Nebraska Football: JUCO Transfer Talk Highlight Needs on Defensive Line

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Over the last week, Nebraska has brought in two junior-college transfer candidates on the defensive line for a look at the Huskers. Graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu came to Lincoln for his first of five potential visits after receiving his degree from Utah, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star. And defensive end Raveon Hoston from Valley College of Los Angeles said on Facebook that he has received an offer from Nebraska, according to Sam McEwon of the Omaha World-Herald.

It’s not a huge surprise, of course, that Nebraska is looking for a “break glass in case of emergency” option on the defensive line. The departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine to the NFL were not unexpected, but left a big hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front. Kevin Williams followed up with his transfer from Nebraska to Michigan State, which put even more stress on the defensive line.

How much stress? Well, only three defensive linemen (Freedom Akinmoladun, Kevin Maurice, and Ross Dzuris) will be back in 2016. According to Athlon Sports, Maurice – the only returning tackle – has one start, while defensive ends Akinmoladun and Dzuris have eight each.

That’s mighty thin for such an important position on the field. At the moment, Nebraska will be leaning heavily on redshirt freshmen Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis and untested sophomores Peyton Newell and Mick Stoltenberg to solidify things up the middle.

So the signing of Tu’ikolovatu for Nebraska would be a massive (literally and figuratively) addition to Nebraska’s defensive line. He played in all 13 games for Utah last year, a team that finished sixth (!) nationally in rushing defense. If Tu’ikolovatu does pick Nebraska, he would almost certainly walk into Lincoln as a starting defensive tackle and give the Davis twins an additional year to develop before being asked to perform as starters.

The pursuit of Hoston is a little more interesting, as Nebraska’s depth at defensive end is (slightly) better than at tackle. Sedrick King, A.J. Natter, and DaiShon Neal should all be competing for playing time, although the experience of Akinmoladun and Dzuris should pencil them in as starters for next season.

Still, Nebraska’s pass rush in 2015 was woeful, checking in at no. 78 nationally in sacks. Nebraska was also no. 122 in pass defense overall, no. 123 in pass defense on third down, and no. 122 in pass defense on third down and 10 or more yards to go. Sure, some of those struggles can be laid at the feet of the secondary, but the lack of a consistent pass rush (which Nebraska struggled with all season) makes the secondary’s job a lot harder.

Hoston had 19 tackles, three sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. His addition to Nebraska’s roster, if it comes to pass, wouldn’t be the obvious shot in the arm at end that Tu’ikolovatu’s would be at tackle.

But at the very least, the fact that Nebraska is exploring at least two junior college transfers on the defensive line suggests the coaching staff recognizes one of NU’s biggest weaknesses coming into the 2016 campaign. And is looking for a means to address that weakness immediately.

(All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated).

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Nebraska Football: Five Ways To Fix The Cornhuskers’ Defense

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Nebraska football fans are smart enough to know that defensive struggles have cost NU two of its first three games. Nebraska has surrendered 300 yards or more through the air in each of its three contests, and is currently no. 127 nationally – out of 128 teams – in pass defense (according to cfbstats.com).

So, yeah, that’s a problem. But never fear, Husker fan, the Double Extra Point is here to clue you in on how the Blackshirts right the ship defensively. In order from least radical of changes to most, here are five remedies for an ailing Blackshirts defense.

“Adjustments in Personnel”

God bless Mark Banker for how he put things after Nebraska’s loss to Miami. Miami scored 17 points in its first three drives, and 16 points for the rest of the game. What changed? Well, at least one thing was cornerback Daniel Davie being replaced by Jonathan Rose.

Banker described his adjustments as (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) “mostly with personnel,” which is a kind way of saying that Davie has been over-matched. Davie was one of Nebraska’s best performers in the secondary last year, but don’t forget that cornerbacks last year almost always had “bracket” coverage help from a safety. That’s not the case under the new defensive structure.

Yes, there were other personnel moves that were made throughout the game. But it’s hard not to see an athlete like Rose (an Auburn transfer) being a better fit in Banker’s defensive scheme that asks for a lot more one-on-one coverage than Davie.

Surrender principle to practicality

We’ll see if a personnel change – and you have to assume that Davie won’t be starting after the last two games – is enough to give Nebraska’s passing defense the shot in the arm it needs. If not, then Banker may have to give serious consideration to shifting his defensive philosophy to fit his players.

One of the reasons Nebraska is so good against the run is because it can schematically use a safety to help in the run game. That provides an extra defender against the run, but leaves the cornerbacks on an island to cover receivers one-on-one. If the cornerbacks can’t stand up to that – and we’ve seen Nebraska’s corners struggle with doing so – then teams have a huge weakness to exploit.

Particularly against teams whose strengths are throwing the ball (such as Illinois, upcoming), Banker may need to surrender that extra run defender and more frequently bring that second safety back into pass coverage to help a struggling set of cornerbacks.

Shift the defensive front

Sure, the cornerbacks are the easiest targets to blame for Nebraska’s struggles in pass defense. But a lack of pass rush is just as big of a culprit. Other than defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun – who was a tight end last year – there is no one on the outside of Nebraska’s offensive line who is placing any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And the interior of the line has yet to be able to make an impact in the passing game as well, although asking defensive tackles to be a primary pass-rushing weapon is asking a lot.

It might be time for Nebraska to get creative in terms of finding edge rushers. Linebacker Marcus Newby didn’t see the field much last year, but when he did it was at a defensive end-like position as a pass rush specialist. Particularly if defensive tackle Vincent Valentine is healthy, perhaps it might be worth a try to put Valentine and Kevin Williams or Kevin Maurice in the middle and slide Maliek Collins outside, letting Collins’ talent work as a pass rusher instead of clogging the middle.

Blitz

If four ain’t getting the job done, maybe it’s time to start bringing five or six. Nebraska had some success in pressuring opposing quarterbacks this season when it starting bringing extra pressure. If the front four isn’t able to be successful getting home on its own, perhaps it’s time to consider including blitzes as a more regular part of Nebraska’s defensive package, and making personnel decisions accordingly.

The downside to a blitz, of course, is being exposed to big pass plays if the blitz is unsuccessful. But in all honestly, that’s happening even when Nebraska rushes four. According to Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity, Nebraska is currently no. 113 nationally in surrendering plays of 20 yards or more and no 126 nationally in plays of 30 yards or more.

Sure, technically it could get worse, but not by much. And if you’re at the bottom already, why not go for a strategy with a little more upside?

Burn the redshirts

This option is the “break glass in case of emergency” one, and if you see it you know that there’s real trouble with Nebraska’s current roster. But if all else fails, Nebraska might have to consider burning some redshirts to get the production it needs on the defensive line and in the secondary.

On the defensive line, Nebraska has four talented recruits currently planning to redshirt in Carlos Davis (three-star, 89 composite), Khalil Davis (three-star, 89 composite) DaiShon Neil (three-star, 89 composite), and Alex Davis (three-star, 84 composite). Defensive line is tough to ask a true freshman to come in and compete right away, given the size difference between high school and FBS football, so seeing a redshirt get burned there might be less likely.

But in the secondary, Nebraska has Eric Lee (four-star, 93 composite) and Avery Anderson (three-star, 89 composite) waiting in the wings. If Nebraska is unable to find a way to make the current cornerbacks work in Banker’s system, it might be worth it to see if Lee or Anderson is able to withstand the pressure.

Star ratings and composites from 247 Sports.

Nebraska Football: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Secret Weapons

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Strength: Defensive Tackle

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

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

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

Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El

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

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

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

Weakness: Tommy Armstrong

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

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

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

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

Weakness: New Coaching Staff

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

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

Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth

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

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

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

Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

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

Quarterback

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

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

I-Back

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

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

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

Receivers

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

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

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

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

Tight End

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

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

Offensive Line

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

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

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

Defensive Line

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

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

Linebacker

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

So, yeah, the position is a little thin.

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

Secondary

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

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

Special Teams

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nebraska Football: Early Grades for the 2016 Recruiting Class

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that even though the 2015 season is still months away, important work for the 2016 recruiting class is being done. New head coach Mike Riley and his staff are beating the bushes (and social media) looking for the next crop of talented players to don the scarlet and cream.

Currently, according to 247 Sports, Nebraska’s 2016 recruiting class is no. 33 nationally and no. 7 in the Big Ten. But with a total of just six commitments, there’s plenty of room for the class to grow. But based on what we know now, here’s a snapshot of how Nebraska is looking for next year’s class.

All measurables and prospect rankings are from 247 Sports.

Offense

Nebraska currently has five commitments on offense.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
John Rairdon OG 6’4” 260 Four-star .9651
Bryan Brokop OT 6’5” 273 Three-star .8888
Jared Bubak TE 6’4” 235 Three-star .8538
Terry Wilson QB (DUAL) 6’2.5” 187 Three-star .8407
Patrick O’Brien QB (PRO) 6’4” 225 Three-star .8456

There are two big takeaways from this list, even at this preliminary stage. The first is the commitment of Rairdon, who would be Riley’s highest ranked recruit at Nebraska under 247 Sports’ criteria. Landing the four-star’s talent on the offensive line would be a big coup for Riley, and a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in the years to come.

The second fascinating takeaway is the commitment of dual-threat quarterback Wilson. For his own talents as a three-star prospect, Wilson is a good get for Nebraska. But more interestingly, Wilson’s commitment means that Nebraska is still actively recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks. That was an open question with Riley given his pocket-passing pro-style offense from Oregon State.

Then, on Thursday, Nebraska secured a commitment from the three-star pro-style quarterback prospect O’Brien. Having both quarterbacks in the 2016 class, in addition to the five scholarship quarterbacks currently on the roster who would have eligibility in 2016,

Notable amongst the offers out for Nebraska is four-star running back Devwah Whaley (who, according to the Omaha World-Herald, has NU in his top ten of possible schools) and junior college offensive line prospect Malcolm Pridgeon, who according to the Omaha World-Herald stands at six-foot-eight (!) and 303 pounds.

Grade: A

Defense

At present, Nebraska only has one defensive commitment.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
William Johnson OLB 6’3” 220 Three-star .8617

The position is important, as Nebraska currently has only five scholarship linebackers outside of the players signed in the 2015 class. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme relies on three linebackers on the field most of the time, so Nebraska will have a great need for depth at linebacker going forward. Adding a junior-college transfer like Johnson should help Nebraska with ready-to-play talent next year.

Defensive tackle will also be an area of particular need for Nebraska in 2016, with Kevin Williams graduating and juniors Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins potentially leaving early for the NFL if they have a big 2015 campaign (Collins is included in the “others considered” of the early 2016 first-round draft projection of ESPN’s Mel Kiper).

Of course, there’s plenty of time for Nebraska to grow its defensive haul for 2016. Linebacker/defensive end prospect Quayshon Alexander is widely expected to pick Nebraska, although Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald reports that Alexander is “slowing down” his recruiting process.

Grade: C

Overall

It’s a little scary to see Nebraska rated no. 7 in the B1G and no. 33 overall for the 2016 class. Ending up there would be a frightening sign of things to come.

But there’s plenty to be encouraged about, between the decisiveness at quarterback and the early handling of a position of desperate need on defense. It’s way too early to panic about results, and there’s enough good things happening to offer some comfort this early in the process.

Grade: A-

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

Offensive Line

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

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

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

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

Grade: B

Receivers

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

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

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

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

Grade: C+

Linebackers

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

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

Grade: B-

Secondary

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

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

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

Grade: A

Special Teams

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

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

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

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: Who Has A Starting Role Locked Up?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been watching spring practice closely, looking for clues as to what the team will look like under new head coach Mike Riley. And while there are many more uncertainties this year, given new offensive and defensive schemes, we still have a good idea of at least a few starters for next season. Here are four players who are likely to be on the depth chart next August.

Jordan Westerkamp

Wide receiver is a tricky position to handicap for Nebraska, as there are a number of talented veterans returning in 2015. De’Mornay Pierson-El is easily Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon, but his size means his use will likely be limited on offense. He will play, most certainly, but will likely only be seen in particular packages.

Jamal Turner is another talented veteran who will very likely see the field in 2015. But even though all reports are positive, we still don’t know if he has fully recovered from the injury that cost him the bulk of last season. So it’s hard to call Turner a certain starter until we know his health status.

As a result, Westerkamp is the only veteran receiver that looks set to step into the role of starter for Nebraska. He leads all returning receivers in receptions (according to CFBStats.com), and has a history of spectacular and dramatic catches. So while there are a lot of mouths to feed in Nebraska’s receiving corps, it looks like Westerkamp will be first in line.

Cethan Carter

The only other pass-catcher that seems certain for the field is Carter, Nebraska’s most experience pass-catching tight end. Under previous head coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska had a maddening habit of ignoring its tight end for long stretches (call it the Mike McNeil effect).

But Riley likes to put the ball in the air, and likes to utilize an “H-back” by putting a receiver or tight end into the backfield. Carter would be a perfect fit for the H-back role, giving him more opportunities to see the field.

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine

It’s a little strange to think of the rest of Nebraska’s roster as being in flux, and yet having the defensive tackle position clearly locked down. But given the performance of Collins and Valentine in spring practice, that’s exactly what has happened.

Both Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star have observed how Collins and Valentine have been dominating the offensive line all throughout spring practice. So wherever else Nebraska may have questions, defensive tackle is not one of them.

Nate Gerry

Nebraska is loaded with talent in the secondary, so almost all of the starting back four should have intense competition. At corner, there is a possibility of Nebraska being three deep with players that could start with a less-crowded secondary.

But Gerry looks to be the one certainty at safety. His play last year, after moving from linebacker after his freshman year, cemented his place as Nebraska’s most consistent defensive back. Look for him to be the one starter we know at this point in Nebraska’s talented backfield.

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

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

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

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

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

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

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

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

No. 7: Kenny Bell

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

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

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

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

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

No. 5: Maliek Collins

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

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

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

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

No. 3: Randy Gregory

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

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

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

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

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

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

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

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

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

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

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

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

No. 5: Kenny Bell (WR, senior)

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

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

No. 4: Vincent Valentine (DT, sophomore)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah (IB, senior)

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

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

No. 1: Randy Gregory (DE, junior)

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

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

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

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

Offensive Line – B

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

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

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

Offensive Backs – B

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

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

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

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

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

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

Receivers – Incomplete

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

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

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

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

Defensive Line – A-plus

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

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

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

Linebackers – C

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

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

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

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

Defensive Backs – B-minus

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

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

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

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

Special Teams – A-minus

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

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

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

Stats from CFBStats.com.