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.

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

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.

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

 

Another Loss, What’s Next?

Bowl games can be such a pain in the ass. After maneuvering my schedule around a trip back to The Good Life for Christmas, I had absolutely no wiggle room for a 2:30 Friday kickoff. Most employers don’t want to hear about how your team is in the Music City Bowl and thus you need a 4 hour window to lock in. Thus, I was stuck with the unenviable position of attempting to go dark on the game until I got home. That was unsuccessful. Finally when I arrived home at 730, I was able to grab an oats soda and settle in. What I saw was an uninspiring, yet completely predictable performance. Tennessee owned this game from the beginning. That group of underachievers easily dispatched of Big Red. When you are missing 3 of your best 4 or 5 players, that tends to happen. Nebraska was utterly punchless for the large part of the afternoon. That fact was disturbing.

The Husker defense had absolutely no answer for Josh Dobbs. He did as he wanted all day long. NU defenders bounced off of him and, when he was surrounded, he easily escaped every time. Dobbs accounted for 409 yards on the afternoon, with 4 effortless TDs. He was a man among boys. There is no reason he should have burned NU the way he did. The Husker defense was pretty terrible all day long, contributing greatly to Dobbs prolific day. Basic tackling was a problem, a major freaking problem. This was easily the worst tackling this defense has had all year. Defenders were routinely out of position as well. This left GAPING holes for whoever UT gave the ball to. And they did, to the tune of 230 aggravating yards. Still, this team had its chances. Once during the 2nd quarter and again during the 4th, the Huskers pulled within one score. A stop would have had Big Red within striking distance and the ball. The Blackshirts failed to get a stop both times, spoiling any and all momentum. It was a pretty sorry day for that side of the ball. With the offense obviously hindered, the defense would be called upon to carry the load. Based upon various performances throughout the year, I felt confident going in. What a disappointment. This unit absolutely laid down and let the Volunteers have a glorious afternoon in the Southern Sun. Disgusting.

Offensively, the Huskers were exactly what I thought we would see. Missing Tommy Armstrong was going to be tough to overcome. He has been the workhorse for this offense. Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley have leaned too hard on Tom. This entire unit is dependent on him. As he has gone, this offense has gone. His absence was enormous. Add in the injured Jordan Westercamp and dinged up Terrell Newby, Alonzo Moore and David Knevel and you knew the results wouldn’t be great. Ryker Fyfe was, well, Ryker Fyfe. He was OK, but not the difference maker NU needed under center. The offensive line struggled, MIGHTILY, with the Tennessee front. Whether it was running or passing, NU could not handle Derek Barnett and the rest of the defensive line. Hell, there were times Barnett was not touched. He, and his cohorts, lived in the Husker backfield. It was painful. NU gained just 61 rushing yardsand allowed Fyfe to be sacked 4 times. That dog wont hunt. I knew the offense would struggle, but I expected NU to be able to run the ball and control the game. That did not happen. That did not come close to happening. Combine that with the awful defensive effort and you have a 14 point loss to an underacheiving squad in ugly ass uniforms…….Pass the beer.

So there you have it. Another loss. Thats 4 of Big Red’s final 6. Not good. It puts a very bitter taste on top of such a promising start. I actually have more questions about this team, and this program, than I do answers at this point. Part of me feels like the Mike Riley era is on course, but needs more talent, particularly at certain positions. Another part feels like we are just biding our time until this thing crashes into the mountain.  I’m extremely torn. I feel like it could go either way. Of course I want Riley and company to figure it out, but that is hard to see see through the fog of losses to inconsequential teams like Iowa and Tennessee. There are valid reasons for losing either of those games. In this sport good teams figure out ways to win.  It happens all the time, just ask the Gophers. It would have been great to win one of those games. I don’t feel like that is expecting too much. Instead NU gets manhandled in both. What does that say about NU going forward? I shouldn’t have to spell it out for you.

Into the darkness of the offseason we go. 8 months without Nebraska Football. What am I going to do with all this extra mental space? What can we expect/hope to see in the coming months before taking the field September 2nd against Arkansas State? Be prepared to be beaten over the head with news about QB controversy. NU hasn’t had a real QB situation since 2010 when Taylor Martinez shocked Husker nation by winning the job over Cody Green and Zac Lee. Be prepared for a similar 3 way QB battle. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee has turned heads in practice. Many see him as the favorite to win the job. Do yourself a favor and don’t look at his stats from 2 years in New Orleans. Pee-freaking-eew. Lee apparently has a rocket arm, and ample size, but his experience is not good. Then there are the unknown commodities of Patrick O’brien and Tristan Gebbia. O’brien has the benefit of being on campus for a year, but Gebbia set California ablaze with his play in his final season. All commodities in this equation are major question marks, but the fact is that one of them will be the signal caller for the offense next fall. Its going to be a major story this offseason. You will probably be sick of hearing about it by the time camp starts next fall. Then, of course, there is the incoming recruiting class. I’m no recruiting guru, but it appears NU has lost a fair amount of steam on the recruiting trail. This program needs more talent. Its that simple. It is obvious, especially along the lines, that more horses are needed. It is completely unacceptable to be dominated up front the way we have against Iowa, Wisconsin, and Tenne-freaking-see. Line play should be a staple of Nebraska Football and for too long it has been mediocre or worse. The primary way to improve the talent level is recruiting. Time for this staff to hit the road and get more horses, preferably thoroughbreds, to Lincoln. The future depends upon it.