Nebraska Football: JUCO Transfer Talk Highlight Needs on Defensive Line

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Over the last week, Nebraska has brought in two junior-college transfer candidates on the defensive line for a look at the Huskers. Graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu came to Lincoln for his first of five potential visits after receiving his degree from Utah, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star. And defensive end Raveon Hoston from Valley College of Los Angeles said on Facebook that he has received an offer from Nebraska, according to Sam McEwon of the Omaha World-Herald.

It’s not a huge surprise, of course, that Nebraska is looking for a “break glass in case of emergency” option on the defensive line. The departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine to the NFL were not unexpected, but left a big hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front. Kevin Williams followed up with his transfer from Nebraska to Michigan State, which put even more stress on the defensive line.

How much stress? Well, only three defensive linemen (Freedom Akinmoladun, Kevin Maurice, and Ross Dzuris) will be back in 2016. According to Athlon Sports, Maurice – the only returning tackle – has one start, while defensive ends Akinmoladun and Dzuris have eight each.

That’s mighty thin for such an important position on the field. At the moment, Nebraska will be leaning heavily on redshirt freshmen Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis and untested sophomores Peyton Newell and Mick Stoltenberg to solidify things up the middle.

So the signing of Tu’ikolovatu for Nebraska would be a massive (literally and figuratively) addition to Nebraska’s defensive line. He played in all 13 games for Utah last year, a team that finished sixth (!) nationally in rushing defense. If Tu’ikolovatu does pick Nebraska, he would almost certainly walk into Lincoln as a starting defensive tackle and give the Davis twins an additional year to develop before being asked to perform as starters.

The pursuit of Hoston is a little more interesting, as Nebraska’s depth at defensive end is (slightly) better than at tackle. Sedrick King, A.J. Natter, and DaiShon Neal should all be competing for playing time, although the experience of Akinmoladun and Dzuris should pencil them in as starters for next season.

Still, Nebraska’s pass rush in 2015 was woeful, checking in at no. 78 nationally in sacks. Nebraska was also no. 122 in pass defense overall, no. 123 in pass defense on third down, and no. 122 in pass defense on third down and 10 or more yards to go. Sure, some of those struggles can be laid at the feet of the secondary, but the lack of a consistent pass rush (which Nebraska struggled with all season) makes the secondary’s job a lot harder.

Hoston had 19 tackles, three sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. His addition to Nebraska’s roster, if it comes to pass, wouldn’t be the obvious shot in the arm at end that Tu’ikolovatu’s would be at tackle.

But at the very least, the fact that Nebraska is exploring at least two junior college transfers on the defensive line suggests the coaching staff recognizes one of NU’s biggest weaknesses coming into the 2016 campaign. And is looking for a means to address that weakness immediately.

(All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated).

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Why Nebraska Should Be Favored To Win The B1G West in 2016

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Nebraska football fans have been enduring a horrible, surreal season, seeing their Cornhuskers stumble out of the gate and be sitting at 4-6 with two games remaining. For many, the shock of this season has yet to wear off, and watching loss after loss has dulled their ability to see many good things coming in the future.

Well, keep your chins up, Husker fan. There’s plenty of reason to expect Nebraska to not only rebound from this year, but to be at the top and looking for a trip to Indianapolis next season. Here’s why.

Returning Starters

Here’s a list of Nebraska’s starters that likely will not be back in 2016, either through graduation or leaving early for the NFL

Offense: Alex Lewis (LT), Ryne Reeves (C), Chongo Kondolo (RG), Andy Janovich (FB)

Defense: Maliek Collins (DT), Jack Gangwish (DE), Byerson Cockrell (S)

That means Nebraska should have at least 15 returning starters next season. Yes, Collins will be a big loss if he does leave early for the NFL. And the turnover on the offensive line is a worry, particularly with the lack of rotation we’ve seen this season.

But outside of Janovich, all of Nebraska’s offensive skill position starters will be back next year. The secondary loses only one starter, and should improve after another full season of working in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system.

And the redshirts from 2015 should begin to pay dividends next year. The Davis brothers (Carlos and Khalil) should be ready to contribute, and have the recruiting pedigree to suggest they can provide some help with Nebraska’s struggling pass rush. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of the highest-rated recruits in last year’s class, will have another year learning the system and should be primed to shore up Nebraska’s pass defense. And the three redshirt offensive linemen, combined with the three redshirt freshmen currently on the roster, should provide some cover for the linemen Nebraska will lose after this season.

