Nebraska Football – Pre-Spring Game Offensive Preview

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The problem – well, one of the problems – with missing a bowl game is how long you as a fan have to wait to see football. In an ordinary, bowl-game-including season, the longest wait for Nebraska football is from the Spring Game until kickoff of the new season.

But after Nebraska’s 4-8 campaign in 2017, the firing of Mike Riley, and the hiring of Scott Frost, the wait from the end of the 2017 season to the 2018 Spring Game will be even longer. So if it seems like that ugly loss to Iowa on Black Friday was a long time ago, well, it actually was.

Even with snow still on the ground in April, then, spring football is here, and it’s time to start getting ready for what life will be like under Frost. Let’s take a look at the offense first, to get somewhat of an idea of what to expect.

Quarterback – Three schollies and a lot of questions

There’s a whole bunch of unknowns for Nebraska coming into 2018. But one of the biggest unknowns is who will be Nebraska’s signal-caller to start the season.

Nebraska’s two returning scholarship quarterbacks are redshirt sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. O’Brien has the only returning experience, playing in three games including the entirety of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. Both O’Brien and Gebbia were recruited to play former head coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, quite different from Frost’s no-huddle, up-tempo attack.

That doesn’t mean O’Brien or Gebbia couldn’t run Frost’s offense, though. As O’Brien told the Lincoln Journal-Star:

“I’ve been paying attention,” O’Brien said of the Knights. “Their offense is really fast, and they’re a good team. It’s going to be exciting for us to run that here. I feel like I fit in it pretty good. I ran something pretty similar to it in high school, and I feel like it fits my skill set, so I’m just ready to go.”

Also competing for the position will be true freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star dual-threat quarterback. Frost was not shy about his praise of Martinez, according to Land of 10.

“I’m excited about him. He has a lot of potential,” Frost said. “When I was evaluating quarterbacks a year ago around the country, he was my favorite one. His ability to run and throw and his maturity as a kid are going to serve him really well, and for the offense that we run, I didn’t think there was a better fit in the country. Once we took the Nebraska job, we got a hold of him right away and we’re thrilled to have him on campus.”

So yes, Husker fan, at some point in the near future you’ll have a Martinez slinging the ball around Memorial Stadium. Get ready for your flashbacks.

It’s tempting to thing that Martinez will get the nod when Nebraska tees it up against Akron in September. At Central Florida, Frost didn’t hesitate to play a freshman quarterback in McKenzie Milton. But don’t discount the experience and athleticism of both O’Brien and Gebbia.

It’s likely that Frost and co. will want Martinez to show up ready and win the job. But it’s very unlikely that a true freshman will be able to pull of that feat. Look for O’Brien or Gebbia to get the nod, at least to start the season.

I-Back – Questions about the guys coming back, and the guys showing up

Nebraska looked like it had a real answer at I-back with Tre Bryant. For two games, Bryant looked to be the go-to back Nebraska had been hoping for since Ameer Abdullah,  averaging 5.86 yards per carry and 149.5 yards per game.

But lingering injuries sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season, and he remains a question mark as to what he will be able to contribute in 2018. Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon will be the backs returning with the most experience. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley flashed some potential, as well, in the limited opportunity he got towards the end of the season. And with the demise of the fullback, it’s likely that Ben Miles will look for his ability to contribute as an I-back, if not on special teams – if he remains part of the program.

This year’s recruiting class, however, has put some new faces into the mix. Junior college transfer Greg Bell was a jewel of the class, and with two years of eligibility left it’s hard not to see Bell competing hard for playing time right away. And on signing day (well, old school signing day anyway), one of Nebraska’s big wins was four-star running back Maurice Washington.

What the I-back position will look like in Frost’s new offense is still an open question. And given the new and returning faces in the room, who will be filling the role next season is just as much of an open question.

Wide Receiver – Stan’s squad

One of the best pieces of news Frost got upon taking the job in Lincoln was learning that wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr was returning for his senior season. Morgan’s offensive output last year – 61 catches, 987 yards, 10 touchdowns – was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2017 season. Indeed, while Morgan did break Johnny Rogers’ 1972 single-season receiving record, his chase for 1,000 receiving yards ended up being about the only compelling thing to watch for Nebraska fans as the season wore down.

Also returning is JD Spielman, who had a breakout freshman campaign with 55 receptions, 830 yards, and two touchdowns. Spielman’s game would seem to translate well to Frost’s speed-based offense, and his year of experience should set him up well to contribute next year.

