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.
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.
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.
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.
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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