Nebraska Football: Who Is Replacing Every Former Husker Taken in the 2015 NFL Draft?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans watching the NFL draft had to wait until the second day to see the first Cornhusker alum go off the board. Ameer Abdullah went in the second round to the Lions, Randy Gregory went (finally) in the second round to the Cowboys, and Kenny Bell went in the fifth round to the Buccaneers.

So who will take their place? Which players will step up and replace the NFL-level production provided by Abdullah, Gregory, and Bell last season? With the help of a projected depth chart from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, here’s at least some potential replacements.

Terrell Newby for Ameer Abdullah

This is probably a little misleading. Newby looks to be in prime position to get the first crack at taking the lead I-back role for Nebraska in 2015. But McKewon thinks (and with good reason) that Newby will be at least the nominal starter net season.

That may not mean as much with Nebraska’s stable of backs (and with a new head coach and offensive philosophy). And there’s no doubt that none of Nebraska’s I-backs will be focus of NU’s offense and a team leader the way Abdullah was last year.

But if there’s anyone that will fill the Ameer-shaped hole for Nebraska next year, Newby looks like the man to get the first shot at it.

Marcus Newby for Randy Gregory

OK, hear me out. I know Newby is a linebacker, and isn’t even guaranteed a starting job next year. But Gregory was always undersized for a defensive end, making up for his lack of size with freakish athletic ability.

What Gregory’s real talent was for the Blackshirts was rushing the passer. In both 2013 and 2014 (according to CFBStats.com), Gregory led Nebraska in sacks. Newby had one sack in eight appearances. More importantly, though, his appearances were mainly limited to passing situations where his role was to rush the passer.

Sure, Gregory was an every-down defensive lineman at the collegiate level, not just a pass-rush specialist. But where Gregory will be most missed by Nebraska is his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Don’t be surprised to see Newby fill that role next year, if he doesn’t beat David Santos out for the weakside linebacker job altogether.

Jamal Turner for Kenny Bell

Yes, De’Mornay Pierson-El is likely to be Nebraska’s most dangerous weapon at receiver. But Bell provided more than just a deep threat. He was also provided leadership and toughness. And while Pierson-El’s talent is undeniable, he hasn’t even played a full year at receiver.

Turner, on the other hand, will be starting his sixth year in the program after receiving a medical hardship. And with the injuries he has fought through, Turner has demonstrated a toughness and tenacity which the rest of the receiving corps can look to and emulate.

Admittedly, Turner doesn’t have Bell’s amazing hair. But Turner, more than anyone else on the roster, can replace Bell’s combination of playmaking speed and senior leadership.

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Nebraska Football: NFL Draft Projections for Every Former Cornhusker

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

On Thursday, the 2015 NFL Draft will begin, and Nebraska fans will be keeping an eye out to see where former Cornhuskers land. Ever since the Bill Callahan era, Nebraska has touted the success of its alumni in the NFL, and there are at least three players who look likely to join their ranks.

Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter at NFL.com put together a seven-round mock draft showing where each player could land. While mock drafts are notoriously unreliable in terms of their predictive accuracy, they are interesting as a starting point to think about how players could fill needs on a certain team. So an exercise like the one on NFL.com is useful as a discussion point.

With that caveat in place, let’s take a look at where this year’s crop of ex-Cornhuskers might land on Sundays.

Randy Gregory

New Orleans Saints (first round, no. 13 overall)

After the regular season, Gregory was considered by some to be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. But a positive marijuana test at the NFL Combine has dropped perception of him out of the top ten, in large part due to the irresponsibility of allowing himself to have the drug in his system when he knew he was going to be tested.

But while that will likely cost Gregory a healthy sum in terms of his rookie contract, it also pushes him down the board and likely to a better team. The Saints are a team re-tooling after a disastrous 7-9 season which kept them out of the playoffs (even in the comically-inept NFC South, which was won by a 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers).

In this offseason, the Saints traded their most explosive offensive weapon in tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for picks and a Pro Bowl caliber center in Max Unger. It may be a signal that the Saints are moving towards more of a focus on defense and running the ball. Given that the Saints were no. 25 in the NFL last year in sacks, a pass-rushing specialist would fill a big need.

And if Gregory’s indiscretion at the Combine drops a top-five level talent to New Orleans at 13, it makes a lot of sense for the Saints to jump on him there.

Ameer Abdullah

Detroit Lions (third round, no. 88 overall)

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska fans could keep the Lions as their adopted NFL team, trading their Ndamukong Suh shirts (who went to the Miami Dolphins in free agency this offseason) for Abdullah ones.

Upgrading at running back makes a lot of sense for the Lions, especially as their defense will of necessity take a hit after losing Suh. With Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at wideout, the Lions already have some effective offensive weapons. But their only rostered running backs at this point are Joique Bell, Theo Riddick, and George Wynn. There is a huge opportunity for a running back to earn playing time (at the very least in a committee with Bell), one that Abdullah would be well-poised to exploit.

Kenny Bell

Buffalo Bills (fifth round, no. 155 overall)

Bell to Buffalo is an intriguing prospect. Given his injury history and lack of size, a fifth-round grade is probably fair. And yet, throughout his career at Nebraska, fans saw his speed, route-running, and hands on display, as well as his toughness and leadership.

Going to Buffalo would put him on the field with a number of other exciting offensive weapons, such as Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy. If Bell can make the team as a third or fourth wideout, he could have the opportunity to exploit matchups against linebackers or safeties, with the other team’s best cover corners on Watkins and Harvin.

Of course, he would also have guys like Matt Cassel and E.J. Manuel throwing him the ball, which right now is the biggest limiting factor in the Bills’ offensive future. Still, given what the Bills look to be building on offense, Bell makes a lot of sense in Buffalo.

Free Agents

According to CBS Sports, here are the other Nebraska players who have a shot at earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.

Player Position Positional Rank
Trevor Roach ILB 21
Zaire Anderson OLB 44
Josh Mitchell CB 64
Corey Cooper SS 28
Jake Cotton OG 51

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.

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

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

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

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

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

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

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

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

No. 7: Kenny Bell

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

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

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

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

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

No. 5: Maliek Collins

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

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

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

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

No. 3: Randy Gregory

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

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

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

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

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

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Pro Prospects on the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans, still smarting from seeing Melvin Gordon score again (and again, and again) on the Blackshirts, are looking for anything to distract them from Saturday’s debacle. One exercise is to take a look at Nebraska’s roster and think about who the best NFL prospects are in scarlet and cream.

Judging NFL prospects has some subjectivity to it, of course, particularly when you look at younger kids who have not had an opportunity to see the field. Sometimes experience and what you have seen on film can rule the day, while other times raw potential can make a player an exciting prospect.

So, trying to balance all of those considerations, here are Nebraska’s five best pro prospects.

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

No. 5: Kenny Bell (WR, senior)

Even as the school’s record-holder for touchdown receptions, Bell has been far from a dominant force in Nebraska’s offense this year. Much of that, however, stems from the run-heavy nature of Nebraska’s offensive scheme combined with quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s inefficiencies (which is the nicest possible way to say it) as a passer.

At the next level, though, Bell has the speed and hands to get drafted. He is currently projected as a fifth-round selection in next year’s draft. His desire and competitiveness—demonstrated by his ferocious devotion to blocking, if nothing else—should help him stick on an NFL roster next season.

No. 4: Vincent Valentine (DT, sophomore)

Valentine’s status on this list is a little bit of a projection, but there is plenty on which to base that speculation. For starters, his size (six-foot-two, 320 pounds) give him an idea frame as a run-stuffing defensive tackle. And this year, in his first full season as a starter, Valentine’s talent and athleticism have started to show through.

Placing him this high on the list, of course, is having faith that his skill level will continue to increase until the 2017 NFL Draft. But given his physical makeup and the improvement we’ve seen thus far, it’s a leap worth taking.

No. 3: Greg Hart (TE, redshirt freshman)

If Valentine’s inclusion on this list is a leap of faith, then including Hart on the list is a blindfolded jump off of a bridge. But there are reasons why such a jump might be worth it.

First of all, a big pass-catching tight end can be a game-changer for an NFL offense. Players like Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots and Jimmy Graham for the Saints have demonstrated how those types of players (and the matchup nightmares they create for opposing defenses) can change the entire construct of an offense.

Yes, Nebraska already has one of those on its roster in Cethan Carter. And Carter is certainly a talent, although injuries, offensive design, and poor quarterback performance have limited his contributions.

But Hart is an inch taller, and has a 40-yard-dash time almost a full tenth of a second faster than Carter. Obviously, we haven’t seen Hart on the field much. But we’ve seen precious little of Carter (much to the chagrin of Nebraska fans), so there’s a lot of speculation as to both players as to what they will look like as finished products.

So in guessing between the two, I’m going to lean on the player with the better measurables.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah (IB, senior)

Does it seem that long ago when Abdullah was considered a Heisman candidate and looked to be establishing something special in his senior campaign? After an injury against Purdue, combined with Nebraska’s humiliation at the hands of Wisconsin, Abdullah’s performances seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

But Abdullah is still a remarkable talent, with balance, speed, and deceptive power combined with a low center of gravity that should make him an interesting prospect at the next level. Currently viewed as a second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Abdullah should hear his name called on the draft’s second day and factor heavily into an NFL squad’s future plans.

No. 1: Randy Gregory (DE, junior)

One of the very few silver linings of Nebraska’s evisceration at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday was the fleeting thought that it looked so bad it might convince Gregory to stick around for his senior campaign. After all, the wishful thinking goes, the defense looked so bad that it might hurt Gregory’s stock with NFL clubs.

Fat chance. Not only is Gregory a first-round projections, many analysts see him going in the first few picks of the draft. Given his combination of size, speed, length, and instinct, it’s not hard to see how he draws comparisons to Jadaveon Clowney and Javon Kearse (according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com). Gregory looks to be the highest-picked Nebraska player since Ndamukong Suh went no. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions in 2010.

Which makes Saturday’s defensive embarrassment against Wisconsin all the sadder for Nebraska fans, as it likely is a waste of Gregory’s remarkable talents in scarlet and cream.

Nebraska Football: Early Odds for the Cornhuskers’ Team MVP

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Seven games into the season, Nebraska football fans have taken a good look at the roster and have an idea of the team’s most valuable players. Some are established stars, some are newcomers making a name for themselves, and others are unexpected contributors. But here are five Cornhuskers who are staking a claim as this year’s MVP, along with those players’ odds of actually getting that accolade at the end of the year.

Sam Foltz: 20-1

I know, I know, he’s a punter. But hear me out.

Field position is a huge, and frequently ignored, factor in winning football games. And in games where Nebraska has struggled, Foltz’s punting has gone a long way towards keeping Nebraska in the game.

Take McNeese State for example. In the second half, as Nebraska labored to beat the FCS Cowboys, NU had to punt five times. The Cowboys’ starting field position after those punts? Their own 22, own 2, own 33, own 5, and own 10. Those are long fields, which made it harder for the Cowboys to score and put a real scare into Nebraska.

Foltz did the same against Michigan State, as Nebraska punted seven (!) times in the first half. The Spartans’ starting field position was their own 20, own 20, own 13, Nebraska 31, own 19, own 16, and own 23. Other than one big return, the Spartans had a long field to cover, making it harder for them to score. Had they not, Michigan State could well have been ahead at halftime far more than “just” 17-0, making Nebraska’s near-miracle comeback a non-entity.

Foltz won’t be Nebraska’s MVP this year. But given his contributions, he should be in the conversation.

Tommy Armstrong : 10-1

It is hard to know just what to think of Armstrong. On the one hand, Armstrong has struggled to take the reins of Nebraska’s offense. His completion percentage of 53.5 percent is problematic, almost to the point of being a liability. And whether it is Armstrong’s decision-making or offensive game planning, he has not (at least prior to Northwestern) run the ball enough to take attention away from Ameer Abdullah. In essence, the argument against Armstrong would go, at best Nebraska is succeeding with Armstrong as a passenger—and at worst, in spite of Armstrong.

But the fact remains that Nebraska is 13-2 with Armstrong as a starter, and both of those losses came to Michigan State. And while “he’s young” falls a little flat as a defense of a quarterback with 15 starts, it is fair to say that Armstrong is improving. His completion percentage against Northwestern (62.1) may be signs of things to come. And the toughness and leadership he’s shown at the end of games, leading Nebraska to a near-Lazarus moment in East Lansing and helping to put a pesky Northwestern team away in the second half, certainly suggests Armstrong’s intangibles are critical to NU’s toughness and resiliency.

De’Mornay Pierson-El: 8-1

Can a guy who touches the ball less than 15 times in a game truly be a difference-maker? True freshman Pierson-El may be providing us an answer. After his coming out party against Fresno State, Pierson-El’s electric punt return game has turned a huge liability for Nebraska into a huge asset. Pierson-El’s punt return against Michigan State was the crucial element in Nebraska’s oh-so-close comeback. And the fear of Pierson-El led Northwestern to kick away from him on punts—and even kickoffs—ceding field position to Nebraska without any risk of turnover or injury.

