Nebraska Football: A Theory on the Cornhuskers’ Collapse Last Season

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Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 29, 2016. Nebraska just missed exorcising its demons in Camp Randall with a thrilling 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin, but showed to the world that it could stand toe-to-toe and compete on a national stage. That near-miss loss meant that Nebraska was still 7-1 on the season, including an impressive (although, if you believe in win percentage as a metric, unlikely) victory over Oregon. It was encouraging enough for this dope to even end his ReView of the Wisconsin game with defiance, saying “bring on the Buckeyes.”

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out for Nebraska. After Ohio State’s 62-3 evisceration of NU, the season took on water in a hurry. Nebraska pulled out a gritty 24-17 win over Minnesota, and a comfortable 28-7 victory over an outmanned Maryland, but those wins proved to be paper over the cracks.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska was dominated 40-10 by Iowa (!), surrendering 264 rushing yards (!!) and 404 total yards (!!!) to the Hawkeyes. Nebraska drew Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, and lost 38-24 to the Volunteers in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score might have indicated.

So Nebraska’s 2016 campaign ended at 9-4, a decided improvement over the 6-7 mark from a season prior. But in Nebraska’s three losses in its final five games last year, it was outscored 140-37, and outgained by total yards in those contests by more than a two-to-one margin, 1519 to 739.

What happened? How did a season that saw Nebraska at 7-0 and ranked no. 7 nationally end with such a resounding thud?

Obviously, a big part of it was that Nebraska’s quality of opposition improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Oregon looked like a great matchup on paper in 2016, but ended the season at 4-8 and a fired head coach. Ohio State, Tennessee, and (gritting teeth) Iowa were dramatically tougher opponents than Nebraska’s early-season victims, so it should not have been surprising that Nebraska had more difficulty at the end of 2016.

Additionally, Nebraska’s 7-0 mark coming into Wisconsin was clearly, in retrospect, inflated. Given the game flow, Nebraska was pretty fortunate to beat what turned out to be a very flawed (if talented) Oregon squad in Lincoln. Other than the Ducks, Nebraska’s best win in that 7-0 stretch was … Northwestern? Wyoming?

Those factors can explain some of what happened at the end of 2016. But it wasn’t just that Nebraska struggled at the end of last year. Let’s be honest. Nebraska collapsed at the end of 2016. Nebraska capitulated to the strongest teams at the end of its schedule. (And yes, that’s officially throwing shade at Minnesota.)

So what else explains the magnitude of Nebraska’s late-season collapse. There’s a whole bunch of factors, of course. And I will state from the outset that this is just rank speculation from a total outsider, observing from a distance. But I would venture an educated guess that there were two significant factors that contributed to last year’s swoon.

The first is the effect of injuries to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Of course, his terrifying injury against Ohio State threw Ryker Fyfe into duty in Columbus. But Armstrong had been walking wounded for quite some time before his Ohio State scare, and a combination of injuries against Minnesota a week later knocked him out of the following game against Maryland.

Armstrong tried to soldier through his injuries against Iowa, and it showed. He ran six times for 13 yards and was 13-35 throwing for 125 against the Hawkeye defense. Armstrong was a shell of his former self on Black Friday, and everyone – including Iowa’s defense – could clearly see it.

Gamer that he is, Armstrong fought hard to get back on the field for the Music City Bowl, but his injuries simply wouldn’t allow it. Fyfe started against the Volunteers and was … well, he had eight rushes for minus-27 yards, and was 17-36 for 243 yards passing with two touchdowns.

It’s fair to say, then, that Armstrong’s injury was a significant factor in Nebraska’s late-season struggle. But it’s more than that. Fyfe was Nebraska’s best option as Armstrong’s backup. God bless the kid from Grand Island, he’s a good athlete, worked very hard, and did the best he possibly could in the situation in which he found himself.

But it was clear to any observer from the outset that Fyfe was never good enough for Nebraska to be competitive against a sturdy opponent. And, more importantly, it had to have been clear to the Nebraska squad that going into games against Iowa and (especially) Tennessee, having a quarterback as limited as Fyfe gave NU almost no chance to be competitive.

Outside of perhaps a goaltender in hockey, there is no position in sports more important than the quarterback in football. If there was one fatal flaw in former head coach Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln (well, apart from the obvious), it was Pelini’s inability to get his signal-caller right.