Tyjon Lindsey, one of the prize recruits from last year’s class, also returns with a year of experience. Lindsey struggled to find his place in the offense last year, but he remains one of the players for whom a year of experience and a change in system might pay the biggest rewards.

Nebraska’s also got some returning question marks, including Jaevon McQuitty coming off of an injury, and Keyan Williams looking for an opportunity to make his contribution. There was also a swell of receiving talent arriving in this year’s recruiting class, including junior college transfers like the speedy Jaron Woodyard and big-bodied Mike Williams. Incoming freshmen Miles Jones, Dominick Watt, and Andre Hunt will also find themselves competing for playing time in 2018.

Tight End – Spoiled for choices

Nebraska has one returning tight end with any experience, sophomore Jack Stoll, who hauled in eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

So, there’s some holes to fill for Nebraska at the position. The tight end is another position that looks to undergo some big changes in Frost’s offense, and the advantage Frost has is that he’ll have some options to choose from.

Stoll, as the only returning contributor, likely has an advantage in competing for playing time. But he’ll be fighting with oft-injured Matt Snyder, as well as highly-recruited Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. And don’t be surprised if Nebraska native David Engelhaupt is in the mix this season as well.

This year’s recruiting class also brought in three big-bodied, move-style tight end weapons in Cameron Jurgens, Katerian Lagrone, and Justin McGriff. So while Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of experience coming back, at the very least it will have a lot of options from which to choose.

Offensive Line – The perennial question

Nebraska should feel comfortable with returning talent at guard, as Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Brendan Jaimes will all be back. At center, Michael Decker and Cole Conrad will likely be competing for the spot, but both have injury issues that will limit their participation in spring practice.

Tackle is by far the biggest question on Nebraska’s offensive line – and that’s a big position at which to have a question. Matt Farniok will get a shot to slide out to tackle, and it also is time for Broc Bando and Christian Gaylord to step up and make their mark.

Nebraska has some additional line depth – Chris Walker, Boe Wilson, Jalin Barnett, and Matt Sichtermann will all have their opportunities. Freshmen Will Farniok and Willie Canty will be coming to Lincoln, but it’s always a challenge for freshmen linemen to play.

(h/t to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for his offensive line preview)

GBR, baby.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated.

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Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch For at the Red-White Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will have its fifteenth and final spring practice play the annual Red-White Spring Game before a crowd likely to be north of 80,000 in Memorial Stadium. As year three of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach begins, fans will be wondering what to expect after last year’s record was an improvement over the prior season, but saw some ugly losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

So what should a smart fan (and a DXP reader, but of course that’s redundant) be looking for from Saturday’s glorified final practice? Well …

Can The Quarterbacks Complete Passes?

I know, that sounds mean. But here’s Nebraska’s completion percentage from 2009-2016:

2009 57.7
2010 57.8
2011 56.0
2012 62.0
2013 57.7
2014 52.9
2015 55.9
2016 50.3

The last three years, of course, were with Tommy Armstrong as starting quarterback. And those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to expect success on the field.

This year, with Armstrong’s departure, the quarterback battle looks to be between redshirt junior transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee played two years at Tulane, and many fans hope his experience will help him win the job and lead Nebraska’s offense out of the doldrums.

His career stats? A 53.6 completion percentage and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio. Sure, that was at Tulane, not Nebraska. But still, those aren’t numbers that inspire confidence.

With the threat of a quarterback run game now gone, Nebraska will need significantly more efficient play from the passing game to be effective on offense. Whether the starter is Lee or O’Brien, we will at least get a glimpse of what to expect from them on Saturday.

Can The Offensive Line Hold Up?

Nebraska’s passing game was a mess last year, and much of that comes from the signal-callers and their limitations throwing the ball. But part of the problem has been an offensive line that has struggled to perform at a high level. Injuries were a part of the problem last season, of course. But it’s rare to finish a season without some attrition on the offensive line from injury.

Going into Saturday, we do not yet have a good grasp on who will be starting up front on offense. We also don’t know exactly how the Red and White squads will be divided, so it may very well be that a full first-team offensive line won’t be on the field at the same time on Saturday.

But we will get at least some look at how this year’s version of the Pipeline will look come September.

Can The Running Game Get Established?

