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

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Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch In The Spring Game

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will get their one dose of football on Saturday at the Spring Game to tide them over through the long summer months until football season begins again. So they will be scrutinizing every little piece of information they can find, to get some idea of what Nebraska will look like under new head coach Mike Riley when the 2015 season begins.

To help, here are five things you can keep your eyes on during the Spring Game, to help give you an insight of things to come for the scarlet and cream.

What Routes Do The Receivers Run?

Yeah, this is a pretty granular thing to be watching. But remember that we’re still early in the installation process of Riley’s new offense. There’s a lot of sorting that needs to happen from the coaching staff just to get a good handle on the quality of the roster and how best to utilize its talents. So it is likely that the offense we see in April will be at best a slimmed-down version of what will take the field this fall.

But one way to get at least a preview of Nebraska’s new-look, pro-style offense should be the types of routes run by receivers. By seeing how Nebraska utilizes its receivers—be it down the field, in high-low schemes, slants, or other route concepts—we can at least get a glimpse of Riley’s ideas of how NU will be attacking defenses in 2015.

How Accurate Are The Quarterbacks?

The signal-callers will likely be the focus of attention at the Spring Game this weekend. Will Tommy Armstrong be unseated by one of the four challengers, all of whom are likely to see the field this Saturday?

It will be hard to tell, of course, given that the Spring Game is really one glorified practice at the end of spring camp, and that everyone will have a summer to digest the playbook before fall camp starts.

But if you want to watch one thing to get some insight as to the quarterback pecking order, keep an eye on the accuracy of the quarterbacks. How well they are able to put the ball on target will speak to two different and critical elements of player development for Riley’s quarterbacks—how well they understand the offense and are therefore able to anticipate where a receiver will be, and how technically proficient they are in delivering the football to its desired location.

Particularly in Riley’s west-coast offense where quarterbacks will no longer be seen as running backs, accuracy will be one of the primary characteristics needed for success. Finding which quarterback can best deliver accurately will go a long way in determining Nebraska’s starting signal-caller in 2015.

How Fast Will the Defense Really Play?

Ever since he was hired, we’ve heard how players in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme will be able to play faster and freer. Most recently, defensive tackle Maliek Collins talked about how the new scheme will mean “no more hesitant play” from the Blackshirts (according to Mitch Sherman of ESPN).

That’s something we should get a glimpse of at the Spring Game. How free does the defense look? And does that freedom mean there will be spaces and gaps for the offense to exploit? At least at some level, we’ll see on Saturday.

How Do the Linebackers Cover in Space?

In addition to playing fast and free, Banker favors a “quarters” defensive structure that keeps three linebackers on the field for the majority of plays. Such a scheme, particularly against teams that play four- and five-receiver sets, will by definition ask linebackers to play pass coverage and have to excel defending in space.

How will Nebraska’s linebackers handle that responsibility? Watch for those situations at the Spring Game to get an idea of the answer to what could be the critical question facing the Blackshirts next season.

Who Stands Out in the Secondary?

Of all the position groups (save perhaps I-back), the secondary looks to be the most spoiled for choice. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, the only starting spot that seems locked up is Nate Gerry at one safety position.

The others are up for grabs, with each position having two (or perhaps three) contenders that would be nailed-on starters in leaner years. It should make for fierce—and fascinating—competition for playing time, which will be on display this Saturday.

Nebraska Football: Who Has A Starting Role Locked Up?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

Jordan Westerkamp

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

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

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

Cethan Carter

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

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

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine

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

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

Nate Gerry

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

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

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

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

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

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

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

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

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

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

No. 7: Kenny Bell

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

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

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

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

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

No. 5: Maliek Collins

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

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

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

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

No. 3: Randy Gregory

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

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

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

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

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

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Cornhuskers in 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska fans have been pleasantly surprised by a number of players in 2014. While stars like Randy Gregory, Ameer Abdullah, and Kenny Bell have been (in the immortal words of former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green) who we thought they were, some Cornhuskers have either stepped up performances from previous years or come completely out of the blue to become stars.

