Nebraska Football: Grading The Performance Of Each New Starter

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans got to see their Cornhuskers get off to a good start, beating Florida Atlantic 55-7 in Lincoln. In that game, a number of starters got their first chance to shine under the spotlight. Here’s how they graded out.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, LT: A+

Jake Cotton, LG: A+

Mike Moudy, RG: A

Givens Price, RT: A

With 498 yards of total offense, it’s clear that the offensive line had a good day. Watching the game, you could see that the left side of the offensive line (led by Lewis) was getting a stronger push and imposing its will more than the right side. But that’s all a question of degree, as both sides of the line were as imposing as a Nebraska offensive line has been in quite some time.

Receivers

Alonzo Moore, WR: C

Making the starting lineup amidst a jumble of receivers was quite an accomplishment for Moore. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to cash in on the stat sheet after the game. Moore was targeted in the red zone and would have scored, had Tommy Armstrong’s pass been on target, which does increase his grade slightly.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen: A+

Vincent Valentine: A

Yes, the loss of Randy Gregory was frightening for Nebraska fans. But the emergence of McMullen, at least for this game, as a nearly unstoppable force on the other end of the defensive line was an exciting thing to see. Both in the backfield and, at times, dropping into coverage. McMullen was the defensive standout of the game.

And Valentine, while playing in a less glamourous but no less important hole, was stout up the middle, and was able to get into the backfield at times and disrupt the Owls’ offense.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle “Mike” linebacker: A-

Zaire Anderson, weak-side “Will” linebacker: A

Florida Atlantic’s first defensive series saw the Owls drive right down the field, 75 yards, to tie the score at seven. After than, FAU only gained 125 of total yards—and much of that was late in the fourth quarter when the result was well in hand.

While the defense as a whole performed well, which is a good sign for the middle linebacker who helps direct everything, Banderas did not have a stellar individual day. He had no individual tackles, and three assists, making for 1.5 total tackles on the day. Anderson, on the other hand, was effective in coverage and disruptive in the backfield.

Defensive Backs

Nathan Gerry, S: A

Daniel Davie, CB: A

Byerson Cockrell, NICKEL: A

Davie was a surprise start, with many (including this dope) thinking that Jonathan Rose would end up winning the starting cornerback position. But Davie came up with a great game, as did Gerry who was all over the field making plays. Cockrell fitted in well at NICKEL, both in run support and pass coverage, making the sting of Charles Jackson’s injury a little less painful.

Specialists:

Drew Brown, PK: B+

Brown got the first chance at placekicking, drilling a 44-yard field goal along with the extra point duties until the fourth quarter. Mauro Bondi did come out and kick a fourth-quarter extra point, showing that there is at least competition for the placekicking role and lowering Brown’s grade slightly.

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Meet Nebraska’s New Starters for 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Just like the changing of the leaves, every year Nebraska fans can count on seeing new starters shine. So as the new season is less than two weeks (!!) away, it’s time to look and see which new players will be getting the nod to start for Nebraska.

Of course, without an official depth chart, some of these are guesses (or as we call them in the business, “informed analytical speculation”). Areas of the team that are unlisted have all returning starters.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, left tackle: If there’s any new starter to be excited about this year, it might be Lewis. After transferring from Colorado, many thought he might be struggling to supplant David Knevel for the starting tackle position. Instead, he’s become what BTN’s Tom Dienhart called potentially “one of the Big Ten’s best” at the position.

Mike Moudy, right guard: Although getting a stiff challenge from Chongo Kondolo, look for the senior to come back from his injury and claim the starting right guard position. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Moudy now is fully healed from a season-ending ACL tear. His experience should be enough to give him the nod.

Givens Price, right tackle: Sometimes a change of position can do a world of good. Price has shifted positions throughout his Nebraska career, but according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star his shift from guard to tackle may have elevated Price to a starter in his senior season.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen, defensive end: Sure, you’re excited about that other guy on the end of Nebraska’s defensive line. But McMullen is no slouch himself, and the senior’s talent and experience should provide a solid anchor opposite the destruction Randy Gregory looks to wreak.

Vincent Valentine, defensive tackle: If Alex Lewis isn’t enough of a hipster new starter to be excited about Valentine should be. A prototypical defensive tackle in size (six-foot-three, 325 pounds), Valentine gives Nebraska the option to use him as a true nose tackle, allowing NU to play with a three-man front and freeing up pass-rushing specialists (like Maliek Collins or Marcus Newby) as outside linebackers.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle (MIKE) linebacker: The loss of Michael Rose to a season-ending injury was certainly a setback, given the grasp of the position and the leadership required that Rose was building at the end of 2013. But it does open the door for Banderas, who earned playing time at the position last year as a true freshman. Hopefully for Nebraska, the extra year of experience will help Banderas take over as leader of the linebacking corps.

Zaire Anderson, weak-side (WILL) linebacker: Take a look at Nebraska’s linebacker unit, and you’ll see it littered with freshmen and sophomores. Anderson (along with Trevor Roach) are the greybeards of the unit, seniors who are likely to see playing time. With injuries claiming parts of the last two seasons, Anderson is hopeful that his senior campaign can be uninterrupted and show the productivity he did at the end of 2013.

Defensive Backs

Jonathan Rose, cornerback: For much of the spring, the competition between Rose and Byerson Cockrell for a starting cornerback position was one of the closest on the team. But with the season-ending injury to Charles Jackson and Cockrell shifting to nickel, Rose looks to have secured the starting cornerback position opposite Charles Jackson.

Nathan Gerry, safety: Last year, Gerry saw playing time as a true freshman at linebacker, but always looked to be a hybrid-type player without the requisite size to play in the middle of the field. Now he has relocated to safety, where his speed and hard-hitting ability should allow him to flourish.

Byerson Cockrell, nickel: The loss of Charles Jackson, one of Nebraska’s best overall athletes, to a season-ending injury just as he was about to see significant playing time at nickel was one of the most disappointing developments of fall camp. But Cockrell has been impressing Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis (according to Huskers.com), and his play may soothe some of the fears that arose with Jackson’s injury.

Special Teams

Drew Brown, placekicker: Yes, I know that Brown is still locked in a battle with junior Mauro Bondi for the starting placekicker position. But if Bondi hasn’t done enough in the previous two years to lock down the position—and the coaching staff has felt the need to bring kickers in each of the two years after signing Bondi—then I think the smart money is on the true freshman winning the job.

Nebraska Football: Ranking Huskers’ Top 10 Players Heading Into 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know how close the 2014 season is, and fans are already looking forward to seeing their heroes on the field. While the roster is full, there are some players that stand above the others as players to watch. When combining athletic ability with opportunity to play, here are the top 10 Huskers for 2014.

No. 10: Maliek Collins

Collins makes this list in large part because of his versatility. He will likely be starting, or at least in the rotation, as a starting defensive tackle alongside Vincent Valentine. But the staff has also experimented with moving Collins out on the edge as a specialized pass rusher. Collins doesn’t get the kind of attention as his more-famous defensive end, but he could be a key part of a dominant front four for Nebraska.

No. 9: Cethan Carter

Nebraska hasn’t really had a good history of using dangerous tight ends. Call it the “Mike McNeil” effect, to which Kyler Reed fell victim. So it’s a little scary to include a tight end on this list.

But Carter has the kind of athleticism to be a real Rob Gronkowski-like game changer for Nebraska’s offense. And now that Nebraska is in year one of the true post-Taylor Martinez era, perhaps a little more sanity in NU’s offensive structure can be restored and Carter can grow into the offense.

No. 8: Kenny Bell

Kenny Bell the personality (and the hair!) is so big that it might just overshadow the talent of Kenny Bell the football player. Ironically enough, it was a special teams play against Penn State that was last year’s real reminder of how dangerous Bell can be (although this catch comes pretty close).

Coming into 2014, Bell is Nebraska’s most explosive weapon, and will likely get nearly as much attention from opposing defensive coordinators as Ameer Abdullah. That in and of itself should tell you how good Bell the player really is.

No. 7: Vincent Valentine

It’s a cliché that you can’t coach speed. Well, it’s pretty hard to coach size, and Valentine (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) has size to spare. Of course, size without skill and experience isn’t much help, but Valentine demonstrated skill and got experience in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line as the 2013 season wore on.

Now looking to be a fixture in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front, Valentine gives NU the opportunity to present more three-man looks and free up pass rush specialists like Maliek Collins or Marcus Newby to put additional pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While Valentine’s contributions may not show up on a stat sheet, his success could be one of the most critical factors for the Blackshirts in 2014.

No. 6: Corey Cooper

In the course of 48 hours, Nebraska lost two likely starters (LeRoy Alexander to suspension, Charles Jackson to injury) in the secondary. That’s going to make the returning starters, particularly Corey Cooper at safety, even more important. Cooper has the athleticism to play against both the run and the pass, a critical need for safety in Bo Pelini’s defense. A full season as a starter, and a leader, should give Cooper the chance to really shine.

No. 5: Tommy Armstrong

I think Armstrong right now is suffering from what a lot of college players encounter when they go back to school for a final year rather than head to the professional ranks. Familiarity breeds contempt, as we in the media and in a fanbase become inured to a player’s skills, overlook the mitigating circumstances, and focus on the flaws in a player’s game.

There are certainly flaws in Armstrong’s game. A 51.9 percent completion percentage and a 9/8 TD/INT ratio (from CFBStats.com) is simply not good enough for Nebraska to win a division, much less a conference championship.

But Armstrong is also 7-1 as a starter. He led Nebraska to a win over Georgia (which, last I checked, was an SEC team) in last year’s Gator Bowl. He was thrown in as the starter last year with no real training camp and running an offense designed for the unique skills of Taylor Martinez.

This year, Armstrong will have the benefit of all those factors, as well as a year of experience under his belt. 2014 will be his time to shine.

No. 4: Alex Lewis

Lewis should be a player that gives Nebraska fans pause. Not only is he a former Colorado Buffalo, He had to serve a jail sentence this offseason for his part in an assault. He’s the type of transfer that other schools can use as an example of a “win at all costs mindset.”

His arrival hasn’t generated much hand-wringing, though, perhaps in part because he’s an offensive lineman and not a high-profile player. But he looks to be slotting in at left tackle, the most important position on the offensive line. And he could provide the bedrock for a punishing Nebraska rushing attack

No. 3: Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s primary concern at linebacker in 2014 has to be youth. The starting SAM spot looks to be in question, and it was sophomores Michael Rose and Josh Banderas battling out for the starting MIKE position before Rose’s season-ending injury.

But at the WILL? It appears Anderson has that spot taken up, and he looks to have the senior leadership and athletic ability to anchor the middle of Nebraska’s defense.

No. 2: Randy Gregory

Gregory might be the best football player on the 2014 Nebraska squad. Indeed, some analysts (like Brent Sobleski of the Detroit Free Press) have already tapped him as a potential no. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

No, not the first pick from the Big Ten, or the first defensive player. The no. 1 overall pick.

That may be Gregory’s ceiling, but I’m not quite ready to place him there based on one season’s work. There’s plenty of reason to think improvement is on the way for Gregory, not the least of which is that he will have a full preseason of preparation and last year’s experience to draw from.

But until I see it on the field, I still think there’s one player on the roster I would say is better than Gregory.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

There’s been a lot of superlatives thrown Abdullah’s way, for his play on the field and his amazing off-the-field representation of Nebraska. He could end his career being the first player to get 1,000 rushing yards in three seasons, and needs 1,804 rushing yards—a huge, but not inconceivable number—to become NU’s all-time leading rusher.

That’s pretty good.

But why I think Abdullah is Nebraska’s best player on the 2014 roster has to do with more than that. It’s summarized by the video (check the 2:47 mark), which is of Abdullah’s first down run against Northwestern to keep the drive alive and make the Kellogg-to-Westerkamp hail mary possible. Just watch it again, and marvel how he basically on his own made three defenders miss and got the yardage needed to keep the drive alive.

That’s what Abdullah brings, and what makes him Nebraska’s best football player on this year’s roster.

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

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Nebraska Football: 5 Cornhuskers Primed for Breakout Seasons

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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.