RIP Sam Foltz, 1994-2016

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

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

You’ll Be Happy If …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Be Sad If …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fearless Forecast

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

Nebraska 31, South Alabama 20

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 33-28 Loss to BYU

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Nebraska lost to BYU, 33-28, on a last-second pass (probably rude to call it a “Hail Mary” from BYU) from backup quarterback Tanner Magnum to Mitch Mathews. It’s a rough start for head coach Mike Riley as head coach of Nebraska, and there’s a lot to digest from the game (not to mention a few game-day snacks that remained un-digestible after Mathews’ receptions).

The Good …

Second-Half Adjustments. After coming out like a house on fire, Nebraska looked for all the world like a team about to collapse in the second quarter. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and likely left more on the field when running back Algernon Brown dropped a wheel route on fourth down near the end of the quarter. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was having his way with Nebraska’s defense, and Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong reverted to his 2014 form.

But in the third quarter, after Nate Gerry intercepted Hill, the worm turned. Hill was only 3-7 passing before being replaced by Magnum, and BYU’s offense stalled. The Blackshirts were able to apply pressure, sacking Hill twice in the third quarter. Nebraska was able to establish a rushing attack, and Armstrong rediscovered his first-quarter passing mojo.

Welcome Back, Alonzo. When kick returner and wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El went down with injury, one of the many questions raised was who would fill his role as a speed threat for Nebraska’s offense. Against BYU, we may have learned that junior wide receiver Alonzo Moore might be a big answer to that question.

Moore had three receptions for 48 yards, including a sideline-threading touchdown scamper. He was also utilized (along with Jamal Turner) in the running game, getting two carries for 24 yards. Injuries have prevented Moore from making a contribution in previous years. But a healthy Moore might well be a huge part of bridging the gap until Pierson-El’s return.

Freshman Performances. Nebraska had standout performances from true freshmen on both sides of the ball against BYU. Dedrick Young was pressed into service at linebacker, even when Nebraska played more nickel sets than we would normally see from defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Young was ready for the moment, able to make plays in space and stay on his feet to keep lane containment. In quite a trial by fire against BYU, Young has put his name in ink on the depth chart for the foreseeable future.

On offense, wide receiver Stanley Morgan was exactly as advertised. The star of fall camp, Morgan found his way onto the field in the second half, ending the game with two receptions for 19 yards. Tellingly, he was also the guy called on to be the second punt returner (along with Jordan Westerkamp) in response to BYU’s rugby-style punter.

Nebraska has good depth at wide receiver, even with Pierson-El’s injury. But Morgan’s emergence should get the attention of Nebraska fans – not to mention Nebraska recruits like Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (in response to a suggestion that he notice how the #Huskers were using their wide receivers).

The Bad …

The Second Quarter. As the game opened up, it looked like the team with the ball last might win the game, with each team exchanging scores. But then, in the second quarter, things began to unravel. Armstrong started missing receivers high. Running lanes opened against the Blackshirts, and receivers became uncoverable. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and looked like it was going to run away and hide with the contest.

Anyone having flashbacks of Nebraska’s second quarter in Madison last year could have been forgiven.

This year was always going to be a challenge for Nebraska, trying to transition from Bo Pelini’s schemes and philosophies to Riley’s. It was hard not to see some of the traits of a Pelini-led team in that second quarter, and it allowed BYU to put enough points on the board to ultimately win the game.

Knock It Down! A smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about what could be a deciding factor of this game:

Combine that with BYU’s big receivers (six-foot-six Nick Kurtz and six-foot-six Mitch Mathews) against Nebraska’s cornerbacks (six-foot-one Daniel Davie and six-foot-one Joshua Kalu) and the Cougars could have a favorable matchup to exploit.

(Emphasis added)

It was the aforementioned Mathews who was able to use his big frame to block out Daniel Davie and Nate Gerry to haul in the winning pass.

Kickers. Yikes, does Nebraska have problems kicking the ball now. An injury to punter Sam Foltz has pressed scout team quarterback Tyson Brokemeyer into duty. An area that was one of huge strength for Nebraska in terms of field position has now become a glaring weakness, particularly if Foltz’s injury will keep him out for any length of time.

