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The off-season is always an optimistic time for the college football fan. Everybody is undefeated, and the world is filled with positive, glass overflowing stories of why this year will be better than last year.
Yes, coming off of a disappointing 6-7 season, pretty much anything is going to be an improvement. But the key is knowing where to be optimistic and where to be realistic.
So where should you be optimistic of the 2016 Husker team? Let’s count the ways:
Nebraska has excellent front line talent.
For better or for worse, the roster looks very different from the day Mike Riley took over. After shaking out some non-contributors and other who didn’t buy in to the Riley way, the depth in some positions is paper-thin. But I really like Nebraska’s top end talent.
Look across the top 22: The number of guys with legitimate NFL potential is much higher than the number of “this is the best we can do?” guys. To put it another way: talent-wise, I’d put Nebraska’s starters up against anybody in the Big Ten, and especially the West. Some of these are names you know (Westerkamp, Carter, Gerry, and others) and some are going to be new (Stoltenberg, Knevel, Farmer, and more).
The challenge obviously is with keeping guys healthy and depth. Until I see something different on the field, I still believe there is a decent gap between the 1’s and the 2’s at a majority of positions. But I expect that gap to decrease and younger guys get more reps and more comfortable with NU’s system.
I get it. With Armstrong, it is much easier to focus on the negative than the positive. And he has done things over the years to earn that negativity, but here is why you should be optimistic on #4:
- He is going to be a four-year starter. While a lot of that has to do with NU’s QB depth and development, being a four-year starter is huge advantage in terms of experience and poise.
- It is his second year in the Riley/Langsdorf system. Tommy should be more comfortable in what he is doing, and know how to execute the offense better.
- Along the same lines, Riley and Langsdorf know how to use Tommy better than they did a year ago. Armstrong is not Sean Mannion, but that doesn’t mean he can succeed in Langsdorf’s offense. NU’s coaches know his strengths and weaknesses, and can call plays that put him in a position to be successful.
- He is surrounded with talent. Armstrong’s receivers are likely the most talented group in school history. Nebraska has four capable running backs to take the pressure off the passing game. Finally, his offensive line should be improved, giving him more time to operate. With the talent around him, the hope should be that Armstrong is able to thrive in the “game manager” role.
- The defense should be improved. Nobody inside the program would say this, but last year I often got the sense that Armstrong felt he needed to score on every position because the defense wasn’t always capable of stopping other teams. How many of his interceptions were the result of him trying to force a throw or make something out of nothing. If Tommy has faith the defense can hold a team to 20 points of less, I think he’ll be more inclined to play it safe on offense.
Should you expect Armstrong to be an All Big Ten quarterback? Probably not, but if he can protect the ball and make plays with his feet, Nebraska can improve greatly.
The coaching is improved.
From everything you see and hear, John Parrella is a major upgrade over Hank Hughes. Parrella is an energetic, passionate teacher who has the NFL experience to command attention. Additionally, he is a native son, NU alumnus, and proud caretaker of the Blackshirts tradition. But the improvements go beyond Coach Parrella.
I’m a firm believer that, top to bottom, this staff has better teachers and developers of talent than the previous staff. We saw some of that last year with the surprising success of Trent Bray’s linebackers, the receiver play, and other individual positions. I’m excited to see the technical growth and development after another spring and fall camp working with these coaches.
Riley and his staff rightfully took their lumps for some…um…curious decisions during games. But if you look at the course of the season, the decision-making got better as the season went on (with a notable exception against Iowa). In what should not be surprise to anybody, the Big Ten is a vastly different league than the Big Ten. More importantly, the expectation level, pressure to succeed, and everything else is much higher at Nebraska than at Oregon State. The firing of Hughes should show that Riley and company are serious on winning – and winning now.
The “Year Two” jump
It happens frequently in college football: In the first season after a coaching change, a team struggles and puts up a bad record. In year two, everything seems to click and dramatic improvement occurs.
There is a lot of logic for why this occurs so often. In the second year, the players who didn’t transfer out should be fully bought in to the new staff and the system they run. Schemes and concepts that were new a year ago should now be second nature. Especially on defense, less thinking almost always equals faster play.
Additionally, the coaches are more comfortable with the players they inherited, have two classes of their own in the system, and have first hand knowledge of what it takes to be successful at their new school/conference.
While I think expecting a Year Two jump on the level of Bob Stoops at Oklahoma is beyond optimistic, it’s very reasonable to believe NU will be noticeably improved in many areas – including their overall record.
Surely, Nebraska’s luck in close games will change, right?
If you lived through 2015 season – especially the seven losses – you probably don’t need a reminder of how Nebraska fared in games decided by a touchdown or less. Let’s just say it was not good.
To me, “luck” is a coin flip – those moments where you can’t predict which way a football will bounce when it hits the ground. Sometimes you catch the Hail Mary. Sometimes your opponent catches it. The best you can do is hope that the football gods eventually bring you good fortune.
But a lot of Nebraska’s close losses came down to things that NU can control: calling a better play, properly managing the clock, having presence of mind on the field to not audible into a pass or commit a stupid penalty. Experience can be an excellent teacher, and the 2015 Huskers went through an advanced course in bad experiences.
Hopefully they learned from it.