So next season Nebraska’s roster should be deeper and more balanced, as well as having more experience in Mike Riley’s system.

Coach Effect

I know Nebraska fans frustrated with losing six games before November don’t want to hear about what a good coach Riley is. And there’s plenty of room to criticize Riley’s handling of the team this year, rest assured.

But if we look at Riley’s performance over his career, those numbers suggest reasons for optimism. Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix has created a metric called “Coach Effect” which uses past performances, talent ratings, and game locations to determine how well coaches do in comparison to how an “average” coach would do.

As of 2014, the most recent data available, Riley is the no. 11 coach in the country in terms of Coach Effect, with a 1.50 score. That means, all else being equal, a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 games more per season than an “average” coach given the talent and schedule of a particular team.

Riley’s Coach Effect score will likely come down after this season, but his number should still be one of the best in the nation. That suggests Riley should have the ability, with a huge number of returning starters next season, to be successful in 2016.

Talent Level

In addition to coaching, Bartoo’s theory of college football involves the teams with the best talent winning. Like his Coach Effect, Bartoo measures a team’s talent level by aggregating recruiting service rankings. As of 2014, Nebraska’s talent rating was no. 24 nationally. That was third in the B1G, and significantly better than Nebraska’s closest B1G West rivals, Wisconsin (no. 40), Iowa (no. 42) and Northwestern (no. 52).

This year’s preliminary recruiting classes suggest Nebraska’s talent edge should continue. According to 247 Sports, Nebraska has the no. 25 class nationally in 2016 recruiting. That puts Nebraska ahead of all its B1G West rivals, like Wisconsin (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Northwestern (no. 48).

So coming into next season, the data suggests that Nebraska’s roster should be as talented – if not more so – than any B1G West team it will face in 2016.

What 2015 Really Means

Yeah, yeah, all of that happy talk is great. But Nebraska is 4-6 with two games to go in 2015. Isn’t it a pretty big leap to expect Nebraska to go from needing a four-game winning streak (including a bowl) to avoid a losing record to a division title?

Well, that would be assuming that Nebraska’s struggles this year are indicative of the program’s true position. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they are not.

I know, you’ve heard all the excuses about Nebraska’s 2015 struggles. But the fact is, five of Nebraska’s six losses were functional coin-flips. A Hail Mary against BYU, one poor decision against Miami, a missed two-point conversion against Northwestern, all the fine margins between a disappointing season and the burning tire-fire of 2015. And the one really ugly blemish on Nebraska’s record, a 10-point loss to a 1-6 Purdue, was on the road with a backup quarterback, a backup running back, and losing NU’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

That’s not to absolve Riley and his staff of responsibility for those losses, of course. But over the course of this year, as the losses have piled up, a malaise has set in on the fanbase. People assumed the worst, that Nebraska’s struggles over this season have become the new normal, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

The underlying fundamentals of the program, though, suggest that 2015 is an anomaly. Nebraska was a nine-win program last year, will be in the second year of a coaching change next year, has a historically over-performing coach, and has equal or better talent than every other team in the division.

That’s not the recipe for a rebuilding year (never mind what a certain athletic director, for reasons known only to him, said earlier). That’s a recipe for a team to bounce back to at least where it was before. And with a coach who has a better track record of performance (Bo Pelini’s coach effect as of 2014 was -0.33, in comparison), it’s not unreasonable to think Nebraska could be primed to break through its glass ceiling in 2016.

Is it a guarantee? Of course not. But Nebraska fans enduring the 2015 season should take heart. As crazy as it might sound now, there is no reason not to expect – to demand, actually – that Nebraska challenge for a divisional title in 2016.

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: Five Ways To Fix The Cornhuskers’ Defense

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Nebraska football fans are smart enough to know that defensive struggles have cost NU two of its first three games. Nebraska has surrendered 300 yards or more through the air in each of its three contests, and is currently no. 127 nationally – out of 128 teams – in pass defense (according to cfbstats.com).

So, yeah, that’s a problem. But never fear, Husker fan, the Double Extra Point is here to clue you in on how the Blackshirts right the ship defensively. In order from least radical of changes to most, here are five remedies for an ailing Blackshirts defense.

“Adjustments in Personnel”

God bless Mark Banker for how he put things after Nebraska’s loss to Miami. Miami scored 17 points in its first three drives, and 16 points for the rest of the game. What changed? Well, at least one thing was cornerback Daniel Davie being replaced by Jonathan Rose.

