Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against Miami

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Nebraska faces its first road test of the season and with new head coach Mike Riley in charge, traveling to Coral Gables to face the Miami Hurricanes. For Nebraska fans watching the game at 2:30 p.m. central time on ABC:

You’ll Be Happy If …

Tommy Continues His Progress. Coming into the season, this dope thought that Tommy Armstrong could be a weakness for Nebraska, given his struggles with completion percentages and interceptions. But in two games, Armstrong has a completion percentage of 63.4 percent and a 5/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Those are numbers good enough to win a divisional title, and compete for a conference title. And if Armstrong can keep those numbers up against the most talented team Nebraska has faced so far this season – and on the road for the first time as well – Nebraska will be in great shape.

Kaaya Gets Heated Up. Yes, Nebraska’s secondary has struggled mightily this year. But that comes in large part from Nebraska unable to generate a pass rush, especially with only its front four. That’s got to change if Nebraska is going to be successful against Miami. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is too talented and has too many weapons to be allowed time in the pocket.

So whether it’s Maliek Collins in the middle learning how to deal with double and triple teams, or defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun translating his athletic ability into quarterback pressure, the Blackshirts’ ability to put Kaaya on the ground will be critical for a Nebraska win.

Carter’s Return Is Triumphant. After a two-game suspension, tight end Cethan Carter returns to the lineup for Nebraska. That’s a big deal for a Nebraska squad already thin from injuries with Sam Cotton lost against BYU. Plus, even with Nebraska’s tight end squad fully healthy, Carter is by far the most dangerous offensive weapon of the bunch.

Miami hasn’t seen any tape of Carter in Riley’s offense, and Carter will have a point to prove after missing the first two games. Don’t be surprised if he ends up a huge factor in a Nebraska victory.

You’ll Be Sad If …

There’s A Banderas-sized Hole. Middle linebacker Josh Banderas has been struggling with injury all week, but is expected to play against Miami on Saturday (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star). That’s a big deal, as Nebraska has not yet been able to see its two most experienced linebackers – Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey – on the field at the same time.

But expected to play doesn’t necessarily mean fully healed. And if Banderas is limited, or has a setback and isn’t able to play at all, then Nebraska’s defense is significantly hampered against the most talented offense NU has faced all season.

The Yellow Emerges. Against BYU, Nebraska had 12 penalties for 90 yards, and it’s hard not to see that as a factor in NU’s razor-thin loss to the Cougars. Against South Alabama, Nebraska was better – but still not good – in penalties, drawing 7 flags for 80 yards.

This game already looks to be chippy, after a fiercely competitive matchup last year in Lincoln. But Nebraska can’t afford to give yardage away against Miami with a flurry of penalties. If the yellow comes out in large quantities for Nebraska, Miami has a huge advantage.

Golden Is, Well … Miami coach Al Golden has struggled to return the Hurricanes to glory. SB Nation posted an interview with Golden that discussed whether he was on the hot seat as a result of his relative underachievement.

Dave Bartoo of the CFB Matrix has developed an analytical tool to tell how much difference – positive or negative – a coach can make on a team’s success in what he calls the “Coach Effect.” Last year’s coach effect saw Riley (then at Oregon State) at no. 11 amongst power-five schools, and Golden at no. 41.

Those numbers suggest that, all things being equal, a Riley-coached team should beat a Golden-coached team. And Miami and Nebraska are pretty equal, talent-wise. But the game is in Miami, and if Golden is able to over-perform his coaching history, Nebraska is likely to struggle.

Investment Advice

Miami is a three-point favorite at home (according to Covers), suggesting that the gamblers view the two teams as nearly even. But Nebraska looks like it is building steam and starting to settle in to what Riley is asking for on offense and defense. And Golden’s coaching history does not inspire confidence. Take Nebraska and the points.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, Miami 28.

Nebraska Football: The 5 Most Indispensable Cornhuskers in 2015

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Nebraska football fans know that in an era of scholarship limits, it’s hard to lose any players. But some players on a roster are harder to lose than others, and the effect of their absence on the squad is greater. As we prepare for new head coach Mike Riley’s first test, here are five of the players that Nebraska can least afford to lose.

No. 5 : De’Mornay Pierson-El

I know, I know, he’s hurt and is going to miss six to eight weeks (according to the Omaha World-Herald). But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed already, if that timetable holds true then Nebraska might be well set to withstand his loss for those games, getting him back for the real meat of the season.

