2017 Nebraska Football Offensive Preview

As the dog days of summer wane, the glory of fall gets closer and closer. Soon we will be celebrating game day, analyzing every snap, reacting and over reacting to each thing we see. Naturally, I am extremely excited. The 2017 Nebraska Cornhuskers are a big bag of unknowns on both sides of the ball. It is hard to believe that we go into year 3 of Mike Riley’s tenure and don’t know what to expect from his offense. Years 1 and 2 were a mish mash of the personnel’s strengths blended with what Riley and offensive Coordinator Danny Langsdorf were comfortable mixing in. The results were lopsided. Sometimes, the offense hummed. But against good defenses, like Ohio State or Wisconsin, this offense struggled. Mightily. As an avid observer I was often frustrated and sometimes infuriated with NU’s struggles offensively. This year the training wheels come off. What that looks like remains to be seen. There is plenty of potential. The realization of that potential is up to both the players and coaching staff and will determine the success of this offense and probably the team as a whole. This is big boy football. It is not little league. We aren’t here to play patty cake and slap each other on the ass. If the players or coaches can’t cut it, then we need to find those that will. Here is a look at each of the offensive position groups.

Quarterback

Out goes Tommy Armstrong, in comes Tanner Lee a Tulane transfer with loads of upside. Lee is big, standing 6-4, and by all accounts extremely poised with a precise arm capable of picking defenses apart. In his short time in Lincoln he has earned the respect of his team mates to a point where Riley saw fit to send him to Big 10 media days. That is no small feat. Former NFL GM Phil Savage recently gushed with praise for Lee, stating that he could be one of the top QBs coming out of college football by next spring. That would be a significant jump at a position that has seemed lost since the day Riley and Langsdorf took over. Lets be very honest, with all compliments to Tommy Armstrong, he was not a fit for what Riley and Langsdorf wanted to do offensively. In many ways it was like a shoe that was too small for the offensive staff. Apparently, Lee has both the skills and the physical tools necessary for success in this system and beyond. I’m extremely excited to see how he fares in this offense. It’s put up or shut up time, particularly for Langsdorf a noted QB guru. The door is open for him to produce. If he doesn’t, its time to push him out of it.

Running Back

This group is annoying the be-jesus out of me. I would like one of them to step up, become a true RB1. Take the bull by the horns for Christs sake!! The coaches appear to be begging for it as well. Still, no separation. What we have is a bunch of players who individually are pretty good at a few things, but none that are outstanding in every area. Mikale Wilbon is elusive, adept at making defenders miss. Devine Ozigbo is a horse, very difficult to bring down. Tre Bryant appears to have it all, but has been riddled by injuries during fall camp. Nobody has taken this job and asserted themselves as the feature back. It is to the point where incoming freshman Jaylin Bradley is gaining consideration for playing time. This chaps my ass. There should be more than enough talent from the 3 returning RBs to bury Bradley on the depth chart and cause him to redshirt. Why haven’t those 3 developed to a point where they can hold off Bradley and why can’t one of them separate himself from the others and take the spot as a clear #1? Something isn’t right with this group. I am not against a running back by committee approach, when done effectively. It has seemed clunky in the previous 2 seasons under this staff. Here is to hoping that by the time Wisconsin comes to town we have a horse we can count on every down.

Wide Receiver

Put a candle in the window for the WRs this fall. Make no mistake, I really like the overall talent WR coach Keith Williams has on hand. But there is absolutely zero depth. None. Stan Morgan, in my mind, has the potential to be an all Big 10 type receiver. He is a fantastic player that checks all the boxes for a great WR. I look for Stan to have a monster 2017. Demornay Pierson-El provides a terrific option that can be moved all over the field. Supposedly, DPE is finally healthy. If that is so, he can be a game breaker for this offense. J.D Spielman has drawn loads of praise throughout this fall camp. Tyjon Lindsay is the next Big Red superstar. Bryan Reimers and Keyan Williams will be solid rotation players who can cause problems in their own right. There is talent, but Lord it is paper thin. NU can ill afford any serious health issues at this position. At this point the top 6 are very capable. After that the drop off is substantial. If NU is to achieve its sizable potential this fall, it will require this group to remain in tact. Kenny Bell and Jordan Westercamp aren’t walking through that door. What you see is what you have. Mark my words, if this season goes to hell, it starts with one of the top WRs missing significant time.

Offensive Line

One of the most maddening things about the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers was the absolute lack of depth on the offensive line. As the season wore on, that depth was as obvious as the nose on your face. Cole Conrad was forced to play tackle, Sam Hahn played guard. Nick Gates was badly hobbled by an injured ankle. By seasons end this unit was a trainwreck for everyone to see. Fortunately, it appears this years line will have some depth. Along with returning starters Nick Gates, Tanner Farmer, Cole Conrad, David Knevel and Jerald Foster, there are a slew of seemingly competent backups. Matt Farniok, Brendan Jaimes and Christian Gaylord at Tackle, John Raridon, Jalin Barnett and Boe Wilson at Guard and Michael Decker at Center, form at least adequate depth. Thank freaking goodness!! Offensive line is so physical that injuries are inevitable. It’s just part of the game. There is simply no getting around it. The 2017 O-line at least in theory has a plan in place for when those injuries occur. It makes you wonder where that plan was at this time last year. Don’t get me started on that.

Key Themes Heading in to 2017

How good is Tanner Lee? It is perhaps the single biggest question heading into this season. Is Lee the kind of QB that can dissect Big 10 defenses with both his mind and arm? Some say yes. His numbers at Tulane, frankly, say no. However, the talent on hand in Lincoln is not even remotely comparable with what he had with the Green Wave. Stanley Morgan, Demornay Pierson-El and company have the talent to be a significant threat in the Big 10 west. But like so many teams, they need a point man. Lee is that guy for at least this coming season. NU’s offense the last couple seasons has been inconsistent at best. Pretty good against lower tier competition, but no match for the big boys in this league. It is Lee’s task to change that.

How creative can the offensive staff be with the newcomers? Players like Tyjon Lindsay, Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal may not be ready for an every down role with the first team offense, but that doesn’t mean that their skills should go unutilized. I would like to see Danny Langsdorf devise a package to use Lindsay’s explosiveness in space. Jet sweeps, bubble screens, option routes, that sort of thing. Put him in situations where his explosiveness can be best utilized. Seems pretty simple. Apparently not. I’ve been routinely underwhelmed these last couple seasons at the creativity of the offensive staff. I also would like to see packages for our talented young Tight Ends. Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal measure 6-8 and 6-7 respectively. You can’t teach that kind of length. Surely it can be used somewhere. Cough, cough, red zone? Be creative and come up with unique packages to get these youngsters on the field. It could give this offense a major boost and perhaps swing a game or two this fall.

With a new pocket passer QB this offensive line will have to be better. The sack numbers last year weren’t bad but Armstrong was consistently pressured. Tommy was so good at avoiding rushers, he makes it seem like NU was a decent pass blocking team. That is not exactly true. Tanner Lee has limited mobility. We don’t want to see him running for his life behind the line of scrimmage the way Armstrong would. It is incumbent upon the offensive line to protect him better and to produce greater numbers in the running game. 6 times in 2016 NU failed to rush for more than 4 yards per carry. Specifically, NU rushed for 2.2 ypc against Tennessee, 2.9 against Iowa and 3.2 against Wyoming. Yuck!! In case you haven’t yet lost your lunch, Nebraska ranked 10th in the Big 10 in rushing yards per carry and 11th in points per game in conference play. That dog simply won’t hunt. If Big Red is going to be playing in Indianapolis on December 2nd this offensive line has to grow up and become a force. Can they do that? I believe there are horses in the barn. I detailed the improved depth earlier. But this unit, under the leadership of Mike Cavanaugh, must improve significantly for this team to achieve its goals.