Yes, it’s fair to say that this question will hinge in large part on the answer to the last question about the offensive line. But it’s also fair to say that Nebraska has a whole bunch of I-Backs to pick from, none of whom have yet to show the ability to take over a game. For the three primary returning backs, here’s their yards per carry from 2016.

Mikale Wilbon 5.93 (15 carries)
Devine Ozigbo 4.25 (97 carries)
Tre Bryant 4.00 (43 carries)

Last year, Nebraska had the no. 73 ranked rushing attack nationally – and that was with Armstrong’s running ability factored in as a part of the offense. This year’s offense will likely not feature a quarterback run game, but will (hopefully, for Nebraska’s sake) have a more efficient passing attack. On Saturday, we will get at least a glimpse of how that effects Nebraska’s ability to run the ball.

Will The New 3-4 Defensive Scheme Take Time To Learn?

62-3. 40-10. 38-24.

Those were the scores of Nebraska’s last three losses (to Ohio State, (shudder) Iowa, and Tennessee), and were a significant factor in why Bob Diaco and not Mark Banker is Nebraska’s defensive coordinator in 2017.  But it’s not like Nebraska was dreadful on defense overall last year. NU was no. 30 nationally in total defense, and no. 33 in scoring defense.

So, on the good side, that means Diaco has a good platform on which to build. But, on the concerning side, it also means that a substantial shift in defensive scheme (from 4-3 to 3-4) runs the risk of upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

Diaco said (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) that the Spring Game will be more of a “dress rehearsal” than an audition, and that “[i]f you’re interested in filming the spring game to figure out what we’re going to do on defense, you’re going to waste a lot of film and footage.”

OK, sure, a smart reader like you might expect that Diaco wouldn’t come out with a quote like “hey, Nebraska opponents, make sure to check out the Spring Game because we’re totally going to show you all our sneaky trick defensive plays.” So of course what will be on the field this Saturday will be a pretty sanitized version of the Blackshirts compared to this September.

(And, at the risk of being snarky, it would be helpful to let Diaco know that most recording is now done digitally instead of using something like this. Although, in fairness, the latter is far cooler.)

Can Nebraska Generate Pressure on the Quarterback?

While we should be able to learn something about Nebraska’s new-look Blackshirts on Saturday, it is fair to say that we might know less about Nebraska’s ability to pressure the quarterback in 2017. Even if the offensive line is a question mark (see supra), it is unlikely that Nebraska will be calling any elaborate blitzing or pressure schemes.

Still, one of the advantages of a 3-4 front is to permit even four-man pressure from multiple locations, potentially causing confusion to opposing offenses (as discussed by Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald). And Nebraska could use the help on that front, checking in at no. 65 nationally in sacks and no. 85 in tackles for loss last year.

So even without the blitzes or other extra schemes, getting a look at how a 3-4 front attacks an opposing offense should give fans at least a taste of what’s to come in 2017.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Offensive Backfield Depth Chart

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With spring practice coming up quickly, now is a good time to start taking guesses as to what Nebraska’s depth chart will look like this autumn. Of course, these projections are subject to change, with injuries and what we learn from the results of spring practice.

You can take a look at the Double Extra Point’s new roster distribution tool, seeing how Nebraska’s 105-man roster breaks down by position and by class (including both scholarship and walkon players) to get an idea of what the coaches will be working with. So let’s get started with the glory-boys in the backfield.

Quarterback

For the first time since the 2010 season, Nebraska is entering spring practice with a legitimate quarterback battle. The three contenders look to be junior transfer Tanner Lee, redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, and true freshman Tristan Gebbia.

Lee almost certainly has a leg up on the competition, having played for two seasons at Tulane before his transfer to Lincoln. A marked difference from quarterbacks in the past, Lee is a true pocket passer presenting no threat as a runner. He only completed 53.6 percent of his passes at Tulane, but the surrounding talent at Nebraska will be a significant upgrade. As a co-MVP of the scout team in 2016, Lee is in pole position to start for Nebraska next season.

O’Brien has a tremendous amount of talent, and how has a year of experience under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s tutelage. He also has enough athleticism to be at least a little bit of a threat running the ball. Gebbia was a highly-recruited target coming out of California in the 2017 recruiting class (although not quite as highly rated as O’Brien, according to 247 Sports). But at six-foot-three and 180 pounds, Gebbia is going to need to put some weight on before he’s ready to compete in the B1G.

