Nebraska Football: Who Needs To Come Through For Huskers In 2015?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been paying lots of attention during spring practice in term of which players might be making the leap, and which might find themselves on the bench this fall. But a different, and perhaps more important, question to ask is which players have to step up and excel for Nebraska to have a successful first season under new head coach Mike Riley. Here are three players whose success is crucial for Nebraska to win in 2015.

Tommy Armstrong

OK, pipe down, I know this is the Captain Obvious pick. But just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Sure, there’s no guarantee that Armstrong will even win the job. But if he doesn’t, that means Nebraska will be starting a quarterback with almost no in-game experience. Couple that with a new offensive (and defensive) scheme being introduced and two tough games (BYU and at Miami) in the first three, and Nebraska will have precious little time to get right as the 2015 season starts.

So that puts the pressure squarely on Armstrong’s shoulders to make the necessary improvements (which is columnist-speak for “have a better completion percentage”) and secure the starting quarterback job as quickly as possible. Nebraska isn’t guaranteed a successful 2015 campaign if Armstrong wins the starting job, of course. But if he doesn’t, the chance for Nebraska’s 2015 season to be successful diminish considerably.

Josh Banderas

In one of his spring camp observations, Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star pointed out that Banderas is settling into the middle linebacker position much more comfortably than he did when pressed into service as a true freshman. That’s good news for Nebraska on two fronts. First, getting Banderas on the field and contributing would be putting his considerable skill set to good use.

But perhaps more importantly, Nebraska would have the chance to get solid and consistent play from the middle linebacker. After Michael Rose-Ivey went down just before the season started last year, Nebraska struggled to find anyone that could fill the position appropriately. And particularly at middle linebacker, with the kind of additional leadership role the position requires, inconsistency at the position will sap the effectiveness of the entire linebacker corps, and ultimately the defense as a whole.

If Banderas is able to solidify himself at middle linebacker, especially given new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s emphasis on three-linebacker sets, the Blackshirts will have an opportunity to take a step forward. Banderas’ ability to make such a leap is a crucial question coming into 2015.

Drew Brown

Oh, good grief, is he talking about kickers again?

Yep. After being spoiled for years, Nebraska toiled through a very average placekicking game in 2014, to the point where NU tried for a long fourth down conversion rather than risk a long field goal.

Like them or hate them (or, more likely, just mock them), having an effective placekicker is a huge strategic advantage for a team—and a huge liability for a team without a reliable kicker. Nebraska does have two rostered kickers in Mauro Bondi and Brown, but given Bondi’s history it seems like Brown is the far more likely candidate to have a breakthrough season in his sophomore campaign.

If Brown is able to show some of the promise he flashed when he arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska’s chances of a successful 2015 campaign go up dramatically.

Nebraska Football: Grading The Performance Of Each New Starter

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, LT: A+

Jake Cotton, LG: A+

Mike Moudy, RG: A

Givens Price, RT: A

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

Receivers

Alonzo Moore, WR: C

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

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen: A+

Vincent Valentine: A

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

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

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle “Mike” linebacker: A-

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

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

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

Defensive Backs

Nathan Gerry, S: A

Daniel Davie, CB: A

Byerson Cockrell, NICKEL: A

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

Specialists:

Drew Brown, PK: B+

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

Meet Nebraska’s New Starters for 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Offensive Line

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

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

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

Defensive Line

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

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

Linebackers

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

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

Defensive Backs

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

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

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

Special Teams

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

Nebraska Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

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

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

Offensive Line

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

Left Tackle: Alex Lewis, David Knevel

Left Guard: Jake Cotton, Chongo Kondolo

Center: Mark Pelini, Ryne Reeves

Right Guard: Mike Moudy, Dwayne Johnson

Right Tackle: Zach Sterup, Tanner Farmer

Offensive Backs

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

Quarterback: Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fife

I-Back: Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross

Fullback: Andy Janovic, Mitch McCann

Receivers

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

Wide Receiver (X): Kenny Bell, Brandon Reilly

Wide Receiver (Z): Alonzo Moore, Taariq Allen

Wide Receiver (A): Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner

Tight End: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

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

Defensive End: Randy Gregory, A.J. Natter

Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry, Maliek Collins

Defensive Tackle: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Maurice

Defensive End: Greg McMullen, Joe Keels

Linebackers

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

BUCK Linebacker: Josh Banderas, Courtney Love

MIKE Linebacker: Michael Rose, Trevor Roach

WILL Linebacker: Zaire Anderson, David Santos

Defensive Backs

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

Cornerback: Josh Mitchell, Boaz Joseph

Safety: Corey Cooper, Nathan Gerry

Safety: LeRoy Alexander, D.J. Singleton

Cornerback: Jonathan Rose, Byerson Cockrell

NICKEL: Charles Jackson

Specialists

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

Placekicker: Drew Brown

Kickoff Specialist: Mauro Bondi

Punter: Sam Foltz

Holder: Sam Foltz

Long Snapper: Gabriel Miller

Punt Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby

Kick Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby