Reason to Believe

In the topsy turvey world of Husker football you never really know what you are going to get. Particularly this season. This team has been incredibly inconsistent on both sides of the ball. As the season began it was the defense that was horrid. Painful even!! Then as the defense molded into shape, it was the offense that was awful. This team has been all over the map through 4 games. So what were we to expect going into a road game on a Friday night in Champaign where the opponent has 14 days to prepare vs just 6 for the Huskers? From there my pessimism took over. Horrible, awful thoughts about NU losing to the lousy Illinois Illini crept in. What would that mean? Where would we go from there? All of that was complete and total nonsense. The Nebraska Cornhuskers firmly handled the Illini. They never stood a chance. The Huskers took care of business and wore out this undermanned squad. This was a complete effort by the Big Red. It is something that was extremely encouraging to see going forward.

The credit for this victory should be widespread. Everyone deserves a bite of that cake. But this defense absolutely needs a sizable piece. The Husker defense, who just a few weeks ago was much maligned, was again outstanding. The Illinois offense never stood a chance. The Fighting Illini offense failed to cross 200 yards on the night. Early in the game it became abundantly clear that Illinois did not trust its passing game and would lean heavily on the ground. While they found bits of success, nothing was sustainable. The Husker defense held Illinois to an average of 2.5 yards per rush and under 100 on the game. When the Illini dared to throw the ball, the NU pass rush was ferocious, recording 5 sacks on the night. Carlos and Khalil Davis along with Freedom Akinmoladun lived in the Illinois backfield. It was beautiful. Don’t look now but after an extremely rocky start, this unit has transformed into a really good defense. Credit Bob Diaco for coming up with a scheme to match the talent on hand and produce a quality defense. Sure, this crew has yet to play a prolific offense, but over the last 14 quarters they have allowed just 2 TDs. I don’t care if you are playing the marching band, that is outstanding. Tougher days are surely ahead, but if this defense continues with this trend, NU will be in every game they play.

This offense has taken more than its share of lumps thus far. They have earned it!!  Turnovers, horrible offensive line play and awful 3rd down conversion rate have doomed this unit all year. Friday night this offense came out with a different approach. Danny Langsdorf clearly aimed to keep keep QB Tanner Lee out of bad situations, opting more for intermediate throws than deep ones. The thought was that this strategy would cut down on costly turnovers and increase efficiency. Go figure, it worked. Tanner Lee was very good, throwing for 246 yards on 17/24 passing with 3 TDs. That is an average of 10.3 yards per attempt. It was hands down his best game. This offense was also 7-11 on 3rd downs. An emphasis on the running game also contributed to the improved efficiency. For the 2nd week in a row, Devine Ozigbo bullied his way to over 100 yards. His emergence has been a real shot in the arm for this offense. I’m not real sure why he wasn’t getting any playing time before last week, but it is clear that has to change even when Tre Bryant returns. He adds a unique dimension that the other RBs cannot match. Even a 3rd quarter fumble can be overlooked, when you see #22 running as hard as he does. Overall it was a great night for the offense. NU scored TDs on each of their first 3 drives and took a 21-3 lead into the locker room. Along with a feisty defense, this productive offense gave the Illini no chance to hang with the Big Red.

Lets be frank, Illinois is not a quality outfit. I highly doubt that Lovie Smith is going to be around for too terribly long. That team is short on talent and direction. Time may prove them the worst team in the Big 10. But as I said last week, all conference wins are good wins. Give Big Red credit for beating the pants off an inferior opponent. They could have come out and played around with Illini like they were the family pet. We have seen this team do that in the past. Instead, their no nonsense approach made for an easy night for Husker fans. In that way this was an impressive business trip for a relatively young team. Be advised, bigger games are here. Next up is the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that has owned the Huskers since their arrival in the Big 10. The Badger’s credentials are well known. However, a defense that is getting better every week and an offense with a renewed emphasis on the ground game gives this Husker fan a reason to believe that NU can hang with Badgers. Mix in a little Memorial Stadium magic and, well, next Saturday night could be special.

 

Follow on Twitter: @jakeanderson884

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A (small) Step Forward

It has been a crazy week in Huskerville. From perhaps the worst loss in program history to the dismissal of AD Sean Eichorst, to the job security of Mike Riley, I think we were all ready to get back to the field. Luckily, some chicken soup for the Husker soul showed up in the form of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. This team is not good.  So the Huskers rolled, right? Not quite. NU fumbled and fooled around with Rutgers for most of the afternoon. It was extremely distressing. I doubt a loss would have sent Mike Riley out the door, but it might have. Fortunately, that is not a conversation we have to endure. NU made some key plays in vital moments to beat a lousy Rutgers team. That is a step forward, albeit a small one. Still, all conference wins are good ones. There are bigger games ahead and NU must get better, but Saturday NU evened up their record and improved to 1-0 in Big 10 play. After the week we have seen, that is something to be pleased with.

This offense came into Saturday in full blown crisis mode. Last week was some of the very worst offense this program has ever experienced. I would love to report that Saturday changed all that. It did no such thing. This offense is still quite flaccid. For too long Saturday, this group fooled around and kept Rutgers in the game. A 3rd quarter pick 6 gave the Scarlet Knights a lead that lasted until nearly the 4th quarter. Yuck!! It is painful to watch this group. Tanner Lee has exhausted the patience of Husker fans, this one included. Personally, I’m sick of making excuses. His turnovers and inaccurate passes are killing drives and shortening life spans. To his credit, there were a couple of times Saturday where Lee put a ball in a tight spot at a crucial time. The 3rd quarter TD pass to DPE comes to mind. But overall Lee was poor, throwing for a paltry 109 yards on 26 attempts, for a disgusting 4.19 yards per attempt. That is simply not good enough. NU salted this game away by finding #22 Devine Ozigbo, who has been on the milk carton thus far this season. Deuce deuce ran for just over 100 tough yards. The Offensive Line was better Saturday, there was nowhere else to go, but still were not terribly productive. Ozigbo grounded out yardage and kept the Rutgers defense on its heels. This blogger is hoping to see more of #22 as the season wears on. His hard nose running style is a breath of fresh air and can maximize the holes the sub par offensive line opens up. The offense was certainly better Saturday than it was in the embarrassment last week, but that is not saying much. It was the Defense that stole the show.

Lost in the shuffle, this unit is getting a whole lot better each and every week. Despite being extremely hindered by injuries, this defense turned in a lights out effort. Gone were Josh Kalu, Marcus Newby, and after a targeting call in the first series, Aaron Williams. Still, this unit stuck its foot in the ground and shut down the Rutgers offense. The Scarlet Knights failed to cross the 200 yard mark for the day.  That was after a 75 yard TD drive to open the game. After that the Rutgers drives stalled time and again. Rutgers had 7 drives that lasted less than 5 plays. Had NU not thrown a silly pick 6 early in the 3rd NU fans would have flooded O street much earlier. Rutgers especially had a difficult time on the ground, averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt. I can’t say enough good things about this defense that is coming together to form a top flight unit. Late in the game, Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco dialed up a couple of nifty blitzes in obvious passing situations that completely stunned the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers had little chance against such pressure. I am extremely excited to see this defense progress. From what I have seen the last few weeks, I know that the sky is the limit for this unit, particularly this front 4.

Look, this wasn’t the 85 Bears, it was Rutgers. This team is hands down the very worst this conference has to offer. Still, all conference wins are good wins. Give NU credit for bouncing back and getting the W despite being extremely shorthanded. Lets be clear, it was far from pretty. There were plenty of hairy times during this one. But this team pulled through behind an outrageous defensive performance overcoming more lackluster offense. Both units are no doubt a work in progress. It was great to see an outstanding punt return from DPE that set up a Husker TD. That is the kind of help this team may require from the special teams. The Big Red train chugs along. Next up is an Illinois squad that is of a similar caliber as Rutgers. This is certainly a game NU should win. The interesting part is that it is on the road and on a Friday night. It should matter little. That is the kind of game the Huskers should win. I think we all would like to see the offense progress and develop some kind of identity. That has not happened to this point. A win like this can only do so much. The chatter will not end with a win over the Scarlet Knights. This game did very little to secure Mike Riley’s job status, but a loss would have almost certainly sealed his fate.

follow on Twitter: @jakeanderson884

Busy Week in Huskerville

Life comes at you fast sometimes. Last weekend I went back to Lincoln Nebraska for my sister in laws wedding. It was a wonderful time. It was a short, busy trip. Since then I’ve been incredibly busy with work and all that comes with it. A week later and I am just now getting my feet back under me. That’s life. As you all know it was an enormous, monumental week in Huskerville. Here are a few thoughts to get us current.