But what might be more disturbing is the performance of sophomore placekicker Drew Brown, who went 0-2 against BYU. Brown missed both kicks badly, the first a 40-yarder into the wind as time expired in the first half, and the second a 41-yarder with the wind in the fourth quarter as Nebraska was trying to ice the game.

Not to be churlish, but if both those kicks are made – and 40-yard field goals should be an expectation for a kicker on a team intending to win things – then the worst BYU could have done with that last play was a tie.

All of a sudden, Nebraska has a huge question mark in a critical phase of the game.

And Taylor Swift

We’re in uncharted territory, Husker fan. As ABC seemed intent on reminding everyone, Nebraska hadn’t lost a season opener for 29 years. Assuming a win over South Alabama next week, Nebraska will still need a win on the road in Miami to avoid a 1-2 start to the 2015 campaign.

Time to panic? Absolutely not. Remember, this was game one of the Riley era. In the second quarter, you could see Nebraska reverting to form from last season, both offensively and defensively. So that halftime response, where Nebraska came out and dominated on both sides of the ball, was instructive.

You can see what Nebraska is trying to do on offense, stretching the field horizontally with the jet sweep action. You could see Armstrong making anticipation throws, and being effective when in rhythm and not under too much duress.

Defensively, it was a little harder to get a feel for what Nebraska wanted to do. The suspension of linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey likely forced Nebraska into more nickel coverage than it would have otherwise liked, to avoid asking freshmen Young and Luke Gifford to shoulder too much of a load against a stout BYU offense.

Losing an opening game stinks, especially in the manner in which the game was lost. But this loss does nothing to dent Nebraska’s chances at a division title. And Nebraska’s second-half response to BYU should provide hope for a fanbase dealing with being on the other end of a last-second desperation heave.

So shake it off, Husker fan. And mark this game down in a few weeks’ time, when Wisconsin rolls into Lincoln, and see if the tough lessons learned against the Cougars pay dividends against the Badgers.

Nebraska Football: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Secret Weapons

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp under new head coach Mike Riley. As they wait, they will be looking through the roster and wondering what the secrets to a successful Nebraska season could be in 2015.

What will be Nebraska’s strengths to exploit? Its weaknesses to avoid? And what secret weapons can Nebraska fans talk about and look smart to their friends around a late summer barbecue? Here are a few options to consider.

Strength: Defensive Tackle

An argument could be made that the strongest overall position might be at defensive tackle. Maliek Collins is getting rave pre-season reviews, pegged by ESPN NFL analyst Todd McShay as a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Alongside Collins will be Vincent Valentine, who was tabbed as a third-string all-Big Ten player by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.

Being dominant on the interior of a defensive line can help a team stop the run and get a straight-line pass rush. It frees up defensive ends and linebackers, makes play-action passing less effective, and helps a secondary by decreasing the amount of time needed to cover receivers. Nebraska fans have seen what a dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh can do for the rest of a defensive unit.

No, neither Collins nor Valentine are in Suh’s class. But seeing how Suh affected the Blackshirts – and opposing offenses – gives some idea of how important Collins and Valentine could be to Nebraska.

Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s not exactly breaking news that Pierson-El is Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon returning. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah and the questions surrounding Nebraska at quarterback (more on that in a bit), Pierson-El provides the kind of threat NU will need to attack opposing defenses.

Pierson-El’s value goes up when you consider what Riley’s offenses, and the players who have succeeded in those offenses, have looked like. At Oregon State, Riley used a steady diet of screen passes and jet sweeps designed to get shifty playmakers the ball in space and challenge defenses horizontally. Pierson-El’s speed and elusiveness make him ideally suited for those roles, or as a decoy in a straight-ahead rushing attack.

It’s hard not to see a little of Jacquizz Rodgers when you see Pierson-El. Rodgers, like Pierson-El, is small, shifty, and lightning-fast. At Oregon State, Riley was able to ride Rodgers to a win over then-no. 1 USC and make him the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2008.

Weakness: Tommy Armstrong

Hear me out on this one. Yes, Armstrong has been successful as Nebraska’s quarterback. Yes, he’s the guy with the most experience and the most ready to take on the starting job next season.

