We’re now less than a week away from the start of the 2015 season. Mike Riley and staff get to write their first chapter in the pages of Husker history. Will this season be a repeat of Bill Callahan’s disastrous 2004 season or will it have the success and promise of Bo Pelini’s first year?
Here are ten reasons why you should be optimistic going into this season:
1. The schedule is favorable. Let’s be clear: With two teams that finished 2014 in the top 20 (Michigan State and Wisconsin) the 2015 slate is hardly a cake walk, but there are many things to like. What appear to be the toughest games (Michigan State and Wisconsin) are at home. The most challenging non-conference opponents (BYU and Miami) will be missing key starters due to injuries and/or suspensions. The rest of the conference lineup looks doable.
Put it this way: Look at Nebraska’s schedule and tell me the game(s) where NU has absolutely no chance of winning.
2. The offense should cater to Tommy Armstrong’s strengths. I’m of the opinion that anybody who claims to know what the Riley / Langsdorf offense will look like without seeing them on the field is blindly guessing. We have some ideas from the practice reports, but things like run/pass ratios and the types of passes are mostly unknown. I’ll freely admit that I don’t know what the offense will look like against BYU, and I certainly don’t know how it evolve by November.
But here’s what I do know: Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf will sink or swim with Tommy Armstrong. And since no first year coach wants to sink (even the previously mentioned Callahan), Riley and company will do everything in their power to ensure the plays they call are ones that put their quarterback in a position to succeed. Short passes, roll outs, deep balls, and yes, zone read keepers all seem likely to be staples in the offense.
3. The simpler defense will allow the Blackshirts’ athleticism to shine. Remember Sean Fisher? He was a highly touted recruit who was dripping with athletic ability. Before, and even after, he broke his leg, he possessed a lot of speed. Coming off the bus, he looked like somebody who should be a star player. But yet, he largely struggled at Nebraska.
Certainly, that nasty leg injury took a big toll, but I always got the sense he was thinking too much on the field. It felt like he needed to process a large amount of information before he could unleash his physical gifts. And remember, Sean Fisher is an extremely bright individual – somebody who graduated with a 4.0 GPA and is currently in med school.
I wish Sean Fisher could play in Mark Banker’s defense.
The 2015 version of Fisher – linebacker Josh Banderas – rather famously compared the new scheme to high school football where you attack instead of read and react. That mentality should help several Huskers to show off their athletic talents.
4. The defense will focus on stopping the run. Bo Pelini’s defenses were usually very strong at stopping the pass. In the Big XII, where teams liked to spread you out and throw it all over the field, this was a recipe for success. Not surprisingly, Pelini won two Big XII North titles outright, and tied for a third in three seasons.
But then Nebraska moved to the Big 10.
To say that the Big 10 over the last five years has been a “three yards and a cloud of dust” league is a little simplistic, but there is no denying that Big 10 teams are primarily run oriented. More appropriately, a Big 10 team isn’t going to pass if they can run over – or around – you. Most pundits will tell you that Nebraska beats Wisconsin in 2014 if they made Joel Stave throw it 25 times. But Stave only attempted 11 throws, because Melvin Gordon had record-setting success with his 25 carries.
Going back to the mid-90’s Glory Days, Charlie McBride’s defensive philosophy was rather simple: take away the run and make ’em beat you through the air. Against the “fun and gun” Gators or Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers that sounded like a suicide mission. Instead, it meant the defensive line could pin their ears back and pressure the quarterback.
A defense that focuses on stopping the run will be vulnerable to the pass, so Banker’s scheme will test Nebraska’s secondary. But aren’t you willing to take your chances against the arms of Joel Stave, Mitch Leidner, and whomever Iowa trots out? Me too.
5. This is a young team with a lot of potential. The current roster lists 21 seniors. Of those, I count three who will likely start on defense (Byerson Cockrell, Daniel Davie, and Jack Gangwish) and four who start on offense (Alex Lewis, Chongo Kondolo, Ryne Reeves, and Andy Janovich). Feel free to add Jamal Turner as another starter / contributor and we should probably expect that this will be Maliek Collins’s final season as a college player.
Other than that? There are a lot of juniors, sophomores, and freshmen (both redshirt and true) who will see a lot of time this fall. Getting a young core of players a lot of experience will pay dividends in the future.
6. The road to Indy is manageable. From most accounts, Nebraska’s biggest threats in the Big Ten West are Wisconsin and Minnesota. As I noted above, Nebraska gets Wisconsin at home. Minnesota is clearly the toughest opponent on the conference schedule, but TCF Bank Stadium doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being an intimidating place to play – especially when Nebraskans have shown they like to travel to the Twin Cities.
After that? The rest of the conference road games are at West cellar dwellers Purdue and Illinois (who just first their head coach) and Rutgers.
It remains to be seen if Nebraska can win the West, but it would be tough to create an easier road to Indianapolis.
7. The defense has strength at all three levels. Think back to some of Nebraska’s best defenses. Most of them had a talented – if not star – player at all three levels (line, linebacker, secondary). On paper, Nebraska’s defense looks very strong up the middle with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine at tackle, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey at linebacker and Nathan Gerry and Daniel Davie in the secondary.
8. The cupboard isn’t bare at running back. Let’s state the obvious right off the top: Nebraska will not have a ball carrier who can consistently do the things that Ameer Abdullah did over his stellar career.
But don’t get caught up in the notion that Nebraska is devoid of talent in the backfield. My guess is Terrell Newby starts, and displays the talent that made him a four star recruit. He may not be a 25 carry a game workhorse, but I won’t be at all surprised if he gets 1,000 yards this year.
Beyond him, you’ve got freshman phenoms Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo, who have garnered a lot of buzz in fall camp. From the practice reports, both have flashed potential and have earned carries and receptions. After those two is the underrated (and possibly overlooked) Imani Cross. At a minimum, Cross should continue to be a reliable 3rd down/goal line option. Next in line is a former message board darling Adam Taylor.
And if all else fails, just give the ball to fullback Andy Janovich and get the heck out of the way.
9. The assistant coaches are experienced teachers. As you may recall, the biggest knocks on Bo Pelini’s staffs were their inexperience and inconsistent ability to develop three and four star recruits into star players.
Look across Mike Riley’s staff. You’re not going to find anybody who was recently promoted from grad assistant or guys whose most significant coaching experience was at a golf course. Receivers coach Keith Williams spent the summer having NFL wide receivers coming to Lincoln to workout with him. Offensive Line coach Mike Cavanaugh focused on technique and intensity, and makes legendary line coach Milt Tenopir a guest of honor at practice.
One more: How many of you felt that Pelini and Nebraska would have been better with a dedicated Quarterbacks coach or Special Teams Coordinator? Riley’s staff has both, which leads us to the final item…
10. Special teams should remain special. Make no mistake, Nebraska had very strong special teams units in 2014. Punt return was clearly a strength, but the Huskers excelled in many other areas last year.
This year, I expect the special teams to maintain last year’s standard – even with the amazing De’Mornay Pierson-El sidelined for 6-8 weeks with a foot injury. With a dedicated coordinator in Bruce Read overseeing the units, and talented players like punter Sam Foltz, I expect NU’s kick and return game to be an edge.