The loss to Northern Illinois was just plain awful. No way around it. There is no way this program should be losing at home to a MAC team. Never, never never!! After a week of hearing about how sick this team was about a missed opportunity in Eugene, the Huskers came out and played uninspired football for much of the afternoon. That part makes me sick. That signals to me a problem with the culture within the program. It is completely inexcusable. To be fair, the defense did their share, holding NIU to just 7 points on the day. That should have been enough for Big Red to shallack the Huskies. But the offense, oh the offense. A unit that has at times shown substantial promise was horrendous. Don’t take my word for it, look at the drive chart. NU had the ball 9 times prior to putting points on the board. It went Pick 6, 3 & out, 3& out, Pick 6, 3& out, punt, missed FG, 3& out, 3& out. I get nauseous just looking at the damn thing. Specifically troubling was the offensive line which could not handle the NIU blitzes. Tanner Lee, who himself was not very good, was battered and on his ass all afternoon. The Huskers, even with a substantial size advantage up front could only muster a paltry 2.4 yards per rush. The O-line couldn’t have blocked the freaking marching band last Saturday!! I’m confident when I say that it was the worst Husker offense I’ve seen in 25+ years of watching Husker football. That is not hyperbole. Put on the tape. Even the horrific 2004 NU offense would have been better than the Huskers were against NIU. The result was an unforgettable loss to a plucky group from DeKalb. Give those guys some credit. They earned it. But this is about a team that felt it could just show up and roll. It was pathetic.

There had to be a sacrificial lamb for that loss. Huskerville was out for blood. Since firing Mike Riley 3 games into his 3rd year isn’t really an option, the NU brass instead canned the Athletic Director Sean Eichorst. Conveniently, nobody really likes him anyway. He is aloof, awkward, and generally turns people off. So poof, he is gone. He is the head on a stick that the mob needed after such a miserable Saturday at the office. Had Big Red stumbled into a win, my shiny dime says Eichorst would still be employed. The whole thing is very reactive. Who should replace him? I am not sure. I don’t exactly have a file full of resumes for prospective Athletic Directors. I do know this. The NU brass needs to take their time, conduct a thorough and exhaustive search. Seek out all manner of candidates, and make the correct choice. Do it right. Let’s not be hasty or any more reactive than we have already been. Some say it should be someone with Nebraska ties. Others say it should be the most qualified and talented candidate. Whoever it is, they deserve our full support.

As you can imagine this has very real implications on the Husker football program. Eichorst was Mike Riley’s guy. The one who brought him in. Riley would have been on the hot seat regardless of the AD situation, but this makes the waters even more murky. This much is certain, Mike Riley and company are coaching for their jobs. There is no way around it. If they can get this ship righted, be competitive and finish the season with a respectable record, he can stay. If not, well, you know. The good thing for Riley and co. is that they have 9 games to prove it. That is more than enough time. Personally, I want to keep Riley. He seems like a great guy and I like the way he conducts himself.  But he has to give me reason to believe he has this program on the right track going forward. Right now, I am not sure he does. It starts today…

In comes Rutgers, hands down the worst team this conference has to offer. Lets hope the Big Red takes out some frustrations on the boys from Piscataway. I would think they would. But this team has been flat out weird. In one week they went from awful defensively, to awful offensively. I do not know what to expect week to week from this bipolar squad. I do know NU is about as banged up as you can be on September 23rd. There will be no Tre Bryant, probably no Stan Morgan, nor will Josh Kalu or Marcus Newby play. Also NU is down to their 3rd string Right Tackle. True Freshman Brenden Jameis will get the start. This coaching staff has to figure out a way for this offense to be consistently effective. Even when this offense has hummed, there has been no consistency. If this train is going to get going down the right track there must be some consistency. Don’t look now, but this Scarlet Knight’s squad can play some defense. Still, this is a game NU should easily win at home. Then again, I’ve said that before.

 

The Honeymoon is Over

It appears that I fell into my old trap this summer. As usual, I drank the kool-aid. I bought into all the malarkey that Mike Riley and the Big Red hype machine was selling. Hook, line and sinker. All the good vibes about energy and positivity had me feeling that this team in general, and this defense specifically, were primed for a very good fall. Through 2 games, those illusions of grandeur are long gone. That was evident as I sat in an isolated corner of my house at halftime with the score 42-14. I then wrote the following:

I spent the last 6 days looking for reasons, rationalizing why the defense was inadequate against Arkansas State. I looked at stats like yards per play and considered the new system and inexperienced players were the main reasons for NU’s relative struggles in the season opener. Rationalization can be a very powerful thing. In many ways I turned a blind eye toward their obvious shortcomings. But I absolutely believed they would come out and play much better in game #2. I did not, in any way, sense that Nebraska defensively would come out and get their doors blown off the way they did. It was completely inconceivable. Perhaps that makes me a homer. I’ll wear that label. This much is certain, the Husker defense was horrendous Saturday. There is no excuse for the sort of incompetence we experienced Saturday. None. It has been an absolute embarrassment of the highest order.

Bob Diaco drew sharp criticism from some for not talking to the media after the season opener. I thought that was overblown. I don’t really care if he does or not. What I do care about is a quality product. Diaco took the podium early in the week. He was defiant, even arrogant. He claimed his plan worked perfectly. He was not the least bit contrite about the performance against the Red Wolves. I was OK with that because to me it signaled that he was confident his unit would come out and perform well in this early season showdown. After getting boat raced Saturday, where is that bravado? I suggest that rather than playing Little Red Riding Hood, like he did last week, that he get to work and figure out what will make this defense work. I would not be surprised if Diaco privately was not pleased with the personnel available to him. That is fine. They were not recruited for this system, I would be shocked to learn that he was 100% happy with the tools at his disposal. But it doesn’t matter. Not one freaking bit. His job, for which he is paid handsomely, is to take the players on hand and mold them into a top defensive unit. To this point he has failed spectacularly. The proof is there for everyone to see. I don’t need to go over the gory details. He has to figure out a way to make this unit functional. I do not want to hear about youth in the secondary. Every team has inexperience in a variety of places. So what!! Coach them up. That is what you are paid so well to do. That secondary, which has been lauded by him personally several times, just got its ass pasted for 3 TD passes in the first half alone. I can only imagine the horrors of the 2nd half.

As we all know the NU defense came out and was a completely different unit after halftime. Adjustments were made and they were incredibly successful. I was shocked. Oregon failed to score in the 2nd half and the Husker D forced 2 turnovers and several 3 and outs.  They flew around and swarmed to the ball. Team defense and a commitment to stopping the run was there for everyone to see. The effort was outstanding, there is no other way to put it. Hopefully, this is a glimpse of what this defense can be. But it can’t be for just a half. You simply can’t spot a team 42 first half points and count on winning. This unit deserves a substantial amount of credit for the resolve they showed. It would have been easy to hang their heads and mail it in. I’ve seen that too many times. The grit showed enabled NU to get back into the game. However, the fact that it took until halftime, and 42 points to make the adjustments and collect themselves is appalling. Bob Diaco simply cannot sit and wait to adjust while the opposing offense lights up the scoreboard like the 4th of July. Also the total output for the Ducks is not acceptable, regardless of what was done in the 2nd half. 516 total yards including 11.1 yards per pass gets you beat every Saturday. Diaco has to figure out a number of issues with this unit. How can they successfully generate a pass rush? What to do about the secondary? How can they make adjustments on the fly? What about 3rd down defense, which was a sore spot on Saturday? Big money Bob has a whole lot of work in front of him. Lets hope he doesn’t wait until halfway through the season to do it.

The slow start absolutely killed the Huskers. It was 14-0 before you knew what happened. Husker heads were spinning far and wide. From there NU was behind the 8-ball all afternoon. That is not a winning recipe. I don’t know how good or bad Oregon is. Maybe they are a top shelf Pac-12 team that simply needed retooling. Maybe they are just a slightly above average team trying to find their way. Time will bear that out. But this is a game that NU wins if they make the proper defensive adjustments in a timely fashion. Some of the defenses troubles bled over to the offense. I have to believe that NU sticks with the run more if they weren’t shooting for the moon every possession. That contributed to 41 Tanner Lee passing attempts and 4 Ints. The offense has its own issues, worthy of its own column. But at this point I am far more concerned about this defense and what we saw in the first half. My optimism for this season was largely based on having an adequate defense. If the Huskers don’t have that, where does that leave them against one of the toughest schedules in the country? It could be a very long, and grueling fall.

 

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

Only 1 Direction to Go…..

The good news is that the Nebraska Cornhuskers are 1-0. Go ahead and bask in that. Soak it in. Isn’t that nice? Go ahead and stop now. The bad news is substantially more complicated. The Big Red escaped Saturday night in their own building by the skin of their teeth. Just typing that makes me ill. The opponent, Arkansas State, was solid, but certainly nothing to be feared. This should have been a team that was easily dispatched, despite any shortcomings. Instead, this thing was a dogfight that went down to the very last play. Big Red was not good. It was an ugly, lopsided performance all the way around. There were bright spots everywhere, but nothing remotely consistent. This near loss should be a wake up call for the entire program. Sloppy efforts like this will result in losses and an awful season. If this team wishes to compete for a division or conference title it will have to grow up substantially, and quick. This team is far more of a work in progress than anyone would have guessed.

The Husker offense experienced its share of success Saturday. 31 points produced along with 463 yards of offense aren’t bad production. But it was the inability to take control of the game that was particularly troubling to me. Several times throughout the night NU took the ball with the opportunity to provide some space between themselves and the Red Wolves. Time and time again the Husker offense let that opportunity slip away. Whether it was penalties, other miscues, or questionable playcalls, this offense could not get out of their own way. It kept the door open for Arkansas State to stay in the game. It was infuriating. Put the damn thing away!!  Overall, the offense was not all bad. Tanner Lee was mostly sharp throughout the night with a few stunningly beautiful passes to NU receivers. Also, Tre Bryant ran for nearly 200 yards and averaged over 6 yards per carry. Those two facts should have meant that NU walked away with this one comfortably. That did not happen. The maddening thing, from my couch, was some of the play calls. Just when it seemed that the Huskers had a rhythm, the direction of the offense would change. I can think of a spot pass and an end around to Stanley Morgan that both failed and put the offense behind the chains. The result was haulted drives that kept ASU in the ballgame. This is simply not acceptable from a unit that experienced its share of success Saturday night.  The NU offense could have easily put this game away several times throughout the course of the night. Instead we got a dramatic, nail biting finish that was completely unnecessary.

After all the hoopla and hype, I was completely jacked to see this defense take the field. I did not know what to expect exactly. I thought we would see defenders flying around and being disruptive. What I got was a total dud. Nebraska, defensively was completely flacid. This unit created almost no pressure of any kind. Arkansas State was able to stay in the game with short, mostly uncontested, passes. The Nebraska secondary, for some unknown reason, was content to play off coverage and give ASU QB Justice Hansen free reign to complete these easy passes. Sound crazy? It absolutely was. I, frankly do not understand why Bob Diaco continually allowed ASU those easy throws against soft coverage. The Red Wolves did not complete a single deep ball that would scare you into playing soft coverage. Instead it was a steady diet of short, quick throws that kept NU off balance. Give ASU credit for a solid game plan. They had a wide variety of quick looks that Nebraska was not at all prepared for. But also take the NU coaching staff to task for not properly adjusting. I kept waiting for press coverage. While there was some of it, they never stuck with it. In fairness, there were stretches where the Husker D appeared to have a handle on things, but like the offense it never lasted. There was zero consistency. As a result we were all left holding our breath as Arky State had one final down from the 10 with an opportunity to tie the game. While that situation was not solely the responsibility of the defense, they sure didn’t do a damn thing to prevent it.

This was one of the very worst season openers that I can remember. The 2013 opener against a horrendous Wyoming team was definitely worse. But this was bad.  Really bad. Embarrassing. The defense that we have been waiting so long to see went over like a fart in church. Offensively, they were never able to seize control of the game despite their various successes. The game management too was awful. Nobody deserves a pass for this near catastrophe. This team has to get its act together, and fast. A trip to Oregon is next week. The Ducks would love to eat NU’s lunch and repay them for the loss in Lincoln. This defense, in particular, needs to get it together otherwise this team could easily get its doors blown off. Beyond that there are much bigger games on the schedule. This team has to improve substantially. They say the biggest jump for a team is between games one and two. Lets hope that jump covers the damn Grand Canyon after the performance we seen Saturday night. If it doesn’t, it could be a long fall.

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

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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