Between Armstrong and Taylor Martinez, Pelini’s quarterbacks were dynamic and dual-threat, but ultimately limited due to their inability to pass effectively and avoid turnovers put a ceiling on how effective Nebraska’s offense could be. But maybe even more damning of an indictment might be how poor the depth at quarterback has been in Lincoln.

And that lack of depth ultimately undid Nebraska last season. A loss to Ohio State in Columbus was, in retrospect, not a surprising result. And asking Fyfe to come in for an injured Armstrong, with Nebraska already down 21 points, would have made anything other than a blowout surprising.

So really we’re down to two big losses – Iowa (!) and Tennessee – that defined Nebraska’s 2016 season. Why did Nebraska capitulate so badly in those games?

Let’s take as a given that both teams are very good, and worthy winners. But it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s collapse, in part, as a subconscious response by a team knowing that their quarterback gave them no chance to be successful on that day.

Against Iowa, Armstrong gamely tried to play, but it was clear from the start that his injury was going to rob him of his effective rushing of the ball. And without that threat of a run, Armstrong simply was not good enough as a quarterback to be effective.

Against Tennessee, Nebraska was asking Fyfe to go up against an SEC defense (including a future NFL first-round draft pick in defensive end Derek Barnett). Fyfe, as he always did, but up his best effort. But his best effort ended up being a sub-50 percent completion rate. Remarkably, Nebraska remained within a couple of scores throughout the game, but the outcome was never in doubt.

And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason Nebraska couldn’t hold up against Tennessee was because, at some level, the team knew that they couldn’t be successful with Fyfe under center.

Now, my caveats again. I wasn’t in that locker room, and I don’t know anyone that was. But I’ve been an observer of the game for a long time, and I know what my expectations were going into the Music City Bowl. I know what my expectations were against Iowa once it was clear that Armstrong couldn’t run. And if I knew that, it’s hard to imagine that the team didn’t at some level think that too.

And keep in mind, this was a team that had expended a lot of emotional energy that year. The sudden death of punter Sam Foltz just before the season started shocked and saddened the team, and the fan base overall. Throughout the year, the team remembered Foltz before each game, and accepted the support of opposing teams who wanted to sympathize in Foltz’s death as well.

Which, of course, was exactly the right thing to do. It was inspiring to see those young men rally around each other in their grief and memory of a remarkable student athlete taken too soon. I defy you not to tear up when you watch the “missing man” delay of game penalty tribute Nebraska took against Fresno State to honor Foltz’ loss.

But that kind of emotional energy, week after week during a hard campaign, had to take a toll on a group of young men. Add it that toll the disappointment of an overtime loss against Wisconsin, and then the unspoken futility of sub-optimal quarterback play, and you have a recipe for a collapse.

Is that what happened? I don’t know. Is it a plausible explanation, at least as a contributing factor, to how Nebraska could surrender 40 points to Iowa and 521 total yards to Tennessee at the end of a particularly grueling 2016 campaign?

I think it could have been. And if that’s the case, it provides a reason to be hopeful for a 2017 season that is otherwise chock full of questions.

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: Five Things We Learned From the Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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After Nebraska’s 28-20 loss to Iowa left the Cornhuskers at 5-7 for the 2015 season, NU’s fans were left looking to the future. While a bowl game looks to be in the cards, most Nebraska fans are more than ready to turn the page on 2015. But before we let the season go, it’s time to learn what lessons have been learned.

Change Is Hard

Some, like this dope, thought that Nebraska wouldn’t miss a beat when Mike Riley took over from Bo Pelini. Nebraska would be able to retain the best of what it did previously, clean up its mistakes, and take a step forward.

Others, like this smart and particularly handsome analyst, saw Nebraska’s 5-7 season coming.

A new offense and a new defense – and, most importantly, a roster full of players not recruited for the coaches’ system – is a recipe for a rough transition. And even though some of the losses were of the heartbreaking and head-shaking variety, the fact remains that Nebraska had seven of them in 2015.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, the extra practice from a bowl game (and NU fans better not ever complain about “too many bowls” again) along with an extra year in the system should make 2016 a much better experience.

The Quarterback Is Important

Now that the jury’s in on the 2015 season, let’s take a look at how Tommy Armstrong did.

Year Attempts Completions Yards Comp. % TD INT
2014 345 184 2695 53.3 22 12
2015 428 235 3152 54.9 21 20

Clearly, Armstrong was asked to do more this year than last, with an extra 83 passing attempts (an additional 6.92 attempts per game). Some of that was due to the change in offenses with a new staff, and some was due to the absence of a game-changing back like Ameer Abdullah.

Unfortunately, at the end of 2015 Armstrong’s results didn’t look that much difference than Armstrong in 2014. Armstrong’s completion percentage made a marginal improvement, certainly not enough for Nebraska to be successful. And, worryingly, Armstrong’s touchdown-to-interception ratio got significantly worse, going from 1.83 in 2014 to an abysmal 1.05 in 2015.

Against Iowa, we saw what that number means. Nebraska outperformed Iowa in just about every statistical category. Nebraska’s defense – the source of distress for most of the season – did more than enough to win the game. But Armstrong’s four interceptions were the difference between victory and defeat in this year’s Heroes Game.

That’s to take nothing away from Iowa’s win. The Hawkeyes are a solid squad of ham-and-eggers, doing what they do and waiting for you to make the mistake. That formula has earned Iowa a trip to Indianapolis for, functionally, a play-in game for the College Football Playoff.

Armstrong’s performance this year was not good enough for Nebraska to achieve its goals – just like it wasn’t good enough last year. In 2016, a different quarterback has to be under center for Nebraska. Perhaps it’s a different Armstrong, one who can use his remarkable talents and learn to avoid the back-breaking mistakes. Perhaps it’s four-star phenom Patrick O’Brien, who looks to enroll early and get a head start on learning Riley’s offense. Perhaps it’s one of the other quarterbacks on the roster, like Ryker Fyfe, A.J. Bush, or (my dark-horse pick) Zack Darlington, with an additional year learning the system.

But without improvement at the quarterback position, Nebraska has no chance to advance in 2016.

Old Habits Die Hard

Nebraska found a number of creative ways to lose a football game in 2015. But against Iowa, the refrain was hauntingly similar to losses of Huskers past. Turnovers (four interceptions, and a minus-three turnover ratio) and penalties (eight for 95 yards, compared to Iowa’s six for 54) turned a game that Nebraska dominated statistically into an eight-point loss.

Last year, Nebraska was no. 75 nationally in turnover margin, and no. 56 nationally in penalties (according to cfbstats.com). Against Iowa, the problems that plagued Nebraska in years past came back to cost Nebraska a chance at a winning season in 2015.

Lincoln Ain’t Corvallis

Riley is no stranger to seasons like Nebraska’s 2015. In his second stint at Oregon State, Riley finished 5-7 or worse four times in 12 years. By the end of his tenure in Corvalis, Riley was beginning to feel some heat as a result of the team’s performance.

A sub-.500 record one year in four might earn you 12 years in Corvalis, but not in Lincoln. At least some Nebraska fans are willing to give Riley a pass on 2015, given the combination of a new coach and a host of injuries. But Riley has to know that in Lincoln, 5-7 has to be an anomaly, not a recurring theme.

Patience is No Fun

2015 hasn’t been much fun. A series of losses and catastrophic injuries has made Nebraska’s season one to endure more than enjoy. The hope for Nebraska fans has to be that the spade work of 2015 – learning a new system and adapting the roster to meet the demands of the new scheme – will pay off in years to come.

Thanks to a whole bunch of new made-for-TV bowl games, Nebraska should make a post-season appearance. That means Nebraska will get the extra bowl practices, and a head-start on preparations for the 2016 season.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has said Nebraska should be favored to win the B1G West next season. 2016 seems like a long ways away – and there’s certainly no guarantee of success – but if the crucible of 2015 produces a trip to Indianapolis in 2016, it will all be worth it.

Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Magic Number for Winning

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“Sixty percent completion rate, it’s a magic number. Yes it is, it’s a magic number.”

– to the tune of “Three Is A Magic Number,” Schoolhouse Rock

With Nebraska off to its worst start in football since the pre-Bob Devaney era, Nebraska fans are freaked out. In trying to grapple with a reality that involves Nebraska needing to win out to avoid a 6-6 season (and the need to change the patch on its uniform to “Nebraska Football – A Non-Losing Tradition”), people have looked all over for answers. It’s the coach. It’s the defense. It’s the injuries.

Of course, sober and rational fans know that there are any number of nuances and competing factors contributing to five losses by a total of 13 points. But this is A Blog on The Internets, so a “silver bullet” answer is needed to fix Nebraska’s woes.

And as luck may have it, a look at the numbers might suggest something along those lines. A smart and particularly handsome analyst has already observed the striking correlation between Nebraska completing 60 percent or more of its pass attempts and winning. Here’s that table, updated for the Northwestern game.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2
Northwestern 24 48 50.0

Games won are in bold.

