Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17

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Nebraska suffered its first loss of the season in heartbreaking fashion, falling in overtime 23-17 to Wisconsin in Madison. After being behind 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska scored twice to tie the game, but ultimately was not able to answer Wisconsin’s overtime touchdown. So, for Nebraska fans looking back on the game against Wisconsin …

The Good

Breaking the Wall. Nebraska had no business being successful running the ball at one of the best rushing defenses in the country. Injuries to the offensive line coming into the game made Nebraska’s ability to create space a huge question mark. And when guard Tanner Farmer was carted off the field in the first half, it became difficult to see how Nebraska was going to do much of anything on offense.

But Nebraska still ended the game with 152 yards rushing on 44 attempts. Yeah, it was only 3.5 yards per carry. Terrell Newby led the way with 78 yards on 17 rushes. And while Nebraska’s running attack certainly won’t win any awards, it helped to keep the offense on the field and keep Wisconsin’s defense honest.

Even with a hurting offensive line, Nebraska had 44 rushes to 31 pass attempts, demonstrating a commitment to the run and an offensive game plan. And that plan was oh-so-nearly good enough to get the job done.

Front Four. Nebraska’s defensive front had been a question coming into the season, especially with the departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. But against Wisconsin, the front four played one of its best games of the season. Nebraska’s two sacks came from the interior of the line, one from Mick Stoltenberg and one from Carlos Davis.

And Wisconsin, while ultimately doing well against Nebraska on the ground, had to move to the edges to find success. Against an imposing Wisconsin offensive line, Nebraska’s defensive front was more than able to hold its own.

Fourth Quarter Fortitude. Well, here we go again. Nebraska entered the fourth quarter down ten, and in danger of seeing the game slip away. But rather than crumble, Nebraska dug in, scoring early to get the game closer, then getting two Nate Gerry interceptions to allow NU’s offense to tie the score.

Last year, a combination of a new coaching staff and a string of heartbreaking losses tore at the fragility of Nebraska’s psyche. This year, this group of Cornhuskers has definitely achieved a level of confidence to keep swinging late into a contest.

The Bad

Tommy’s Troubles. It is really, really hard to write negative things about Tommy Armstrong. He is such a tough competitor, and such an inspirational character and leader for the team. Going through what he has, with a coaching change and an entire shift in offensive philosophy, is one of the most difficult thing for a quarterback to handle.

The numbers, though, speak for themselves. Armstrong was 12 of 31 for 153 yards, and two interceptions. He had 13 carries for 47 yards. Yes, he made some clutch plays – that’s what Armstrong does, to be certain.

But as compelling as Nebraska’s comeback was – indeed, its play throughout the game – Armstrong’s contribution to that comeback was limited at best. A sharper performance from the quarterback position may very well have been the difference in Nebraska finally putting its Camp Randall ghosts to rest.

Getting Stretched. At the start of the game, Nebraska was having a great deal of success against Wisconsin’s running game. Corey Clement, the Badgers’ starting tailback, was limited to 82 yards on 19 carries. The interior of Nebraska’s defensive line was handling Wisconsin’s attack.

But Wisconsin brought in Dare Ogunbowale, and began to attack Nebraska with stretch concepts, meaning a running play where the offensive line and running back go at an angle to one side with the hope of “stretching” the defense out until a running back can get through a crease in the stretch.

That’s just what Ogunbowale did to great effect, rushing for 120 yards on 11 carries. The big hits that Wisconsin created off of those stretch plays were ultimately the difference that allowed the Badgers to win an incredibly tight contest.

Those No-Calls. On Wisconsin’s first touchdown, defensive end Ross Dzuris was pretty clearly held going after Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Nebraska receiver Stanley Morgan was arguably interfered with on a critical pass attempt. And on third down in overtime, Jordan Westerkamp was body-checked by Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, with no pass interference called. The Badgers were not flagged once for holding.

Stop it. Just stop it, Husker Fan. Yes, there’s an argument that there were some missed calls in the game. Much like you, my arms were raised in righteous indignation when the flags remain in officials’ pockets.

But you just can’t go there. It’s loser talk, as I remind my kids when they want to bellyache about an umpire’s calls. Nebraska has gotten, and will get, its share of calls, and you won’t remember those for more than five seconds when they go your way. Letting yourself fall into a “we wuz robbed” mentality won’t do anything more than raise your blood pressure even more than being on this roller-coaster of sports fandom already does.

Besides, Nebraska had plenty of opportunities to win this game. There’s plenty of questions to raise about what could have been different to escape Madison with a record unblemished.