The bottom line is that if Lee isn’t the starter against Arkansas State in September, then it likely means either he’s been hurt or O’Brien has blown the doors off of the coaching staff in terms of his improvement.

Projected depth chart, quarterback

Tanner Lee

Patrick O’Brien

Tristan Gebbia

I-back

With Terrell Newby’s graduation, competition for starting I-back should be just as intense (although maybe not watched as closely) as the quarterback race. Leading the team in carries returning in 2017 is junior Devine Ozigbo and sophomore Tre Bryant, so it’s hard not to think of them as having a leg up in terms of winning the starting job.

Senior Adam Taylor has been buried on the depth chart since an ankle injury in 2014 set him back. Junior Mikale Wilbon is a curious case in terms of how he’s been used. Of the four I-backs who got significant snaps in 2016, Wilbon easily had the highest yards-per-carry average. But he only had 15 carries, well below the next closest I-back, Bryant at 43. There’s a reason Wilbon hasn’t earned the coaches’ trust to see the field more, and he’ll be digging himself out of that hole this offseason. True freshman Jaylin Bradley will get a look this spring, but absent injures don’t be surprised to see him redshirt in 2017.

If you’re going to guess on one of these backs winning the starting position, my money would be on Ozigbo. When he’s been healthy, Ozigbo has the power to move defenders and enough wiggle to create space. He’s also got a violent running style that would allow him to punish defenders if he’s able to get into a rhythm. Given that Nebraska will be breaking in a new quarterback – and almost certainly an entirely new offensive system – a bellcow power back would be just what the doctor ordered.

Projected depth chart, I-back:

Devine Ozigbo

Tre Bryant

Mikale Wilbon -OR-

Adam Taylor

Fullback

It’s certainly odd to look at the roster distribution for Nebraska and see six fullbacks – and only one of them being a scholarship athlete (and that one being a true freshman, to boot). After the heady days of Andy Janovich’s 2015 season, we know that head coach Mike Riley isn’t afraid to use a versatile fullback as an offensive weapon.

And he’s got one in true freshman Ben Miles. Sure, being former LSU head coach Les Miles’ son helps with the recruiting buzz, but don’t think that Miles the younger is just a gimmick on the roster. He’s athletic enough to lead block as a fullback, catch passes out of the backfield, or even line up in the slot (much like how the Atlanta Falcons used fullback Patrick DiMarco last year) to cause defenses all kinds of matchup nightmares.

Senior walkon Luke McNitt did an admirable job last year trying to fill Janovich’s shoes. But with Miles’ arrival, Nebraska now has a chance to put a true weapon on the field at the fullback position.

Projected starting lineup, fullback:

Ben Miles

Luke McNitt

Nebraska Football: NU Review, Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13

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On Saturday, Nebraska went on the road for its first conference game and first game away from Memorial Stadium, defeating Northwestern 24-13. Nebraska survived two goal-line fumbles into the end zone and still managed to beat the Purples by eleven. So, for Nebraska fans looking back at the Northwestern game …

The Good

Tommy! And you thought Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong had a legacy-defining performance with his touchdown run against Oregon last week. Against Northwestern, Armstrong ran for 135 yards (!) on 13 carries, and went 18-29 for 246 yards and one touchdown. That’s 381 yards of total offense, one of the best performances of his Nebraska career.

More importantly, Armstrong was not responsible for any turnovers. He nearly was a victim of a pick-six towards the end of the game, but ultimately he was able to put Nebraska on his shoulders and grind out a victory on the road in a conference game.

Three-Headed Monster. Before Nebraska’s trip to Evanston, it looked like Devine Ozigbo was establishing himself as NU’s clear top I-back. But the Purples did a pretty good job bottling Ozigbo up, holding him to 42 yards on 13 carries.

But the depth of Nebraska’s I-back stable got shown off in Evanston. Terrell Newby had 71 yards on 10 carries (never mind the fumble), and Mikale Wilbon got his first real dose of work, going for 55 yards of six carries.

Oh, yeah, and Armstrong had a pretty decent day on the ground, too.

So Nebraska’s ability to find I-backs to be successful is an encouraging sign going forward.

Getting Home. Nebraska lodged four sacks against Northwestern (so, free Big Mac!), and got an additional two quarterback hurries. While much of Nebraska’s struggles last year against the pass should be laid at the feet of the secondary, and absence of a consistent pass rush was a part of last year’s struggles. So seeing more success in bring pressure against opposing quarterbacks, even with an opposing offensive line like Northwestern’s, is encouraging.