Banker described his adjustments as (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) “mostly with personnel,” which is a kind way of saying that Davie has been over-matched. Davie was one of Nebraska’s best performers in the secondary last year, but don’t forget that cornerbacks last year almost always had “bracket” coverage help from a safety. That’s not the case under the new defensive structure.

Yes, there were other personnel moves that were made throughout the game. But it’s hard not to see an athlete like Rose (an Auburn transfer) being a better fit in Banker’s defensive scheme that asks for a lot more one-on-one coverage than Davie.

Surrender principle to practicality

We’ll see if a personnel change – and you have to assume that Davie won’t be starting after the last two games – is enough to give Nebraska’s passing defense the shot in the arm it needs. If not, then Banker may have to give serious consideration to shifting his defensive philosophy to fit his players.

One of the reasons Nebraska is so good against the run is because it can schematically use a safety to help in the run game. That provides an extra defender against the run, but leaves the cornerbacks on an island to cover receivers one-on-one. If the cornerbacks can’t stand up to that – and we’ve seen Nebraska’s corners struggle with doing so – then teams have a huge weakness to exploit.

Particularly against teams whose strengths are throwing the ball (such as Illinois, upcoming), Banker may need to surrender that extra run defender and more frequently bring that second safety back into pass coverage to help a struggling set of cornerbacks.

Shift the defensive front

Sure, the cornerbacks are the easiest targets to blame for Nebraska’s struggles in pass defense. But a lack of pass rush is just as big of a culprit. Other than defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun – who was a tight end last year – there is no one on the outside of Nebraska’s offensive line who is placing any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And the interior of the line has yet to be able to make an impact in the passing game as well, although asking defensive tackles to be a primary pass-rushing weapon is asking a lot.

It might be time for Nebraska to get creative in terms of finding edge rushers. Linebacker Marcus Newby didn’t see the field much last year, but when he did it was at a defensive end-like position as a pass rush specialist. Particularly if defensive tackle Vincent Valentine is healthy, perhaps it might be worth a try to put Valentine and Kevin Williams or Kevin Maurice in the middle and slide Maliek Collins outside, letting Collins’ talent work as a pass rusher instead of clogging the middle.

Blitz

If four ain’t getting the job done, maybe it’s time to start bringing five or six. Nebraska had some success in pressuring opposing quarterbacks this season when it starting bringing extra pressure. If the front four isn’t able to be successful getting home on its own, perhaps it’s time to consider including blitzes as a more regular part of Nebraska’s defensive package, and making personnel decisions accordingly.

The downside to a blitz, of course, is being exposed to big pass plays if the blitz is unsuccessful. But in all honestly, that’s happening even when Nebraska rushes four. According to Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity, Nebraska is currently no. 113 nationally in surrendering plays of 20 yards or more and no 126 nationally in plays of 30 yards or more.

Sure, technically it could get worse, but not by much. And if you’re at the bottom already, why not go for a strategy with a little more upside?

Burn the redshirts

This option is the “break glass in case of emergency” one, and if you see it you know that there’s real trouble with Nebraska’s current roster. But if all else fails, Nebraska might have to consider burning some redshirts to get the production it needs on the defensive line and in the secondary.

On the defensive line, Nebraska has four talented recruits currently planning to redshirt in Carlos Davis (three-star, 89 composite), Khalil Davis (three-star, 89 composite) DaiShon Neil (three-star, 89 composite), and Alex Davis (three-star, 84 composite). Defensive line is tough to ask a true freshman to come in and compete right away, given the size difference between high school and FBS football, so seeing a redshirt get burned there might be less likely.

But in the secondary, Nebraska has Eric Lee (four-star, 93 composite) and Avery Anderson (three-star, 89 composite) waiting in the wings. If Nebraska is unable to find a way to make the current cornerbacks work in Banker’s system, it might be worth it to see if Lee or Anderson is able to withstand the pressure.

Star ratings and composites from 247 Sports.

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: 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: 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: 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: Early Grades for the 2016 Recruiting Class

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that even though the 2015 season is still months away, important work for the 2016 recruiting class is being done. New head coach Mike Riley and his staff are beating the bushes (and social media) looking for the next crop of talented players to don the scarlet and cream.

Currently, according to 247 Sports, Nebraska’s 2016 recruiting class is no. 33 nationally and no. 7 in the Big Ten. But with a total of just six commitments, there’s plenty of room for the class to grow. But based on what we know now, here’s a snapshot of how Nebraska is looking for next year’s class.

All measurables and prospect rankings are from 247 Sports.

Offense

Nebraska currently has five commitments on offense.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
John Rairdon OG 6’4” 260 Four-star .9651
Bryan Brokop OT 6’5” 273 Three-star .8888
Jared Bubak TE 6’4” 235 Three-star .8538
Terry Wilson QB (DUAL) 6’2.5” 187 Three-star .8407
Patrick O’Brien QB (PRO) 6’4” 225 Three-star .8456

There are two big takeaways from this list, even at this preliminary stage. The first is the commitment of Rairdon, who would be Riley’s highest ranked recruit at Nebraska under 247 Sports’ criteria. Landing the four-star’s talent on the offensive line would be a big coup for Riley, and a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in the years to come.

The second fascinating takeaway is the commitment of dual-threat quarterback Wilson. For his own talents as a three-star prospect, Wilson is a good get for Nebraska. But more interestingly, Wilson’s commitment means that Nebraska is still actively recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks. That was an open question with Riley given his pocket-passing pro-style offense from Oregon State.

Then, on Thursday, Nebraska secured a commitment from the three-star pro-style quarterback prospect O’Brien. Having both quarterbacks in the 2016 class, in addition to the five scholarship quarterbacks currently on the roster who would have eligibility in 2016,

Notable amongst the offers out for Nebraska is four-star running back Devwah Whaley (who, according to the Omaha World-Herald, has NU in his top ten of possible schools) and junior college offensive line prospect Malcolm Pridgeon, who according to the Omaha World-Herald stands at six-foot-eight (!) and 303 pounds.

Grade: A

Defense

At present, Nebraska only has one defensive commitment.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
William Johnson OLB 6’3” 220 Three-star .8617

The position is important, as Nebraska currently has only five scholarship linebackers outside of the players signed in the 2015 class. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme relies on three linebackers on the field most of the time, so Nebraska will have a great need for depth at linebacker going forward. Adding a junior-college transfer like Johnson should help Nebraska with ready-to-play talent next year.

Defensive tackle will also be an area of particular need for Nebraska in 2016, with Kevin Williams graduating and juniors Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins potentially leaving early for the NFL if they have a big 2015 campaign (Collins is included in the “others considered” of the early 2016 first-round draft projection of ESPN’s Mel Kiper).

Of course, there’s plenty of time for Nebraska to grow its defensive haul for 2016. Linebacker/defensive end prospect Quayshon Alexander is widely expected to pick Nebraska, although Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald reports that Alexander is “slowing down” his recruiting process.

Grade: C

Overall

It’s a little scary to see Nebraska rated no. 7 in the B1G and no. 33 overall for the 2016 class. Ending up there would be a frightening sign of things to come.

But there’s plenty to be encouraged about, between the decisiveness at quarterback and the early handling of a position of desperate need on defense. It’s way too early to panic about results, and there’s enough good things happening to offer some comfort this early in the process.

Grade: A-

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Top 2016 Draft Prospects

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

The 2015 NFL Draft is less than a week old. So, clearly, it’s time to look at 2016, right?

Well, why not? While it’s hard to know exactly what Nebraska will look like next year under new head coach Mike Riley, we do have some idea of the returning talent. And there are numerous resources looking ahead to 2016 (and beyond) to see what kind of talent is in the pipeline for the NFL.

So let’s take a look to see who on Nebraska’s roster might be hearing their names called next May.

Prospect rankings from NFLDraftScout.com.

Maliek Collins (unranked DT, junior)

This is more than a little projection, given that Collins will be a junior next hear. But throughout spring practice, Collins has been the most disruptive player for the Blackshirts. According to Mitch Sherman of ESPN, Collins was compared by former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini to LSU standout Glenn Dorsey. And he, along with fellow defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, were “the strength” of Nebraska defense this spring.

So if Collins continues his standout performance, don’t be shocked to see him give consideration to leaving after his junior season at Nebraska.

Ryne Reeves (no. 18 OG)

If Reeves can stay healthy, he has an opportunity in his senior season to make a name for himself and perhaps earn a look to playing on Sundays. He has the frame (six-foot-three, 295 pounds) and the skill set to be effective, to be sure. And if Reeves is able to stay upright and on the field this year, he will have the chance to earn his ranking.

Alex Lewis (no. 15 OT)

Talk about a guy who has benefited from a change in scenery. Lewis started his career at Colorado, transferring to Nebraska after a conviction for assault. But since he has arrived, Lewis has stayed out of trouble and been a steady starter at the critical position of left tackle for Nebraska.

If Lewis is able to up his game and have a standout senior campaign, he could be one of the names called next May in the 2016 NFL draft.