Wisconsin won because Wisconsin played a hell of a game. Nebraska lost because Nebraska played a hell of a game, but came up a few plays short. Leave it there – both because it’s right and because it’s far better for your mental health.

And The Moral Victory

OK, I’ll admit it. In the throes of the overtime, I wasn’t terribly interested in hearing the “win or lose, Nebraska has proved itself” narrative. I might have gotten a little shouty about it on Twitter.

But Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for November 15, 2014. With 14:12 to go in the second quarter, Nebraska led Wisconsin 17-3 and had the ball. It looked like – after so long – Nebraska was finally going to play well on a national stage and take a step back towards national recognition.

After that, well, let’s just say that the Huskers.com recap tells the story of Wisconsin’s 59-24 win:

Melvin Gordon ran for an NCAA FBS record 408 yards and four TDs on 25 carries, as Wisconsin rushed for 581 yards and reeled off 56 unanswered points. Gordon set the record despite sitting out the fourth quarter. (Emphasis added)

Nebraska fans had been accustomed to seeing those embarrassing losses on national television. Indeed, one smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that epic collapses like that were the defining characteristic of the Bo Pelini era.

You remember that, don’t you Husker Fan? Spending a week or so getting excited for a game, settling in with your diet soda and taco-flavored Doritos to watch a prime-time Nebraska showdown for big stakes? Luxuriating in the national attention brought to you by college football’s pundits discussing the scarlet and cream alongside all the other national powerhouses? Seeing “Nebraska” flash amongst all the other teams in the mix for those coveted four spots in the College Football Playoff commercials?

For years – probably since the 2010 Big XII Championship Game against Oklahoma – Nebraska was buried in those games quickly. Here’s what the halftime scores were for Nebraska against top-15 teams (and Wisconsin):

Wisconsin 2011 UW 27, NU 14 (NU lost 48-17)
Michigan State 2011 NU 10, MSU 3 (NU won 24-3)
South Carolina 2012 USC 16, NU 13 (NU lost 30-13)
Ohio State 2012 OSU 35, NU 24 (NU lost 63-38)
Wisconsin 2012 UW 42, NU 10 (NU lost 70-31)
Georgia 2013 NU 24, UGA 23 (NU lost 45-31)
Michigan State 2013 MSU 20, NU 3 (NU lost 41-28)
Michigan State 2014 MSU 17, NU 0 (NU lost 27-22)
Wisconsin 2014 NU 27, UW 24 (NU lost 59-24)

Under two seasons with Riley, Nebraska has played two teams ranked in the top ten, and four ranked teams in total. Nebraska beat no. 6 Michigan State 39-38 and lost to no. 3 Iowa 28-20 in 2015, and beat no. 22 Oregon 35-32 and lost to no. 11 Wisconsin 23-17 in overtime this year.

Notice something? One point win. Eight point loss. Three point win. Six point loss.

Yes, Nebraska is 2-2 in those games. But that’s the point. Nebraska is in those games. Husker Fan has something to do in the fourth quarter of those big games other than turn of Twitter and see what’s on sale at Restoration Hardware.

That’s reason to hope. Reason to think that Nebraska just might be on the verge of winning more of these games, and of bringing in the quality and quantity of players necessary to win those games on a consistent basis.

Now, let’s be clear. Coming close and losing isn’t good enough, certainly in the long run. Putting up a fight as a plucky underdog and gaining respect in the loss is still a loss, and moral victories won’t get Nebraska where it wants to go, where the program and the fanbase envision it and expect it to be on the national stage.

In the long run, it’s not good enough. But as a salve for the wounds of blowouts past, for the exhausting energy to keep the faith with the scarlet and cream year after year, through all kinds of weather, it’s a start. Not the finish, to be sure, but just maybe this is the tangible evidence that Nebraska is finding a way to come in from the long winter’s night of irrelevance.

Bring on the Buckeyes.

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Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 31, Illinois 16

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Nebraska fans saw an uninspired Cornhusker team struggle for three quarters against a spirited Illinois squad, before scoring 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to notch a win that was nowhere near as comfortable as the final score might suggest. My photos of the game are here. So for Nebraska fans looking back on Nebraska’s second conference win of 2016 …

The Good

Stick To The Plan. Nebraska’s plan against Illinois was pretty straightforward. Even though Nebraska trailed for a good part of the game, Nebraska still maintained its run-heavy playcalling. The final tally ended up with Nebraska having 49 rushing attempts to 23 passes, a plan that clearly bore fruit in the fourth quarter against a weary Illini defense.

That helped senior I-back Terrell Newby have a break-out game, finishing with 140 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns. And it was a far cry from the pass-happy game plan last year against Illinois in Champaign. In head coach Mike Riley’s second year, it’s clear lessons were learned from last year’s campaign.

Bye Bye. At the start of the season, Nebraska’s bye seemed poorly placed. It was early in the season, and Nebraska had two games against lesser competition before its gauntlet of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Getting a breather before Indiana and Purdue, even coming off a 5-7 season, did not seem like an ideal use of a bye week.

But, boy, does Nebraska need the week off now. With an offensive line bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a MASH unit and injuries to wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter still to be determined, Nebraska would be ill-prepared to face another B1G foe – especially one coming off a huge upset of Michigan State. Proving once again how little pre-season predictions mean, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Nebraska.

Rising To The Occasion. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and two of his teammates got quite a bit of attention last week when they knelt during the national anthem before the Northwestern game. Rose-Ivey endured quite a bit of criticism, including from some local politicians (including some that was exceptionally ill-informed, as discussed by this smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Some people around the country have reacted poorly to the athlete’s protests, as evidenced by East Carolina’s fans booing their own band when some knelt during the anthem (according to SB Nation). So in a deep red state (politically, not in a football sense) like Nebraska, it was certainly an open question how NU fans would react when Rose-Ivey’s name was announced in the starting lineups.

Well, Nebraska fans came through. Here’s what Michael Rose, Rose-Ivey’s father, had to say on Twitter about the fans’ cheering of Rose-Ivey’s name.

It’s nice that Nebraska won the game. But this is one time where the ridiculously self-congratulatory moniker foisted on the Sea of Red by former athletic director Steve Pederson, really did ring true. On that cloudy October afternoon, Nebraska fans really were the Greatest Fans In College Football.

The Bad

Next Man Up. By the end of the Illinois game, Nebraska had three players on the offensive line that were backups – at best – at the start of the season. But when an injury to David Knevel pressed walk-on Cole Conrad into duty – playing next to Corey Whitaker, who was making his first start of the season at guard – the depth of Nebraska’s offensive line was called into question.

As discussed above, Nebraska’s bye couldn’t come at a better time. Indiana just beat Michigan State in Bloomington, and Purdue knocked off Nebraska last year. And that’s before Nebraska gets back-to-back trips to Madison and Columbus. If Nebraska is going to continue this run, its offensive line has to produce.

Cashing In. Part of the reason Nebraska struggled against Illinois was because it wasn’t able to take advantage of opportunities it had to score. Four times Nebraska had the ball at the Illinois 42 or closer, and NU got exactly zero points out of those possessions.

It was a similar story against Northwestern last week. Four times, Nebraska had the ball at the Purples’ 41 or closer, and didn’t get a single point from those possessions. Of course, two fumbles at the goal line will help make that particular statistic look worse.

Advanced analytics, like Bill Connelly at SB Nation, use efficiency of offensive performance as one of the key metrics to determine how well a team is playing. Having a number of those empty possessions might help explain why Nebraska is only no. 23 in the most recent S&P+ rating (according to Football Outsiders) while no. 12 in both the AP and coaches’ poll.

Leaving it Late. Yeah, you’ve all heard the number by now. Nebraska has outscored its opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter. That’s a remarkable achievement, and speaks volume to the resilience and coaching of the team.

But it’s also playing with fire. Perhaps more than any other game this season (other than Oregon), Nebraska’s late-game heroics felt especially needed. Illinois not only took a lead into the fourth quarter, but felt at many points like it could have taken charge and pulled an upset.

Fourth-quarter pull-aways are great, but leave little margin for error. One turnover, one defensive error, or one great play by the opponent could have been enough to render Nebraska’s comeback unsuccessful.

And The How Many

Look, it’s a good thing that Nebraska is 5-0. A very good thing. At this point last year, Nebraska was 2-3. So an undefeated and twelfth-in-the-country Nebraska is awesome for the scarlet and cream faithful, regardless of how it came about.

But as a famous smuggler once said, don’t get cocky. If you feel a little cockiness coming on, just use the bye week to take a glance at how Nebraska’s opponents this year have fared. After losing in Lincoln, Oregon has dropped a game to Colorado (no real shame in that, the Buffs are actually pretty good this year) and Washington State (well …)

Fresno State is 1-4, with its only win over FCS Sacramento State. Yes, Northwestern did beat Iowa last week, but it also lost to FCS Illinois State. Before their game in Lincoln, Illinois got beat at home, 34-10, by Western Michigan. Heck, Wyoming has the best record of all the teams Nebraska has played in 2016 to date.

So Nebraska doesn’t appear to have faced a Murderer’s Row of opponents to earn it’s 5-0 mark. But it’s still 5-0. My golf partners have long since become sick of hearing me, after an ugly shot gets a lucky bounce and ends up on the fairway, that “it ain’t about how, it’s about how many.”

That pithy logic holds true for Nebraska as well. There’s no style points sought after here. Nebraska’s one win away from bowl eligibility in early October, with a trip to Indianapolis entirely in its hands. After last year, Nebraska fans can’t ask for anything more than that.

Nebraska Football: NU Review, Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13

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On Saturday, Nebraska went on the road for its first conference game and first game away from Memorial Stadium, defeating Northwestern 24-13. Nebraska survived two goal-line fumbles into the end zone and still managed to beat the Purples by eleven. So, for Nebraska fans looking back at the Northwestern game …

The Good

Tommy! And you thought Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong had a legacy-defining performance with his touchdown run against Oregon last week. Against Northwestern, Armstrong ran for 135 yards (!) on 13 carries, and went 18-29 for 246 yards and one touchdown. That’s 381 yards of total offense, one of the best performances of his Nebraska career.

More importantly, Armstrong was not responsible for any turnovers. He nearly was a victim of a pick-six towards the end of the game, but ultimately he was able to put Nebraska on his shoulders and grind out a victory on the road in a conference game.

Three-Headed Monster. Before Nebraska’s trip to Evanston, it looked like Devine Ozigbo was establishing himself as NU’s clear top I-back. But the Purples did a pretty good job bottling Ozigbo up, holding him to 42 yards on 13 carries.

But the depth of Nebraska’s I-back stable got shown off in Evanston. Terrell Newby had 71 yards on 10 carries (never mind the fumble), and Mikale Wilbon got his first real dose of work, going for 55 yards of six carries.

Oh, yeah, and Armstrong had a pretty decent day on the ground, too.

So Nebraska’s ability to find I-backs to be successful is an encouraging sign going forward.

Getting Home. Nebraska lodged four sacks against Northwestern (so, free Big Mac!), and got an additional two quarterback hurries. While much of Nebraska’s struggles last year against the pass should be laid at the feet of the secondary, and absence of a consistent pass rush was a part of last year’s struggles. So seeing more success in bring pressure against opposing quarterbacks, even with an opposing offensive line like Northwestern’s, is encouraging.

The Bad

Clayton The Jet. Last year, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson had nine carries for 126 yards in the Purples’ upset of Nebraska in Lincoln. On Saturday, Thorson had 10 carries for 43 yards, including a touchdown. In 2015, Thorson’s rushing against Nebraska accounted for 31.7 percent of his entire rushing for the season. This year, it’s actually 2130 percent, as Thorson was at negative-two yards rushing before his 43 against Nebraska.

Clearly, Northwestern has been successful at finding ways to use Thorson schematically against defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s Blackshirts. And while Nebraska ended up with a (relatively) comfortable win, that has to be something highlighted for future contests.

Just Get It There! On at least four occasions, Nebraska’s center Dylan Utter either flew or bounced a shotgun snap to Armstrong. Remarkably, none of them resulted in a turnover, but all of them either resulted in lost yardage or a less successful play. These are new struggles for Utter, and it’s hard to tell if it was the first road game, the natural grass surface, or something Northwestern was doing that threw him off. Regardless, though, that’s an an issue that Nebraska needs to fix ASAP.

And the Beginning of the Exorcism

OK, admit it, Husker Fan. With 3:54 left in the game and Nebraska holding on to an 11-point lead, you weren’t entirely confident. Last year left some marks on your college football soul. And when the Purples were able to, relatively easily, move the ball from their own 20 to the Nebraska 27, the ghosts of last year began to haunt you.

But then Josh Kalu’s interception ended Northwestern’s drive (and fundamentally, the game), the 2016 Cornhuskers won the type of game that the 2015 Cornhuskers lost over and over and over again. Just like they did last week against Oregon.

Nebraska is now 4-0 overall, 1-0 in conference, and in the top 15 in both polls. Sure, we’re only a third of the way through the season and there’s a lot left for Mike Riley’s charges to prove.

But this year’s squad is going a long way towards laying the ghosts of last season to rest.

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 43, Fresno State 10

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On Saturday, Nebraska opened the 2016 season with a 43-10 win over Fresno State. My photos from the game can be found here. Nebraska only led 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State missing a short field goal and missing a chance at a touchdown to end the half due to poor clock management. But Nebraska pulled away, scoring 22 in the fourth quarter to seal a comfortable win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s victory …

The Good

Picking Up Where They Left Off. Against UCLA, Nebraska ran the ball 62 times and threw it 19. Throughout the offseason, though, we were told about how the game plan was unique to UCLA’s undersized defensive setup and should not be expected to be repeated.

Against Fresno State, Nebraska ran the ball 51 times and threw it 13.

It was very clear that the game plan was to take the ball out of quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s hands. Out of Nebraska’s first 21 plays, 20 were runs. So whether this distribution can last the season (see below), at least for one game Nebraska kept with a winning formula.

Back in Blackshirts. It’s not like there wasn’t time to panic. The game was 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State engineering an alarmingly-familiar march down the field at the end of the first half. Would déjà vu strike all over again and Nebraska see its lead slip away in the final frame?

Nope. Nebraska locked down Fresno State, shutting the Bulldogs out in the second half as a fourth-quarter flurry of scoring put the game away. Fresno State was unable to hit the big strikes downfield that were Nebraska’s downfall in 2015. So, again at least for one game, Nebraska seemed to have put its ghosts behind it.

A Two-Headed Monster. Nebraska’s wide receivers came into the season as the generally-accepted strength of the team. And, in fairness, they’re still really good, especially when Brandon Reilly returns from his one-game suspension.

But Nebraska’s running backs looked awfully good on Saturday, as well. Devine Ozigbo led the charge with 17 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Terrell Newby, the starter, ran strong with 53 yards on 11 carries. And when you add in Armstrong’s running (42 yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns), and the appearance of true freshman Tre Bryant (36 yards on five carries) and Mikale Wilbon (16 yards on his single carry), Nebraska’s running back corps suddenly looks pretty salty as well.

The Bad

An Unsustainable Imbalance. You know that guy. The one who wears the faded red polo shirt and goes on incessantly about how Nebraska could start winning again if it would just get back to the option and give those walk-ons a chance to play.

Well, that guy has been loving Nebraska football the last couple of games. And with the success Nebraska has enjoyed, it’s hard to criticize. Wins are wins, and coming off a 5-7 season it’s hard not to fall into intellectually lazy traps like this being “real Nebraska football.”

Don’t fall for it. This ridiculous run-pass imbalance stemmed from specific matchup issues, against an undersized UCLA team and an undermanned Fresno State. It was successful in both, and could very well be just as successful against a team like Wyoming next week.

But teams that are better than Fresno State and Wyoming are coming. Against teams like Oregon, LSU-beating Wisconsin, and Ohio State, certainly Nebraska shouldn’t be channeling its inner Mike Leach. But Nebraska won’t be able to have a 51-13 run-pass balance against those teams if it wants any chance at victory.

Target Acquired. In the last three games, Nebraska has had four targeting penalties called against it. Now, one of those was rescinded on Saturday, but that still means Nebraska has had three ejections in three games.

Yes, I know you think it wasn’t fair. And I think there’s probably a good case to be made that the targeting flags were at best marginal. But the bottom line is that Nebraska’s been hit with those penalties. And we’ve seen the damage caused by those flags – Iowa scored straight after Nate Gerry was ejected, and Fresno State’s best drive of the game came right after Luke Gifford’s dismissal.

So whether the flags are fair or not, Nebraska needs to be taking steps to make sure it isn’t even getting close to such a targeting foul in the future.

Not Ready For Prime Time. Hey, remember this guy? After an injury-ravaged 2015, it’s easy to forget how electrifying De’Mornay Pierson-El was for Nebraska. And when Pierson-El was proclaimed healthy and ready to get back on the field, Nebraska fans were understandably excited at the potential.

Well, Pierson-El was back on the field. But his return was nothing he’ll want to remember. He touched the ball only once, fumbling a jet sweep handoff for a loss of seven. Although he was listed as the number one punt returner, it was Jordan Westerkamp that went back to field punts (somewhat shakily) throughout the game.

Maybe the fumble shook him. Maybe the coaches don’t quite have the confidence in him yet. But whatever it is, the Pierson-El we saw in 2014 isn’t back yet.

And The Unconvincing Blowout

Have you ever seen an unconvincing 33-point win? Well, if there ever was one, it was Saturday against Fresno State. Sure, getting the win is great – keep in mind, this is the first time Mike Riley has gone 1-0 at Nebraska. And for the investors among us, having Nebraska cover the 28-point spread wasn’t bad either.

But this was a game that was 14-10 at half – and very easily could have been a 17-14 Bulldog lead absent a missed chip-shot field goal and an inexplicable failure to call time out and waste a down while inside Nebraska’s 10.

Sure, Nebraska ultimately pulled away in the second half, and the fact that NU was able to do so speaks volumes compared to a team that lost to Illinois and Purdue last year. But the fact remains that a 33-point margin is utterly flattering to how Nebraska played.

A win is a win. If 2015 taught us anything, it’s that Nebraska is in a survive-and-advance mode as a program. But there’s still big questions left for Nebraska to answer if it wants a trip to Indianapolis in December.

Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Most Important Player At Each Position

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are well into barbecue season, enjoying the warm weather and wondering why the American League All-Star team will be almost entirely populated by Kansas City Royals. But the 2015 depth chart is never far from their minds, and over these lazy summer months it’s a useful exercise to think about which players are most important at each position.

It’s not necessarily a consideration of who is the best player, mind you, although it usually works out that way. Rather, it’s a question of who is the most important—which player at each position Nebraska (and new head coach Mike Riley) needs the most. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the roster.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis

While Nebraska has decent depth on the offensive line, there is a concern about the lack of returning starters (at least based on the Holiday Bowl depth chart). Lewis is the only returning starter who held down a starting position the entire year in 2014. Givens Price and Matt Finnin were listed at right tackle for the Holiday Bowl, while Paul Thurston and Dylan Utter were listed at center.

None of those four spent the season at their position, and Finnin will likely not be in the mix at tackle in 2015. Lewis, on the other hand, was Nebraska’s starting left tackle throughout 2014. Combine that experience with the importance of the position (between left tackle for a right-handed quarterback and center arguably being the most important) and Lewis is the first name to consider at offensive line for Nebraska in 2015.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong

The no-brainer to end all no-brainers, particularly given how none of the other quarterbacks on the roster appeared to seriously challenge Armstrong’s position in the spring. While Nebraska does have good depth at quarterback—perhaps for the first time since before former head coach Bo Pelini arrived in 2008—the 2015 season will likely rise and fall with Armstrong’s performance.

Riley had a history of developing quarterbacks in his time at Oregon State, most recently shepherding Sean Mannion to breaking the Pac-12 career yardage record and being an NFL draft pick. Armstrong will need the same kind of tutelage if Nebraska is to be successful in 2015.

I-Back

Terrell Newby

If there was any position where one person isn’t as important for Nebraska this year, it might be I-Back.  Based on observations from the spring (including the Omaha World-Herald’s Sam McKewon and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst), Newby looks the early favorite to win the starting I-Back position.

But Nebraska has amazing depth at the position, with Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon all competing for carries (and that’s not counting walk-ons like Graham Nabity who could be in the mix as well). So while Newby at this stage is the most important given his likely starting status, there are a number of contenders waiting in the wings.

Receiver

De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tempting at this point to think outside the box a little and select Jordan Westerkamp for his consistency or Jamal Turner for his potential and his senior leadership. It may very well be that both of those players will be cruicial cogs in Nebraska’s offense this season.

But, come on, let’s be real. Pierson-El is without question Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic offensive weapon. And Riley will likely find creative ways to get Pierson-El the ball, such as the jet sweeps we saw in the Spring Game. Pierson-El might not have the most touches for Nebraska next season. But he will be the one that will affect opposing defenses more than any other player.

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins

Last year, Nebraska had a beast at defensive end in Randy Gregory, and was worried about interior defensive line play. This year, Nebraska has two beasts on the inside in Vincent Valentine and Collins, with questions on the exterior.

While it’s hard not to view Valentine and Collins as a unit, it’s Collins that is getting the pre-season attention. Collins is a first-round NFL draft pick according to ESPN’s Todd McShay, and just misses the first-round cut according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

Based on that projection alone, then, Collins nudges Valentine in importance for Nebraska in 2015.

Linebacker

Josh Banderas

It was tempting to put “a warm body” in place here, as Nebraska only has four scholarship linebackers who are not true freshman on the roster after the departure of David Santos. Of those four, one (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off missing a season to injury, one (Marcus Newby) played sparingly as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) is a redshirt freshman after sitting out last season.

That means Nebraska only has one (!) linebacker on the roster with any meaningful playing experience since 2013. Banderas will be pressed into a leadership role, anchoring Nebraska’s linebacker corps as the young players behind him (hopefully) grow up in a hurry.

Secondary                          

Daniel Davie

It was very tempting to pick Nate Gerry at safety, as it could have been argued he was Nebraska’s defensive MVP last year. But with a transition to Mark Bankers’ new quarters defensive scheme, the importance of the safety will likely be diminished with the amount of time all three linebackers should be on the field, placing more emphasis on the cornerback being able to take away an opponent’s primary receiving threat.

That task will fall to Davie, taking over from Josh Mitchell as Nebraska’s primary cornerback this season. Davie was a consistent performer for Nebraska last year, and the Blackshirts will need him to stand up against the best receivers they will face if NU is to be successful next year.

Special Teams

De’Mornay Pierson-El

Yes, it’s him again. Pierson-El might be Nebraska’s most important weapon on offense next year. But there’s no doubt he will be a game-changer for Nebraska as a punt returner. His ability to flip the field—and score—off a punt return gives Nebraska so many different benefits. Against Michigan State, it was Pierson-El’s return that put Nebraska in position to win after being dominated for most of the game. And against Iowa, it was Pierson-El’s return that keyed Nebraska’s comeback, ultimately returning the Heroes Game trophy to Lincoln.

(I know. It’s a ridiculously anodyne and sanitized thing. But admit it, Husker fan. It burned you to see the Hawkeyes race across the turf in Memorial Stadium in 2013, grab the trophy, and carry it back to their locker room. And it felt good to see the boys in scarlet and cream return the favor in 2014.)

A strong case could be made for Sam Foltz, who could end the season as the nation’s best punter. But Pierson-El’s returns—and the field position that comes from the mere intimidation of opposing punters—gives him the nod in this category.

Nebraska Football: Projecting Who Will Win The Open Starting Positions

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been looking at the roster, seeing who graduated, and thinking about who might step in and be a new starter in 2015. With new head coach Mike Riley, it’s even harder to guess where players might slot in under a new system with a new set of coaches doing the evaluations.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, most positions are up for grabs. But for purposes of this exercise, we will work of the Holiday Bowl depth chart to determine which positions are open. With that understanding, let’s take a look at the rosters.

Offensive Line

Open positions: Left guard, right guard

Center and right tackle may be positions that shift during the course of fall camp, but for purposes of this exercise the only open positions are at guard with the graduation of Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy.

Chongo Kondolo saw quite a bit of time last season, and looks likely to be first man up in 2015. Given that guard is an easier position for a young player to step into, it would not be a surprise to see one of last year’s offensive line recruits step in and win a starting position. Given that Tanner Farmer was the highest rated of those prospects (according to 247 Sports), he gets the nod for now.

Projected starters: Chongo Kondolo, Tanner Farmer

Backfield

Open position: I-back

Ameer Abdullah’s departure leaves a huge hole at I-back to fill. Nebraska has at least four I-backs with the potential to step in and start, although it seems likely that none will have the same kind of work-load that Abdullah did.

At this point it’s hard to handicap the I-back race. But given how the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby should be the leader in the clubhouse to win the starting job. Newby has game-breaking speed, and has shown an ability to run between the tackles. Between those skills and Newby’s game experience, he’s the most likely starter at this point.

Projected starter: Terrell Newby

Receivers

Open position: X receiver

Kenny Bell’s graduation opens up one receiver spot for Nebraska next year. And while Nebraska has a number of talented receivers, Jamal Turner is uniquely qualified to slide into a starting role. Turner received a sixth year of eligibility after an injury robbed him of most of the 2014 season. With his experience and ability—assuming he has fully healed—Turner is a natural selection for a starting wideout.

Projected starter: Jamal Turner

Defensive Line

Open position: Defensive end

Nebraska’s interior defensive line is set with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Greg McMullen should hold down one defensive end position, leaving the other—the one that Randy Gregory has vacated—left to fill.

Jack Gangwish ended the season as Gregory’s backup, and performed well. Given the lack of depth at the position, especially proven depth, Gangwish looks to be the natural replacement for Gregory.

Projected starter: Jack Gangwish

Linebackers

Open positions: MIKE and WILL linebacker

Linebacker is Nebraska’s shallowest position, with only five scholarship players outside of true freshmen returning in 2015. Much has been written about how Josh Banderas is thriving in Riley’s new system (including this article by Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), and it seems likely he will return to the role he was used as a true freshman at middle linebacker.

At weak-side linebacker, Michael Rose-Ivey seems the most likely starter. Returning from an injury that cost him all of 2014, Rose-Ivey will look to recapture the form that had him as a fixture in the starting lineup a year earlier. While Banderas should reclaim the middle linebacker position, Rose-Ivey makes a lot of sense slotting in at weak-side linebacker

Projected starters: Josh Banderas, Michael Rose-Ivey

Secondary

Open positions: Cornerback, safety

Nebraska has one player returning at corner (Daniel Davie) and safety (Nate Gerry), so has one each to fill for 2015. Safety looks to be the easier race to handicap, with LeRoy Alexander returning from a one-year suspension. Alexander was a contender to win one of the starting roles last season, and he should start fall camp with a leg up on his competition for the role in 2015.

Cornerback is a muddier picture, with a number of players competing for the role. While any number of players could ultimately win the position, smart money at this point might be on Josh Kalu. As a true freshman, Kalu fought his way onto the field, and showed leadership with his opportunities. While it’s a crowded field, seeing Kalu win a starting role would not be a shock

Projected starters: LeRoy Alexander, Josh Kalu

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

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

Quarterback

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

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

I-Back

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

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

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

Receivers

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

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

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

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

Tight End

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

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

Offensive Line

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

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

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

Defensive Line

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

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

Linebacker

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

So, yeah, the position is a little thin.

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

Secondary

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

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

Special Teams

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nebraska Football: Five Former Top Recruits Who Will Finally Shine in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are not alone in feeling burned by the recruiting process. After spending months getting excited about four- and five-star prospects arriving, fans have to wait—sometimes for years—before those prospects actually produce something on the field.

A new season, and a new head coach in Mike Riley, is on the horizon. So let’s take a look back at Nebraska’s recent recruiting history and see which highly-touted recruits might get their chance to come good for NU.

Star and composite rankings from 247 Sports.

Jamal Turner

Class of 2011, four-star, .9658 composite.

In 2011, Turner showed up in Lincoln intending to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback position. When that didn’t work out, Turner moved to wide receiver. Between struggles with learning the position and recurring injuries, Turner’s career at Nebraska has never caught fire.

But being given an extra year’s eligibility through a medical hardship gives Turner a new lease on life. Turner will likely be a starting wide receiver along with Jordan Westerkamp (more of a possession receiver) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (whose slight frame should limit his usage). This provides a huge opportunity for Turner to make a big impact in his swan-song season.

Charles Jackson

Class of 2011, four-star, .9605 composite

Much like Turner, Jackson’s career in Lincoln has been a struggle with injuries. In August of 2014, when he was in line to be Nebraska’s starting nickel back, Jackson suffered a knee injury that cost him the entirety of the season.

His misfortunes with injuries have continued into 2015, with another knee injury keeping him out of spring practice. But according to John Taylor of NBC Sports, this time around the injury isn’t as serious and Jackson should be at full strength coming into fall camp.

Jackson will be competing in a crowded and talented backfield for playing time. But he’s also a freakish athlete who will have every opportunity to earn his moment in the sun.

Paul Thurston

Class of 2012, four-star, .9357 composite

It’s not unusual for offensive linemen to take time before they are ready to produce at a collegiate level. Indeed, it’s the rare player who is able to contribute in the trenches as an underclassman. But Thurston looks ready, after seeing limited time as a backup last season, to press for the starting job at center in 2015.

With a line that will be looking for experience after losing starters at both guard positions, having Thurston emerge and produce at center would be a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in 2015.

Josh Banderas

Class of 2012, four-star, .9053 composite

When Riley was hired, much was made of Banderas’ status with the Nebraska program. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald discussed how Banderas was close to leaving the program after being “jerked around” by former head coach Bo Pelini’s staff.  Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star wrote about Banderas being “mismanaged” by Pelini.

Given that track record, a new coaching staff would be reason enough to be optimistic about Banderas’ prospects in 2015. But when you combine that with a thin linebacking corps (Nebraska in 2015 will have five scholarship linebackers who are not true freshmen) and a quarters defensive scheme from new coordinator Mark Banker that focuses on three linebackers on the field, and Banderas’ opportunity next season becomes apparent.

Terrell Newby

Class of 2013, four-star, .9404 composite

Newby has always been a tantalizing talent for Nebraska fans. He was a higher-rated prospect than Randy Gregory (according to 247 Sports), and has flashed the kind of game-breaking speed that could make him a dominant threat at I-back.

But Newby’s performance hasn’t matched that promise. A big part of that is being behind Ameer Abdullah in Nebraska’s backfield, of course. Newby has averaged just 4.65 carries per game, and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

This year, though, Abdullah is gone and Newby looks primed to win the starting I-back job (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst). While Newby will have a crowded backfield competing with him for playing time, 2015 looks to be his year to shine.

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.