The theory holds up perfectly for Nebraska this year. Nebraska is 3-0 in games where Armstrong’s completion percentage is 60 percent or over, and 0-5 when it is under 60 percent.

But how does that hold up in Riley’s history? Well, thanks to the fine folks at cfbstats.com, we can crack open the record books and take a look back at least to 2008.

Year Record with rate >= 60% Record with rate <60%
2015 3-0 0-5
2014 6-4 1-2
2013 3-3 2-4
2012 7-1 2-3
2011 3-7 0-2
2010 4-1 1-6
2009 8-4 0-1
2008 5-3 4-1
Overall 66-23 (.742 win pct.) 10-24 (.294 win pct.)

In other words, since 2008 Riley’s teams have won nearly three in four games where his team’s completion percentage is 60 percent or greater, and lost more than three in every four games where that completion percentage is less than 60 percent.

It does make some sense, though, when you look at how Riley’s teams have run the ball since 2008 (again, from cfbstats.com).

Year Yards/Carry
2015 4.94
2014 3.77
2013 3.46
2012 3.66
2011 3.27
2010 3.76
2009 4.13
2008 4.22

While this year’s yards-per-carry is more than acceptable (and might suggest an offensive game plan, particularly if quarterback Tommy Armstrong is unable to play against Purdue this Saturday, as reported by Michael Bruntz of Huskers Illustrated), history suggests that Riley-coached teams have never run the ball effectively. Therefore, it stands to reason that Riley relies on a quarterback completing a high percentage of his throws to move the ball effectively.

Watching Nebraska this year on offense tends to lend credence to the theory. Even with a nearly five-yards-per-carry average, Nebraska’s offense has very much relied on the pass to establish the run rather than vice versa. When Armstrong is in a rhythm and completing passes, everything else clicks. But when he isn’t (or, in fairness, his passes are being dropped), Nebraska’s offense bogs down.

Which makes for the potential of a fascinating experiment on Saturday. Should backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe play due to Armstrong’s injury, look to see if he’s able to hit that magical sixty-percent completion rate against Purdue. If he can hit that number, it will be interesting to see what Nebraska’s offense looks like.

Yes, it’s Purdue, and a good performance by Fyfe wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) displace Armstrong as the starter next week against Michigan State. But the completion percentage number is a good one to keep your eye on throughout the rest of this season – and to keep in the back of your mind as Nebraska looks towards 2016.

Nebraska Football 2015 Quarterback Fall Practice Preview: Depth Chart and Analysis

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As we get closer to the start of fall practice, now is a good time to start looking at the Nebraska football roster and depth chart to get a better idea of what we might see this season. There’s no more important position on the field than quarterback, so it makes sense to start with the signal-caller.

New head coach Mike Riley will be bringing a different offensive philosophy to Lincoln, so it’s still a little difficult to guess what Nebraska will look like on that side of the ball. But given what we know so far, here is what Nebraska’s depth chart should look like—and why.

Starter: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Armstrong’s experience makes him the clear choice to start the season under center for Nebraska. After the Spring Game (according to the Omaha World-Herald), Riley said of Armstrong that “[t]he thing that never wavered about Tommy was, and is a separator for him right now, and that’s his confidence. He’s a confident guy and he plays like it.”

As a starter, Armstrong is 15-5. His underlying statistics, though, do not inspire confidence. He has a 52.9 completion percentage, and has a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It is very hard to construct a scenario where Nebraska wins a conference title when its quarterback has those statistics.

Riley has a history of producing quarterbacks, though. His most recent protégé, Sean Mannion, broke the Pac-12’s all-time passing record and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Riley will need to work that magic on Armstrong’s efficiency numbers to get Nebraska where it wants to go in 2015.

No. 2: A.J. Bush OR Zack Darlington

At the Spring Game, it was pretty clear that Bush and Darlington were next in line at quarterback for Nebraska. The two quarterbacks have very different skill sets. Bush, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is much more imposing and able to move the ball with his legs. Darlington, while able to move, looks to be more effective in the pocket throwing the ball.

Admittedly, the Spring Game is a terribly small sample size, and as such should be used with caution to make any judgments. But from that limited data set, Darlington was the only quarterback on Nebraska’s roster who appeared to have the accuracy and arm strength to make the throws NU will need to be successful next season.