Here are five Cornhuskers who have given Nebraska fans far more than they expected this season.

No. 5: Greg McMullen

Sure, we knew Randy Gregory was a beast at defensive end. So when Gregory went down early in the season, Nebraska fans were rightfully concerned at what his absence would do to the defensive line.

But throughout this season, Greg McMullen has more than held his own on the other end of the defensive line. He’s eighth on the team in tackles with 27, four in tackles for loss with 5.5, and third in sacks with 2.5. Gregory is quite rightly getting the lion’s share of praise, but McMullen’s contributions this year have been quietly critical for Nebraska.

No. 4: Trevor Roach

In fall practice, Nebraska lost three defensive players—nickel back Charles Jackson, middle linebacker Michael Rose, and safety LeRoy Alexander—either to injury or to suspension. As the season has unfolded, it’s become clear that Rose’s loss has been the most damaging for Nebraska.

The Blackshirts have struggled at linebacker, in large part due to a lack of production from the middle linebacker position. Josh Banderas, who had an lost the position last year as a true freshman, has struggled again this season.

Up stepped senior Trevor Roach, particularly against Michigan State, and demonstrated that knowledge of the defensive system and being in the right place can make up for some athletic deficiencies. Roach and Banderas are now neck and neck for the starting middle linebacker position, as Roach has struggled some after his breakout performance against the Spartans.

But the fact that Roach is in the conversation with Banderas at all is, at least to some, quite a surprise.

No. 3: Maliek Collins

Much like with Gregory and McMullen, many thought that Vincent Valentine was going to be the key cog of the interior defensive line for Nebraska. And while Valentine has played very well, Maliek Collins has excelled at defensive tackle as well.

Collins has the same number of tackles (24) as Valentine, and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 6. Against Rutgers last week, Collins spent a good portion of the game in the Scarlet Knights’ backfield, disrupting any attempt of a comeback.

Much like at defensive end, the unexpected performance of the “other” guy has been a large part of why Nebraska’s defensive line has been so effective in 2014.

No. 2: Nathan Gerry

Last year’s experiment with Gerry as a linebacker didn’t work out so well, with Gerry not being able to produce well enough stay on the field.  But Gerry’s move this year to safety has paid dividends. He has been all over the field, is second on the team in tackles with 23, and leads the team in interceptions with three (and that’s not counting the totally bogus one taken away from him against Miami).

Gerry’s move to safety certainly had the promise of success. But particularly with a mostly-anonymous season from Corey Cooper, Gerry’s performance in 2014 has been a crucial and pleasant surprise for Nebraska.

No. 1: De’Mornay Pierson-El

You’re not shocked at this one, are you?

True freshman Pierson-El was a ways down the pecking order in terms of punt returns. Indeed, it wasn’t until Pierson-El flashed his brilliance against Fresno State that Nebraska truly realized what a weapon it had on its hands.

Now, Pierson-El is so intimidating opponents that they are punting short and out of bounds (like Northwestern), giving Nebraska free yardage without the risk of turnover or injury, or kicking off to Ameer Abdullah (like Rutgers) with predictable results.

Pierson-El is just starting to be integrated into Nebraska’s offense, including the amazing return of Black Flash 41 Reverse where he threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong.  But there’s little doubt that the true freshman who only got into his first game against Florida Atlantic in garbage time is becoming one of Nebraska’s biggest offensive weapons.

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Ranking Huskers’ Top 10 Players Heading Into 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know how close the 2014 season is, and fans are already looking forward to seeing their heroes on the field. While the roster is full, there are some players that stand above the others as players to watch. When combining athletic ability with opportunity to play, here are the top 10 Huskers for 2014.

No. 10: Maliek Collins

Collins makes this list in large part because of his versatility. He will likely be starting, or at least in the rotation, as a starting defensive tackle alongside Vincent Valentine. But the staff has also experimented with moving Collins out on the edge as a specialized pass rusher. Collins doesn’t get the kind of attention as his more-famous defensive end, but he could be a key part of a dominant front four for Nebraska.