The Bad

Clayton The Jet. Last year, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson had nine carries for 126 yards in the Purples’ upset of Nebraska in Lincoln. On Saturday, Thorson had 10 carries for 43 yards, including a touchdown. In 2015, Thorson’s rushing against Nebraska accounted for 31.7 percent of his entire rushing for the season. This year, it’s actually 2130 percent, as Thorson was at negative-two yards rushing before his 43 against Nebraska.

Clearly, Northwestern has been successful at finding ways to use Thorson schematically against defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s Blackshirts. And while Nebraska ended up with a (relatively) comfortable win, that has to be something highlighted for future contests.

Just Get It There! On at least four occasions, Nebraska’s center Dylan Utter either flew or bounced a shotgun snap to Armstrong. Remarkably, none of them resulted in a turnover, but all of them either resulted in lost yardage or a less successful play. These are new struggles for Utter, and it’s hard to tell if it was the first road game, the natural grass surface, or something Northwestern was doing that threw him off. Regardless, though, that’s an an issue that Nebraska needs to fix ASAP.

And the Beginning of the Exorcism

OK, admit it, Husker Fan. With 3:54 left in the game and Nebraska holding on to an 11-point lead, you weren’t entirely confident. Last year left some marks on your college football soul. And when the Purples were able to, relatively easily, move the ball from their own 20 to the Nebraska 27, the ghosts of last year began to haunt you.

But then Josh Kalu’s interception ended Northwestern’s drive (and fundamentally, the game), the 2016 Cornhuskers won the type of game that the 2015 Cornhuskers lost over and over and over again. Just like they did last week against Oregon.

Nebraska is now 4-0 overall, 1-0 in conference, and in the top 15 in both polls. Sure, we’re only a third of the way through the season and there’s a lot left for Mike Riley’s charges to prove.

But this year’s squad is going a long way towards laying the ghosts of last season to rest.

Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against South Alabama

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On Saturday, Nebraska will attempt to bounce back from its last-second loss to BYU, facing the South Alabama Jaguars in Lincoln (7:00 p.m., Big Ten Network). For Cornhusker fans watching the game …

You’ll Be Happy If …

The Rock Is Pounded. Head coach Mike Riley knows that Nebraska’s output from the running backs on Saturday wasn’t good enough. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, the coaches are considering leaning more on one back as opposed to the rotation we saw on Saturday.

One game is a small sample size, but based on that evidence Mikale Wilbon should be the guy that gets the bulk of those carries. His elusiveness – particularly combined with an offensive line that has been struggling to create running lanes – seems to be the skill set that fits Nebraska’s needs best right now.

Regardless, Nebraska’s offense was out of balance against BYU, gaining 319 yards through the air and 126 on the ground. Even accounting for BYU’s weakness in pass defense and that some of Nebraska’s pass yardage was on screens and other run-substitute plays, more from the ground game would help immensely.

Freedom Rings. One of the glaring deficiencies from Nebraska’s game against BYU was a lack of pressure from the defensive end. Nebraska did better in heating up BYU’s quarterbacks in the second half, in part from bringing blitzes and in part from the interior defensive line finding success against a tiring BYU offensive line.

But if Nebraska is going to be successful, particularly asking its corners to cover one-on-one for extended periods, then the defensive ends have to get home. And that’s where the ascension of Freedom Akinmoladun becomes important. An injury to Jack Gangwish has given Akinmoladun his chance to start and play extended time.

Gangwish beat out Akinmoladun for the position this fall, and as a team captain it is a loss for him to be off the field. But Akinmoladun, a converted tight end just learning the position, has the raw athletic potential to be the difference-making edge rusher unlike anyone else currently on Nebraska’s roster. Throwing him into the fire gives that athletic ability a chance to be on the field at a position of critical need.

Nebraska Converts. Yeah, the last play hurt. But in the three drives before that play, Nebraska had a third-and-one, a third-and-one, and a third-and-three. On each of those, Nebraska couldn’t get the first down, continuing to give BYU a chance to recover.

It doesn’t matter if it’s lining up and pushing ahead for a yard, or hitting a play-action pass, or any other method. If Nebraska makes one of those third-down conversions, BYU likely never has a chance to hit that last pass. Against South Alabama, look at those third-and-short situations and see how Nebraska responds.

