Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Tennessee 38, Nebraska 24

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Nebraska won’t get another post-season lift from a bowl win, falling to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl 38-24. Injuries and suspensions challenged Nebraska, with quarterback Tommy Armstrong, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, and safety Nate Gerry out for the game. But those absences don’t account for Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs having a career game with 291 yards in the air and another 118 on the ground. Nor could it account for defensive end Derek Barnett dominating and disrupting Nebraska’s entire offensive line. So, in looking back at Nebraska’s final game of the 2016 season …

THE GOOD

Oh hai Brandon! If Nebraska had any shot to win this game, particularly after falling behind 14-0 (and having starting I-back Terrell Newby go out with injury in the first half), it was going to be on the sticky gloves of wide receiver Brandon Reilly. Reilly ended the game with four catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns, and (when quarterback Ryker Fyfe had time to throw) provided a downfield threat that could help neutralized Tennessee’s dominance of NU’s offensive line.

Going out in style. OK, here’s two quarterback stat lines. Tell me if you see any similarities.

QB1: 14-27 for 199 yards, 1 touchdown, 11 carries for 46 yards and one touchdown rushing.

QB2: 17-36 for 243 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, 8 carries for 14 yards and one touchdown rushing.

Any ideas? QB2 was Fyfe’s line in the Music City Bowl. QB1? Armstrong’s average stats for the 2016 season. In part, that’s a reflection of how well Fyfe played, particularly with his non-throwing wrist still in a cast. In part, though, it’s also a reflection of how Armstrong did not end with the senior campaign he – and Nebraska fans – were hoping for.

$450,000 saved. Who needs a special teams coach? Freshman punter Caleb Lightborn was called into duty far more than Nebraska would have liked, but performed admirably, averaging 42.7 yards per punt on his seven attempts. Placekicker Drew Brown hit his only field goal attempt to help keep Nebraska within striking distance. And freshman JoJo Domann caused a fumble on a kickoff that got Nebraska the ball back and helped NU get within one score. Nebraska was outplayed fairly decisively in most elements of the game, but won the battle on special teams.

THE BAD

It all starts up front. Sure, Barnett is a future NFL defensive end. But he, and the rest of Tennessee’s defensive front, simply outclassed Nebraska’s offensive line throughout the game. When Fyfe had time to throw, he was relatively effective. But far too often, there were Volunteers in Nebraska’s backfield almost as soon as the ball got back to Fyfe.

The story was the same on the other side of the ball, too. Nebraska was unable to pressure Tennessee with four, and once the Blackshirts started blitzing then Tennessee was able to take advantage of NU’s secondary. Combined with poor tackling (more on that in a moment), Nebraska’s inability to compete on either line was the single biggest determinative of this game’s result.

Defensive fundamentals. It’s not like Nebraska didn’t have its opportunities. But particularly at the linebacker position, Nebraska struggled with poor pursuit angles and poor tackling. Given Tennessee’s talent advantage, Nebraska had little room for error. So when Nebraska would let Tennessee off the hook on third down by missed tackles, the result was predictable.

M.A.S.H. Unit football. Yeah, there’s no excuses in football. But geez, it’s hard to really understand how much to take away from the Music City Bowl given Nebraska’s roster issues. Nebraska started out down its starting quarterback, no. 1 wide receiver, and staring safety. Then, during the game, Nebraska lost its starting I-back (Newby) and its no. 2 safety (Antonio Reed). In a game where Nebraska had a talent deficit coming in, it was a bridge too far asking NU to overcome those losses.

AND THE TRUE END OF AN ERA

Somehow, ending the season with four losses – one of the defining traits of Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini – seems fitting. The end of the 2016 season sees the departure of players like Armstrong, Westerkamp, and Gerry, fine players and leaders but definitely carrying the hallmarks of the previous administration. Head coach Mike Riley was always going to be in a strange position taking over for Pelini with Armstrong as his signal-caller and with defensive coordinator Mark Banker trying to re-make the Blackshirts.