No. 9: Cethan Carter

Nebraska hasn’t really had a good history of using dangerous tight ends. Call it the “Mike McNeil” effect, to which Kyler Reed fell victim. So it’s a little scary to include a tight end on this list.

But Carter has the kind of athleticism to be a real Rob Gronkowski-like game changer for Nebraska’s offense. And now that Nebraska is in year one of the true post-Taylor Martinez era, perhaps a little more sanity in NU’s offensive structure can be restored and Carter can grow into the offense.

No. 8: Kenny Bell

Kenny Bell the personality (and the hair!) is so big that it might just overshadow the talent of Kenny Bell the football player. Ironically enough, it was a special teams play against Penn State that was last year’s real reminder of how dangerous Bell can be (although this catch comes pretty close).

Coming into 2014, Bell is Nebraska’s most explosive weapon, and will likely get nearly as much attention from opposing defensive coordinators as Ameer Abdullah. That in and of itself should tell you how good Bell the player really is.

No. 7: Vincent Valentine

It’s a cliché that you can’t coach speed. Well, it’s pretty hard to coach size, and Valentine (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) has size to spare. Of course, size without skill and experience isn’t much help, but Valentine demonstrated skill and got experience in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line as the 2013 season wore on.

Now looking to be a fixture in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front, Valentine gives NU the opportunity to present more three-man looks and free up pass rush specialists like Maliek Collins or Marcus Newby to put additional pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While Valentine’s contributions may not show up on a stat sheet, his success could be one of the most critical factors for the Blackshirts in 2014.

No. 6: Corey Cooper

In the course of 48 hours, Nebraska lost two likely starters (LeRoy Alexander to suspension, Charles Jackson to injury) in the secondary. That’s going to make the returning starters, particularly Corey Cooper at safety, even more important. Cooper has the athleticism to play against both the run and the pass, a critical need for safety in Bo Pelini’s defense. A full season as a starter, and a leader, should give Cooper the chance to really shine.

No. 5: Tommy Armstrong

I think Armstrong right now is suffering from what a lot of college players encounter when they go back to school for a final year rather than head to the professional ranks. Familiarity breeds contempt, as we in the media and in a fanbase become inured to a player’s skills, overlook the mitigating circumstances, and focus on the flaws in a player’s game.

There are certainly flaws in Armstrong’s game. A 51.9 percent completion percentage and a 9/8 TD/INT ratio (from CFBStats.com) is simply not good enough for Nebraska to win a division, much less a conference championship.

But Armstrong is also 7-1 as a starter. He led Nebraska to a win over Georgia (which, last I checked, was an SEC team) in last year’s Gator Bowl. He was thrown in as the starter last year with no real training camp and running an offense designed for the unique skills of Taylor Martinez.

This year, Armstrong will have the benefit of all those factors, as well as a year of experience under his belt. 2014 will be his time to shine.

No. 4: Alex Lewis

Lewis should be a player that gives Nebraska fans pause. Not only is he a former Colorado Buffalo, He had to serve a jail sentence this offseason for his part in an assault. He’s the type of transfer that other schools can use as an example of a “win at all costs mindset.”

His arrival hasn’t generated much hand-wringing, though, perhaps in part because he’s an offensive lineman and not a high-profile player. But he looks to be slotting in at left tackle, the most important position on the offensive line. And he could provide the bedrock for a punishing Nebraska rushing attack

No. 3: Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s primary concern at linebacker in 2014 has to be youth. The starting SAM spot looks to be in question, and it was sophomores Michael Rose and Josh Banderas battling out for the starting MIKE position before Rose’s season-ending injury.

But at the WILL? It appears Anderson has that spot taken up, and he looks to have the senior leadership and athletic ability to anchor the middle of Nebraska’s defense.

No. 2: Randy Gregory

Gregory might be the best football player on the 2014 Nebraska squad. Indeed, some analysts (like Brent Sobleski of the Detroit Free Press) have already tapped him as a potential no. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

No, not the first pick from the Big Ten, or the first defensive player. The no. 1 overall pick.

