Nebraska Football: Five Freshmen Who Must Shine In Fall Practice

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will be looking to the freshman as reasons for optimism in 2015 as fall practice begins. Yes, new head coach Mike Riley gives a new blush to Nebraska’s outlook on the season. But it will be the freshmen who will provide an upgrade to the roster that (hopefully, for Nebraska fans) will make the difference.

So here are five freshmen (redshirt and otherwise) who will need to have a solid performance in fall practice to set the table for the 2015 season.

Dedrick Young

Some of the other players on this list have to shine in fall practice for the players to have a chance. In Young’s case, he has to shine for Nebraska to be successful.

Nebraska’s lack of depth at linebacker is terrifying. For 2015, Nebraska has four scholarship linebackers. Of those four, one was used sparingly as a pass rush specialist, one was injured for all of last season, and one redshirted last year. That leaves one—Josh Banderas—with significant playing experience last year.

So the redshirt freshmen linebackers are likely going to be called on to contribute. Young, as an early-enrollee, will get the first shot at playing time. And unless Nebraska is extraordinarily fortunate with injuries, he or one of the other freshmen will be critical.

The Other Freshmen Linebackers

Young will get the first crack at playing time, but given Nebraska’s paper-thin depth at linebacker the other freshmen will have their shot. As a redshirt freshman, Luke Gifford should be first in line to take a crack at playing time. But the door will be wide open for the other true freshmen linebackers, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan, to find their way onto the field.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Linebacker might be Nebraska’s biggest depth problem, but defensive end isn’t far behind. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be in the lead to start, but the depth chart behind them is wide open.

According to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network, Akinmoladun is his pick for Nebraska’s breakout player. A converted tight end, Akinmoladun brings speed and athleticism to the position, which is perfectly suited to be a pass rushing specialist at defensive end. And that’s exactly what Nebraska needs in an attempt to replace the production of Randy Gregory.

Matt Snyder

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s offense under Riley should feature the tight end more than it has in the past. And while Cethan Carter should be first in line to benefit from the change in offensive philosophy, it also opens the door for a true freshman like Snyder.

None of Nebraska’s other tight ends on the roster provide the offensive threat that Snyder promises. And if Nebraska does end up playing in more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), putting Snyder with Carter on the field at the same time has the potential to cause matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.

Jordan Ober

Ober might be one of the most under-hyped freshmen coming in, but he is second only to Young in terms of players Nebraska needs to contribute right away. Nebraska has the potential to be have a superior special teams unit, especially punting. But that’s only if Nebraska gets consistent play from its long snapper.

And that’s where Ober comes in. With the loss of Gabriel Miller to injury, Nebraska needed a scholarship long snapper. Ober, as a true freshman, will likely be called upon to come in right away and keep Nebraska’s special teams on track.

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Nebraska Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans already know they are in for big changes with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley. But after being caught in a “Groundhog Day” type of almost-but-not-quite-good-enough seasons in the past, it’s a legitimate question to ask why fans should expect a breakthrough in 2015.

One reason for optimism might be true freshman seeing the field and making a difference. Last year, we saw what a difference De’Mornay Pierson-El made for Nebraska. Here are five (well, not exactly) true freshman who could see themselves as starters in 2015.

Dedrick Young, LB

Of all Nebraska’s incoming freshman, Young might be the one the team most desperately needs. With the departure of David Santos, Nebraska is down to four scholarship linebackers who aren’t true freshmen. One (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off a missed season due to injury, one (Marcus Newby) saw limited playing time last season as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) redshirted last year.

Oh, and Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator Mark Banker uses a quarters defensive structure that favors three linebackers on the field for most plays.

So Nebraska is transitioning to a defensive scheme that puts an extra demand (as opposed to former head coach Bo Pelini’s preference for a fifth defensive back) on an area of the roster particularly thin this season. As a result, the young guys are going to have an opportunity early.

Young, as an early enrollee, should have the first shot at earning a starting role. Yes, he’s a true freshman, but it looks like he may be competing with a redshirt freshman and a bunch of walk-ons for that starting job.

All the other freshmen linebackers

In addition to Young, Nebraska signed four other linebackers in the 2015 class, Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan. Given the borderline crisis Nebraska is facing with its linebacker depth chart, it’s not inconceivable that one of these true freshmen could have a breakout performance in fall camp and find his way onto the depth chart.

Admittedly, it will probably take some additional injuries (or a truly monumental fall camp) before any of the other freshmen linebackers could be considered a starter. But given Nebraska’s perilous lack of depth at linebacker, and history of linebacker injuries prior to the start of a season (Michael Rose-Ivey in 2014, Trevor Roach in 2013), that scenario isn’t inconceivable.

Matt Snyder, TE

Under Riley, it appears that the tight end might be a renewed source of interest. For the 2016 class, Nebraska has already signed two tight end prospects, perhaps signaling an end to the “Mike McNeil” syndrome of talented offensive weapons at tight end disappearing from Nebraska’s game plan.

Currently there are three scholarship tight ends on Nebraska’s roster. Only one, Cethan Carter, is the kind of offensive weapon Snyder projects to be. And Carter has struggled with injuries throughout his career at Nebraska.

As of right now, Carter’s experience gives him the clear starting nod. But should Carter be unavailable, don’t be surprised if Snyder is next in line to start at tight end for Nebraska.

DaiShon Neal, DE

Neal’s path to a starting position is more circuitous than some of the others on this list. But Nebraska’s lack of proven depth at the position provides Neal with at least a plausible means to get there.

Really, Nebraska only has one defensive end returning who is truly proven in Greg McMullen. Jack Gangwish’s play at the end of last season was solid enough to make him the likely starter opposite McMullen, but we haven’t seen enough of Gangwish over the course of a season to know what to expect.

Behind McMullen and Gangwish are a number of players, but with significant questions. Senior Joe Keels and sophomore A.J. Natter have been on the squad long enough to know they have failed to earn significant playing time, at least to date. And the two redshirt freshmen, Sedrick King and Freedom Akinmoladun, have a year learning the previous system but no playing experience. Akinmoladun is also trying to learn a new position, converting from tight end.

So Neal has a number of hurdles to get from where he is now to a starter. But certainly in comparison to some other true freshman on the roster, there is at least some opportunity for Neal to clear those hurdles in fall camp.

Jordan Ober, LS

Of all the incoming freshmen, Ober might have the clearest path to a starting job in 2015. With the loss of Gabriel Miller, Nebraska was without a scholarship long snapper coming into the season. The signing of Ober recognizes the importance of the specialty position, and signals the likelihood that he should win the starting position over walk-on freshman Chase Urbach.

Don’t dismiss the importance of this development. A long snapper is an easy position to ignore. But think about how critical a consistently accurate long snap is for field goals and punts. The consequences of a bad snap in those situations is disastrous for field position, or for surrendering potential points on the board. There’s a reason Nebraska burned a scholarship on a specialist like Ober, and it would be quite an upset (and likely represent a big failure in scouting) if Ober wasn’t Nebraska’s starting long snapper in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Reasonable Expectations for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans do have the capacity for being reasonable (evidence sometimes notwithstanding). So as we settle in for the off-season, let’s take some time to look ahead and think about what we can reasonably expect from Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley.

Nebraska Will Improve on Turnovers, not Penalties

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has used this table before, but what it reveals about Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini is striking. Take a look at where Nebraska ranked under Pelini nationally in terms of penalty yards per game and turnover margin (stats courtesy of CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

The bold italic numbers, as a refresher, are the times when Nebraska finished in the top half nationally in those statistical categories. In other words, if the number isn’t in bold italics, it means Nebraska was (put charitably) below average.

Put less charitably—especially when the national rankings were in triple digits—it means Nebraska was regularly atrocious.

How did those numbers look in the same time period under Riley at Oregon State? In comparison, it’s a mixed bag.

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 83 56
2009 87 31
2010 80 35
2011 118 100
2012 78 29
2013 78 42
2014 123 41

With regards to penalties, you could argue that Riley’s Beavers were worse than Pelini’s Cornhuskers. But with regards to turnover margin, Riley’s teams were far better than Pelini’s.

So you can stop expecting Nebraska to commit fewer penalties just because Riley is such a soft touch in comparison to Pelini. But you can expect Nebraska under Pelini to do a much better job in protecting the football.

True Freshmen Will Make An Impact

A combination of talent and lack of depth will likely push a number of true freshmen onto the field in 2015. The clearest path to the field is probably possessed by linebacker Dedrick Young, given that Nebraska only has five non-freshmen scholarship linebackers on the roster (you can see a class-by-class breakdown of NU’s roster competition here, courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald).

Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of Nebraska’s highest-rated recruits (according to 247Sports), should be in the mix for playing time even in NU’s crowded and talented secondary. Matt Snyder, a talented offensive weapon at tight end, could be pressed into earlier service if the spring injury to Cethan Carter lingers into the fall. And Jordan Ober looks to come in right away and start for Nebraska at long snapper after losing scholarship snapper Gabriel Miller to injury last year.

Nebraska’s Record Will Be About The Same As 2014

Cue the “then why did we fire a coach who never won fewer than nine games” shrieking in three, two, one …

Nebraska’s 2015 schedule isn’t the most difficult, but it’s got some pitfalls. The season opener against BYU is a big challenge, given that Nebraska will be installing a new offense and a new defense. Riley’s first test of his new-look Cornhusker squad will be against a program with a national championship in its locker, not an FCS directional school coming to Lincoln for a paycheck.

Nebraska also has to travel to Miami to face a Hurricanes squad with more talent on paper than the Cornhuskers. In conference, Nebraska also has to go to Minneapolis to face a Golden Gopher team with a two-game winning streak over NU (I know, I had to read that a couple of times to let it truly sink in). Games against Wisconsin and Michigan State (and, to a lesser extent, Iowa and Northwestern) will challenge Nebraska, but they are at Memorial Stadium.

Last year Nebraska went 9-3 in the regular season. Given the two challenges in the non-conference and the five in-conference, combined with the difficulties of transitioning to a new coach and a new system, besting a 9-3 record would be a challenge. It would take a big step up in quarterback play, or a big step back from a number of Nebraska’s conference foes, to comfortably predict a step up from NU’s 2014 record.

We’ll have a discussion later about whether or not that can represent progress for Nebraska. Be patient, it’s a long off-season.