Next season, the page will well and truly be turned, and year three of Riley’s regime will really feel like the first real Riley football team. Whether that will be good enough to get Nebraska where it sees itself – competing for conference titles – remains to be seen. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst made it clear, though, that there are still high expectations for Riley in recruiting as well as results (in an interview with Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

That’s a good thing. Four-loss seasons weren’t good enough when Pelini was in charge (although his dismissal was not entirely caused by them), and Eichorst has made it clear that they aren’t good enough in the long-term for Riley. With a depleted Nebraska squad falling to an SEC team in a bowl, Husker Fan has truly seen the closing of the Pelini Era of Nebraska football. What comes next will be fascinating to watch in 2017.

Nebraska Football: Three Players Who Need To Improve in 2016

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Coming off a 6-7 campaign, it’s fair to say that there might be more than three players who need to improve for Nebraska’s 2016 season to impress. But for Nebraska to right the ship (and, according to one smart and particularly handsome analyst, be favored to win the B1G West title next season), there are three critical players on the roster who need to significantly outperform their 2015 season.

Not Featured: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

I know, I know, this doesn’t make sense. How can Armstrong not be a player that needs improvement when this dope already said that his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio weren’t good enough for Nebraska to win a division title?

Because, to be honest, at this point it’s unreasonable to expect those numbers to change. Armstrong is going to be a senior in 2016. For those two most important statistics, here’s what his career numbers look like.

Year Attempts Comp. % TD-to-INT
2015 402 55.2 1.375
2014 345 53.3 1.833
2013 131 51.9 1.125

As you can see, Armstrong’s completion percentage has – barely – been improving in his three years under center. His ratio, which was atrocious in his freshman season, actually got worse last year after some promising signs of improvement in 2014.

Sure, a new coaching staff and a new offensive philosophy can explain a lot of Armstrong’s struggles last season. And sure, it’s possible that a second year under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf might help Armstrong make a leap in both categories.

But at this point, it’s really hard to assume or even expect that. Armstrong is a senior, who has played 33 games for Nebraska. Much like Taylor Martinez before him, at this point in his career Armstrong is likely who he is going to be – in his case, a great leader, a tough competitor, a dangerous playmaker, and an inaccurate and turnover-prone quarterback.

If Armstrong develops into something more in his senior campaign, then it’s a bonus for Nebraska. But for now, we have to expect Armstrong to deliver about what he has delivered throughout his career.

Nate Gerry

Gerry has had an … interesting career at Nebraska. As a freshman, then-head coach Bo Pelini moved Gerry to linebacker in an attempt to find his best position. Gerry returned to his position at safety as a sophomore, and looked like he was going to be a world-beater.

But then Pelini was dismissed, and in came head coach Mike Riley with defensive coordinator Mark Banker.  Pelini’s defensive schemes put a prime on defending the pass, at the expense of the running game. Banker’s quarters-style defensive strategy is the opposite, focused on stopping the pass at the expense of the deep middle passing game.

That’s a huge change for a safety, and Gerry’s transition was – not ideal. We know what Nebraska’s pass defense, particularly in the fourth quarter looked like last year.

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You want numbers? Take a look at these comparisons.

  2014 2015
Pass yards allowed/game (nat’l rating) 205.8 (33) 290.5 (122)
Scoring defense (nat’l rating) 26.4 (60) 27.8 (75)
Total defense (nat’l rating) 383.7 (53) 400.4 (64)

What do these numbers tell us? Well, that Nebraska wasn’t all that much different in terms of both total defense and scoring defense between 2014 and 2015 – with a pass defense that went from no. 32 nationally to no. 122.

That means if Nebraska pass defense improves even to average, then Nebraska’s overall defense should be much better in 2016. It will have to be, if this smart and particularly handsome analyst is right and Nebraska looks to be in contention for the B1G West this year. Gerry, as a senior, will be one of the team leaders, and it’s up to him in his second season under Banker to find his sophomore form.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense (and puncher of fellow coaches) recently died. And while his personality might be the perfect polar opposite of Riley’s, he could not have been more right about how a pass rush helps a secondary. Here’s what Ryan had to say about how a pass rush helped a secondary.

“A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.” (courtesy of the Houston Chronicle).

Nebraska was no. 78 nationally in sacks. Yes, the pass defense last year was atrocious, and it’s easy to point fingers at the secondary. But the lack of pass rush was a huge contributing factor to Nebraska’s woes defending the long ball.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much of a cavalry riding in to the rescue. While Riley’s 2016 recruiting class was impressive, given that Riley was coming off a 6-7 campaign, one glaring deficiency was a true pass rush specialist.