And now Pierson-El’s role on offense is growing, including a reprise of the Black 41 Flash Reverse where Pierson-El threw a touchdown to Armstrong last week. Given Nebraska’s struggles with injuries at receiver, combined with Pierson-El’s playmaking ability (and, at least to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, his ability to intimidate), he could end up making a remarkable difference.

Randy Gregory: 9-2

Gregory has missed nearly two full games out of seven for Nebraska. He draws cut blocks and ends up being taken out many times. Fair questions can be raised about his motor and ability to give maximum effort throughout a game.

And yet Gregory, with his combination of size and speed, is the most disruptive defensive force Nebraska has seen since Ndamukong Suh. He has six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season, even after missing nearly two of the seven contests. He can chase down opposing ball carriers from the back side of a play. He can, almost single-handedly, collapse his side of an offensive line.

Nebraska’s defensive line as a whole has performed well this season. But at least some of the credit to that performance has to be the extra attention a weapon like Gregory gets from opposing game plans.

Ameer Abdullah: 3-1

It would be tempting to be a contrarian and try to find a way not to pick Abdullah. After all, Abdullah was a non-factor against Michigan State, with only 45 yards of rushing. He had gaudy numbers against Northwestern (146 yards rushing and four touchdowns), but almost all of that came in the second half against an overmatched defense. Even against McNeese State, Abdullah was held to just 54 yards rushing and one touchdown.

But he had a receiving touchdown at the end of the game against the Cowboys, too, and that one was pretty good. That play single-handedly saved Nebraska from the prospect of overtime against an FCS team, and the possibility of a hugely embarrassing home loss. It was reminiscent of Abdullah’s fourth down conversion against Northwestern in 2013 which set up the Hail Mary victory. That run by Abdullah, I will maintain, is the most impressive demonstration of individual brilliance I have ever seen on a football field.

Yeah, Abdullah has been held quiet when Nebraska struggles. But in some ways, that’s the definition of a team’s most valuable player. So with five weeks left to go in the season, Abdullah is the odds-on favorite to be the 2014 team MVP.

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Grading Each Positional Unit At The Halfway Point of the Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Now that the Nebraska football season has reached its halfway point, it’s time to think about grades for each positional unit. Six games in, we have enough data now to reach at least some preliminary conclusions about how each unit has performed, and what to expect for the season’s second half.

So, on a standard A-F grading scale, here’s how each unit has graded out for the first half of the 2014 season.

Offensive Line – B

Of all the units, this one was the hardest to grade because of the variance. Nebraska is currently no. 6 nationally in rushing, and no. 28 in sacks allowed. Those are awfully good numbers, and the offensive line deserves much of the credit for those stats.

And yet, we saw what happened in East Lansing. We saw Nebraska’s offensive line get its collective butt kicked—head coach Bo Pelini’s words, not mine, according to the Omaha World-Herald—in NU’s most consequential game of the year. Yes, the Spartans are really good, and yes, it was a sloppy track that contributed to the struggles.

But struggles there were. A “B” feels like a compromise grade, and might be a bit generous.

Offensive Backs – B

Remember, these are the backs in aggregate. I-back Ameer Abdullah has been a revelation, even with his performance against Michigan State factored in, and still can state his case for a Heisman invitation this year. Imani Cross has performed well as Abdullah’s primary backup, while Terrell Newby really hasn’t forced his way onto the field as of yet.

So the question becomes how to grade quarterback Tommy Armstrong. His touchdown-to-interception ratio currently sits at 10/5, which is better than the 9/8 ratio he had at the end of the 2013 season. But his completion percentage of 51.9 percent is identical to where he ended the season last year.

It’s also, just for comparison’s sake, just over four points poorer than the worst completion percentage that Taylor Martinez posted in his career, 56.3 in 2011. And no one would confuse Martinez as a quarterback who could hurt opposing defenses with accurate throws. Nor would they confuse Armstrong with having the electric, game-breaking speed of Martinez that could help justify Martinez’s deficiencies as a passer.

