Nebraska Football: Who Benefits Most From Each Departed Player

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen six players depart from the team after spring practice. And while those attritions do ease fears in terms of the 85-man scholarship limit, the question inevitably arises as to who benefits from those departures.

So let’s take a look at Nebraska’s roster and make some determinations as to who might benefit the most from each of the six departures this offseason.

Marcus Newby for David Santos

Of all the departures, Santos might have the most effect on this year’s Nebraska squad. Nebraska now only has four scholarship athletes outside of the incoming freshman class. Three of those four returning linebackers have little or no playing experience.

So there will be plenty of playing time to find for linebackers. Michael Rose-Ivey will likely be a starter after spending the season injured last year. That leaves one space left for competition, and Newby has shown the most potential. Newby did see the field last year, but almost entirely as a pass rush specialist.

Lane Hovey for Jariah Tolbert

Tolbert’s size (six-foot-three, 190 pounds) suggested he would be used more as a possession receiver, his height being an advantage in catching passes in traffic against smaller defensive backs. While Nebraska has a number of players who might be able to benefit from Tolbert’s departure, Hovey might be the best suited.

Hovey’s size (six-foot-four, 205 pounds) certainly is similar to Tolbert’s. And Hovey does have some experience last season, seeing playing time in every game and hauling in five catches for 69 yards. If he’s already earned himself a place in the mix, Tolbert’s departure opens the door further for Hovey to cement his place on the depth chart.

Byerson Cockrell for LeRoy Alexander

Nebraska was without Alexander’s services last year after a suspension, so it may not have been the biggest surprise that he is no longer on the roster. Given Nebraska’s depth in the secondary, Alexander’s loss is one NU can absorb, even though Alexander is a talented and promising defensive back.

Cockrell played at nickel for most of the season last year, but Nebraska under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker will likely use far fewer five-DB sets in favor of extra linebackers. So Cockrell’s experience will put him in prime position to compete for a starting safety position opposite Nate Gerry next season.

Zack Darlington for Johnny Stanton

There’s an argument to be made that Stanton’s departure really doesn’t affect anyone, as he found himself so far buried on the depth chart that he wasn’t really in competition for playing time.

So if you’re going to pick a quarterback to benefit from Stanton’s departure, it’s probably the one that looks to be second on the depth chart. And if I had to guess now, that’s Darlington. Using only the Spring Game as first-hand observation, Darlington was the one quarterback on the roster (including, disturbingly enough, presumed starter Tommy Armstrong) that could make all the throws Nebraska will need to succeed.

Alonzo Moore for Glenn Irons

If Tolbert looked to be a possession receiver, Irons projected as a burner to take the top off opposing defenses. While Irons’ skill set is a little reminiscent of De’Mornay Pierson-El, it’s unlikely there is much that could be done to affect Pierson-El’s critical role in next year’s offense.

So let’s go instead to Moore, a receiver who has the speed and skill set in the mold of Kenny Bell. But injuries have derailed Moore’s ability to stay on the field and make a contribution. If he’s able to do so this year, Moore has a shot to be a playmaker at receiver.

Drew Brown for Mauro Bondi

Much like with Stanton’s departure, it’s hard to find too much benefit for Bondi’s leaving given how far down the depth chart he found himself. But with Bondi leaving the program, all of the placekicking duties should now fall to Brown. This can do nothing but help Brown stay involved throughout the game, keeping him warm and included throughout the contest.

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Nebraska Football 2015 Quarterback Fall Practice Preview: Depth Chart and Analysis

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As we get closer to the start of fall practice, now is a good time to start looking at the Nebraska football roster and depth chart to get a better idea of what we might see this season. There’s no more important position on the field than quarterback, so it makes sense to start with the signal-caller.

New head coach Mike Riley will be bringing a different offensive philosophy to Lincoln, so it’s still a little difficult to guess what Nebraska will look like on that side of the ball. But given what we know so far, here is what Nebraska’s depth chart should look like—and why.