It falls, then, to the players on the roster to heat up the opposing quarterback. And of all the pass rushers on the roster, Akinmoladun looks to be the one most likely to shine. Last year was his first at defensive end after moving from tight end, and Akinmoladun possesses the raw athletic ability to get past an opposing tackle and get home.

For Nebraska to be successful next season, Akinmoladun will need to make that leap.

Nick Gates

OK, here’s a comprehensive list of the starters on Nebraska’s offensive line who will be playing in the same positions they manned in 2015.

If that doesn’t frighten you as a Nebraska fan coming into the new season, then you aren’t paying attention.  Nebraska’s offensive line will be undergoing a huge transition, with three new starters being broken in and two players likely shifting positions from 2015.

Of the players shifting positions, Gates will be the one with the most on his shoulders.  Last year, Gates played at right tackle, but looks (based on projections from Ourlads) to be playing left tackle in 2016. That position (especially with a right-handed quarterback) is the most important on the offensive line, and it looks to be filled next year by a redshirt sophomore who has not started a game at left tackle in his college career.

For Nebraska to reach its goals in 2016, Gates will have to excel in his new home on the offensive line quickly.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

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: 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: Five Things To Watch In The Spring Game

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

What Routes Do The Receivers Run?

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

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

How Accurate Are The Quarterbacks?

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

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

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

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

How Fast Will the Defense Really Play?

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

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

How Do the Linebackers Cover in Space?

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

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

Who Stands Out in the Secondary?

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

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

Nebraska Football: Who Has A Starting Role Locked Up?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

Jordan Westerkamp

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

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

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

Cethan Carter

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

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

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine

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

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

Nate Gerry

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

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

Nebraska Football: Biggest Storylines So Far This Offseason

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As Nebraska football’s spring practice winds on, a number of storylines have emerged. Given the hiring of new head coach Mike Riley and entirely new schemes on offense and defense being installed, the flood of news certainly isn’t surprising. But there are a few storylines that really stand out in bold type as we work our way to the 2015 season.

Here are three of the biggest storylines that have emerged this offseason.

A Simpler Defense

Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s defense was famously difficult and challenging to learn. It appears that under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska’s defense will be far simpler. Check out what junior safety Nate Gerry had to say about the contrast in styles at a pre-spring practice press conference (transcript via Huskers.com)

“My first impression is that I’m really excited for it. It’s a lot simpler than it was. … That’s the thing [new defensive coordinator Mark Banker] wants us all to do, to be able to get to the ball faster and to stay loose. Last year we had a lot of people overthinking. Mentally weweren’t as sharp as we were maybe supposed to be.”

Now, simpler doesn’t always mean better, of course. Check out Derek Johnson’s analysis on the HuskerMax forum about how Nebraska’s defense could struggle by insisting on remaining in a three-linebacker set.

But a simpler defensive scheme will, at the very least, mean that talented players are less likely to be kept off the field based on a lack of scheme knowledge. And that change in defensive philosophy might be the biggest one in Lincoln we’ve seen this offseason.

A Pro-Style Offense

When Riley first arrived, questions lingered as to whether he would be importing his pro-style offense. Certainly, given what happened the last time Nebraska brought in a coach to revamp the offense (by some dude whose name rhymes with Cill Ballahan), things didn’t go well. So many Nebraska fans wanted to downplay the likelihood of offensive upheaval.

And there is some ground for that reassurance. Riley has talked about the need to adapt the game plan to the talent available (as quoted by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

“We have what we’ve done as coaches and we have a new skill set at quarterback almost all the way around,” Riley said. “We are trying to blend the two as best we can together so we can help them be comfortable.

“This is not about what we (as coaches) want to do; this is about giving them (the players) the best tools to play fast and win games. It’s kind of interesting, and kind of fun for us, too.”

Having said that, though, there is no doubt that Nebraska under Riley will be a pro-style offense. In a pre-spring press conference (transcript from Huskers.com), wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said straight out that Nebraska will have a “pro-style type of offense.” Quarterback Tommy Armstrong was quoted by Eric Olsen of the Associated Press of being told by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf that he would “not be a running back” and that his job as a quarterback would be to “sit in the pocket, deliver the ball when I can and make smart decisions.”