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4 Questions for Nebraska Football in 2017

Will A More Suitable Fit at QB = Greater Production and Efficiency?
For all the love that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf showered upon Tommy Armstrong last year, it’s clear that he was not their ideal QB. Langsdorf’s offense tried to cater to Armstrong’s strengths, with some success, but overall the offense was inconsistent at best. Against Big 10 competition, the Nebraska offense ranked 11th in points per game, 9th in rushing, 8th in passing, and 12th in completion percentage. That will simply not do if this program wants to contend for anything other than the Taxslayer.com bowl. Incoming QB Tanner Lee has drawn a substantial amount of praise from those inside and outside the program. Many say he has a prototypical NFL size and arm strength. Whatever. Will his physical attributes make for a better Husker offense?  It is clear he is a better fit for the type of offense Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf like to run. That counts for something. How much remains to be seen. Tommy Armstrong struggled with reads, at times with accuracy and always with the short pass. He only completed 51% of his passes, for just 7.4 yards per attempt and less than a 2-1 TD to Int ratio. I don’t want to beat up on Tom. He was a warrior for this program. 2016 would have been awful without him. But going forward, at least statistically, there is plenty of room for improvement from that position. It is put up or shut up time, particularly for Langsdorf.  This offense needs to be both more consistent and more productive. If substantial improvement is not seen, perhaps its time to show Riley’s buddy Dan to the door.

 

Can Stan Morgan Become an All Big 10 Caliber Receiver?
The Nebraska offense lost a boatload of WR talent from its 2016 squad. Gone are Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly and all-timer Jordan Westercamp. Those 3 combined for 1,313 yards and 9 of NU’s 14 receiving TDs. Yikes!! Filling those shoes will be no easy task. Nebraska is incredibly thin at that position. What this offense needs is a certifiable stud on the outside. Someone who can cause opposing DCs to wet the bed preparing for the game with NU. Fortunately for Nebraska fans, there is a capable player on this roster. Stanley Morgan has the tools, the physical stature, and the moxy of an alpha male #1 WR. For all the good things you can say about Tommy Armstrong, he tended to lock onto his favorite receivers. For the better part of his first 2 seasons, that has not been Morgan. Rest assured Morgan will be getting plenty of targets this fall. He has to. This offense needs for him to come through and be the true thoroughbred that I feel he can be. Morgan caught 33 passes for 453 yards, and just 2 TDs last fall.  This offense may need him to double his catches and yards and triple his TDs. Provided he stays healthy, he will have every opportunity. Will he make the most of it and become the true playmaker this offense sorely needs? It sure would be nice.

Will This Offensive Line Continue to Be a Liability?
I’m going to be straight with you. The offensive line was a big part of the problem in 2016. The lack of a consistent running game was a big reason why NU struggled against top level competition. Consider that 6 times last year NU averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry. Specifically, the Huskers averaged just 3.2 ypc against Wyoming, 3.4 @Indiana, 2.9 in a beatdown to Iowa, and 2.2 in the bowl game. Thats right, 2.2 yards per carry against Tennessee!! Are you sick yet? Those numbers are enough to make anyone’s milk curdle. Overall, Nebraska ranked 9th in the league in run offense despite a substantial commitment and running QB. That’s not good enough. Believe it or not it could have been worse. I will say Tommy Armstrong’s allusiveness prevented both sacks and gained rushing yards. Too often he was the crutch that Danny Langsdorf leaned upon. That crutch will no longer be there. This line needs to stand on its own two feet. Push some folks around. Assert their will do some degree. Depth will, in theory, be improved. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh redshirted at least 3 players last year that will be on the 2 deep come September 2. That may not have been wise, but that train has long left the station. That’s a topic for another time. The fact is that this unit should have better depth this fall. But will that translate to more production/better protection. Tanner Lee will not be scrambling like Tommy Armstrong. They will need to protect him. Armstrong was as good as I’ve ever seen at alluding a rush.  Lee may not be a sack of potatoes, but he wont be evading a rush the way Tom did. Obviously, a solid running game would be beneficial. 152 yards on 44 attempts against your chief rival (Wisconsin) does not qualify. It’s reasonable to believe that NU’s, uh, experience should pay dividends in 17. That is true. But it is also true that a repeat performance will spell doom for this offense and most likely this team.

