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

DSC00808

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: Ranking the 5 Best Redshirt Freshmen for the Cornhuskers

IMG_0776

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have long memories, long enough to remember the recruiting hype for the freshmen who redshirted last year and have extended their careers in Lincoln as a result. Of course, there is no real data available to make any kind of informed analysis of where the redshirt freshmen stand.

Having said that, we do have recruiting rankings available, to give at least some idea of a player’s potential. We can also look at the opportunities available to the players, either from roster attrition, a new coaching staff, or both, and make some informed projections about how these players may fit in next season.

All ratings from 247 Sports.

No. 5: Mick Stoltenberg (DT)

Stoltenberg was a three-star recruit (.8296 composite) coming out of high school, and plays a position that should see a lot of competition prior to the 2015 season. With Randy Gregory declaring for the NFL draft, Greg McMullen looks to be the only sure-fire starter returning for Nebraska.

Stoltenberg will be competing with Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, and A.J. Natter, all who saw playing time last season.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun (TE)

Let’s agree at the start that guessing what new head coach Mike Riley’s offense will look like in 2015 is a fool’s errand. Having said that, given Riley’s history and the fact that his new offensive coordinator is a quarterback coach, it’s a fair conclusion that Nebraska will lean more on the passing game than it did under Bo Pelini.

And if we take past as prologue, we see that the tight end in Oregon State’s offense in the last three years has been either third or fourth in receptions. Compare that to Nebraska’s offense over the same time period, where the tight end has only been fourth one year (Kyler Reed in 2012) and sixth every other year.

In 2015, Nebraska will have a dangerous receiving threat at tight end returning in Cethan Carter. But Akinmoladun looks to be cut from the same mold as Carter, and should have a chance to shine.

No. 3: A.J. Bush (QB)

Bush might be the biggest wild card of all Nebraska’s redshirt freshman. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense is going to look like next year, so it’s hard to guess what skill set the next NU quarterback will need. Tommy Armstrong has off-the-chart intangibles and nearly two years of starting experience under his belt. Johnny Stanton was recruited by Riley at Oregon State, so there’s no question Riley likes what Stanton has to offer.

And yet Bush’s name keeps coming up, even over Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Darlington. During preparation for this year’s Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “an intriguing guy” (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

With a new coaching staff coming in, all the quarterbacks will be starting with a clean slate. That may give this “intriguing guy” a chance to make an impression and work his way up the depth chart next season.

No. 2: Mikale Wilbon (RB)

The graduation of Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge hole at Nebraska’s I-back position. Returners Imani Cross and Terrell Newby certainly have the advantage of game experience. But that experience has also shown some of the weaknesses in both of their games.

Adam Taylor, if he is able to bounce back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season, looks to provide a middle-ground in skill sets between a bruiser like Cross and a scatback like Newby. A three-star prospect (.8822 composite), Wilbon will have the chance to impress the new coaching staff and make an immediate impact in 2015.

No. 1: Tanner Farmer (OL)

In some ways, picking the redshirt offensive lineman for this list was a challenge, as Nick Gates and Jerald Foster will be in the mix as well. But Farmer’s recruiting pedigree (four-star, .9021 composite) along with his size (six-foot-four, 310 pounds) give him the slight nod in this contest.

Farmer’s familiarity at guard should help, as Nebraska is returning both starting tackles for 2014. But the depth of talent and competition for playing time should be a good problem for new Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Top 5 Surprises for the Huskers This Year

DSC00253

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had an idea of what to expect coming into the 2014 season, but have received a few surprises along the way. As with any season, unexpected twists and turns have popped up, changing expectations from where they were in the summer.

Here are five of the biggest surprises Nebraska fans have seen as the 2014 season has unfolded.

No. 5 – Gregory’s Return?

Last week, Nebraska fans were buzzing at the possibility of defensive end Randy Gregory returning for his senior season in 2015. Fueled by comments from head coach Bo Pelini that “we’re not going to lose any of them” (referring to the defensive line, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star), Nebraska fans had a glimmer of hope to see Gregory next year.

After all, many outlets (such as CBS Sports’ Rob Rang) have Gregory as a top-five pick overall in next year’s NFL draft. While Pelini later said he wasn’t implying he knew anything about Gregory’s return next season (according to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), the seed was at least planted that Nebraska might get another year out of the phenomenal defensive talent of Gregory.

No. 4 – Tommy’s Consistency, In A Bad Way

In many ways, quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers don’t look all that different in 2014 than they did in 2013. Take a look:

Completion % TD INT Yards/Att Rating
2013 51.9 9 8 7.4 124.31
2014 53.0 13 8 7.9 131.45

 

While Armstrong has played in nine games this year, the same number as in 2013, it’s hard to make a straight comparison of his statistics. Many times last year, Armstrong played only part of a game, being spelled by Ron Kellogg. This year, the job has been almost exclusively Armstrong’s.

Going into his nineteenth game, it’s not unreasonable to have expected improvement in Armstrong’s performance at quarterback.

No. 3 – Kicking Conundrum

As observed long ago by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Nebraska has been “Kicker U” recently, producing an inordinate amount of accurate and reliable placekickers. That history has spoiled Nebraska fans a little, leading them to think field goals in college football are near automatic.

Not this year. True freshman Drew Brown is 9-14 in field goal attempts—fairly average nationwide, but perfectly dreadful based on Nebraska’s recent high standards. And while Brown’s (relative) struggles have yet to cost Nebraska a game, seeing NU with anything less than a stellar kicking game is a little jarring.

No. 2 – Failure to Launch

Sure, Ameer Abdullah has been fantastic (unless the opponent was an M-State, be it Michigan or McNeese). But much was expected of the other I-backs in the stable, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.

While both have a yards/carry average that is respectable (5.19 for Cross, 4.67 for Newby), neither of them have really been able to make a splash and grab the kind of attention Nebraska fans had hoped for. Certainly, in comparison to Abdullah at his best, most running backs will struggle.

But as Nebraska fans saw with the offensive struggles against Purdue in Abdullah’s absence, it’s not unfair to say that the contributions of Cross and Newby at this stage are a little underwhelming.

No. 1 – A Star is Born

There’s little doubt that freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El has been the best surprise Nebraska has found this year. Almost single-handedly, Pierson-El has turned a weakness into a strength in the punt return game. He’s beginning to be worked into the offense as well, looking as if he has claimed the starting third wide receiver position.

And if Abdullah is going to be limited against Wisconsin, Pierson-El may provide a crucial playmaker and weapon, forcing Wisconsin to respect the deep part of the field and opening running lanes for Armstrong, Cross, and Newby.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

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

DSC09539

photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Offensive Line – B

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

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

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

Offensive Backs – B

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

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

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

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

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

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

Receivers – Incomplete

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

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

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

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

Defensive Line – A-plus

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

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

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

Linebackers – C

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

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

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

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

Defensive Backs – B-minus

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

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

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

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

Special Teams – A-minus

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

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

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

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: 5 Cornhuskers Primed for Breakout Seasons

IMG_2110

photo and stories by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will be anxiously watching the 2014 season to see which players will become breakout stars. It’s the breakout stars, not the proven commodities, that can help propel a team like Nebraska from almost-there to contending for conference and national titles.

So who are the Cornhuskers primed for a breakout season? Here are five candidates.

Terrell Newby

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has already tapped Newby as Nebraska’s x-factor for the 2014 season. It’s not hard to see why, given his ability to score every time he touches the ball, and given the trust he’s already earned from the coaches given his playing time last year as a true freshman.

Ameer Abdullah is the undisputed leader of Nebraska’s offense, and Imani Cross is a capable backup and change-of-pace back. But Newby should still get his chance to shine, both on offense and on special teams. If he takes advantage of those opportunities, he could be—well, could be the x-factor for Nebraska’s offense.

Vincent Valentine

Valentine has always had the size (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) to excel as an interior defensive lineman. But towards the end of his freshman campaign last year, Valentine began to show flashes of talent and understanding that could make him a true anchor for Nebraska’s defensive line.

With the size of a true nose tackle, Valentine gives Nebraska the option to run a three-man front and put more pass-rushing specialists on the field. While that might not show up on the stat sheet, Valentine could end up giving the Blackshirts a flexibility to attack opposing offenses not seen in some time.

Cethan Carter

For some reason, Nebraska under Bo Pelini sems hell-bent to ignore talented offensively-minded tight ends. From Mike McNeil to Kyler Reed, Nebraska has discovered true mismatch weapons at tight end—then proceeded to let them wither on the vine.

Nebraska has another opportunity with Cethan Carter, who has the size, speed, and athleticism to be the kind of weapon for NU that Rob Gronkowski is for the New England Patriots. At some point, Nebraska’s coaching staff has to take advantage of an offensive-minded tight end like Carter—right?

Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s linebacker corps is a mess, but in a good way. So much of Nebraska’s linebacker talent is young, and has yet to truly seize a starting job and a position on the field. Michael Rose may be an exception at MIKE, but other than that the depth chart is pretty fluid.

The exception other than Rose, of course, is Anderson.  As a senior with three years in the program, Anderson should have the experience to help him excel. And if 2014 can keep him free from injuries that have derailed his previous two campaigns, Anderson has the talent to become the true star of Nebraska’s linebacker corps.

Nathan Gerry

Last year, Gerry was able to earn playing time as a true freshman at linebacker. But his size (six-foot-two, 205 pounds) and lack of experience led him to struggle and ultimately lose his playing time.

This year, he has moved from linebacker to safety, a position his size and speed more naturally fit. Opposite Corey Cooper there is a safety spot open to be won, and Gerry has every opportunity to win the job and earn a Black Shirt.

Five Nebraska Players Sure to Surprise at Fall Camp

IMG_4400

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are always looking for surprises as fall camp opens. While the established stars are well known, fall camp provides an opportunity for new play-makers to arise and take the stage for the upcoming season.

So while “sure to surprise” is a bit of a contradiction in terms (much like the advice from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to “expect the unexpected”), here are five players that might be a bit off fans’ radar screens but could play a major role this season.

Alex Lewis

Lewis has had a remarkable impact as a newcomer, unseating David Knevel (which ain’t easy to do, as Knevel is six-foot-9 and 310 pounds) and coming into fall camp as the likely starter at left tackle. But as can be seen from the Lincoln Journal-Star’s Steven Sipple, Lewis had a great spring.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p>My read is DE Randy Gregory is hitting on all cylinders this spring. Fast and tenacious. I'm guessing Alex Lewis would concur. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Huskers?src=hash”>#Huskers</a></p>&mdash; Steven M. Sipple (@HuskerExtraSip) <a href=”https://twitter.com/HuskerExtraSip/statuses/451533159931584512″>April 3, 2014</a></blockquote>

<script async src=”//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

If he’s able to continue that into the fall, Lewis could become one of the key contributors on Nebraska’s offensive line—and perhaps one of the most important players on offense, period.

Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s linebacker corps is something of a muddle, with a lot of talented and young players competing for positions. The one exception to that might be Anderson, who along with Trevor Roach is the only senior linebacker on the roster.

Anderson’s career at Nebraska has been marred with injuries, but his talent is unmistakable. If he is able to stay healthy, Anderson could become the standout linebacker Nebraska fans have been looking for.

Terrell Newby

A smart and particularly handsome analyst opined that Newby would be Nebraska’s x-factor in 2014. While he will likely start the season as third string (or at least an “-OR-“ second-string) on the depth chart, Newby looks to have an expanded role on offense and on special teams. With his explosiveness, it won’t be a shock to see Newby as the talk of this year’s fall camp.

Charles Jackson

Ciante Evans held down Nebraska’s NICKEL position with experience and intelligence, helping to hold things together and make the smart play in the secondary. His graduation leaves a big hole for Nebraska to fill.

Jackson, who looks to be filling Evans’ spot at NICKEL, in some ways is Evans’ opposite. He has struggled throughout his Nebraska career with discipline on the field. But he is a freakish athletic talent, in a way that Evans simply was not. If he is able to bring at least some of Evans’ vision and experience to the NICKEL role combined with his athleticism and playmaking ability, he could be a remarkable weapon for the Blackshirts.

Alonzo Moore

Imagine a receiver with Kenny Bell’s speed, but with an extra inch of height and ten pounds of weight. In potential, at least, that’s Moore. Injuries have kept Moore from being able to work his way up the depth chart, but he looks to be coming into fall camp healthy. If he can stay that way, and demonstrate route-running and pass-catching to go with his speed, Moore could be one of the big surprises this fall.

If you’d like to contact Patrick, send an email to patrickrunge@gmail.com.

Or you could also always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.

Nebraska Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading Into Fall Camp

IMG_7030

photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is about to start, and with fall camp comes the depth chart battles that will help define the 2014 season. So while there are no official depth charts, we can speculate as to where things are at least starting out as fall camp opens. Of course, the battles in fall camp will go a long way towards determining what Nebraska’s depth chart will look like on August 30 when NU tees the ball up against Florida Atlantic.

But until then, here’s at least a glimpse of where things might stand. Returning starters are in italics.

Offensive Line

While the offensive line will be seeing a lot of new starters, thanks to the injuries many of this year’s pipeline will have gained valuable experience last year. Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, should he hold the job through fall camp, could be one of the most valuable additions to Nebraska’s roster in 2014.

Left Tackle: Alex Lewis, David Knevel

Left Guard: Jake Cotton, Chongo Kondolo

Center: Mark Pelini, Ryne Reeves

Right Guard: Mike Moudy, Dwayne Johnson

Right Tackle: Zach Sterup, Tanner Farmer

Offensive Backs

While Johnny Stanton may have the talent to be the next guy, it seems as if Ryker Fife has the inside track on the backup spot given his mastery of the playbook. Backups to Ameer Abdullah should be fluid, with Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby seeing packages specific for them.

Quarterback: Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fife

I-Back: Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross

Fullback: Andy Janovic, Mitch McCann

Receivers

Kenny Bell is the undisputed leader of Nebraska’s receiver corps, but after Bell the depth chart should be fluid throughout the season. Perhaps the most fascinating battle will be at the slot receiver position between Jamal Turner and Jordan Westerkamp—will Turner’s as-of-yet unrealized potential outweigh Westerkamp’s consistency?

Wide Receiver (X): Kenny Bell, Brandon Reilly

Wide Receiver (Z): Alonzo Moore, Taariq Allen

Wide Receiver (A): Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner

Tight End: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

Randy Gregory will be the first name written on any depth chart, but behind him fall camp will go a long way to sort things out. Look for Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen to take advantage of the time to solidify their positions

Defensive End: Randy Gregory, A.J. Natter

Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry, Maliek Collins

Defensive Tackle: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Maurice

Defensive End: Greg McMullen, Joe Keels

Linebackers

Linebacker is a peculiar position for Nebraska. There is a lot of talent, but there is very little in terms of clearly-won positions. Zaire Anderson looks to be the strongest overall talent, and Michael Rose did a lot to win the MIKE position last year. After that, the depth chart could be in play throughout the linebacker corps.

BUCK Linebacker: Josh Banderas, Courtney Love

MIKE Linebacker: Michael Rose, Trevor Roach

WILL Linebacker: Zaire Anderson, David Santos

Defensive Backs

Nebraska does have some returning experience in the secondary with cornerback Josh Mitchell and safety Corey Cooper. The battle for the other starting cornerback position between Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell could be one of the most entertaining of the fall camp. And seeing the amazing athletic talent of Charles Jackson replace Ciante Evans at NICKEL could be a difference-making change for the Blackshirts.

Cornerback: Josh Mitchell, Boaz Joseph

Safety: Corey Cooper, Nathan Gerry

Safety: LeRoy Alexander, D.J. Singleton

Cornerback: Jonathan Rose, Byerson Cockrell

NICKEL: Charles Jackson

Specialists

Hold your breath, Nebraska fans, we’re likely to see a true freshman enter fall camp as the de facto starting placekicker. How Drew Brown holds up to the pressure could be a defining element of Nebraska’s 2014 campaign. And look for some game-breaking talent to take the reins of the return game, helping to improve from last season.

Placekicker: Drew Brown

Kickoff Specialist: Mauro Bondi

Punter: Sam Foltz

Holder: Sam Foltz

Long Snapper: Gabriel Miller

Punt Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby

Kick Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby

Nebraska Football: Why Terrell Newby Will Be Nebraska’s X-Factor in 2014

DSC06387

photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know who the stars on offense are for next season—Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Tommy Armstrong, and other players who are household names in Big Red Country. The question becomes who will be the player to step up and make a name for himself in 2014.

A leading candidate for that role should be Terrell Newby, a sophomore I-back. Here’s why.

He’s Fast

You can’t coach speed. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason. Newby has the kind of breakaway, game-changing speed that can terrify an opposing defense. When you have a player, particularly in the backfield, who can score from anywhere on the field if given a seam, it can change the entire structure of an opposing defense.

When he was healthy, Taylor Martinez had that kind of speed, and we saw how it could affect Nebraska’s offense. While he does not have the overall talent of Ameer Abdullah, Newby’s white-hot speed has the potential to transform Nebraska’s offense.

He Can Play Special Teams

If turnovers were Problem 1 for Nebraska, a lack of production in punt returns was problem 1A. Nebraska averaged 3.04 yards per punt return in 2013, ranking no. 123 nationally. That means if on every punt, Nebraska simply caught the ball and immediately fell forward, its average punt return yardage would be only slightly less than what it achieved in 2013. That’s 5.01 yards per return less than the “average” team’s punt return output last year, no. 62 Northern Illinois.

Nebraska had 23 punt returns in 2013, which averaged out to 1.77 punt returns per game (fair catches and punts out of bounds don’t count as returns). So even if Nebraska could just get to “average” in its punt return game, that would yield an additional 8.87 yards of field position in a game in punt returns.

That may not sound like a lot, but if you look at drive statistics from last year (courtesy of FBS Drive Stats), the difference in average starting field position between the worst team and the best team in FBS football last year was 13.1 yards. Now, it’s not exactly a like-for-like comparison, but the underlying takeaway is those 8.87 yards per game of field position Nebraska gave up compared to the “average” punt returning team makes a big difference.

Enter Newby, who looks absolutely primed to make a huge difference in special teams. He has the elusiveness to make a gunner miss, and the electric speed to take a small crease and turn it into a big gain. Combine that with the fact that he is not likely to be the primary ball-carrier, meaning he will be fresh and ready to contribute on special teams, and Newby could be a big difference-maker.

The only glimpse of that we have gotten publicly was in kick return drills at the Spring Game, where Newby (along with Jamal Turner) looked amazing. It may not be the first thing you think of, but if Newby can jump-start Nebraska’s punt return game, that could pay massive dividends to NU’s overall performance.

He’s Got The Coaches’ Trust

Last year, Newby had 54 carries as a true freshman. In the Bo Pelini era, only one true freshman I-back has gotten more carries—Rex Burkhead in 2009, with 81. That means the coaches like what they see in Newby, and want to get him on to the field.

With another year in the program and in the weight room, that workload should only increase. Combine that with an offense that should be less quarterback-centered with the departure of Taylor Martinez, and that suggests a significantly bigger role for Newby in 2014.

Nebraska Football: Realistic Expectations for the Cornhuskers’ 2014 Season

IMG_6122

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are not exactly known for their realism. Visions of Nebraska’s glories in the nineties can cloud the most rational fan’s judgment. But Nebraska fans are also painfully aware how the “Conference Championship” banner on the West Stadium has not been updated since 1999, making memories of those past glories grow dimmer by the day.

So perhaps a little realism isn’t a bad thing. Here are some realistic expectations of what Nebraska may achieve in 2014.

Star Performers

Ameer Abdullah (IB) – Given the depth in the backfield, it would not be a big surprise to see Abdullah’s carries go down from his 281 rushing attempts last year. But with what looks to be an improved (or at least more stable) offensive line, Abdullah’s production may increase. Don’t be shocked if, should he stay healthy, Abdullah at least gets close to a 2,000-yard rushing season in his senior campaign.

Tommy Armstrong (QB) – Armstrong has all the intangibles, and the one big tangible of being 7-1 as a starter. But his underlying statistics—less than a 52 percent completion, and a 9/8 touchdown to interception ratio—are not indicative of long-term success. While a full off-season of preparation and an offense tailored to his skill set will help, expecting dramatic improvement from Armstrong’s 2013 statistics is probably not realistic.

Randy Gregory (DE) – Last year at this time, Gregory was an exciting but unknown prospect as a junior college transfer. This year, he’s been tapped by many as a first-round NFL draft pick for 2015. Last year, Gregory had 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. I would expect, now that Gregory is a known commodity, he will be seeing a lot more double teams and schemes to slow him down. So while his influence may increase, it is entirely possible his stats will not reflect that increase.
Breakout Candidates

Terrell Newby (IB) – Imani Cross will likely be ahead of Newby on the depth chart at the start of the season. But Newby’s breakaway speed and shiftiness make him a home run threat unlike any other on Nebraska’s roster. And if he is able to run between the tackles, something he showed in the Spring Game, then Newby could truly be a game changer for Nebraska’s offense.

Zaire Anderson (LB) – Nebraska’s linebacker corps is full of youth, talent, and potential.  But it is also full of question marks. Anderson, looking to get a full season in without injury, may be the most talented of all Nebraska’s linebackers, and brings a level of experience which should elevate his level of play in 2014.

 

The Non-Conference

Nebraska’s non-conference schedule looks to present two challenges, a trip to Fresno State and a home matchup against Miami. However, both the Bulldogs and the Hurricanes are not the teams they were last season. Fresno State looked to be a BCS buster last year, but should be a very different team without quarterback Derek Carr. Miami has quarterback questions as well, with senior Ryan Williams undergoing surgery on his right ACL. While it is possible Williams will be able to play against Nebraska, there is no doubt he will miss all of fall camp.

So while on paper Nebraska’s non-conference schedule looks challenging, it is not at all unreasonable to expect NU to emerge 4-0 heading into conference play.

 

The Conference Season

Nebraska’s conference season schedule is far more challenging than it was last season. While Nebraska does avoid Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten East, there are plenty of pitfalls on the schedule.

Back-to-back trips to Michigan State and Northwestern, and subsequent road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa, will be the biggest challenge for Nebraska this season.  The Spartans are the defending B1G champions and return a number of starters. Northwestern very easily could be 3-0 against Nebraska in conference play. Wisconsin remains formidable even after a down season, and Iowa is coming off a victory over Nebraska in Lincoln.

Nebraska navigating this schedule at 3-1 would be doing well, and a 2-2 record in those four games is not at all out of the question.

The Postseason

So, will Nebraska make it back to Indianapolis? It’s possible, but the odds are stacked against them. Both Wisconsin and Iowa have much more favorable schedules than Nebraska. It is entirely possible that Wisconsin will not lose more than two conference game, and Iowa not more than one. That would put a tremendous amount of pressure on both those games for Nebraska, then.

Even if Nebraska gets off the four-loss schnide this year, which is eminently possible, a loss to either Wisconsin or Iowa would likely hand the division to either of those teams on a tiebreaker. Nebraska may be a better team than last year, but with the relative schedules NU’s chances of going back to Indianapolis are dimmer.