Player Comp. Att. Yds. TD Int
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 1 0

Again, small sample size. Darlington isn’t going to be considered as a starter just because of a good Spring Game performance. But it is that type of performance Nebraska will need from its quarterback to be successful going forward.

No. 4: Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe’s standout performance as a walkon freshman earned him a scholarship, and playing time in a live game against Michigan State last season. He has the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and physical ability to compete as a Nebraska quarterback, an impressive accomplishment for a walk-on. And he played well enough to keep an Elite-11 participant in Johnny Stanton behind him on the depth chart, ultimately causing him to transfer.

But while Fyfe’s accomplishments are impressive, he still is behind the other three on the depth chart. Armstrong’s experience gives him a clear advantage over all the quarterbacks on the roster. And the athleticism and potential of both Bush and Darlington give them the advantage over Fyfe.

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: Who Will Be The Huskers’ Starting Quarterback in 2015?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans looking forward to the 2015 season will have one question on their minds over almost all others: who will be the starting quarterback?

There are five candidates on the roster as we speak. Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent, having started 21 games over the last two years. Waiting in the wings are Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, and Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush, who redshirted last year.

Of course, it’s a big guessing game at this point as to who will win the job, as we don’t know what type of offense new head coach Mike Riley will be playing. We also don’t know how each of the quarterback prospects will perform this spring or this fall.

But based on what we know now, we can at least make some educated guesses as to where the quarterbacks currently on the roster stand.

Tommy Armstrong

As the incumbent starter, Armstrong has to open as the favorite to win the job in 2015. And there’s a lot of reasons to like Armstrong. He’s 16-5 as a starter. He’s led Nebraska on gutty comeback performances, either in victory (Iowa) or close defeat (Michigan State, USC). He’s a leader on the field who commands respect from his team-mates.

But there are also reasons to question whether Armstrong will be the guy who gets the nod next year. He has a 52.9 percent career completion rate, which is simply not good enough to win a conference title. As thrilling as the comeback against USC in the Holiday Bowl was, don’t forget that the Trojans also dropped a host of interceptions that would have put the game truly out of reach at halftime.

That’s not to say Armstrong can’t get better, particularly with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator who are both skilled in working with quarterbacks. Given his experience, Armstrong is still the clear favorite to win the job next year.

But given the new staff coming in and looking at things with fresh eyes and installing a new offensive system, it’s a lot closer than it would be otherwise.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 50 percent.

Johnny Stanton

If there’s anyone that has benefited from the transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley, it’s Stanton. Until the very end of last year, Stanton was unable to even win the backup job, ceding that role to walk-on Ryker Fyfe. But the Elite-11 prospect has the kind of underlying skills that made Riley want him very badly at Oregon State, meaning Riley arrived in Lincoln aware of his skills.

If Stanton couldn’t see the field last year because he struggled picking up Tim Beck’s system, then a change in offensive coordinators gives him a fresh start. And given his unquestioned physical talents, that might be enough to create some real drama this spring.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 25 percent

Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe looked to be playing the role of Joe Ganz from a few years earlier, being the plucky kid who worked hard in the shadow of much higher-regarded quarterback prospects until he got his chance to shine. When Armstrong was injured against Michigan State, it was Fyfe who got the nod and led Nebraska to a score to keep the game competitive.

But with a new staff and a new system coming in, Fyfe will be starting from scratch, much like all of the other quarterback prospects. That means the same hurdles he needed to clear last year will be facing him again. That’s not to say he can’t be successful. It’s just a lot more difficult for him.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 5 percent

Zack Darlington

Darlington has been lost in the shuffle a bit, in part because of his redshirt and in part because his concussion history had many wondering if he would be able to play quarterback at all for Nebraska. But he’s still here, with the same three-star dual-threat quarterback pedigree (according to 247 Sports) that made him a target for schools like Ohio State, Arizona, and Mississippi State.

He’s also a coach’s son, which would tend to suggest he might have a leg up in terms of picking up a new system and understanding the game as a whole. Maybe he’s not as flashy as some of the other signal-callers on Nebraska’s roster, but Darlington might be a bit of a sleeper.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

A.J. Bush

If Darlington is the sleeper pick, Bush is the trendy redshirt to back for next season. During bowl preparation, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “intriguing” and praised his athleticism and work ethic in preparation for the Holiday Bowl (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

Hearing the praise about Bush’s work ethic certainly would have to bode well for his chances to make a splash with Nebraska’s new coaches. Combine that with his physical skills, and he should have a fighting chance to make an impression.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent