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.

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Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).

Nebraska Football: Five Freshmen Who Must Shine In Fall Practice

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Dedrick Young

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

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

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

The Other Freshmen Linebackers

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

Freedom Akinmoladun

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

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

Matt Snyder

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

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

Jordan Ober

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

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