Sure, Nebraska’s decimated receiver corps is in part an explanation for Armstrong’s struggles. But it’s time to retire the “he’s young” canard as a defense for his performance. Armstrong has started or played in 15 games over his career. In college football, that’s a veteran, and it’s fair to start judging Armstrong based on that standard.

It’s hard to criticize Armstrong because he is a likeable kid, a mature leader, and tough as nails (as we were reminded of based on his performance in East Lansing). But is he good enough, right now, to win Nebraska a conference championship? Michigan State didn’t think so, game-planning to take Abdullah away and make Armstrong win the game.

In East Lansing, Armstrong couldn’t answer that bell. Whether he can as the season progresses may very well be the defining question for Nebraska in 2014.

Receivers – Incomplete

Kenny Bell. Jamal Turner. Cethan Carter. Sam Burtch. Brandon Reilly.

Those are all Nebraska receivers who are either out for the season or who have missed significant playing time due to injury. It’s a massive blow to absorb, one that (arguably) was the decisive factor in Nebraska’s loss to Michigan State. Players like Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Cotton, and Taariq Allen have their own talents, but none of them can stretch the field and force defense to honor the deep ball.

If Bell and Reilly are healthy and able to contribute, that could make a huge difference for Nebraska’s offense in the second half of the 2014 season. Additionally, if players like Alonzo Moore and Demornay Pierson-El are able to take their opportunities and become downfield threats, Nebraska’s offense may have more balance and be more difficult to defend.

But for right now, any judgment about Nebraska’s receiver corps would simply be unfair given the injuries it has seen.

Defensive Line – A-plus

The only reason the defensive line’s grade is an “A+” is because there’s nothing higher to give. (Yes, I suppose I could go with the trite “A++,” but that’s like saying someone is giving “110%” effort, a tired cliché with which I won’t burden you).

Defensive end Randy Gregory already has 4.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 24 total tackles, and that’s with him missing almost two full games out of the six. His opposite number, Greg McMullen, would be an unmitigated star were he not starting on the other end of a likely first-round NFL draft pick. And interior linemen Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have both begun to live up to their potential.

If there is any criticism of the defensive line, it is that it lacks depth, with a fairly significant drop-off in production and performance being seen when the starters are not in the lineup. But that should not take any shine off of what has been the standout positional unit for Nebraska this season.

Linebackers – C

When likely starting nickel back Charles Jackson was lost for the season due to an injury in fall camp, many thought that would be Nebraska’s most significant loss. But as the season has unfolded, it appears that middle linebacker Michael Rose might have been worse for the Blackshirts.

Sophomore Josh Banderas has been tasked to replace Rose, but throughout the season he has struggled at middle linebacker. In both run and pass coverage, Banderas has struggled—at times, to the point of being a liability—which has been a weakness opposing teams from McNeese State to Michigan State have exploited.

Senior Trevor Roach has played very well when called upon at the position, but his lack of speed and athleticism does limit how and where he can be played. David Santos seemed to take a big step forward against Miami, and his loss due to injury against Michigan State may have been an unheralded contributor to Nebraska’s struggles.

While the low grade is probably unfair to Zaire Anderson, who is performing well in his senior campaign, the struggles at a crucial position like middle linebacker make the harsh mark a fair one.

Defensive Backs – B-minus

This is another unit that is difficult to grade. Josh Mitchell has performed well at cornerback. Daniel Davie has surprised many with just winning the other corner position, not to mention his outstanding performance. We got a glimpse of the difference against Michigan State, when Davie went down and the Spartans hit replacement Jonathan Rose for a long touchdown. And the performance of true freshman Joshua Kalu should be a joy to watch for Nebraska fans, and a real glimpse into the future.

The loss of amazingly-talented athlete Charles Jackson at nickel back to injury in fall camp was disappointing, of course. But junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell has filled the position admirably.

At safety, Nathan Gerry has been incredibly impressive, flying over the field and contributing against the run and the pass. Corey Cooper, on the other hand, has been disturbingly anonymous, particularly given his size and senior status. When LeRoy Alexander was suspended for the season, it was thought he was going to compete with Gerry for playing time. Now, it looks like the coaches would love to have Alexander to plug in at safety—for Cooper.

With the wild mix of performances, weighed down by the lack of production from a player like Cooper who was thought to be a key contributor—another composite grade has to be the result.