But you can’t get away from the numbers. Armstrong has a career 52.9 percent completion rate, and a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to compete for a conference title.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, it’s entirely possible that Armstrong’s numbers could improve next season. Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a history of success with signal-callers. Armstrong, with an off-season of work with Riley and Langsdorf, may be the beneficiary of that skill.

If Nebraska wants to contend for a conference title in 2015, he’ll need to be.

Weakness: New Coaching Staff

Debate over the wisdom of firing Bo Pelini and hiring Riley started almost immediately after Pelini’s dismissal, and will not be resolved for some years to come. But whether the decision was wise or foolish in the long term, for this year there is no escaping the fact that Nebraska will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive scheme. Not only that, but Nebraska will be in the no-man’s land of trying to fit players from an old scheme into a new game plan, and fitting a new scheme around the talents of the players currently on the roster.

In other words, year one of any new coaching staff has unique challenges. And given the front-loaded nature of Nebraska’s schedule, with games against BYU and at Miami in the first three contests, NU will have to be ready to play right away.

Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth

Sure, we know Pierson-El is an amazing talent. But look past him on the depth chart and Nebraska has a sneaky-good roster at receiver.

Jordan Westerkamp returns as one of Nebraska’s most reliable targets. Jamal Turner gets an extra year of eligibility and will have his final chance to be the breakout talent he was seen to be when he arrived in Lincoln. Cethan Carter has the athletic skills to create mismatches at tight end, and should be healthy enough (and in an offense which can feature a tight end) to be a factor. Alonzo Moore has speed to rival Kenny Bell, but has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a true impact.

Until the season starts, we’re not going to know how Nebraska’s run-pass balance will look on offense. But when Nebraska does decide to air it out, there will be lots of receiving options to work with.

Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz

Yes, a punter can be a weapon. Get used to it.

Field position matters in football. Take a look at a site like FBSDriveStats.com, and you can take a look at average starting field position and what a difference it makes to a team’s bottom line. The efficiency ratings from advanced analytical sites like Football Outsiders take field position into account as a primary indicia of a team’s success. Bill Connelly lists field position as one of the five most important statistics in understanding the relative merits of college football teams.

Connelly summarizes the importance of field position in one sentence. “If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.”

A punter is a crucial weapon in that field position battle. According to the NCAA, last year the difference between the no. 1 and no. 50 teams in terms of net punting average was 6.22 yards, while the difference in kick returns was only 4.74 yards.

That differential suggests that a punter, more than any other single specialist, can affect a team’s field position. And a team’s field position, as we have seen, can lead to wins.

Foltz is set up to be one of the conference’s best punters, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Sure, punters get no respect, even less than placekickers in the eyes of most football fans. But if Foltz is able to help Nebraska win field position battles, his foot might carry NU to wins it would not otherwise achieve next season.

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of Cornhuskers’ 2015 Roster

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have settled into June, knowing that football season is still some ways away. So while they enjoy their afternoons at the pool, baseball games, and endless yardwork, never far from their minds is the composition of Nebraska’s roster for the upcoming season.

Because, in many ways, spending time in June thinking about the Cornhuskers’ backup right guard is part of what defines a Nebraskan.

So let’s take some time and, position-by-position, go through Nebraska’s 2015 roster as it might look under new head coach Mike Riley.

Quarterback

It seems clear that, barring injury, Tommy Armstrong will be Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2015. BTN’s Tom Dienhart is one of many who believes that Armstrong’s experience will be crucial in retaining the starting job.

Behind Armstrong is a massive amount of depth, all unproven. Junior Ryker Fyfe has the most experience, which isn’t much, and was a walk-on for a reason. Sophomore Johnny Stanton has all the talent in the world with his Elite 11 background, but has struggled to make a dent on Nebraska’s depth chart. He made a cameo appearance at this year’s Spring Game for a reason as well. Redshirt freshmen Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush saw significant playing time at the Spring Game, but both are raw talents and it would be a big ask for them to overtake Armstrong and his experience.

I-Back

Nebraska has four I-backs on the roster that are legitimate threats for significant playing time; senior Imani Cross, junior Terrell Newby, sophomore Adam Taylor, and redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon.

Given the distribution of carries at the Spring Game, it’s fair to suspect that Newby will be Nebraska’s starting I-back next season. But that may not mean a lot. Even removing from consideration the changes which could come in the depth chart as a result of fall camp, don’t be surprised to see Nebraska employ a significant rotation of I-backs.

