Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Tennessee 38, Nebraska 24

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Nebraska won’t get another post-season lift from a bowl win, falling to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl 38-24. Injuries and suspensions challenged Nebraska, with quarterback Tommy Armstrong, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, and safety Nate Gerry out for the game. But those absences don’t account for Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs having a career game with 291 yards in the air and another 118 on the ground. Nor could it account for defensive end Derek Barnett dominating and disrupting Nebraska’s entire offensive line. So, in looking back at Nebraska’s final game of the 2016 season …

THE GOOD

Oh hai Brandon! If Nebraska had any shot to win this game, particularly after falling behind 14-0 (and having starting I-back Terrell Newby go out with injury in the first half), it was going to be on the sticky gloves of wide receiver Brandon Reilly. Reilly ended the game with four catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns, and (when quarterback Ryker Fyfe had time to throw) provided a downfield threat that could help neutralized Tennessee’s dominance of NU’s offensive line.

Going out in style. OK, here’s two quarterback stat lines. Tell me if you see any similarities.

QB1: 14-27 for 199 yards, 1 touchdown, 11 carries for 46 yards and one touchdown rushing.

QB2: 17-36 for 243 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, 8 carries for 14 yards and one touchdown rushing.

Any ideas? QB2 was Fyfe’s line in the Music City Bowl. QB1? Armstrong’s average stats for the 2016 season. In part, that’s a reflection of how well Fyfe played, particularly with his non-throwing wrist still in a cast. In part, though, it’s also a reflection of how Armstrong did not end with the senior campaign he – and Nebraska fans – were hoping for.

$450,000 saved. Who needs a special teams coach? Freshman punter Caleb Lightborn was called into duty far more than Nebraska would have liked, but performed admirably, averaging 42.7 yards per punt on his seven attempts. Placekicker Drew Brown hit his only field goal attempt to help keep Nebraska within striking distance. And freshman JoJo Domann caused a fumble on a kickoff that got Nebraska the ball back and helped NU get within one score. Nebraska was outplayed fairly decisively in most elements of the game, but won the battle on special teams.

THE BAD

It all starts up front. Sure, Barnett is a future NFL defensive end. But he, and the rest of Tennessee’s defensive front, simply outclassed Nebraska’s offensive line throughout the game. When Fyfe had time to throw, he was relatively effective. But far too often, there were Volunteers in Nebraska’s backfield almost as soon as the ball got back to Fyfe.

The story was the same on the other side of the ball, too. Nebraska was unable to pressure Tennessee with four, and once the Blackshirts started blitzing then Tennessee was able to take advantage of NU’s secondary. Combined with poor tackling (more on that in a moment), Nebraska’s inability to compete on either line was the single biggest determinative of this game’s result.

Defensive fundamentals. It’s not like Nebraska didn’t have its opportunities. But particularly at the linebacker position, Nebraska struggled with poor pursuit angles and poor tackling. Given Tennessee’s talent advantage, Nebraska had little room for error. So when Nebraska would let Tennessee off the hook on third down by missed tackles, the result was predictable.

M.A.S.H. Unit football. Yeah, there’s no excuses in football. But geez, it’s hard to really understand how much to take away from the Music City Bowl given Nebraska’s roster issues. Nebraska started out down its starting quarterback, no. 1 wide receiver, and staring safety. Then, during the game, Nebraska lost its starting I-back (Newby) and its no. 2 safety (Antonio Reed). In a game where Nebraska had a talent deficit coming in, it was a bridge too far asking NU to overcome those losses.

AND THE TRUE END OF AN ERA

Somehow, ending the season with four losses – one of the defining traits of Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini – seems fitting. The end of the 2016 season sees the departure of players like Armstrong, Westerkamp, and Gerry, fine players and leaders but definitely carrying the hallmarks of the previous administration. Head coach Mike Riley was always going to be in a strange position taking over for Pelini with Armstrong as his signal-caller and with defensive coordinator Mark Banker trying to re-make the Blackshirts.

Next season, the page will well and truly be turned, and year three of Riley’s regime will really feel like the first real Riley football team. Whether that will be good enough to get Nebraska where it sees itself – competing for conference titles – remains to be seen. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst made it clear, though, that there are still high expectations for Riley in recruiting as well as results (in an interview with Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

That’s a good thing. Four-loss seasons weren’t good enough when Pelini was in charge (although his dismissal was not entirely caused by them), and Eichorst has made it clear that they aren’t good enough in the long-term for Riley. With a depleted Nebraska squad falling to an SEC team in a bowl, Husker Fan has truly seen the closing of the Pelini Era of Nebraska football. What comes next will be fascinating to watch in 2017.

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Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 43, Fresno State 10

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On Saturday, Nebraska opened the 2016 season with a 43-10 win over Fresno State. My photos from the game can be found here. Nebraska only led 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State missing a short field goal and missing a chance at a touchdown to end the half due to poor clock management. But Nebraska pulled away, scoring 22 in the fourth quarter to seal a comfortable win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s victory …

The Good

Picking Up Where They Left Off. Against UCLA, Nebraska ran the ball 62 times and threw it 19. Throughout the offseason, though, we were told about how the game plan was unique to UCLA’s undersized defensive setup and should not be expected to be repeated.

Against Fresno State, Nebraska ran the ball 51 times and threw it 13.

It was very clear that the game plan was to take the ball out of quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s hands. Out of Nebraska’s first 21 plays, 20 were runs. So whether this distribution can last the season (see below), at least for one game Nebraska kept with a winning formula.

Back in Blackshirts. It’s not like there wasn’t time to panic. The game was 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State engineering an alarmingly-familiar march down the field at the end of the first half. Would déjà vu strike all over again and Nebraska see its lead slip away in the final frame?

Nope. Nebraska locked down Fresno State, shutting the Bulldogs out in the second half as a fourth-quarter flurry of scoring put the game away. Fresno State was unable to hit the big strikes downfield that were Nebraska’s downfall in 2015. So, again at least for one game, Nebraska seemed to have put its ghosts behind it.

A Two-Headed Monster. Nebraska’s wide receivers came into the season as the generally-accepted strength of the team. And, in fairness, they’re still really good, especially when Brandon Reilly returns from his one-game suspension.

But Nebraska’s running backs looked awfully good on Saturday, as well. Devine Ozigbo led the charge with 17 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Terrell Newby, the starter, ran strong with 53 yards on 11 carries. And when you add in Armstrong’s running (42 yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns), and the appearance of true freshman Tre Bryant (36 yards on five carries) and Mikale Wilbon (16 yards on his single carry), Nebraska’s running back corps suddenly looks pretty salty as well.

The Bad

An Unsustainable Imbalance. You know that guy. The one who wears the faded red polo shirt and goes on incessantly about how Nebraska could start winning again if it would just get back to the option and give those walk-ons a chance to play.

Well, that guy has been loving Nebraska football the last couple of games. And with the success Nebraska has enjoyed, it’s hard to criticize. Wins are wins, and coming off a 5-7 season it’s hard not to fall into intellectually lazy traps like this being “real Nebraska football.”

Don’t fall for it. This ridiculous run-pass imbalance stemmed from specific matchup issues, against an undersized UCLA team and an undermanned Fresno State. It was successful in both, and could very well be just as successful against a team like Wyoming next week.

But teams that are better than Fresno State and Wyoming are coming. Against teams like Oregon, LSU-beating Wisconsin, and Ohio State, certainly Nebraska shouldn’t be channeling its inner Mike Leach. But Nebraska won’t be able to have a 51-13 run-pass balance against those teams if it wants any chance at victory.

Target Acquired. In the last three games, Nebraska has had four targeting penalties called against it. Now, one of those was rescinded on Saturday, but that still means Nebraska has had three ejections in three games.

Yes, I know you think it wasn’t fair. And I think there’s probably a good case to be made that the targeting flags were at best marginal. But the bottom line is that Nebraska’s been hit with those penalties. And we’ve seen the damage caused by those flags – Iowa scored straight after Nate Gerry was ejected, and Fresno State’s best drive of the game came right after Luke Gifford’s dismissal.

So whether the flags are fair or not, Nebraska needs to be taking steps to make sure it isn’t even getting close to such a targeting foul in the future.

Not Ready For Prime Time. Hey, remember this guy? After an injury-ravaged 2015, it’s easy to forget how electrifying De’Mornay Pierson-El was for Nebraska. And when Pierson-El was proclaimed healthy and ready to get back on the field, Nebraska fans were understandably excited at the potential.

Well, Pierson-El was back on the field. But his return was nothing he’ll want to remember. He touched the ball only once, fumbling a jet sweep handoff for a loss of seven. Although he was listed as the number one punt returner, it was Jordan Westerkamp that went back to field punts (somewhat shakily) throughout the game.

Maybe the fumble shook him. Maybe the coaches don’t quite have the confidence in him yet. But whatever it is, the Pierson-El we saw in 2014 isn’t back yet.

And The Unconvincing Blowout

Have you ever seen an unconvincing 33-point win? Well, if there ever was one, it was Saturday against Fresno State. Sure, getting the win is great – keep in mind, this is the first time Mike Riley has gone 1-0 at Nebraska. And for the investors among us, having Nebraska cover the 28-point spread wasn’t bad either.

But this was a game that was 14-10 at half – and very easily could have been a 17-14 Bulldog lead absent a missed chip-shot field goal and an inexplicable failure to call time out and waste a down while inside Nebraska’s 10.

Sure, Nebraska ultimately pulled away in the second half, and the fact that NU was able to do so speaks volumes compared to a team that lost to Illinois and Purdue last year. But the fact remains that a 33-point margin is utterly flattering to how Nebraska played.

A win is a win. If 2015 taught us anything, it’s that Nebraska is in a survive-and-advance mode as a program. But there’s still big questions left for Nebraska to answer if it wants a trip to Indianapolis in December.

Nebraska Football: Takeaways from First Scrimmage

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As the 2016 season comes closer, Nebraska is getting ready by scrimmaging in addition to position-specific work. Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald said head coach Mike Riley’s summary of the scrimmage was “efficient.”

That’s good news for a team that (put gently) struggled with efficiency in 2015, losing five of its first eight games in the final minute – before enduring one of Nebraska’s worst losses in a decade by dropping a game to Purdue. But what should we make of the news coming out of Nebraska camp? What are the most important takeaways?

Rule no. 1: Don’t put much stock in most of this

If there’s anything to take away from news coming out of fall camp, it’s this one. Any news coming out of camp should be viewed with suspicion, simply because all this is still just practice. This rule is especially true when it comes to good news, as at this point in the pre-season everyone is optimistic and hoping for the best. This is the sunshine-pumping season, and all the news coming from camp should be viewed through that lens.

An absence of turnovers is encouraging

Over 100 plays, Nebraska had no turnovers. No interceptions, no fumbles lost, none. Bill Connelly, master of the advanced statistics for SB Nation, said Nebraska can contend for the B1G West by making one fewer mistake per game. As anyone who watched Nebraska’s game last year against Iowa (or Northwestern, or Purdue, or Miami, or …) can attest, eliminating turnovers would make the difference in those contests.

But again, refer to Rule no. 1.

The secondary seems to be progressing

Over the course of the scrimmage, Nebraska’s quarterbacks never hit any home-run balls over the top. And, according to McKewon’s recap, it wasn’t because the quarterbacks were inaccurate, but because the receivers were well covered. Again, anyone watching Nebraska’s game last year against BYU (or Illinois, or Wisconsin, or Miami, or …) an ability to shut down the long pass. An improvement in that category can do nothing but encourage the Nebraska faithful.

But, again, refer to Rule no. 1.

Injuries are a concern

A number of players missed the most recent scrimmage, including Michael Rose-Ivey with a knee , Jordan Westerkamp with a groin, and Cethan Carter going through the concussion protocol.

Of the three, Westerkamp’s is probably the least concerning, as we knew he was coming back from injury already. Rose-Ivey missing time is always a concern given his injury history – and the kind of contributions he can make when he’s on the field.

Carter’s injury is more concerning, simply because of the nature of concussions. Hopefully Carter can get cleared and be able to participate fully, especially given the sky-high expectations for his 2016 campaign. But we won’t know until we see him back on the field.

Nebraska Football: The Five Most Indispensable Cornhuskers

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Nebraska football fans have endured a strange season, with a win over Minnesota last week lifting the team to 3-4 on the 2015 campaign. But now that we are into the second half of the season, we’ve seen the players that are most important to Nebraska’s success. These five are the players Nebraska can least live without for the rest of 2015.

All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated.

No. 5: Alonzo Moore

When wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El was lost for the start of the season, many Nebraska fans worried who would fill his role. But after struggling with injuries and performance on the field, junior receiver Alonzo Moore stepped in right away and provided a spark to Nebraska’s offense. He’s been effective in what many envisioned Pierson-El’s role in the jet sweep – Moore is Nebraska’s sixth-leading rusher, and second in yards per carry only to Andy Janovich.

And as a receiver, Moore is third on the team in total yardage. He is second in yards per reception to – you guessed it – big-play fullback Janovich. Moore provides a stretch-the-field speed threat that can help open running lanes, and his consistency this year has been an unheralded cog in the transition to new head coach Mike Riley’s offense.

No. 4: Josh Kalu

Yes, I am fully aware that cornerback Josh Kalu is a member of a secondary that boasts the worst pass defense in the FBS. But remember that the transition to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme asks the most of the secondary. Sure, it’s been harder (OK, fine, a lot harder) than most anticipated, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.

And it’s been Kalu that has made the most progress to date in that secondary. As the season has gone on, you can see Kalu doing better in single coverage technique, and getting more confident in making plays on the ball. Ultimately, Nebraska’s pass defense is only going to improve with superior play in the secondary. And Kalu, right now, provides Nebraska’s best shot at getting that level of performance.

No. 3: Jordan Westerkamp

It’s easy to dismiss a guy like Westerkamp as a possession receiver, a steady-Eddie type who won’t ever make the splash plays but is super dependable. Of course, we know that Westerkamp can make plays that are behind-the-back sensational and game-winning critical.

But even with the spectacular in his locker, it is Westerkamp’s consistency which makes him so valuable. He leads the team in reception yardage, and is second only to Moore in touchdown receptions. Westerkamp is a reliable third-down target, crucial for Nebraska’s offense to stay on the field and keep pressure off a beleaguered defense.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

Don’t let the statistics fool you. Right now, defensive tackle Maliek Collins is seventh on the team in tackles, second in tackles for loss, and fourth in sacks. But his presence in the middle is affecting everything else on the front end of Nebraska’s defense.  Collins has been a lynchpin of Nebraska’s rushing defense, currently no. 7 nationally. And as the season is wearing on, you can start to see him becoming more and more of a disruptive force. Particularly against Minnesota last week, you saw Collins able to break through and apply pressure to the quarterback through the middle. And when he has been split outside, Collins has been able to wreak havoc as a pass rusher.

With the return of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, Collins may get some additional space to work against opposing offenses. Regardless, his play has been instrumental in Nebraska’s defense, and his loss would be catastrophic going forward.

No. 1: Tommy Armstrong

This one wasn’t really close. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how critical Armstrong’s performance has been for Nebraska this year.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2

Games won are in bold.

The analysis is pretty straightforward. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. When he doesn’t, Nebraska loses.

Of course, it’s not just Armstrong’s passing that makes him important to Nebraska. Armstrong’s rushing ability has been crucial, and the inclusion of that element (both planned and unplanned) has been the biggest area of growth in Riley’s new offense.

Losing any other player for Nebraska would be costly, but would leave NU with options. If something happens to Armstrong, though, it’s hard to see how Nebraska would recover.

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: Ranking The Five Most Consistent Players on the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are a slightly different breed than most other college football fans. While other fan bases will lionize the highlight-reel escapades of their superstars, Nebraska fans celebrate offensive linemen and the tough guys who do the dirty work, day in and day out, to help their team succeed.

In that vein, let’s take a look at the guys new head coach Mike Riley has inherited who are the most consistent performers on the roster.

No. 5: Daniel Davie

Last year, Nebraska was blessed with a returning senior at cornerback in Josh Mitchell. But starting opposite Mitchell for all thirteen games last year was Daniel Davie. He had 41 total tackles last year, with five tackles for loss. Davie also had two interceptions and five tackles for loss.

Next year, Davie will be one of two returning starters in Nebraska’s secondary. That continuity will be important for Nebraska as it adopts a new defensive scheme under coordinator Mark Banker.

No. 4: Nathan Gerry

The other returning starter, Nate Gerry, has flourished after spending his freshman season as an undersized linebacker. As a sophomore, Gerry was one of the defensive leaders, with 88 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also had one fumble recovery and five interceptions, one for a touchdown.

Like with Davie, Gerry’s status as a returning starter in the Nebraska defense will be crucial as the Blackshirts transition to Banker’s quarters defensive scheme.

No. 3: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tough to think of a true freshman earning consideration as a consistent player. But Pierson-El’s contributions after earning his way onto the field early in the seasons are hard to overestimate. His punt returns, of course, are already stuff of legends. He kept Nebraska in the game against Michigan State and went a long way towards winning the game against Iowa by going the distance.

But it wasn’t just as a punt returner that Pierson-El showed his ability. He caught 23 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver, working his way onto the field later in the season. And he even went 1-1 as a passer for a touchdown, with a sparkling 564.40 quarterback rating.

Pierson-El is certainly Nebraska’s most dynamic offensive weapon. But part of the reason he is so dynamic—and therefore so dangerous—is because he is so consistent.

No. 2: Andy Janovich

It’s hard to find statistics to back up a claim like this, but Janovich has been a model of consistency at a position where consistency, rather than flair, is the greatest attribute. He gets precious few opportunities to touch the ball (three carries and three receptions in his three years in Lincoln), and yet has made 37 appearances for Nebraska.

It’s possible that the fullback may get a more expanded role in Riley’s new offensive structure. Regardless, though, Janovich can be counted on to make the tough blocks and clear the way for Nebraska’s more explosive offensive weapons in his senior campaign.

No. 1: Jordan Westerkamp

For all of the amazing plays Westerkamp has made, it’s remarkable how easily he is overlooked. And it’s not like he doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic. He made this remarkable behind-the-back catch against Florida Atlantic last year. And he was on the end of one of the most exciting plays Memorial Stadium has ever seen when he caught Ron Kellogg’s Hail Mary to win the game on the final play against Northwestern in 2013.

But that’s not Westerkamp’s game in general. For the most part, Westerkamp runs the precise routes and makes the tough catches on passes which might not be exactly on target. He helps make his quarterbacks look better, and has a knack for finding the first down marker on third down. He’s not Nebraska’s flashiest wide receiver, but he might be the team’s most consistent player.

Stats courtesy of cfbstats.com or huskers.com.

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: Who Has A Starting Role Locked Up?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been watching spring practice closely, looking for clues as to what the team will look like under new head coach Mike Riley. And while there are many more uncertainties this year, given new offensive and defensive schemes, we still have a good idea of at least a few starters for next season. Here are four players who are likely to be on the depth chart next August.

Jordan Westerkamp

Wide receiver is a tricky position to handicap for Nebraska, as there are a number of talented veterans returning in 2015. De’Mornay Pierson-El is easily Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon, but his size means his use will likely be limited on offense. He will play, most certainly, but will likely only be seen in particular packages.

Jamal Turner is another talented veteran who will very likely see the field in 2015. But even though all reports are positive, we still don’t know if he has fully recovered from the injury that cost him the bulk of last season. So it’s hard to call Turner a certain starter until we know his health status.

As a result, Westerkamp is the only veteran receiver that looks set to step into the role of starter for Nebraska. He leads all returning receivers in receptions (according to CFBStats.com), and has a history of spectacular and dramatic catches. So while there are a lot of mouths to feed in Nebraska’s receiving corps, it looks like Westerkamp will be first in line.

Cethan Carter

The only other pass-catcher that seems certain for the field is Carter, Nebraska’s most experience pass-catching tight end. Under previous head coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska had a maddening habit of ignoring its tight end for long stretches (call it the Mike McNeil effect).

But Riley likes to put the ball in the air, and likes to utilize an “H-back” by putting a receiver or tight end into the backfield. Carter would be a perfect fit for the H-back role, giving him more opportunities to see the field.

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine

It’s a little strange to think of the rest of Nebraska’s roster as being in flux, and yet having the defensive tackle position clearly locked down. But given the performance of Collins and Valentine in spring practice, that’s exactly what has happened.

Both Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star have observed how Collins and Valentine have been dominating the offensive line all throughout spring practice. So wherever else Nebraska may have questions, defensive tackle is not one of them.

Nate Gerry

Nebraska is loaded with talent in the secondary, so almost all of the starting back four should have intense competition. At corner, there is a possibility of Nebraska being three deep with players that could start with a less-crowded secondary.

But Gerry looks to be the one certainty at safety. His play last year, after moving from linebacker after his freshman year, cemented his place as Nebraska’s most consistent defensive back. Look for him to be the one starter we know at this point in Nebraska’s talented backfield.

Nebraska Football: Biggest Storylines So Far This Offseason

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As Nebraska football’s spring practice winds on, a number of storylines have emerged. Given the hiring of new head coach Mike Riley and entirely new schemes on offense and defense being installed, the flood of news certainly isn’t surprising. But there are a few storylines that really stand out in bold type as we work our way to the 2015 season.

Here are three of the biggest storylines that have emerged this offseason.

A Simpler Defense

Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s defense was famously difficult and challenging to learn. It appears that under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska’s defense will be far simpler. Check out what junior safety Nate Gerry had to say about the contrast in styles at a pre-spring practice press conference (transcript via Huskers.com)

“My first impression is that I’m really excited for it. It’s a lot simpler than it was. … That’s the thing [new defensive coordinator Mark Banker] wants us all to do, to be able to get to the ball faster and to stay loose. Last year we had a lot of people overthinking. Mentally weweren’t as sharp as we were maybe supposed to be.”

Now, simpler doesn’t always mean better, of course. Check out Derek Johnson’s analysis on the HuskerMax forum about how Nebraska’s defense could struggle by insisting on remaining in a three-linebacker set.

But a simpler defensive scheme will, at the very least, mean that talented players are less likely to be kept off the field based on a lack of scheme knowledge. And that change in defensive philosophy might be the biggest one in Lincoln we’ve seen this offseason.

A Pro-Style Offense

When Riley first arrived, questions lingered as to whether he would be importing his pro-style offense. Certainly, given what happened the last time Nebraska brought in a coach to revamp the offense (by some dude whose name rhymes with Cill Ballahan), things didn’t go well. So many Nebraska fans wanted to downplay the likelihood of offensive upheaval.

And there is some ground for that reassurance. Riley has talked about the need to adapt the game plan to the talent available (as quoted by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

“We have what we’ve done as coaches and we have a new skill set at quarterback almost all the way around,” Riley said. “We are trying to blend the two as best we can together so we can help them be comfortable.

“This is not about what we (as coaches) want to do; this is about giving them (the players) the best tools to play fast and win games. It’s kind of interesting, and kind of fun for us, too.”

Having said that, though, there is no doubt that Nebraska under Riley will be a pro-style offense. In a pre-spring press conference (transcript from Huskers.com), wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said straight out that Nebraska will have a “pro-style type of offense.” Quarterback Tommy Armstrong was quoted by Eric Olsen of the Associated Press of being told by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf that he would “not be a running back” and that his job as a quarterback would be to “sit in the pocket, deliver the ball when I can and make smart decisions.”

How does incorporating a pro-style offense mesh with using the talent available on the roster for Riley? That’s the fascinating question we will see answered in part during spring practice, and in full this autumn.

The Starting Quarterback Job Is Up For Grabs

Yes, Riley has said that Armstrong’s experience is a benefit as he determines next year’s starting quarterback (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star). But that doesn’t mean he’s a guarantee to win the job.

Gerry DiNardo from the BTN is in the midst of touring spring practices from around the conference. Check out what he said about the quarterback races he’s seen so far.

Um, wow. A savvy outside observer says Nebraska’s quarterback decision “isn’t clear.” Add in the report from 247 Sports that Armstrong that back spasms have been hampering his performance and made him sit out of Wednesday’s practice, and the recipe is certainly there for someone other than Armstrong to win the job.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pegged Armstrong’s chances to be the 2015 starter at 50 percent. Looks like recent developments from spring camp make that number just about right.

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

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

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

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

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

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

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

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

No. 7: Kenny Bell

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

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

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

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

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

No. 5: Maliek Collins

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

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

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

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

No. 3: Randy Gregory

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

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

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

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

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

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

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

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

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