he might finally have the chance to be the star Nebraska fans have thought him to be.

Tommy Armstrong

It’s an interesting philosophical discussion to consider whether Armstrong needs to “bounce back” or not. He’s 16-5 as a starter, with a career passer rating of 130.64. But he also has a career completion rate of 52.9 percent, and a disturbing 31/20 touchdown/interception ratio.

So perhaps it’s unfair to label Armstrong as a bounce-back player in terms of the wins and losses he is a part of. But it is fair to tag him with that label in terms of his accuracy and decision-making, two elements that will be critical in Riley’s offense.

Riley has a history of developing quarterbacks, most recently Sean Mannion at Oregon State. While Armstrong’s winning percentage doesn’t need a bounce-back, his efficiency and decision-making do if Nebraska is to compete for conference titles.

Josh Banderas

Few players in scarlet and cream have had the highs and lows that Banderas has in his young Nebraska career. He was a starting middle linebacker as a true freshman. He was put into the doghouse and wouldn’t see the field for weeks at a time due to a lack of performance. He was, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, mishandled by Bo Pelini and his staff.

But now he’s getting his chance to shine under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. According to reports from spring practice (including the Fremont Tribune), Banderas is settling into his role at middle linebacker. And given Nebraska’s lack of depth at linebacker, Banderas will have a long leash to get the position right this time.

Nebraska Football: Three Cornhuskers Who Could Surprise People This Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Jamal Turner

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

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

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

Charles Jackson

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

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

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

Cethan Carter

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

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

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

 

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