How does incorporating a pro-style offense mesh with using the talent available on the roster for Riley? That’s the fascinating question we will see answered in part during spring practice, and in full this autumn.

The Starting Quarterback Job Is Up For Grabs

Yes, Riley has said that Armstrong’s experience is a benefit as he determines next year’s starting quarterback (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star). But that doesn’t mean he’s a guarantee to win the job.

Gerry DiNardo from the BTN is in the midst of touring spring practices from around the conference. Check out what he said about the quarterback races he’s seen so far.

Um, wow. A savvy outside observer says Nebraska’s quarterback decision “isn’t clear.” Add in the report from 247 Sports that Armstrong that back spasms have been hampering his performance and made him sit out of Wednesday’s practice, and the recipe is certainly there for someone other than Armstrong to win the job.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pegged Armstrong’s chances to be the 2015 starter at 50 percent. Looks like recent developments from spring camp make that number just about right.

Nebraska Football: What We’ve Learned Already About Huskers Under Mike Riley

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were excited to see the start of spring practice, even if it just meant seeing new head coach Mike Riley and a number of chosen players answering questions from the media. And while press conferences generally are pretty dull affairs, we actually learned quite a bit about what Nebraska will look like under Riley’s leadership next season.

Here are three of the biggest takeaways from those press conferences.

Riley needs to learn about his roster

According to a transcript from Huskers.com, Riley announced that spring practice for Nebraska this year would be a bit unorthodox. The team will be split into two units, a red team and a white team, each with a mix of younger and veteran players. The coaches will, basically, have two separate practices for each of the two “teams” each day. In between the two practice sessions, the entire team will work on special teams.

There’s a number of benefits for this split-squad approach. As Riley pointed out, splitting up the teams will make sure there is less standing around, where “22 guys were playing and 100 guys were watching.” While leaving the coaches on the field longer, the more focused practice sessions should help keep the players involved.

But it will also provide the new coaching staff with much more opportunity to observe the players over the spring. By increasing the number of players the coaches can observe, Riley’s split-squad approach will dramatically increase the amount of time the coaches can directly observe each player’s performance in practice. That should jump-start the staff’s ability to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each player, and better inform them in making decisions on depth charts and game plans tailored to the skill sets of the players.

The defense will be simpler

Junior safety Nate Gerry was one of the players who spoke at the press conference before the beginning of spring football. And what he had to say (according to a transcript from Huskers.com) was certainly illuminating about what Nebraska’s defense will be like in 2015.

“My first impression is that I’m really excited for it. It’s a lot simpler than it was. … That’s the thing [new defensive coordinator Mark Banker] wants us all to do, to be able to get to the ball faster and to stay loose. Last year we had a lot of people overthinking. Mentally we weren’t as sharp as we were maybe supposed to be.”

A simpler defense, not paralyzed by a complicated scheme. While I’m sure Gerry wasn’t intending to, that’s a pretty stunning indictment of Nebraska’s defense last year, or at least how the defense was coached to the players.

While Nebraska’s offense got most of the attention when Riley (a pro-style quarterback coach) was hired, NU’s new-look defense might really be the big change in 2015.

The offense will be pro-style

When Mike Riley arrived, he brought with him a reputation of being a quarterback guru and purveyor of a pro-style offense. Since his hire, there had been some question as to how much of that offense he would bring from Corvallis to Lincoln.

Well, we’ve got the answer to that question, it appears.

According to a transcript of a pre-spring press conference from Huskers.com, junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong said the following about his preparations for 2015.

“Right now [offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf] is making us watch Oregon State’s offense. They are trying to get some of the things we ran similar to what those guys ran last year. Right now, the plays we have been studying and looking at are Oregon State’s (plays). That is kind of similar to what we were looking forward to running.”

In a separate transcript of press conference comments on Huskers.com from junior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, we learned that Nebraska’s offense will be “a pro-style type of offense.” And from a separate story by Eric Olsen of the AP, Armstrong said that Langsdorf told him that he would “not be a running back” and that his job as quarterback would be to “sit in the pocket, deliver the ball when I can and make smart decisions.”

It looks as if the option as a staple of Nebraska’s offense—along with the spread concepts introduced in the last few years—will be a thing of the past in Lincoln next season.