That may be Gregory’s ceiling, but I’m not quite ready to place him there based on one season’s work. There’s plenty of reason to think improvement is on the way for Gregory, not the least of which is that he will have a full preseason of preparation and last year’s experience to draw from.

But until I see it on the field, I still think there’s one player on the roster I would say is better than Gregory.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

There’s been a lot of superlatives thrown Abdullah’s way, for his play on the field and his amazing off-the-field representation of Nebraska. He could end his career being the first player to get 1,000 rushing yards in three seasons, and needs 1,804 rushing yards—a huge, but not inconceivable number—to become NU’s all-time leading rusher.

That’s pretty good.

But why I think Abdullah is Nebraska’s best player on the 2014 roster has to do with more than that. It’s summarized by the video (check the 2:47 mark), which is of Abdullah’s first down run against Northwestern to keep the drive alive and make the Kellogg-to-Westerkamp hail mary possible. Just watch it again, and marvel how he basically on his own made three defenders miss and got the yardage needed to keep the drive alive.

That’s what Abdullah brings, and what makes him Nebraska’s best football player on this year’s roster.

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

Or you can use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

Nebraska Football: Four Backups Critical to Cornhuskers’ Success in 2014

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are legendary for their knowledge, and it is not uncommon for those diehards to know the backups (and the backups for the backups) inside out. Football is a rough game, and a long season means teams will frequently have to rely on their depth to get through a game or more.

So which of Nebraska’s current backups will be most important for NU to challenge for a divisional title? Here are four backups who could prove vital.

Johnny Stanton

Yes, the backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on campus. But as we saw last year, the backup quarterback might also be the most important guy on the team. When Taylor Martinez went down last year, Nebraska’s offense struggled mightily as NU switched between true freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg. Neither Armstrong nor Kellogg had the benefit of an offseason as the starter, and their uneven performance should not have been a surprise.

Armstrong looks to be the clear-cut starter coming into 2014. But if something happens to Armstrong, it looks to be Stanton (with all due respect to Ryker Fife) that would take the reins of Nebraska’s offense. Should that need arise, Nebraska would need Stanton to shine right away.

Imani Cross

Ameer Abdullah is without a doubt Nebraska’s best offensive weapon—indeed, there’s an argument to be made that he’s the best player on the team overall. And every year we keep thinking that Nebraska’s brain trust will spread the wealth and even out the carries between NU’s I-backs, only to find one back becoming the bellcow.

But if there is to be a rotation, Cross is in a perfect position to take advantage. His size and strength make him a true bruiser, a perfect change of pace from the elusive Abdullah. But in the Spring Game, Cross demonstrated a surprising amount of wiggle and burst, elements of his game we didn’t see last year. No one will be confusing Cross for Terrell Newby, but if Cross can be more balanced he could provide a strong change of pace for Nebraska at I-back.

Maliek Collins

It might be a little unfair to list Collins as a backup, as he ended the season as a co-number one on the depth chart at defensive tackle. But I’m going to presume he’s going to be at least an “-OR-“ at defensive end alongside Vincent Valentine, which means he will be important in the defensive end rotation.

But what really makes Collins valuable and important is the time he may see as a specialized pass rusher. Much like linebacker Marcus Newby, Collins has seen time as a pass rush specialist this spring. If he is able to bring this skill to bear, in addition to his contributions on the offensive line, he could be a critical piece of the Blackshirts’ puzzle.

David Knevel

Another great football cliché is that left tackle is the most important position on the offense, as it is the left tackle’s job to keep the right-handed quarterback upright and clean. Alex Lewis looks to have secured the starting job, but Knevel will be right behind Lewis, pushing for the spot and for time in the rotation.

Knevel’s size (six-foot-nine, 310 pounds) should in and of itself demonstrate his potential. If he is able to couple technique with his massive frame, he could be a huge asset to Nebraska’s offensive line.