Starter: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Armstrong’s experience makes him the clear choice to start the season under center for Nebraska. After the Spring Game (according to the Omaha World-Herald), Riley said of Armstrong that “[t]he thing that never wavered about Tommy was, and is a separator for him right now, and that’s his confidence. He’s a confident guy and he plays like it.”

As a starter, Armstrong is 15-5. His underlying statistics, though, do not inspire confidence. He has a 52.9 completion percentage, and has a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It is very hard to construct a scenario where Nebraska wins a conference title when its quarterback has those statistics.

Riley has a history of producing quarterbacks, though. His most recent protégé, Sean Mannion, broke the Pac-12’s all-time passing record and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Riley will need to work that magic on Armstrong’s efficiency numbers to get Nebraska where it wants to go in 2015.

No. 2: A.J. Bush OR Zack Darlington

At the Spring Game, it was pretty clear that Bush and Darlington were next in line at quarterback for Nebraska. The two quarterbacks have very different skill sets. Bush, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is much more imposing and able to move the ball with his legs. Darlington, while able to move, looks to be more effective in the pocket throwing the ball.

Admittedly, the Spring Game is a terribly small sample size, and as such should be used with caution to make any judgments. But from that limited data set, Darlington was the only quarterback on Nebraska’s roster who appeared to have the accuracy and arm strength to make the throws NU will need to be successful next season.

Player Comp. Att. Yds. TD Int
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 1 0

Again, small sample size. Darlington isn’t going to be considered as a starter just because of a good Spring Game performance. But it is that type of performance Nebraska will need from its quarterback to be successful going forward.

No. 4: Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe’s standout performance as a walkon freshman earned him a scholarship, and playing time in a live game against Michigan State last season. He has the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and physical ability to compete as a Nebraska quarterback, an impressive accomplishment for a walk-on. And he played well enough to keep an Elite-11 participant in Johnny Stanton behind him on the depth chart, ultimately causing him to transfer.

But while Fyfe’s accomplishments are impressive, he still is behind the other three on the depth chart. Armstrong’s experience gives him a clear advantage over all the quarterbacks on the roster. And the athleticism and potential of both Bush and Darlington give them the advantage over Fyfe.

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: Mike Riley’s Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

New head coach Mike Riley presided over his first Spring Game at Nebraska on Saturday. The score (Red 24, White 15) didn’t mean much, but there were a number of lessons to be drawn from the performance.

The most important thing to remember about the Spring Game, though, is that it is really just a glorified practice—one of fifteen in the spring, with another entire camp coming this fall. The results and performances of the Spring Game should be viewed through that lens and weight given accordingly.

Having said that, there are two glaring areas of concern Riley must have after seeing how his team performed under the lights and in front of the crowd. It might only be two areas, but it’s fair to say they’re big ones.

Throwing the Ball

Here’s the stat lines for Nebraska’s quarterbacks at the Spring Game:

Player Comp Att Yrd Comp % TD INT
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 .500 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 .545 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 .636 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 .333 1 0
Tyson Broekemeier 4 6 65 .667 1 0
Johnny Stanton III 3 11 19 .273 0 1
TOTAL 34 68 412 .500 4 3

 

That’s just not good enough. Yes, some of the incompletions were dropped balls (more on that in a bit). But at least on the evidence of one practice (in front of 76,000 people), the only quarterback in whom you could put any faith in accurately delivering the ball was redshirt freshman Zack Darlington.

Again, remember the caveat about this being just one practice. But Armstrong’s completion percentage numbers were about what they have been so far in his career, making fair the question as to whether those can reasonably be expected to markedly improve.

Catching the Ball

Nebraska’s woes with the forward pass on Saturday weren’t limited to the quarterbacks. Time after time, when passes were delivered on target, receivers were unable to make the catch. Wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends were all guilty of drops in situations where a catch should have been made.

Of course, the two concerns run together. Nebraska’s run game looked effective, with jet sweep action (and play fakes off of it) putting stress on a defense horizontally and providing an opportunity to get playmakers like De’Mornay Pierson-El the ball in space.

But if Nebraska’s passing game is as anemic as it appeared on Saturday, it won’t take long for opposing defenses to scheme for the run and dare Nebraska’s quarterbacks to win with their arms. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance (which, again, is limited evidence), it’s hard to have too much faith in their ability to do so.

In other words, Riley and company still have a lot of work to do before Nebraska tees it up against BYU on September 5.

Nebraska Football: Who Will Be The Huskers’ Starting Quarterback in 2015?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans looking forward to the 2015 season will have one question on their minds over almost all others: who will be the starting quarterback?

There are five candidates on the roster as we speak. Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent, having started 21 games over the last two years. Waiting in the wings are Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, and Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush, who redshirted last year.

Of course, it’s a big guessing game at this point as to who will win the job, as we don’t know what type of offense new head coach Mike Riley will be playing. We also don’t know how each of the quarterback prospects will perform this spring or this fall.

But based on what we know now, we can at least make some educated guesses as to where the quarterbacks currently on the roster stand.

Tommy Armstrong

As the incumbent starter, Armstrong has to open as the favorite to win the job in 2015. And there’s a lot of reasons to like Armstrong. He’s 16-5 as a starter. He’s led Nebraska on gutty comeback performances, either in victory (Iowa) or close defeat (Michigan State, USC). He’s a leader on the field who commands respect from his team-mates.

But there are also reasons to question whether Armstrong will be the guy who gets the nod next year. He has a 52.9 percent career completion rate, which is simply not good enough to win a conference title. As thrilling as the comeback against USC in the Holiday Bowl was, don’t forget that the Trojans also dropped a host of interceptions that would have put the game truly out of reach at halftime.

That’s not to say Armstrong can’t get better, particularly with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator who are both skilled in working with quarterbacks. Given his experience, Armstrong is still the clear favorite to win the job next year.

But given the new staff coming in and looking at things with fresh eyes and installing a new offensive system, it’s a lot closer than it would be otherwise.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 50 percent.

Johnny Stanton

If there’s anyone that has benefited from the transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley, it’s Stanton. Until the very end of last year, Stanton was unable to even win the backup job, ceding that role to walk-on Ryker Fyfe. But the Elite-11 prospect has the kind of underlying skills that made Riley want him very badly at Oregon State, meaning Riley arrived in Lincoln aware of his skills.

If Stanton couldn’t see the field last year because he struggled picking up Tim Beck’s system, then a change in offensive coordinators gives him a fresh start. And given his unquestioned physical talents, that might be enough to create some real drama this spring.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 25 percent

Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe looked to be playing the role of Joe Ganz from a few years earlier, being the plucky kid who worked hard in the shadow of much higher-regarded quarterback prospects until he got his chance to shine. When Armstrong was injured against Michigan State, it was Fyfe who got the nod and led Nebraska to a score to keep the game competitive.

But with a new staff and a new system coming in, Fyfe will be starting from scratch, much like all of the other quarterback prospects. That means the same hurdles he needed to clear last year will be facing him again. That’s not to say he can’t be successful. It’s just a lot more difficult for him.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 5 percent

Zack Darlington

Darlington has been lost in the shuffle a bit, in part because of his redshirt and in part because his concussion history had many wondering if he would be able to play quarterback at all for Nebraska. But he’s still here, with the same three-star dual-threat quarterback pedigree (according to 247 Sports) that made him a target for schools like Ohio State, Arizona, and Mississippi State.

He’s also a coach’s son, which would tend to suggest he might have a leg up in terms of picking up a new system and understanding the game as a whole. Maybe he’s not as flashy as some of the other signal-callers on Nebraska’s roster, but Darlington might be a bit of a sleeper.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

A.J. Bush

If Darlington is the sleeper pick, Bush is the trendy redshirt to back for next season. During bowl preparation, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “intriguing” and praised his athleticism and work ethic in preparation for the Holiday Bowl (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

Hearing the praise about Bush’s work ethic certainly would have to bode well for his chances to make a splash with Nebraska’s new coaches. Combine that with his physical skills, and he should have a fighting chance to make an impression.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent