Nebraska Football: What the Cornhuskers Must Do for a Successful Season

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Nebraska’s 2017 campaign is about to start in earnest, but we still have time to take a step back and consider what has to happen for the season to be a success. Obviously, wins and losses will define how Nebraska fans look back on the season. But it’s more helpful to think about specifically what needs to happen on the field for that success to arrive.

Head coach Mike Riley is entering year three of his tenure in Lincoln. After a disastrous – but unlucky – 6-7 season in 2015, he followed up with an improved – but lucky – 9-4 campaign last year.

Former head coach Bo Pelini was dismissed from his position after seven years, in part, for not being able to get over the four-loss hump. And while there’s little thought that Riley is on the hot seat now, it’s not at all inconceivable to think he is a year away from the hot seat if Riley’s Cornhuskers don’t show signs of progress in 2017.

So, what will those signs of progress be? Here’s three things to look for.

Tanner Lee lives up to his billing

I get it, there’s a lot about Nebraska we don’t know coming into this season. The entire defense is being revamped (more on that in a bit), and we haven’t even seen how it looks. The offensive line is entirely shuffled. Almost all of Nebraska’s offensive production from last year is gone. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s best defensive player (and arguably its best player overall) is lost to injury.

So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.

That’s … kinda nuts. I know he was the offensive MVP of the scout team last year, I know he’s looked great in fall practice, and I know that he’s ruggedly handsome.

But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Yes, it was with a Tulane team bereft of talent, and Lee played through an injury. Still, the only evidence we have of Lee taking snaps in anger shows him playing at a level nowhere near good enough for Nebraska to be successful on offense in 2017.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, Lee is everything that he’s being billed as coming into this season. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, an entire season can spiral downward if the quarterback play for a team isn’t good enough.

But to take Lee’s success as a given this year is crazy. The table is set for him, to be sure, but Nebraska fans should need to see him actually deliver before checking that particular box off.

The defensive transition is smooth

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is a fascinating character, full of high energy and sometimes-mystifying quotes. But he’s also bringing with him a 3-4 defensive structure he’s kept tightly under wraps, not even letting fans see a glimpse of it at this year’s Spring Game.

It was a gutsy call for Riley to fire former defensive coordinator Mark Banker after last season. But given Nebraska’s late-season collapse, particularly against Iowa, it was an understandable move made by a head coach who knows time is precious.

But that doesn’t make the task of transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (and from a one-gap to a two-gap system) any easier. Combine the challenge of learning an entirely new way of playing defense with the need to figure out how players recruited for the previous regime fit into the new system, and you have a recipe for defensive breakdowns.

No defense is perfect. But with a schedule that is more daunting this year than last, Nebraska can ill afford a rough transition on defense if it wants to succeed in 2017.

Beat Iowa

I know, I know, Iowa isn’t a rival to Nebraska. I’ve heard that over and over and over again. For a (ahem) seasoned observer of Nebraska football, those protestations sound hauntingly familiar to things Husker Fan has said about Nebraska’s neighbors to the west and the south.

There’s a longer think-piece about this coming (lucky you), but let’s take a look at where we find ourselves now. Iowa owns a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Riley has never beaten Iowa. And last year’s 40-10 (!) curb-stomping in Iowa City is a large reason why Diaco and not Banker is directing the Blackshirts this year.

But think of it in a broader context. As maddening as the end of 2016 was, one demon Nebraska did excise was losing to teams with inferior talent. Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Tennessee all were at least equals in terms of the players on the field to Nebraska.

Iowa, not so much. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting rankings – which is as good a tool as any to measure raw talent on the field – Nebraska is no. 22 nationally. Iowa is no. 40, the team with the lowest recruiting ranking of any squad NU lost to last year.

(In fairness, Wisconsin is no. 38, but the Badgers have a stronger history of over-performing their recruiting rankings than the Hawkeyes do).

Think about it this way. Let’s assume no more ridiculous losses to Purdue and that Nebraska can take care of business against teams like Northwestern and Minnesota. Nebraska ends the season at 8-4, but with two different scenarios.

The first scenario is with losses to Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. Disappointing, to be sure, but in many ways it may be Nebraska’s most likely scenario for 2017.

The second scenario is with losses to Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, but finally beating Wisconsin – and then losing to Iowa on Black Friday.

Of the two, which scenario would feel worse for you, Husker Fan? Which scenario might slide Riley closer to that hot seat in 2018?

You know the answer. So does Riley, which is why he fired his long-time friend after Nebraska’s day-after-Thanksgiving embarrassment last year.

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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: 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: New Defense Should Help Huskers Against Big Ten Rivals

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Nebraska football fans are well aware – painfully aware – of NU’s struggles against its division rivals since entering the B1G. When you look at the statistics from that era, though, the reason for those struggles becomes apparent.

Specifically, we’re going to be looking at Nebraska’s rushing defense against the three teams now in the B1G West that are built to be power rushing attacks. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa are all built to primarily run the ball right at you, as opposed to the spread-based concepts from the Big XII where teams on offense tried to create space by spreading receivers all over the field.

Here’s how Bo Pelini’s Blackshirts did against the run when facing these road-graders:

Year Opponent Rushing Yards Allowed
2012 Wisconsin (regular season) 56
2012 Minnesota 87
2012 Iowa 108
2012 Wisconsin (B1G championship) 539
2013 Minnesota 271
2013 Iowa 155
2014 Wisconsin 581
2014 Minnesota 281
2014 Iowa 142

So, what do these numbers tell us about Nebraska’s defense at the end of Pelini’s reign?

It hadn’t been bad for that long

September of 2012 wasn’t that long ago, when the Blackshirts bottled up Montee Ball and held the Badgers to 56 total rushing yards en route to a victory in Memorial Stadium. It was after that game where Pelini infamously told the assembled post-game media (according to Huskers.com) that “[c]ontrary to what you guys think, I haven’t forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run.”

As we know, karma catches up with Pelini about two months later, in exactly the way that the Blackshirts couldn’t catch Melvin Gordon.

But it wasn’t until that fateful matchup in Indianapolis where Nebraska’s weakness against the run was exposed. Minnesota utilized that to great effect, rushing for nearly 300 yards in each of its two upset victories over Nebraska. And Wisconsin didn’t forget how to turn the corner on the Blackshirts either, embarrassing Nebraska in Madison.

Iowa wasn’t really on the same level

Yes, Iowa plays smash-mouth football too. Fer cryin’ out loud, the Hawkeyes trotted out a glorified fullback in Mark Weisman as their feature tailback for two years in a row. And yes, Iowa has played Nebraska close three straight years, winning once and arguably deserving a second win last season.

But the numbers don’t support the premise that Iowa has run over Nebraska the way Wisconsin and Minnesota have since December of 2012. While Nebraska’s struggles to retain the Heroes Game trophy are real, they aren’t the same as against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

So why should things be different?

Scheme is everything. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker runs a quarters-based defense, where three linebackers stay on the field almost all the time, and the safeties are tasked with run-stopping duties. While there will be a lot of cover-two concepts, expect to see at least one safety in the box against run-heavy teams.

Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity did a much more detailed breakdown of Banker’s defensive scheme here, which you should read if you want more information.

In comparison, Pelini’s defensive schemes relied on keeping two safeties high (meaning deep and away from the line of scrimmage) to avoid being beaten by the deep pass. While effective in that regard, it also forced the defensive into a one-on-one situation against offensive blockers. If one defender was out of position or lost a battle, there was a Melvin Gordon-sized hole for an opposing ball carrier to barrel through.

Additionally, Pelini loved his hybrid guys, players who were a little too big to play safety and a little too small to play linebacker. He had great success with guys like DeJon Gomes, and tried to force Nate Gerry into that role as a freshman. Banker relies less on hybrids and more on true linebackers, falling back on the quarters scheme to provide support for the run and the pass.