The Defense
Admittedly, this is a total cop out. This portion is a catch all for everything on one particular side of the ball. But its appropriate.  As of today we know absolutely nothing about this defense, beyond the roster. Bob Diaco has taken over and installed his versatile 3-4 scheme that was such a huge success at Notre Dame. This is a great hire. I applaud Mike Riley for making a change and going out and getting the top defensive mind available. Arkansas was hot for Diaco, but Riley (and the NU pocketbook) lured in a big fish. Beautiful!! Great news!! But we have no idea how NU’s current defensive roster will fare within the scheme. We have not seen any of these players in a 3-4. The roles and assignments are different all the way around. We do know that Chris Jones is pretty awesome. Aaron Williams is a ball hawk. Big Mick Stoltenberg is a load in the middle.  We know the players on hand. That’s about it. What we don’t know is how it will all come together. If Diaco comes in and works miracles, and this unit becomes a top unit in the Big 10, the ceiling for this season goes up dramatically. If this whole thing is a god damn dumpster fire, this team could struggle to win 6 games. The swing is that great. I personally don’t have a feel for this one way or the other. We saw absolutely nothing from the defense in the spring game. If you came up with something from that dog and pony show, it is a total fabrication of your imagination. The questions about this particular unit are plenty. Will this pass rush be able to generate consistent pressure? If so, from where? How will the defensive line will adjust to their new roles? How will Josh Kalu fare at Free Safety? Will this versatile defense be able to adjust to the vast array of offenses NU will see this fall? Let me make this plain. I trust Diaco. I really like this hire. He’s our guy. He is the kind of top shelf assistant all staff’s need. But as of today this defense as a whole is an enormous question. It could go to either extreme or anywhere in between. It’s that large of a variable. One that likely wont be fully answered until somewhere around Halloween.

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Never Pretty

After what may have been the worst interception I have ever seen, followed by the easiest TD run I’ve seen all year, I was feeling pretty good. Maybe it was the fever I have been fighting, but I was feeling downright upbeat. Perhaps I could spend a carefree afternoon watching Nebraska Football. That would be a welcome change from the white knuckle ride of the last 6 weeks. It was not to be. Purdue proved to be a feisty bunch, but it goes further than that. This Husker squad is simply incapable of putting the pedal to the metal and destroying an opponent. They just can’t do it. It has to be something between the ears. Couple that with the fact that NU plays some pretty ugly ball from time to time, and you get games like Saturday’s. Purdue is not a good team. This game should not have been competitive. But NU dilly-dallies around, playing with Purdue like they are the family pet for the better part of the afternoon. The result was a fair amount of perspiration for this Husker fan..

The Husker defense had me sweating bullets early on. Purdue QB David Blough came in white hot, causing problems for a pass defense that has been pretty salty to this point. Josh Kalu tripped on a deep ball. That drive ultimately resulted in a TD. Then on a 3rd and 11 Deangelo Yancy takes a pass 88 yards to the house. Jesus!! Worse yet, Purdue was consistently moving the ball early in the first half. I was seriously concerned. Then, almost in unison, Blough cooled off and the Blackshirts collected themselves and turned in a very solid effort. Purdue did not score in the last 40 minutes of the game. In fact, David Blough was just 9/23 for 78 yards in the 2nd half after throwing for 231 yards in the 1st.  The best part was that NU got to David Blough with just their front 4. Freedom Akinmoladun, Carlos Davis and Ross Dzuris made life difficult for the Purdue signal caller. This is a terrific sign. Not only is the D-line improving, but the ability to get pressure with the front 4 opens up the playbook for Mark Banker. It should also be noted that it appeared Banker called a pretty good game. David Blough looked confused with the variety of pressures and coverages Banker threw at him. There were areas for concern. Chris Jones left the game twice with what appeared to be a leg injury. Jones has been outstanding thus far. If he is lost, or even banged up, that is bad news. Ideally, you would like to see a 60 minute effort from your defense. But this is not an ideal team. Overall this was a very solid performance, particularly in the 2nd half. Hopefully this is just another sign that this defense is getting better as major challenges loom in the next couple of weeks.

The Husker offense was downright maddening Saturday afternoon. What exactly did they consistently do well? What could Tommy Armstrong and company hang their hat on? The passing game was hit and miss. Tommy missed a few open receivers, threw a pick and was generally harassed by the Purdue defensive front. Armstrong was considerably better in the 2nd half going 8/11, but the pass game was inconsistent. The run game was extremely aggravating. What happened to the NU offensive line? I know there are injuries, but how is it possible that they have forgotten how to block anyone? Remember, this Purdue defense gave up an eye popping 365 rushing yards to Iowa and rank 124th nationally in run defense. Sure, Purdue loaded the box in an effort to stop the run. Still, I expected NU to have some success on the ground. There was little. Time after time, Boilermaker defenders were wreaking havoc in the NU backfield. It’s time to be concerned about this running game. The injuries along with the quality of play have taken their toll. Danny Langsdorf, Mike Cavanaugh and of course Mike Riley need to figure out how to jump start the run game. I’m not sure exactly what that means. Perhaps some different formations. Maybe shake up the offensive line. I know I would really like to see someone in there to replace Sam Hahn. Jalin Barnett? Going forward this run game has to improve or Ws like the one we saw Saturday could become scarce.

The saving grace for the Nebraska offense was the WR unit. NU was still down 14-10 mid way through the 3rd quarter when DeMornay Pierson-El caught a simple slant, then turned on the jets and left the Purdue secondary in the dust. Its good to see Pierson-El getting more involved with the offense. You can’t coach that kind of explosiveness. Brandon Reilly had 4 catches for 73 yards. Alonzo Moore also ran for a TD on a jet sweep. Stanley Morgan had a sensational catch as well. This unit created problems all day for the Boilermakers. There  were times that Tommy Armstrong delivered a precise, beautiful ball. There were others that he just missed. That’s life with Tommy. But these receivers were consistently open and made the most of their opportunities. Purdue simply had no answers for this group.

This team does not have the killer instinct that you would like to see out of a top 10 team. That much is indisputable. But what they do have is the ability to regroup, collect themselves and keep grinding. Furthermore, this team knows how to hang around and grind out wins. In many respects, that quality may be more important to the 2016 squad. Would I have enjoyed a 42-10 shit kicking of this inconsequential Big 10 bottom feeder?  Sure, without question. But that isn’t what this team does. This team grinds out wins. It beats the hell out of the alternative. As it stands this squad is 7-0 going into a very key stretch. The rubber meets the road next week. Wisconsin beat Iowas to keep their Big 10 West aspirations afloat. NU will bring that 7-0 record to Camp Randall next Saturday night in what could be the biggest game of the year. A win would all but seal the Big 10 West for the Huskers. That sure would be sweet. Make no mistake, it will not be easy.

2016 Nebraska Football Season Preview

The only thing that saves the month of August from being a complete crotch kick is the excitement of the upcoming football season. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. This particular season is completely unique from any I’ve ever experienced. There is very real optimism and excitement for this upcoming campaign. This is odd for a fan base, accustomed to nine or ten win seasons, coming off a six win season. Mike Riley has managed, through his own personal charm and off-field successes, to create a real buzz without winning a single game. It’s really quite remarkable. It’s as though folks have forgotten the numerous blown games last fall. There will be no hiding once the season kicks off in a couple weeks. There will be weekly reminders of exactly how the Mike Riley era is progressing. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Holes may exist on this roster but so does a solid core of experienced players set to make their mark on Husker lore. From Tommy Armstrong, to Jordan Westerkamp, to Michael Rose-Ivey, and Nate Gerry, these guys seem intent on breaking through and making 2016 one to remember. There is a hungry fan base that would absolutely love to see that happen. In just two weeks’ time, we will release the red balloons and we will be underway. I’m absolutely stoked, as I imagine you are. Here is one man’s guide to the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Five Keys to Success in 2016

Vastly superior turnover margin
A young, yet ferocious, pass rush
A solid, go-to, Running Back emerging from the committee
Better game management from the coaching staff
A difference-making LB corps and their mark on this defense

Five Breakout Players

Josh Banderas
Kevin Maurice
Tanner Farmer
Cethan Carter
Chris Jones

Defensive Backfield

This group is looking to bounce back after an extremely rough 2015. The defensive backfield certainly took it on the chin, ranking 121st nationally in pass defense. That experience has folks feeling oddly optimistic about this group going forward. Cornerbacks Josh Kalu and Chris Jones both showed promise despite their struggles. Sophomore Aaron Williams will man one Safety spot. Williams has a nose for the ball that you just can’t teach. 3rd year starter Nate Gerry will continue to occupy the other safety spot. Gerry also struggled in 2015 and must return to form for this unit to be a strength. There is a lot of talk about being in year two of Mark Banker’s scheme and how the experience gained from their struggles will pay off in spades. Maybe there is truth in that, but I don’t buy it as enthusiastically as they are selling it. I look for this unit to improve dramatically. I simply don’t believe the defensive backs are as bad as the stats from last year indicate. I see plenty of athleticism as well. Look for the defensive backs to surprise some people with their play this fall.

Linebackers

Its funny how a year changes things. A year ago this linebacker group was considered a weakness with barely enough bodies to run a base defense. Now, depth abounds. I project Josh Banderas, Dedrick Young and Michael Rose-Ivey (providing he can stay healthy) to be the starters. They all return from a year ago and have substantial experience. They all have shown talent at some point in their careers. Backing them up are Marcus Newby, Luke Gifford, and Chris Weber who all played a lot in 2015. Then there are young, supposedly talented players waiting in the wings. In just one year’s time the linebacking corps has gone from a liability to the best unit on the defense. Mark Banker has a problem you want to have with all these talented bodies at his disposal. It’s his job to find a role for all of them and get this unit to lead the defense. There are countless ways to use them creatively. Look for this unit to break out in 2016. If they do not, and the LBs struggle, this defense is dead in the water. I don’t see that happening. The LBs will be awesome in 2016.

Defensive Line

Conversely, the last 12 months have not been kind to the defensive line. The Huskers lost five big time contributors from last year’s unit. That hurts a team that does not have a boat load of experience in the depth chart. There is loads and loads of youth within this group. Projected starters Kevin Maurice and Ross Dzuris are both Seniors. Freedom Akinmoladun started four games in 2015 and picked up 4.5 sacks. The experience drops off considerably from there. Carlos and Khalil Davis are both highly touted Redshirt Freshmen, who both pass the eyeball test, but have no playing experience. Daishon Neal is another Redshirt Freshman who figures to be in the mix. Mick Stoltenberg and Peyton Newell are both Sophmores that will likely see the field. You get the point. There is plenty of potential with this group but they are extremely short on experience.  First year defensive line coach John Parella has his work cut out for him. If this unit can be productive against both the run and pass, then this defense will have a substantial leg up. Taking up blocks and keeping the linebackers free to make plays is a winning recipe as well. There are a few ways to skin that cat. The success of this young group will go a very long way toward determining how successful this defense is.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong comes into 2016 as a four year starter. He has been largely above average but has struggled mightily at times. I like Tommy, I think he does a lot of positive things. The turnovers are as maddening as they are unacceptable. In no year has Armstrong posted a 2-1 TD-Int ratio. That ratio is the mark of any good QB. His counterpart to the East, C.J Bethard was more than 3-1 in 2015. This ratio has to improve. Tommy has a wonderful lively arm, you can’t teach that, but he simply has to make better decisions. Accuracy also factors into those turnovers. Tommy can be erratic as a passer. He has gotten better each year and I look to see him make the next step. I also look for Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley to use him more outside the pocket. Armstrong is terrific on roll outs and bootlegs. I don’t think we saw that enough last year. Calls like that use Armstrong’s best attributes and put this offense in the best possible position. That’s good for everyone.

Running Back

Husker fans have been spoiled over the last 7 years or so. The Running Back position has seen some marvelous players in scarlet and cream. From Roy Helu, to Rex Burkhead and the unforgettable Ameer Abdulah, this position has been filled with wonderful, terrific talents. There is nobody like that currently on this roster. I view this group very negatively. The RB position is up for grabs during this camp, largely due to the fact that none of them are good enough to take the bull by the balls. Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo are both taking first team reps, but I don’t consider either to be outstanding. Perhaps Ozigbo will get there, he is just a sophomore, but after three years we know what Newby is. Unfortunately, he is mediocre. The fact that fresh out of high school Tre Bryant is getting reps with the top unit tells you all you need to know about the quality that exists at RB. This unit needs either a solid workhorse or a dynamic playmaker. As of today, I can safely say they have neither. I hope I am wrong about this position group, but at this point this is the weakest unit on the team. I’m not sure it’s even close.