You’ll Be Sad If …

Nebraska Needs Its Kickers. I am amazed at how little this aspect of Nebraska’s roster is being discussed in the wake of the BYU loss. At punter, Nebraska is down to its scout team quarterback pressed into punting duties, Tyson Broekemeier. He performed admirably against BYU, but he becomes a net liability for Nebraska going forward.

And Nebraska’s placekicking game is a source of tremendous concern. Drew Brown missed field goals of 40 and 41 yards against BYU, and the lack of those six points gave BYU the chance to win on that last play.

Sure, it’s one game, but it’s not like Brown impressed last year. Brown was 14-of-21 on field goal attempts, with a long of 44 yards. From forty yards and out, Brown now has a 2-for-9 (!) record.

Forty yards isn’t, for a college-level kicker, a long way to kick a football. And unless we see a dramatic improvement in a real hurry, it’s hard to have any confidence in Nebraska’s ability to put three on the board when the need arises.

The Corners Crumble. Nebraska’s defensive structure (particularly with Michael Rose-Ivey returning from suspension) allows the defense to put eight players in the box to stop the run. But it asks the defensive backs, particularly the corners, to play one-on-one coverage and consistently win those battles against opposing receivers.

In the second quarter, as BYU quarterback Taysom Hill carved up the Blackshirts secondary en route to a 17-point performance, it looked as if those corners were struggling. South Alabama runs an up-tempo offense and can score on big plays, as it did last week against Gardner-Webb with scores of 49, 56, and 92 yards. The Jaguars have real speed on their roster in players like Xavier Johnson and Terrence Timmons, who will make the Blackshirts pay for any mistakes on the edges.

Don’t be surprised if South Alabama hits a few home runs against Nebraska on Saturday. Just hope it’s not too many.

The Second Quarter Was Real. Boy, that first quarter felt good, didn’t it? Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong looked in rhythm, the offense was clicking, and the start of the Riley era was a joy to behold.

Then the teams flipped ends of the field, and we saw the Armstrong we saw last year. Flustered, poor mechanics, running for his life and overthrowing open receivers. After starting the game going 10-for-12 throwing the ball, Armstrong was only 4-15 in the second quarter.

Which Armstrong will we see on Saturday? The more of second-quarter Armstrong shows up, the more likely it will be that Nebraska will struggle.

Fearless Forecast

South Alabama has enough talent to do damage, but a mature coaching staff should have the team’s full attention after a heartbreaking loss. Look for Nebraska to win a game that will likely be more comfortable than the score indicates.

Nebraska 31, South Alabama 20

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

I-Back

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive End

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

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

Linebacker

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

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

Secondary

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

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

Nebraska Football: 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: 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 Three Redshirts With Best Chance To Earn Starting Spot in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have already started to dive into the roster, trying to imagine what next year’s starting lineup will look like. The players who redshirted last year (31 in total) will get their first chance to see the field this fall. Of course, between talent and position depth, some will have a better chance than others to work their way up the depth chart.

Here are three of the most likely redshirt freshmen to win a starting spot next season.

Tanner Farmer

The line is one of the most difficult places for younger players to break in, simply because of the physical demands of the position. At least a year of college-level weight training is usually required before linemen on both sides of the ball can usually be ready to stand up to the demands of the position.

Farmer is one of three redshirts (along with D.J. Foster and Nick Gates) who will be in the mix this year for playing time at offensive line. There are currently six senior offensive linemen, with two of those (Matt Finnin and Chongo Kondolo) limited to reserve roles. Of the five players who are sophomores and juniors on the offensive line, only one (Paul Thurston) has really claimed any significant playing time.

That means the door should be open for the incoming redshirt freshman to fight for and win a starting spot on the line. As the highest-rated recruit (according to 247 Sports), Farmer gets the slight nod over the other two, but all three redshirt freshmen offensive linemen should see a terrific opportunity for themselves in 2015.

Mick Stoltenberg

Other than linebacker, defensive end might be the thinnest position on Nebraska’s roster coming in to 2015. The early departure of Randy Gregory, combined with Avery Moss being denied re-entry to the school, leaves Nebraska with only four defensive ends outside of the redshirt freshmen. Two of those four, Joe Keels and A.J. Natter, have struggled to make any impact since arriving in Lincoln.