So how did it work out? Well, Banker was defensive coordinator with Mike Riley at Oregon State from 2003-2014. There’s not a ton of smash-mouth teams in the Pac-12, but Stanford certainly qualifies. Let’s take a look at how Oregon State’s defense stood up against Stanford in comparison to its yards-per-game rushing average.

Year Rushing Yards Allowed Stanford’s Yearly Avg. Differential
2012 163 175 -12
2013 185 208 -23
2014 151 172 -21

In each of the last three contests, Oregon State held Stanford – the closest thing the Pac-12 has to a smash-mouth program – to under its yearly rushing average. And remember, this is an Oregon State squad that has significantly less talent than Stanford.

So given those results, it’s not unfair to expect that Nebraska should fare far better against its smash-mouth divisional brethren. This should make for far more competitive contests against Wisconsin, and should spell the end of Minnesota’s hex over Nebraska.

As for Iowa, well, Nebraska’s struggles against the Hawkeyes may have as much to do with a tryptophan hangover as anything else.

All stats were either from cfbstats.com or the team’s official websites.

Nebraska Football: Ranking The Five Most Consistent Players on the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are a slightly different breed than most other college football fans. While other fan bases will lionize the highlight-reel escapades of their superstars, Nebraska fans celebrate offensive linemen and the tough guys who do the dirty work, day in and day out, to help their team succeed.

In that vein, let’s take a look at the guys new head coach Mike Riley has inherited who are the most consistent performers on the roster.

No. 5: Daniel Davie

Last year, Nebraska was blessed with a returning senior at cornerback in Josh Mitchell. But starting opposite Mitchell for all thirteen games last year was Daniel Davie. He had 41 total tackles last year, with five tackles for loss. Davie also had two interceptions and five tackles for loss.

Next year, Davie will be one of two returning starters in Nebraska’s secondary. That continuity will be important for Nebraska as it adopts a new defensive scheme under coordinator Mark Banker.

No. 4: Nathan Gerry

The other returning starter, Nate Gerry, has flourished after spending his freshman season as an undersized linebacker. As a sophomore, Gerry was one of the defensive leaders, with 88 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also had one fumble recovery and five interceptions, one for a touchdown.

Like with Davie, Gerry’s status as a returning starter in the Nebraska defense will be crucial as the Blackshirts transition to Banker’s quarters defensive scheme.

No. 3: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tough to think of a true freshman earning consideration as a consistent player. But Pierson-El’s contributions after earning his way onto the field early in the seasons are hard to overestimate. His punt returns, of course, are already stuff of legends. He kept Nebraska in the game against Michigan State and went a long way towards winning the game against Iowa by going the distance.

But it wasn’t just as a punt returner that Pierson-El showed his ability. He caught 23 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver, working his way onto the field later in the season. And he even went 1-1 as a passer for a touchdown, with a sparkling 564.40 quarterback rating.

Pierson-El is certainly Nebraska’s most dynamic offensive weapon. But part of the reason he is so dynamic—and therefore so dangerous—is because he is so consistent.

No. 2: Andy Janovich

It’s hard to find statistics to back up a claim like this, but Janovich has been a model of consistency at a position where consistency, rather than flair, is the greatest attribute. He gets precious few opportunities to touch the ball (three carries and three receptions in his three years in Lincoln), and yet has made 37 appearances for Nebraska.

It’s possible that the fullback may get a more expanded role in Riley’s new offensive structure. Regardless, though, Janovich can be counted on to make the tough blocks and clear the way for Nebraska’s more explosive offensive weapons in his senior campaign.

No. 1: Jordan Westerkamp

For all of the amazing plays Westerkamp has made, it’s remarkable how easily he is overlooked. And it’s not like he doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic. He made this remarkable behind-the-back catch against Florida Atlantic last year. And he was on the end of one of the most exciting plays Memorial Stadium has ever seen when he caught Ron Kellogg’s Hail Mary to win the game on the final play against Northwestern in 2013.

But that’s not Westerkamp’s game in general. For the most part, Westerkamp runs the precise routes and makes the tough catches on passes which might not be exactly on target. He helps make his quarterbacks look better, and has a knack for finding the first down marker on third down. He’s not Nebraska’s flashiest wide receiver, but he might be the team’s most consistent player.

Stats courtesy of cfbstats.com or huskers.com.

Nebraska Football: Five Former Top Recruits Who Will Finally Shine in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are not alone in feeling burned by the recruiting process. After spending months getting excited about four- and five-star prospects arriving, fans have to wait—sometimes for years—before those prospects actually produce something on the field.

A new season, and a new head coach in Mike Riley, is on the horizon. So let’s take a look back at Nebraska’s recent recruiting history and see which highly-touted recruits might get their chance to come good for NU.

Star and composite rankings from 247 Sports.

Jamal Turner

Class of 2011, four-star, .9658 composite.

In 2011, Turner showed up in Lincoln intending to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback position. When that didn’t work out, Turner moved to wide receiver. Between struggles with learning the position and recurring injuries, Turner’s career at Nebraska has never caught fire.

But being given an extra year’s eligibility through a medical hardship gives Turner a new lease on life. Turner will likely be a starting wide receiver along with Jordan Westerkamp (more of a possession receiver) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (whose slight frame should limit his usage). This provides a huge opportunity for Turner to make a big impact in his swan-song season.

Charles Jackson

Class of 2011, four-star, .9605 composite

Much like Turner, Jackson’s career in Lincoln has been a struggle with injuries. In August of 2014, when he was in line to be Nebraska’s starting nickel back, Jackson suffered a knee injury that cost him the entirety of the season.

His misfortunes with injuries have continued into 2015, with another knee injury keeping him out of spring practice. But according to John Taylor of NBC Sports, this time around the injury isn’t as serious and Jackson should be at full strength coming into fall camp.

Jackson will be competing in a crowded and talented backfield for playing time. But he’s also a freakish athlete who will have every opportunity to earn his moment in the sun.

Paul Thurston

Class of 2012, four-star, .9357 composite

It’s not unusual for offensive linemen to take time before they are ready to produce at a collegiate level. Indeed, it’s the rare player who is able to contribute in the trenches as an underclassman. But Thurston looks ready, after seeing limited time as a backup last season, to press for the starting job at center in 2015.

With a line that will be looking for experience after losing starters at both guard positions, having Thurston emerge and produce at center would be a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in 2015.

Josh Banderas

Class of 2012, four-star, .9053 composite

When Riley was hired, much was made of Banderas’ status with the Nebraska program. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald discussed how Banderas was close to leaving the program after being “jerked around” by former head coach Bo Pelini’s staff.  Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star wrote about Banderas being “mismanaged” by Pelini.

Given that track record, a new coaching staff would be reason enough to be optimistic about Banderas’ prospects in 2015. But when you combine that with a thin linebacking corps (Nebraska in 2015 will have five scholarship linebackers who are not true freshmen) and a quarters defensive scheme from new coordinator Mark Banker that focuses on three linebackers on the field, and Banderas’ opportunity next season becomes apparent.

Terrell Newby

Class of 2013, four-star, .9404 composite

Newby has always been a tantalizing talent for Nebraska fans. He was a higher-rated prospect than Randy Gregory (according to 247 Sports), and has flashed the kind of game-breaking speed that could make him a dominant threat at I-back.

But Newby’s performance hasn’t matched that promise. A big part of that is being behind Ameer Abdullah in Nebraska’s backfield, of course. Newby has averaged just 4.65 carries per game, and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

This year, though, Abdullah is gone and Newby looks primed to win the starting I-back job (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst). While Newby will have a crowded backfield competing with him for playing time, 2015 looks to be his year to shine.

Nebraska Football: Coach Mike Riley’s Biggest Challenges for Nebraska in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Mike Riley knew he had a big job on his hands when he took over as Nebraska’s head football coach. But now that spring practice is over, Riley will be focusing on the upcoming 2015 season. As we settle in for a long summer offseason, let’s take a look at three things that will be occupying Riley’s attention as he prepares for the upcoming campaign.

What the Quarterback Will Be

Notice the very specific phrasing of this challenge. It’s not who Nebraska’s quarterback will be—all evidence points to junior Tommy Armstrong, absent injury. The bigger question is what the role of quarterback will be in Nebraska’s new offense.

At Oregon State, Riley’s quarterbacks were pure pocket passers. Riley’s most recent signal-caller, Sean Mannion, left Corvallis as the Pac-12’s career passing leader and was a third-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in this year’s NFL Draft.

If that’s going to be what Riley is expecting, Armstrong is a bad fit. Mannion had a career 64.6 completion percentage and a 1.43 touchdown-to-interception ratio (according to Sports Reference), while Armstrong has a career 52.9 completion percentage (according to Huskers.com).

But Riley might be changing his expectations of his quarterback. His first quarterback recruit for 2016 (according to 247 Sports) is Terry Wilson, a dual-threat quarterback. Why would Riley be bringing in a dual-threat quarterback if he wanted to move Nebraska into a pocket-passer style of offense?

It’s clear that Tommy Armstrong will not be Riley’s Joe Dailey, a run-first quarterback asked to run a pass-heavy offensive scheme. But trying to find that balance between the offense Riley has run with the talent in Lincoln will be one of Riley’s biggest challenges this season.

How Nebraska Adapts To A New Defense

Nebraska’s defense will look quite different under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. As described by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Banker’s Blackshirts will think less, react more, and play fast. That’s in stark contrast to former head coach Bo Pelini’s focus on complex schemes and blitzes to keep opposing oCffenses off-balance and look for advantages in matchups.

It sounds great, a very exciting style to watch. But it will also mean that Nebraska will have to win more battles athletically, as opposed to a reliance on scheme to make up the gap against a more talented opposing offense. And a team playing fast is also vulnerable to misdirections, counters, and other offensive schemes designed to use a defense’s speed and aggression against it.

Particularly in year one of Banker’s new defense, Nebraska could be face with growing pains as it learns how to play defense fast and simple. That could result in some ugly plays—which could lead to ugly losses if not managed properly.

September

“Wake me up when September ends.”

– Green Day

Say what you will about Pelini and the way he left, but he consistently won nine games. He never had his Callahan moment of a losing season and missing out on a bowl game. Yes, he never won the big prize, but he never guided Nebraska onto the reef like coaches past had done.

Some still question the hiring of Riley, whose career record of 93-80 in college may not inspire confidence in his ability to lead Nebraska to compete with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Of course, as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Riley’s record in Corvallis was far more impressive than the .538 winning percentage, given the limitations at Oregon State.

But there will still be some skepticism about Riley’s ability to win at Nebraska. And his first three games present a stern challenge. A home opener against BYU and dark-horse Heisman candidate in quarterback Taysom Hill could easily see Nebraska start off 0-1. And after a paycheck game against South Alabama, Nebraska has to make a trip to South Beach to play a very talented Miami squad.

Yes, on paper Nebraska should probably be favored to win both games. But given that Nebraska is also installing a whole new offense and whole new defense, it’s not at all implausible to imagine Nebraska losing to both BYU and Miami.

And a 1-2 start to his tenure could easily to poison the well for Riley with the Nebraska faithful, particularly if NU struggles in the rest of the season and limps to a poor (dare I say) Callahan-like record in 2015.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. If Nebraska beats BYU and knocks of Miami on national television, Nebraska could find itself vaulted into the spotlight with a feel-good story of Riley’s success.

So while Riley should be afforded time to put his stamp on the program, the fact remains that the first three games of his career in Lincoln have the potential to define how he is viewed by the Nebraska faithful and the college football world as a whole.

Nebraska Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Cornhuskers This Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

The Offense Will Fit The Players

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

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

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

The Defense Will Be Simpler

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

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

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

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

Tommy Armstrong Will (Probably) Be The Starter

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

– Rita Mae Brown (and probably not Albert Einstein)

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

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

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

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

The Sweep is Here To Stay

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

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

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

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

Mike Riley is not Bo Pelini

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

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

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: Grading Cornhuskers’ Position Group’s 2015 Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have put 2015’s spring practice in the rear view mirror, settling in for a long summer of barbecues, baseball and an absence of football. So before we let spring practice go, let’s take a look back and see how Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley did this spring.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is one area where it’s very hard to get a read on where players stand. It does look like Alex Lewis has solidified his position at left tackle. Paul Thurston made a good case for himself at center with the injury to Ryne Reeves. And Chongo Kondolo looked like he made progress at tackle. But with injuries to Reeves and David Knevel, it’s hard to know just where the offensive line sits after spring practice.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska established that it has depth in the backfield. At quarterback, no one has jumped up and taken the job by the horns, although junior Tommy Armstrong still looks to be in pole position as a starter given his experience. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush seemed to be impressive in camp, but struggled in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman Zack Darlington had almost the opposite trajectory, although it did seem like he improved as spring practice wore on. While the depth is good, some down-grade has to be given for an absence of a starting quarterback that truly inspires confidence.

As for the running backs, the four scholarship players (Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon) all staked their claim for the position, along with walk-ons Graham Nabity and Jordan Nelson. Nebraska looks to be settling into a committee approach to I-back, keeping legs fresh and allowing players to be inserted to maximize their particular skill sets.

Grade: B

Receivers

The receiving corps took one of the biggest hits over the spring when junior tight end Cethan Carter was lost to injury. While Carter should be back in time for fall practice (according to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald), it prevented fans at the Spring Game from getting a good look at what could be a crucial cog in Nebraska’s offense.

There’s plenty of receiver news that was positive, though. Senior Jamal Turner looks ready to go after an injury-plagued career. Redshirt freshman Jariah Tolbert made an impact at the Spring Game, catching three balls for 55 yards and a touchdown, and looking to be a legitimate option in the passing game. Mainstays like Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El are still on track to be part of Riley’s new-look offense as well.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Nebraska’s defensive line might be the hardest to grade, simply because of the difference between the inside and outside of the line. At tackle, Nebraska might have the best tandem in the conference with Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins. But at end, big questions remain. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be the starters, but in terms of both depth and overall talent level defensive end remains one of Nebraska’s biggest uncertainties going into 2015.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Outside of the freshman class, Nebraska has five scholarship linebackers, including one (senior David Santos) who missed most of spring practice due to injury. Combine that with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme which tends to play three linebackers, and you put a lot of pressure on the few experienced players on the roster or on true freshman to contribute at a key position.

Junior Josh Banderas seems to be settling in for his second go-around as middle linebacker, while junior Michael Rose-Ivey is still working his way back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season. So coming out of spring practice, linebacker still has to be one of the big question mark areas for Nebraska

Grade: B-

Secondary

If depth is a theme for Nebraska’s roster, the secondary has it in spades. How deep? Well, LeRoy Alexander is returning from a year’s suspension, but is one of the most talented players on the roster. He was on the White Team roster for the Spring Game, and is not at all guaranteed to get his starting job back in 2015.

The same can be said for Daniel Davie, arguably Nebraska’s best cornerback last year. An injury has kept him out of practice this spring, and given the competition level at the position it is entirely plausible that he will not be a starter next season.

So while the depth chart itself is still being sorted out, Nebraska’s embarrassment of riches in the secondary qualifies as a “good problem” for Riley and his staff.

Grade: A

Special Teams

Half of Nebraska’s special teams looks to be dominant. Sam Foltz might be the best punter in the country, and his strength and accuracy (not to mention tackling acumen) was on display at the Spring Game. De’Mornay Pierson-El is a game-changer at punt returner and kick returner, giving Nebraska a huge advantage in field position.

But Nebraska’s placekicking position remains a question. Drew Brown and Mauro Bondi remain the scholarship kickers, and neither were standouts in 2014. Nebraska was a pedestrian no. 70 nationally in touchback percentage and no. 80 in field goal percentage, according to CFBStats.com.

So if you take two parts of special teams play that are elite at a national level, and two parts which are (at best) average, then a middling B grade seems about fair.

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: 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.