Wide Receiver

The best term to describe the wide receiver corps at Nebraska is loaded. This group is fantastically stacked. For starters there is Jordan Westerkamp, who will hold many of the school’s receiving records by Thanksgiving. Westy is an awesome speedster with terrific hands. We will be watching him on Sundays for a long time. Brandon Reilly is a very good big-bodied receiver with good speed and hands. Reilly, himself, had over 750 yards in 2015. Stanley Morgan is a sophomore with loads of upside. He might have the highest ceiling of all, with his combination of youth, physicality and hands. Alonzo Moore is somehow lost in this mix, despite six TDs in 2015. That says nothing about Cethan Carter and Demornay Pierson-El, who are both outstanding talents. This is far and away the best position group on the team. The one negative is the DUI from WR coach Keith Williams. Williams will be suspended through the end of the month and not allowed to coach the first 4 games. Perhaps that turmoil could disrupt what is sure to be a very good fall for this group. Otherwise, the sky is the limit with this embarrassment of riches on the outside.

Offensive Line

I don’t think I am alone when I say that last year’s offensive line was mostly underwhelming. NU was middle of the pack in both yards per game and yards per carry in Big 10 play.  It seemed like Tommy Armstrong was always getting flushed out of the pocket and running for his life. So forgive me when I don’t sob over the departure of four contributors from last years OL. It’s time for some new blood up front. I really like the way this line looks on paper. Nick Gates will man the left tackle spot after gaining a year’s experience on the other side. I expect Gates to make a big jump this fall. Papillion product, Dylan Utter, moves to center from Guard, where he started every game a year ago. I think that is an upgrade over Ryne Reeves who seemed slow off the ball and consistently high on his snaps. David Knevel  is a ridiculous 6-9 315 lbs. OL Coach Mike Cavanaugh is banking that he can turn that frame into an effective right tackle. I’ll bet he is right. The two that I was the most excited about were guards Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster. Farmer is said to be extremely strong and has trimmed down. Unfortunately, Foster is lost for the year with a knee injury. That is a big loss as I had big hopes for him. In his absence freshman Jalin Barnett looks to make his mark. Like Foster, Barnett has a big upside. Perhaps I am being especially bullish on this group for no particular reason. There is no track record nor experience to speak of. I look at the bodies occupying these spots, as well as the depth being built behind them, and feel that productive Saturdays are in store for this unit. It may take a while for this unit to gel, but I think this unit will be a strength by seasons end.

Schedule Analysis/Season Prediction

Overall, this schedule is tough, but not rough. There are several challenging games along the way, including several on the road. But if you want to be a good team in this league, these are games you can’t be afraid of. Let’s start with the one unwinnable game. November 5th, our beloved Big Red go to Columbus, Ohio to take on the mighty Buckeyes. I don’t see any way this team comes out of Columbus with a W. That team is on a different level at this particular point. September 24th, the Oregon Ducks come to town. Oregon is stumbling off its worst season in 8 years, just lost its offensive coordinator, and is unsettled at QB. That does not mean that they can’t come into Lincoln and win. If the NU defense is not clicking Oregon’s skill players will take the Blackshirts apart. Still, this is a winnable game. Beyond those 2 games there are several tough, but manageable road games. A trip to Northwestern is always a test, but one I feel this team should pass. Another to Madison comes at the tail end of murderers row for the Badgers.  In a 6 week period, UW plays at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa, and then Nebraska. There is a good chance the Badgers will be totally destroyed by the time NU comes to town. Then of course there is a Black Friday trip to Iowa City. The road team has won the last 4 in this series including an awesome comeback from down 24-7 the last time this game was played here. This game is a total toss up.

There are no shortage of potholes on this schedule, but is largely manageable. If this team wants to contend for a division and conference title the door is wide open. The schedule maker has all but eliminated both Wisconsin and Northwestern, leaving Nebraska and Iowa.  Once again the schedule looks relatively easy for the Iowa Hawkeyes. They draw a trip to Penn State and a visit from Michigan from the east, as well as home games against the other West contenders.  The door is in no way closed for NU.  They will certainly need a win on Black Friday or a win in Madison, but I feel like that is realistic. If this defense can gel much earlier than it did a year ago and NU can effectively run the ball, everything is possible. I’ll play the Husker homeboy and call for that to happen and for the Huskers to be playing on Black Friday for the Big 10 west title. I’ll go a step further and say NU wins that game, winning the west and finishing 9-3.