And make no mistake, Nebraska is much better with a healthy Pierson-El. More than anyone else on the roster, Pierson-El is a proven game-changer in the return game, and was beginning to show his promise as a receiver. Add him in to Riley’s offense (with the jet sweeps alone) and he changes Nebraska’s offense and how defenses have to react.

With recent news that Pierson-El might be out longer than the original timeframe given (according to Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald), Nebraska fans are rightly concerned about what impact the injury will have on the 2015 season. And while Riley should not give in to temptation and leave Pierson-El on the sideline until he can return without unreasonable risk of re-injury, his loss will be keenly felt if it does go longer than six to eight games.

No. 4: Tommy Armstrong

Armstrong might not be the quarterback Riley would have picked to run his offense, but he’s the quarterback Riley has inherited. And given the in ability of any other quarterback on the roster to legitimately challenge Armstrong for the position, it has to be assumed that Riley and his staff have concluded that Armstrong’s skill set gives Nebraska its best chance to be successful on offense.

Indeed, in the installation of this year’s offense, the scheme is tailored to fit Armstrong’s strengths and desires. According to The Best College Sports News Network, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said that he makes sure Armstrong is comfortable with a particular play before putting it into a game plan.

That’s great news for Nebraska fans having nervous flashbacks to 2004, watching Joe Dailey try to run a Bill Callahan offense for which he was woefully unsuited. But it also means big trouble for Nebraska if Armstrong goes down and one of the backups has to get significant playing time.

No. 3: Alex Lewis

There’s good news coming from Nebraska camp about the NU offensive line coming into the season. According to 247 Sports, the offensive line is “beginning to gel,” which is crucial for Nebraska to have any chance at offensive success in a year when an new system is being implemented.

But there’s only one returning starter on that line, senior left tackle Alex Lewis. His presence, particularly at such a crucially important position on the line for a right-handed quarterback, is central to Nebraska’s ability to get good play from its offensive line. And without that good play, it’s very difficult to see how Nebraska will succeed either running or throwing the ball.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

A survey of most reports from Nebraska’s fall camp has defensive tackle Collins being the best player on the team. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Collins was one of the players cited by the Big Ten Network’s crew in their annual pre-season visit of B1G teams. And ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay has Collins as a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

That’s the kind of talent that is hard to replace. While defensive line is an area of strength for Nebraska, particularly on the interior with Vincent Valentine and Kevin Williams, the loss of Collins would be a huge step backwards.

No. 1: Josh Banderas

OK, so maybe the emergence of freshmen like Dedrick Young, Tyrin Ferguson, and Luke Gifford (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star) can help quell the tinges of panic felt by Nebraska fans when they realize that there’s only one linebacker on the roster who started a game last year.

But if something happens to that guy – specifically, middle linebacker Josh Banderas – then feel free to resume full-blown panic. Nebraska would then be left without any returning experience at a position of critical importance, particularly in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme.

Which, of course is why practice reports from 247 Sports about Banderas being “day to day” with a groin injury should be terrifying for Nebraska fans. Less than two weeks away from taking the field against Taysom Hill and a solid BYU club, Nebraska’s only returning starter at linebacker isn’t practicing. According to 247 Sports, if Banderas couldn’t play then the middle linebacker spot would likely be filled by Ferguson or Chris Weber.

Wrap your head around that, Husker fan. Nebraska could be facing BYU with a middle linebacker – you know, the guy who runs the back half of the defense – who is either a true freshman or a sophomore with a grand total of six career tackles.

It may turn out to be nothing, but this groin injury to Banderas may very well be the biggest story being ignored in the run-up to the start of the 2015 season.

Nebraska Football: Best-Case Scenario for the 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are greeting the start of fall camp with optimism, as new head coach Mike Riley prepares for his first season in charge. Before a ball is snapped in anger, the possibilities for Nebraska’s 2015 season are limitless, and the winds of change that have blown through Lincoln are giving hope to all of the scarlet and cream faithful.

So let’s run with that optimism a little, and see what Nebraska’s season would look like if everything broke the right way. Here’s the big things that would need to happen for Nebraska’s 2015 season to sparkle, and what the end result might be.