The depth is such a concern that (according to Corn Nation) Freedom Akinmoladun is being considered for a move from tight end to defensive end. While Akinmoladun is an impressive athlete, learning a new position is a challenge, meaning that Stoltenberg (who was a higher-ranked recruit, according to 247 Sports, than Sedrick King, the other redshirt freshman defensive end) should be considered to have a better chance at winning a starting role.

Mikale Wilbon

Nebraska will have a huge, Ameer Abdullah-shaped hole in its offense for 2015. And there is no clear-cut candidate to step in and fill the role. Senior Imani Cross has the most experience, but also lacks the speed to be an explosive threat. Junior Terrell Newby has the speed, but has failed to grasp the opportunities he’s been given to earn more playing time to date. Sophomore Adam Taylor has been hampered by injuries, so we really haven’t had a chance to see what he can do at the collegiate level.

Which leaves the door wide open for Wilbon, who has been put “into the same sentence as Ameer Abdullah,” according to Big Red Report’s Josh Harvey. With a new coaching staff and the departure of one of the best I-backs to play in Lincoln, competition for the starting job should be wide open—leaving Wilbon a clear opportunity to win it in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Redshirt Freshmen for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have long memories, long enough to remember the recruiting hype for the freshmen who redshirted last year and have extended their careers in Lincoln as a result. Of course, there is no real data available to make any kind of informed analysis of where the redshirt freshmen stand.

Having said that, we do have recruiting rankings available, to give at least some idea of a player’s potential. We can also look at the opportunities available to the players, either from roster attrition, a new coaching staff, or both, and make some informed projections about how these players may fit in next season.

All ratings from 247 Sports.

No. 5: Mick Stoltenberg (DT)

Stoltenberg was a three-star recruit (.8296 composite) coming out of high school, and plays a position that should see a lot of competition prior to the 2015 season. With Randy Gregory declaring for the NFL draft, Greg McMullen looks to be the only sure-fire starter returning for Nebraska.

Stoltenberg will be competing with Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, and A.J. Natter, all who saw playing time last season.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun (TE)

Let’s agree at the start that guessing what new head coach Mike Riley’s offense will look like in 2015 is a fool’s errand. Having said that, given Riley’s history and the fact that his new offensive coordinator is a quarterback coach, it’s a fair conclusion that Nebraska will lean more on the passing game than it did under Bo Pelini.

And if we take past as prologue, we see that the tight end in Oregon State’s offense in the last three years has been either third or fourth in receptions. Compare that to Nebraska’s offense over the same time period, where the tight end has only been fourth one year (Kyler Reed in 2012) and sixth every other year.

In 2015, Nebraska will have a dangerous receiving threat at tight end returning in Cethan Carter. But Akinmoladun looks to be cut from the same mold as Carter, and should have a chance to shine.

No. 3: A.J. Bush (QB)

Bush might be the biggest wild card of all Nebraska’s redshirt freshman. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense is going to look like next year, so it’s hard to guess what skill set the next NU quarterback will need. Tommy Armstrong has off-the-chart intangibles and nearly two years of starting experience under his belt. Johnny Stanton was recruited by Riley at Oregon State, so there’s no question Riley likes what Stanton has to offer.

And yet Bush’s name keeps coming up, even over Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Darlington. During preparation for this year’s Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “an intriguing guy” (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

With a new coaching staff coming in, all the quarterbacks will be starting with a clean slate. That may give this “intriguing guy” a chance to make an impression and work his way up the depth chart next season.

No. 2: Mikale Wilbon (RB)

The graduation of Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge hole at Nebraska’s I-back position. Returners Imani Cross and Terrell Newby certainly have the advantage of game experience. But that experience has also shown some of the weaknesses in both of their games.

Adam Taylor, if he is able to bounce back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season, looks to provide a middle-ground in skill sets between a bruiser like Cross and a scatback like Newby. A three-star prospect (.8822 composite), Wilbon will have the chance to impress the new coaching staff and make an immediate impact in 2015.

No. 1: Tanner Farmer (OL)

In some ways, picking the redshirt offensive lineman for this list was a challenge, as Nick Gates and Jerald Foster will be in the mix as well. But Farmer’s recruiting pedigree (four-star, .9021 composite) along with his size (six-foot-four, 310 pounds) give him the slight nod in this contest.

Farmer’s familiarity at guard should help, as Nebraska is returning both starting tackles for 2014. But the depth of talent and competition for playing time should be a good problem for new Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.