Particularly given the difference in skill-sets (Cross being a bruiser, Newby more of a scat-back speedster, and Taylor and Wilbon something of a mix between the two), Nebraska’s I-back carries are likely to be far more evenly distributed than in years past.

Receivers

Nebraska’s starting lineup at wide receiver looks fairly straightforward. In Jordan Westerkamp and Jamal Turner, Nebraska has two experienced and talented wideouts to lean on.

And then Nebraska has its x-factor, De’Mornay Pierson-El. His dominance as a kick returner and flashes of brilliance on offense have sent Nebraska fans into a tizzy. But exactly how Pierson-El will be deployed on the field remains a mystery.

Will he run the ball out of the jet sweep? Does he have the frame at five-foot-nine and 185 pounds to be an every-down wideout? How Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf choose to utilize Pierson-El’s skill-set may well be one of the biggest determining factors in Nebraska’s success in 2015.

Nebraska should be well placed with depth, as well, turning to players like Taariq Allen, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, and Sam Burtch as part of a rotation. All of these players have struggled with injuries at one point in their careers, and have the potential to press for playing time if fully healthy.

Tight End

Cethan Carter stands out amongst Nebraska’s current tight ends as the one true down-the-field receiving threat. Injuries—and a baffling refusal from Nebraska’s previous staff to utilize the tight end—limited Carter’s production last year, but he looks to be ready for 2015.

Behind Carter are a number of capable players—Sam Cotton, David Sutton, and Trey Foster—but none are offensive threats like Carter. Incoming freshman Matt Snyder looks to be that type of player, though, and could see the field early if he is able to make an impression in fall camp.

Offensive Line

At tackle and center, Nebraska will be returning players with at least some starting experience. Left tackle Alex Lewis will likely be the most experienced, with Paul Thurston having a good shot to start at center and right tackle up for grabs between Givens Price and Zach Sterup.

Guard is a bigger question mark given Nebraska’s attrition to graduation. Chongo Kondolo should make a good case at one starter, while Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson, and Ryne Reeves could all be part of the mix at tackle as well.

Nebraska’s 2014 class of offensive linemen—Tanner Farmer, Nick Gates, and Jerald Foster—could also have an opportunity to step forward and earn significant playing time, particularly at some of the unsettled positions on the line.

Defensive Line

The middle of Nebraska’s line is pretty clear cut. Vincent Valentine is a monster of a man (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) who got better and better throughout 2014. And Maliek Collins is already a 2016 NFL first round projected draft pick, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.

Defensive end remains far murkier in terms of who Nebraska will lean on. Based on experience, Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish will likely open the season as starters. Marcus Newby saw time last year as a pass rush specialist, so don’t be shocked to see him drop in the mix at defensive end, along with Peyton Newell. The biggest wild card might be converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athleticism might help him stand out amongst a competitive field.

Linebacker

It might not be Nebraska’s weakest position, but linebacker is certainly Nebraska’s thinnest. Not counting the incoming freshmen, Nebraska has five (!) scholarship linebackers. Two (David Santos and Michael Rose Ivey) are coming off significant injuries, and one (Marcus Newby) was deployed more as a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker than a true linebacker in Nebraska’s 4-3 scheme.

So, yeah, the position is a little thin.

The initial starting lineup looks pretty clear with Josh Banderas in the middle, Santos at the Will, and Rose Ivey at the Sam. Look for early-enrollee Dedrick Young to push for playing time, and it seems almost certain that one of the other freshmen (Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) to contribute in 2015 as well.

Secondary

If linebacker is thin for Nebraska, then the secondary is ridiculously deep. If we assume that returning starters Nate Gerry at safety and Daniel Davey at corner retain their positions, then there should be an amazing competition for playing time. This competition could be highlighted by new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme which focuses on three linebackers on the field.

At corner, Josh Kalu, Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, and Chris Jones all have a legitimate case for playing time. At safety, Byerson Cockrell played well last year but will be competing with LeRoy Alexander after his year’s suspension, as well as Kieron Williams. And incoming freshmen Eric Lee and Avery Anderson have the talent to push for playing time right  away.

Special Teams

Where Nebraska is good on special teams, it’s really good. Where it’s not, it’s decidedly mediocre.

In Sam Foltz and De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska might have the best in the country at punter and punt returner respectively. That’s a huge weapon and a huge advantage for Nebraska on both sides of the ball.

But at placekicker, Nebraska will likely be choosing between sophomore Drew Brown and senior Mauro Bondi. Neither impressed last season, although some of Brown’s struggles may be attributable to his youth. Regardless, placekicker (both for field goals and kickoffs) has to be considered a question mark.

And don’t underestimate the uncertainty at long snapper, with true freshman Jordan Ober competing with sophomore Josh Faulkenberry for the position.

 

 

Nebraska Football: Grading Cornhuskers’ Position Group’s 2015 Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have put 2015’s spring practice in the rear view mirror, settling in for a long summer of barbecues, baseball and an absence of football. So before we let spring practice go, let’s take a look back and see how Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley did this spring.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is one area where it’s very hard to get a read on where players stand. It does look like Alex Lewis has solidified his position at left tackle. Paul Thurston made a good case for himself at center with the injury to Ryne Reeves. And Chongo Kondolo looked like he made progress at tackle. But with injuries to Reeves and David Knevel, it’s hard to know just where the offensive line sits after spring practice.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska established that it has depth in the backfield. At quarterback, no one has jumped up and taken the job by the horns, although junior Tommy Armstrong still looks to be in pole position as a starter given his experience. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush seemed to be impressive in camp, but struggled in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman Zack Darlington had almost the opposite trajectory, although it did seem like he improved as spring practice wore on. While the depth is good, some down-grade has to be given for an absence of a starting quarterback that truly inspires confidence.

As for the running backs, the four scholarship players (Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon) all staked their claim for the position, along with walk-ons Graham Nabity and Jordan Nelson. Nebraska looks to be settling into a committee approach to I-back, keeping legs fresh and allowing players to be inserted to maximize their particular skill sets.

Grade: B

Receivers

The receiving corps took one of the biggest hits over the spring when junior tight end Cethan Carter was lost to injury. While Carter should be back in time for fall practice (according to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald), it prevented fans at the Spring Game from getting a good look at what could be a crucial cog in Nebraska’s offense.

There’s plenty of receiver news that was positive, though. Senior Jamal Turner looks ready to go after an injury-plagued career. Redshirt freshman Jariah Tolbert made an impact at the Spring Game, catching three balls for 55 yards and a touchdown, and looking to be a legitimate option in the passing game. Mainstays like Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El are still on track to be part of Riley’s new-look offense as well.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Nebraska’s defensive line might be the hardest to grade, simply because of the difference between the inside and outside of the line. At tackle, Nebraska might have the best tandem in the conference with Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins. But at end, big questions remain. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be the starters, but in terms of both depth and overall talent level defensive end remains one of Nebraska’s biggest uncertainties going into 2015.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Outside of the freshman class, Nebraska has five scholarship linebackers, including one (senior David Santos) who missed most of spring practice due to injury. Combine that with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme which tends to play three linebackers, and you put a lot of pressure on the few experienced players on the roster or on true freshman to contribute at a key position.

Junior Josh Banderas seems to be settling in for his second go-around as middle linebacker, while junior Michael Rose-Ivey is still working his way back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season. So coming out of spring practice, linebacker still has to be one of the big question mark areas for Nebraska

Grade: B-

Secondary

If depth is a theme for Nebraska’s roster, the secondary has it in spades. How deep? Well, LeRoy Alexander is returning from a year’s suspension, but is one of the most talented players on the roster. He was on the White Team roster for the Spring Game, and is not at all guaranteed to get his starting job back in 2015.

The same can be said for Daniel Davie, arguably Nebraska’s best cornerback last year. An injury has kept him out of practice this spring, and given the competition level at the position it is entirely plausible that he will not be a starter next season.

So while the depth chart itself is still being sorted out, Nebraska’s embarrassment of riches in the secondary qualifies as a “good problem” for Riley and his staff.

Grade: A

Special Teams

Half of Nebraska’s special teams looks to be dominant. Sam Foltz might be the best punter in the country, and his strength and accuracy (not to mention tackling acumen) was on display at the Spring Game. De’Mornay Pierson-El is a game-changer at punt returner and kick returner, giving Nebraska a huge advantage in field position.

But Nebraska’s placekicking position remains a question. Drew Brown and Mauro Bondi remain the scholarship kickers, and neither were standouts in 2014. Nebraska was a pedestrian no. 70 nationally in touchback percentage and no. 80 in field goal percentage, according to CFBStats.com.

So if you take two parts of special teams play that are elite at a national level, and two parts which are (at best) average, then a middling B grade seems about fair.

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: Five Players Who Have Surprised Us In 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had a pretty good idea who would be stars this season for the scarlet and cream. But there are always players who will surprise, putting on performances no one saw coming and helping to make the spectacle thrilling from week to week.

This season is no exception, so here are five players who have caused us to sit up and take notice in 2014.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

Greg McMullen

Coming into the 2014 season, Randy Gregory was hands-down the player to watch on defense. But, of course, opposing teams knew that, and would shift their coverages accordingly. Then, early in the season opener against Florida Atlantic, Gregory left the game with a re-aggravation of a previous injury.

Enter Greg McMullen, previously known as “the other guy” at defensive end. At first out of necessity and then out of performance, McMullen has stepped into his role admirably. He’s piled up 16 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in his first four games, and has provided an important counter-balance on the defensive line with Gregory’s return.

Yeah, Gregory is the star and the NFL prospect on Nebraska’s defensive line. But Nebraska fans have to be pleasantly surprised for the production they are getting from McMullen on the other end.

De’Mornay Pierson-El

Admit it, you expected to see Pierson-El first on this list. And with good reason, too. While getting a receiving touchdown in game one as a true freshman was a great sign, that was in garbage time of a blowout win over Florida Atlantic.

No, Pierson-El’s surprise game in game three, when he was given his shot at punt returns. Nebraska had struggled mightily in that department, having one of the worst punt return units in the nation last year. Pierson-El got put into the rotation as punt returner, though, and things changed.

Pierson-El had two returns for an average of seven yards against Florida Atlantic. The following week, his average improved to 10.4 yards per return on five attempts. And then against Fresno State, Pierson-El electrified the fans with a touchdown return, averaging 30 yards per return on five attempts.

Coming into the season, one of the biggest questions was how (or if) Nebraska would revive its moribund punt return game. It took a true freshman to answer that question.

Joshua Kalu

As the season has gone on, it’s become clear that true freshman Joshua Kalu was going to force his way onto the field. He’s seen time in all four games this season, but his role has gotten bigger and bigger as the non-conference slate wore on. He saw lots of time on the field against pass-happy Fresno State, logging six solo tackles.

But it was against Miami that Kalu has made his biggest impact to date. With the Hurricanes driving in an attempt to stay in the game, it was Kalu that made a leaping interception that helped Nebraska pull away and earn an incredibly satisfying win.

Jordan Westerkamp

Yeah, we all know how solid a receiver Westerkamp is, and his catch of the Hail Mary to beat Northwestern will live in Nebraska lore. But this season, we may be getting even more of a handle on how good a receiver he really is.

When you watch the games, it’s pretty clear that Westerkamp is quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s go-to receiver in crunch time—sometimes, even to Armstrong’s detriment, forcing the ball to Westerkamp even in tight coverage. But Westerkamp’s hands and route-running prowess make it hard to argue looking for him.

And that’s not even discussing the ridiculous behind-the-back catch (pictured above) Westerkamp made against Florida Atlantic. If you say you weren’t surprised by that, you’re lying.

Sam Foltz

As a freshman last year Foltz had an up-and-down campaign as a punter, winding up no. 53 nationally with an average of 41.61 yards per punt. But this year, Foltz has been a crucial (if under-appreciated) weapon helping Nebraska to a 4-0 record.

Against McNeese State, with the offense struggling in the second half, Foltz time and again pinned the Cowboys deep, forcing McNeese State to drive the length of the field and keeping the game close. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Ameer Abdullah’s heroics at the end of the game, a strong argument could have been made for Foltz as the contest’s MVP.

So spare a thought for the under-valued and under-appreciated punter, who has been an unexpected—and critical—ingredient to Nebraska’s non-conference success.