photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans can finally take a breath and look back at the 2014 season, taking stock of who the Cornhuskers’ best players were last year. A coaching change, followed with an out-of-left-field hire, can make fans ready to turn the page pretty quickly to 2015 and the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.
But it’s far too soon for that. As Nebraska prepares for its bowl game against USC, let’s take a look back at who the ten best players were for NU in 2014.
No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Of all the players on the roster, Armstrong is probably the hardest to rate. His numbers still aren’t fantastic—a 51.7 percent completion rate and a 19/11 touchdown-to-interception ratio are not going to win any conference titles.
But Armstrong also showed his leadership throughout the season, coming back from injury against Michigan State and holding the team together offensively after the injury to Ameer Abdullah. His toughness and intangibles have to be credited, even if his statistical deliverables have fallen short this year.
No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp
Westerkamp had a number of games where he was simply a non-factor, although much of that was due to the overall struggles of Nebraska’s offense. But Westerkamp was Nebraska’s most reliable receiver throughout the season, leading the team in receptions and second in yards per game.
Oh, and he also had a catch that was pretty good.
No. 8: Vincent Valentine
Nebraska’s strength in 2014 was certainly its defensive line, and a big part of that was the performance of Valentine. His size (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) makes him a force in the middle, and his development in terms of handing offensive linemen (and therefore freeing up linebackers to make plays) and in making tackles (39 overall) made him a big cog in Nebraska’s defensive performance.
No. 7: Kenny Bell
When Bell is healthy, he was Nebraska’s most dangerous down-field threat. His absence was certainly felt in East Lansing, as Nebraska’s offense evaporated after Bell’s injury removed any deep play threat. Conversely, Bell put Nebraska on his back in Iowa City, making play after play before catching the game winner in overtime.
It will be quite a start for Nebraska fans not to see no. 80 lining up on the outside next season (or see the ‘fro on the sidelines).
No. 6: Nathan Gerry
Going into the 2014 season, many assumed that Nebraska would have a solid performer at safety in Corey Cooper, with Gerry and LeRoy Alexander fighting for the alternate safety spot. Well, it turns out that Nebraska did have a solid performer at safety—Gerry.
After leading the team in interceptions and being second in tackles, an argument could be made that Gerry was Nebraska’s defensive MVP. At the very least, he is one of the shining lights for the Blackshirts coming into 2015.
No. 5: Maliek Collins
While Vincent Valentine made steps in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line stopping things up, Collins got things going in opposing backfields. Finishing the season second in sacks, Collins became a disruptive force up the middle in the second half of the season. With teams focused on slowing down Nebraska’s defensive ends (particularly Randy Gregory), Collins’ ability to get penetration up the middle made a huge difference in NU’s defensive performances.
No. 4: Zaire Anderson
In general, Nebraska’s linebackers were a disappointment. While NU has a wealth of young talent at linebacker, that talent never really developed or matured to a point where it could effectively contribute.
The one exception to that rule was Anderson, who led the team in tackles with 95 total. Throughout the season, Anderson made crucial stops and provided a measure of consistency in the middle of Nebraska’s defense that was sorely needed.
No. 3: Randy Gregory
It might be a measure of Gregory’s greatness that it seemed like his season wasn’t the tour de force we had anticipated, even though he led the team in sacks, was third in tackles for loss, and sixth in tackles overall.
Gregory’s speed and length was a disruptive force for Nebraska’s defense throughout the 2014 season. Assuming Gregory does not return for his senior season, the Blackshirts will have some big shoes to fill next year.
No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El
How many games can a punt returner affect? Against Michigan State, Pierson-El’s return gave Nebraska a fighting chance after being dominated most of the game. Against Northwestern, the fear of Pierson-El gave Nebraska such good field position that NU was able to wear the Wildcats down. And against Iowa, a game that looked to be slipping away was turned by two long punt returns keying Nebraska’s comeback.
Pierson-El worked his way into the starting lineup as a wide receiver, although he was curiously absent from the offensive game plans after Ameer Abdullah’s injury. Regardless, though, Nebraska’s clear breakout star of 2014 should provide fans with a lot to look forward to next season.
No. 1: Ameer Abdullah
Nebraska’s season turned on a botched snap early in the game against Purdue. In diving for the loose ball, Abdullah was hurt and was never the same. Nebraska’s offense never recovered, and its offensive ineptitude helped fuel Wisconsin’s mauling of the Blackshirts, as well as Minnesota’s bare-knuckle victory in Lincoln.
Contrast that with Nebraska’s 41-31 win against Miami, where Abdullah ran like a man possessed, notching 229 yards and two touchdowns in NU’s most impressive and complete performance of the season.
Even more than Rex Burkhead’s injury in 2012, Abdullah’s loss at the end of 2014 presents a painful “what if” moment for Nebraska fans wondering how the season would have transpired with a healthy Abdullah in the backfield.