Special Teams – A-minus

Drew Brown has performed admirably for a true freshman at placekicker, hitting 80 percent of his field goals and being perfect on extra points. With the injury to Mauro Bondi pressing Brown into duty as kickoff specialist, Nebraska’s output has stayed steady, with a 54.55 percent touchback rate.

Punter Sam Foltz was inconsistent last year, but his 2014 campaign has been solid. In Nebraska’s struggles with McNeese State, a good argument could be made that Foltz was the MVP for NU, keeping the Cowboys pinned deep time and time again and helping to prevent them from pulling off the upset.

Nebraska’s kickoff returns haven’t set the world ablaze, resting at no. 93 nationally. But Demornay Pierson-El has transformed Nebraska’s punt return game, taking a huge negative for NU in 2013 and turning it into a positive. No better evidence can be had for Pierson-El’s impact than the Michigan State game. Sure, Nebraska did well to have a chance late in the game. But without Pierson-El’s touchdown return, is Nebraska able to mount that miracle comeback?

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: What You Should And Shouldn’t Be Concerned About After Week 2

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans got a huge scare in Week 2 against FCS opponent McNeese State. The Cornhuskers were tied with the Cowboys 24-24, with 20 seconds left and the FCS squad having all the momentum, before Ameer Abdullah took a check-down pass from Tommy Armstrong, made five tacklers miss, and ran 58 yards for the winning touchdown.

Predictably, Nebraska fans were in varying stages of panic after the near-miss to a second tier team.

But with the benefit of a little time to reflect, let’s think about what Nebraska fans should—and should not—worry about as a result of this “win.”

Don’t Be Concerned About Nebraska’s Physical Play

There’s no doubt Nebraska’s contest against McNeese State was a strange sight to behold. Nebraska dominated its FCS opponent in the first half, with the score remaining close only because of a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown. Some second half adjustments, and Nebraska’s superior talent and depth should win out, right?

Right?

Obviously, that didn’t happen, and the second half was truly the more frightening. The Cowboys had 19:56 time of possession in the second half, as opposed to Nebraska’s 10:04. Nebraska was 1/7 on third down conversions. Prior to the “Ameeracle” play where Abdullah went 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown (yeah, I’m willing to go with the building meme), Nebraska had run 23 plays in the second half.

For 52 yards. Which is an average of 2.26 yards per carry. Against an FCS opponent.

As Brandon Vogel from Hail Varsity observed, it appeared that “Nebraska’s offensive line appeared to get handled by an FCS front.” And given the statistics above, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion.

So is that true? Was McNeese State’s line really physically stronger and able to push Nebraska’s line around?

Clearly not. If that was the case, then there’s no way Nebraska could have averaged 7.37 yards per play in the first half. Nor could Nebraska have averaged 8.52 yards per play against Florida Atlantic last week, an FBS program (although, admittedly, probably an inferior team to McNeese State).

So, if the problem isn’t physical, what is it?

Be Concerned About Nebraska’s Mental State

Sure, there were some Xs and Os reasons as to why McNeese State was able to be successful against Nebraska. The Cowboys stuffed the box, daring Nebraska to throw, and Nebraska never challenged that single coverage. Abdullah only had 17 carries, meaning McNeese State was able to scheme Nebraska away from its best offensive weapon.

But that alone doesn’t explain the near-upset. And given how Nebraska performed earlier, it’s almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that Nebraska wasn’t right mentally against the Cowboys.

Abdullah said it himself, as quoted on Huskers.com.

“I feel like our level of respect for the game this week was not good enough.  It definitely showed.  That’s on me as a captain.  I have to assist that as the week goes on, but I was reluctant to say something, and I promise that it is the last time that will happen.”

So there’s your answer in black and white. Nebraska didn’t “respect the game” enough during the week, meaning that NU’s preparation for an FCS opponent wasn’t sufficient. Couple that with injuries to key contributors like Randy Gregory, Kenny Bell, and Jamal Turner,  and quarterback Tommy Armstrong getting tentative after the pick-six, and you get an anemic performance that almost led to the biggest upset in Nebraska’s modern history.

Does that mean Nebraska fans shouldn’t worry? In the short term, perhaps. Nebraska under head coach Bo Pelini has a history of bouncing back and performing well after a sub-par showing. Even with the travel and the strange start time (9:30 p.m. central time), Fresno State is nowhere near the 11-2 BCS-buster of a year ago. A committed performance from Nebraska should be more than enough to take care of business next week.