Tommy Armstrong finds his groove

It’s not a big surprise to regular visitors to know that the two stats of focus for Tommy Armstrong here are his completion percentage and his touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year, here were Armstrong’s stats in Nebraska’s wins and losses in the regular season:

  Completion % TD-to-INT ratio
Wins 53.2 2.125 (17/8)
Losses 47.5 0.667 (2/3)

The numbers tell a pretty clear picture, especially the touchdown-to-interception ratio. Neither completion ratio is stellar, but a sub-.500 ratio is a recipe to lose games. The TD-to-INT ratio, though, is the real differential between the two numbers. It may be a small sample size, but Armstrong’s ratio difference between wins and losses says a lot about why those outcomes came about.

If Armstrong is able to post – or improve – his statistics throughout the season, Nebraska’s chances for a stellar season improve dramatically.

(In fairness, Nebraska’s loss in the bowl game to USC is a bit of an outlier, as Armstrong had a 62.7 completion ratio and a 3-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.  But with the interim coach and all the upheaval from Bo Pelini’s dismissal, it’s hard to know what to make of that game. If Armstrong puts up his Holiday Bowl numbers this season, though, Nebraska should win the B1G West.)

The linebackers and offensive line click

While there are question marks for the whole team with a transition to a new head coach, the two biggest areas of concern are at linebacker and offensive line. At linebacker, Nebraska only returns one player (Josh Banderas) with any starting experience, and only two (Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey) with any starting experience at all.

It will be up to returning players Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby, along with incoming freshmen like Dedrick Young and Mohammed Barry, to make an impact at a critical position for the Blackshirts.

Similarly, Nebraska’s offensive line has only one player returning with significant starting experience in left tackle Alex Lewis. All four other offensive line positions have question marks, including the critical position of center.

It’s a little frightening to think that Nebraska is so unsettled at such critical positions. But if Nebraska is able to make things work right off the bat at both linebacker and offensive line, then the strengths NU has at other positions should shine through.

The season ends with a Playoff appearance

Scoff if you want, but Nebraska is set up – if everything clicks – to make college football’s final four. It would likely being 12-0 going into the B1G title game. That would mean wins over BYU and Miami in the non-conference, a daunting but not impossible task for a new head coach.

The conference schedule actually sets up well for Nebraska. The most difficult games – Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa – are all in Lincoln. The most challenging road game is at Minnesota, but the change in defensive scheme should make the Gophers a better matchup for Nebraska.

So let’s say Nebraska makes a perfect run through the regular season, likely matching up with the defending national champion Ohio State in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes would be a prohibitive favorite, and should be given the relative talent profiles of the two teams.

However, Ohio State wasn’t a dominant force last year. It’s easy to forget after the Buckeyes demolished Wisconsin in the B1G title game (with then-coach Gary Anderson leaving Madison days later) and steamrolled through the playoffs, of course.

But Ohio State also lost to an average Virginia Tech team. It also went to overtime against Penn State and struggled mightily with Minnesota. Nebraska might not be on a talent level with Ohio State, but it certainly is on a level with the teams that either beat or ran Ohio State very close in 2014. If those teams could play with the Buckeyes, there’s no reason a 12-0 Nebraska couldn’t rise up for one game.

Of course, this is a best-case scenario, with the new offense and defense clicking right away and the injury bug staying away from Lincoln. But if all those things happen, a surprise Playoff appearance isn’t an unachievable goal for Riley in year one.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Most Important Player At Each Position

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are well into barbecue season, enjoying the warm weather and wondering why the American League All-Star team will be almost entirely populated by Kansas City Royals. But the 2015 depth chart is never far from their minds, and over these lazy summer months it’s a useful exercise to think about which players are most important at each position.

It’s not necessarily a consideration of who is the best player, mind you, although it usually works out that way. Rather, it’s a question of who is the most important—which player at each position Nebraska (and new head coach Mike Riley) needs the most. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the roster.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis

While Nebraska has decent depth on the offensive line, there is a concern about the lack of returning starters (at least based on the Holiday Bowl depth chart). Lewis is the only returning starter who held down a starting position the entire year in 2014. Givens Price and Matt Finnin were listed at right tackle for the Holiday Bowl, while Paul Thurston and Dylan Utter were listed at center.

None of those four spent the season at their position, and Finnin will likely not be in the mix at tackle in 2015. Lewis, on the other hand, was Nebraska’s starting left tackle throughout 2014. Combine that experience with the importance of the position (between left tackle for a right-handed quarterback and center arguably being the most important) and Lewis is the first name to consider at offensive line for Nebraska in 2015.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong

The no-brainer to end all no-brainers, particularly given how none of the other quarterbacks on the roster appeared to seriously challenge Armstrong’s position in the spring. While Nebraska does have good depth at quarterback—perhaps for the first time since before former head coach Bo Pelini arrived in 2008—the 2015 season will likely rise and fall with Armstrong’s performance.

Riley had a history of developing quarterbacks in his time at Oregon State, most recently shepherding Sean Mannion to breaking the Pac-12 career yardage record and being an NFL draft pick. Armstrong will need the same kind of tutelage if Nebraska is to be successful in 2015.

I-Back

Terrell Newby

If there was any position where one person isn’t as important for Nebraska this year, it might be I-Back.  Based on observations from the spring (including the Omaha World-Herald’s Sam McKewon and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst), Newby looks the early favorite to win the starting I-Back position.

But Nebraska has amazing depth at the position, with Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon all competing for carries (and that’s not counting walk-ons like Graham Nabity who could be in the mix as well). So while Newby at this stage is the most important given his likely starting status, there are a number of contenders waiting in the wings.

Receiver

De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tempting at this point to think outside the box a little and select Jordan Westerkamp for his consistency or Jamal Turner for his potential and his senior leadership. It may very well be that both of those players will be cruicial cogs in Nebraska’s offense this season.

But, come on, let’s be real. Pierson-El is without question Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic offensive weapon. And Riley will likely find creative ways to get Pierson-El the ball, such as the jet sweeps we saw in the Spring Game. Pierson-El might not have the most touches for Nebraska next season. But he will be the one that will affect opposing defenses more than any other player.

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins

Last year, Nebraska had a beast at defensive end in Randy Gregory, and was worried about interior defensive line play. This year, Nebraska has two beasts on the inside in Vincent Valentine and Collins, with questions on the exterior.

While it’s hard not to view Valentine and Collins as a unit, it’s Collins that is getting the pre-season attention. Collins is a first-round NFL draft pick according to ESPN’s Todd McShay, and just misses the first-round cut according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

Based on that projection alone, then, Collins nudges Valentine in importance for Nebraska in 2015.

Linebacker

Josh Banderas

It was tempting to put “a warm body” in place here, as Nebraska only has four scholarship linebackers who are not true freshman on the roster after the departure of David Santos. Of those four, one (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off missing a season to injury, one (Marcus Newby) played sparingly as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) is a redshirt freshman after sitting out last season.

That means Nebraska only has one (!) linebacker on the roster with any meaningful playing experience since 2013. Banderas will be pressed into a leadership role, anchoring Nebraska’s linebacker corps as the young players behind him (hopefully) grow up in a hurry.

Secondary                          

Daniel Davie

It was very tempting to pick Nate Gerry at safety, as it could have been argued he was Nebraska’s defensive MVP last year. But with a transition to Mark Bankers’ new quarters defensive scheme, the importance of the safety will likely be diminished with the amount of time all three linebackers should be on the field, placing more emphasis on the cornerback being able to take away an opponent’s primary receiving threat.

That task will fall to Davie, taking over from Josh Mitchell as Nebraska’s primary cornerback this season. Davie was a consistent performer for Nebraska last year, and the Blackshirts will need him to stand up against the best receivers they will face if NU is to be successful next year.

Special Teams

De’Mornay Pierson-El

Yes, it’s him again. Pierson-El might be Nebraska’s most important weapon on offense next year. But there’s no doubt he will be a game-changer for Nebraska as a punt returner. His ability to flip the field—and score—off a punt return gives Nebraska so many different benefits. Against Michigan State, it was Pierson-El’s return that put Nebraska in position to win after being dominated for most of the game. And against Iowa, it was Pierson-El’s return that keyed Nebraska’s comeback, ultimately returning the Heroes Game trophy to Lincoln.

(I know. It’s a ridiculously anodyne and sanitized thing. But admit it, Husker fan. It burned you to see the Hawkeyes race across the turf in Memorial Stadium in 2013, grab the trophy, and carry it back to their locker room. And it felt good to see the boys in scarlet and cream return the favor in 2014.)

A strong case could be made for Sam Foltz, who could end the season as the nation’s best punter. But Pierson-El’s returns—and the field position that comes from the mere intimidation of opposing punters—gives him the nod in this category.

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: 5 Things We Learned About the Cornhuskers This Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are just now settling in for a long summer’s absence of football. And with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska fans have had a lot of change to absorb.

But before we let spring football for 2015 go, let’s take time to look back and see what we’ve learned about the new-look Nebraska.

The Offense Will Fit The Players

After the Bill Callahan experience, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for their concern about a coaching change. Nebraska’s 2004 campaign was a disaster, with Callahan attempting to force the square peg of quarterback Joe Dailey into the round hold of Callahan’s West Coast offense. The result was a 5-6 season and a poisoning of the well between Callahan and the fan base.

Riley looks to understand the folly of that arrogance. According to Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf look to be tailoring Nebraska’s 2015 offense to the strengths of its talents, rather than trying to force them into a rigid system. For example, Nebraska looks to be operating more out of a shotgun this year, even though it appears that Riley and Langsdorf would prefer a quarterback operating under center.

“That is what they (quarterbacks) feel comfortable with,” Langsdorf said. “I’m OK with (shotgun).”

The Defense Will Be Simpler

Bo Pelini’s defensive scheme was very effective, no one will deny that. But it was also very complicated, and relied on players (particularly safeties) to make reads and respond accordingly. A mistake on those reads could be catastrophic.

New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system looks to be simpler, relying more on the athleticism of its players to be effective. Linebacker Josh Banderas compared Banker’s system to Pelini’s (according to Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald) and his thoughts were revealing.

“But now I feel like I can just play football instead of a scheme. I’m a lot more fluid and can have more fun.”

Now, simpler and more fluid can be a two-edged sword. Nebraska may be vulnerable to being out-schemed offensively, or just out-matched athletically. But at the very least, the Blackshirts will look very different under the new regime.

Tommy Armstrong Will (Probably) Be The Starter

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

– Rita Mae Brown (and probably not Albert Einstein)

Armstrong has a career completion percentage of 52.9 percent. At the Spring Game, his completion percentage was 50 percent. While Riley has a history of working with and improving quarterbacks, and Langsdorf arrives in Lincoln after coaching quarterbacks for the New York Giants, the idea of Armstrong dramatically improving his accuracy is still worthy of skepticism.

As a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, that’s just not good enough for Nebraska to win a conference title.

And yet, everyone from Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald to Mitch Sherman of ESPN to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star remain convinced that the starting quarterback’s job is Armstrong’s to lose. Certainly, Armstrong’s experience and success as a starter are huge advantages for him. Perhaps Armstrong can make strides in Riley’s offense. Or perhaps the other quarterbacks on the roster simply haven’t been capable of showing enough in practice to unseat the incumbent.

So absent a huge shakeup in fall camp, look for Armstrong to lead the line for Nebraska against BYU in September.

The Sweep is Here To Stay

Nebraska fans can be forgiven for having nightmares about the jet sweep, after Wisconsin ground the Blackshirts to a fine red mist deploying it with Melvin Gordon in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game.

Well, it looks like Nebraska will finally be joining that party. At the Spring Game, we saw the jet sweep deployed a number of times, to great effect. Combining a jet sweep or a fake sweep with an inside zone running game gives Nebraska an opportunity to put defenders in a quandary, forcing them to make a decision and perhaps be a step or two behind the ball carrier.

According to Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, don’t be surprised to see the jet sweep as a staple of Nebraska’s offensive attack.

“I think that sweep play is always going to be something that is part of our identity,” said Riley. “There’s some other stuff that goes with it that has always been fun to do, and it’s nice to see it take shape like that because when it’s going it gives you another running weapon in your offense.”

Mike Riley is not Bo Pelini

If nothing else, Pelini’s departure has freed some of the journalists covering Nebraska to lift the curtain and show off some of the warts that were present under his leadership. Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star discussed the “mismanagement” of linebacker Josh Banderas, to the point of him nearing a transfer. Perhaps more damning, Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald wrote about Pelini’s “loser’s limp” of complaining how hard it was to recruit to Lincoln, and about the “frat house” atmosphere in the football program without “adult” leadership.

Citing as an example of the “frat house” atmosphere, Barfknecht referred to an interview with defensive tackle Kevin Williams this spring, where Williams said “meetings actually start on time now.”

Is that a little thing? Of course it is. But big things are nothing more than a collection of little things put in the proper order.

Riley’s arrival does not, of course, guarantee success for Nebraska. Indeed, in 2015 Riley will face a challenge to even equal Pelini’s win-loss total from the previous season.

But there is no question that Nebraska under Riley will look and feel radically different than it did under Pelini.

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: 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.