But for the rest of the season? When Nebraska yet again falls prey to mental lapses causing the team to under-perform, as it has done throughout Pelini’s tenure? We got the answer to that question from senior cornerback Josh Mitchell, as reported by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star.

“I see 9-4 all over again.”

Five Bold Predictions for Nebraska’s 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

The long wait is over, and Nebraska’s 2014 season is about to begin. As Nebraska prepares to face Florida Atlantic for this year’s lid-lifter, it’s time to get crazy and think about what might happen as the season unfolds. So here are five bold, but mostly plausible bold predictions for the upcoming campaign.

(Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from cfbstats.com)

Randy Gregory breaks Nebraska’s sack record

Nebraska’s current sack record for a season is 15, held jointly by Jim Skow (from 1985) and Trev Alberts (from 1993). Last year, Gregory had 9.5 sacks in 13 games. But that was with Gregory arriving in Lincoln just before camp started, having almost no time to learn a new system, and less than a year off of a horrific injury.

The numbers show that it took a little while for Gregory to get into the swing of things. Nine of his 9.5 sacks last year came in the last eight games of the 2013 season (including the Gator Bowl). Assuming that Gregory is able to start strong in 2014 and have the benefit of a full offseason’s work in the training room and with the playbook, a sixteen-plus sack season is not at all unlikely.

Nebraska goes to East Lansing and wins

Everyone loves Michigan State. Especially with the season-ending injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, the Spartans have now become the consensus pick to win the Big Ten (as evidenced by a re-vote of B1G media reported by Cleveland.com).

But Nebraska has enjoyed particularly good success against Sparty since joining the B1G. Nebraska registered a comfortable win against Michigan State in Lincoln three years ago, and won a nailbiter in East Lansing the following year.

Yes, the Spartans beat Nebraska 41-24 in Lincoln last year. But in that game, Nebraska was minus-five in turnovers, and provided Michigan State with countless short fields to score. Absent the turnovers, Nebraska was at least the equal of Michigan State on the field.

Look for Nebraska to get what is likely to be considered an upset win over the defending B1G champion.

Kickers will cost Nebraska an otherwise-winnable game

Nebraska fans were not happy at the end of an 8-4 campaign last year. How much worse would it have been, though, if Nebraska ended 2013 at 7-5 instead of 8-4? Would head coach Bo Pelini, who barely kept his job at 8-4, have survived with a 7-5 mark?

Well, you can thank a reliable kicker for getting Nebraska to 8-4 last year. In between the Michigan State and Iowa games was an overtime win over Penn State on the road, where transfer kicker Pat Smith had to hit a clutch field goal twice (due to a penalty on Nebraska) to seal the victory.

This year, Nebraska’s placekicking battle is between junior Mauro Bondi, who has never inspired enough confidence from the coaches to give him the job outright, and true freshman Drew Brown. And long-snapper Gabe Miller has been out the entire fall camp with injury (although is working hard at a comeback, according to Mike Schaefer of 247 Sports.)

Nebraska has been living on the edge for some time, going 9-1 in games decided by three points or less. With questions in the kicking game, this is the year those numbers bite Nebraska.

Cethan Carter will have at least 10 touchdown receptions

I’ve made references before to Nebraska’s coaches falling victim to “Mike McNeil syndrome,” where a talented and dangerous tight end emerges, and then quickly evaporates from the offense. It happened with McNeil, and with Kyler Reed the year after his eight-touchdown performance in 2010.

Sophomore tight end Cethan Carter looks to have as much, if not more, athletic ability than McNeil and Reed. Couple that with a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong still looking to find his feet as a passer, and an expansion of Carter’s role (especially taking advantage of mismatches in either size or speed, depending on the defensive matchup) looks to be on the cards.

We know that Nebraska’s offense can generate an eight-touchdown season from a tight end. Carter looks to be the type of talent that could break out and snag ten this year.

Zaire Anderson will lead the team in tackles

It’s not a stretch to think that a linebacker will lead the team in tackles. In the last five years, a linebacker has been either first or second in tackles on the team.

And this year looks like Anderson’s time to shine. As a senior amongst a group of almost entirely underclassmen, Anderson will be the most experience linebacker of the crew likely to see playing time. And according to Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity, Anderson could be a “surprise” in blitz packages.

Last year, 36 of Anderson’s 52 tackles came in the second half of the season and the bowl game. Look for him to continue the strong finish to the season he showed last year.