Yesterday, the 2015 glass of Big Red Kool Aid was half full. Today, it is half empty.
Let’s face it, there is a lot of positive spin thrown at you during the off-season. Players are healthy and in the best shape of their lives. Coaches have the complete respect and command of their players. The team chemistry is so much better than it was last year. Leaders have emerged and the seniors want to go out on a winning note. The offensive line is poised to play like the Pipeline again.
It happens each and every year. You read the articles and posts, listen to the radio shows, and talk with your friends and co-workers. Like one of those Magic Eye pictures, if you squint and examine the schedule just right, you can see an undefeated season.
Then the season starts. Suddenly, the second coming of the 1995 team looks more like the 2002 squad, with flashes of 2007.
That’s our purpose today. We want to avoid the painful sting that occurs when a harsh reality slaps you in the face. The first edition of Mike Riley’s Nebraska Cornhuskers will be a flawed product. That’s not a knock on Riley or the players – it’s a reality. The program hasn’t magically gone from a perennial 9-4 team to a 12-0 squad in nine months.
So what are the areas of greatest concern? In no particular order:
1. The schedule is deceptively tough. I know, I know – yesterday, I said the schedule shapes up favorably for Nebraska. I stand by my comment that there are no automatic losses on the slate: Nebraska should be able to compete with anybody.
But what about the flip side? Where are the automatic wins? I think you can safely assume victories over South Alabama, Southern Mississippi, Illinois, and Purdue. Nebraska will likely be a touchdown favorite against Northwestern, Rutgers, and Iowa. BYU will probably be too hampered by injuries and suspensions to last with NU for four quarters. But after that, it’s anybody’s guess.
2. The depth is wafer thin at some spots, and unproven at others. Through a combination of injuries, recruiting misses, and dismissed players Nebraska is very thin at wide receiver, defensive end, and linebacker. I like the starters at these positions a lot. Guys like Michael Rose-Ivey, Jordan Westerkamp, and Jack Gangwish are leaders poised for big seasons. Nebraska likes to talk about a “next man up” attitude, but it’s unlikely that the next man will be nearly as good as the starter.
Now, consider two positions that appear to be very deep: safety and running back. Both positions have strong starters (and yes, I consider Terrell Newby a clear-cut starter). And both positions have a bunch of touted guys waiting in the wings. But a lot of those guys (Adam Taylor, Mikale Wilbon, Devine Ozigbo, Aaron Williams, and Antonio Reed) have not played a down of college football. They may be great – or they may be another example of a guy who excels in practices/Spring Games but is unproductive in the fall. We don’t know.
3. The O Line may be the weakest link on the offense, if not the entire team. That is a painful sentence to type. I think that in many games over the last two years, the vision and cutting ability of Ameer Abdullah made his line look better than they really were. There were several games last year where Tommy Armstrong was running for his life as the line struggled to block basic pass rushes.
A mediocre to bad offensive line means added pressure on unproven running backs to make something out of nothing. It can often lead to penalties as linemen try to get a jump on the snap count or hold a defender who has beaten them. It can throw off the timing between a quarterback and his receivers. It can lead to multiple three-and-outs, which puts a strain on the defense.
But most importantly, a bad line means your quarterback is at greater risk for injury. Which leads us to…
4. What happens if Armstrong gets hurt? Feel free to pause for a minute if you need to find some wood to knock or salt to throw over your shoulder. Ryker Fyfe appears to be the backup quarterback, and while he’s looked serviceable in his game experience, he’s a long shot to lead Nebraska to the Big Ten Championship game. If that comes across harsh, the good news is Fyfe has taken collegiate snaps, unlike backups A.J. Bush and Zack Darlington.
Memo to Tommy Armstrong: Get out of bounds or slide, slide, slide. And the only time you are allowed to try to hurdle a defender is the aforementioned Big Ten Championship game, if it’s 4th and goal in the fourth quarter. Otherwise, no jumping over defenders.
5. De’Mornay Pierson-El will likely miss half of the season. When Pierson-El was injured, I refused to buy into the doomsday folks predicting a 6-6 season without the elite punt returner and blossoming receiver. But make no mistake, his injury will impact the season.
His biggest contribution is in punt return where his presence and reputation changes how teams punt. That leads to better field position or more opportunities for a punt block. I’m curious to see what Westerkamp can do with actual blocking (instead of the one against 11 scheme NU employed in 2013), but teams won’t game plan ways to keep the ball out of his hands.
On offense, it will be interesting to see how much the jet or fly sweep is utilized with DPE on the sidelines. With Pierson-El healthy, I got the impression that he would get four or five carries a game, with multiple fakes designed to freeze defenders. Without his open field running threat, I don’t know if that play will be shelved, reduced, or if it will remain in full rotation with Jamal Turner and others running it.
Even when he does return to the field, this is likely an injury that impacts his entire season.
6. Nebraska will play 11 games before they get a bye week. Yep, you read that right. The only break in Nebraska’s schedule is Saturday, November 21. By that time, Nebraska will have played six home games and all five of their road games before getting a Saturday off. You’ll probably spent part of that bye weekend getting groceries for Thanksgiving dinner. By that point, the Huskers will either be limping towards the finish line or getting ready to clinch a trip to Indianapolis with a win over Iowa.
On a team that may have depth issues, the late bye week could be an unexpected story line.
7. A team that struggles with tackling won’t do any contact work during the season. If you watched Nebraska over the past few seasons, you know that one of their biggest weaknesses was in tackling. This summer, Sam McKewon had a strong column with quotes from ABC/ESPN analyst Chris Spielman that laid out Nebraska’s deficiencies and how they could be corrected.
But this weekend, Mike Riley told the Omaha World-Herald “We will rarely be tackling full speed on any part during the season”.
On most levels, I get it. The season is long (especially with the 11 straight games before a bye that we just discussed), depth is a concern, and schools and conferences want to limit the amount of contact players get. It’s not the 90’s where you can have a full contact scrimmage mid-week and still have guys play the following Saturday.
But until the Blackshirts can prove otherwise, tackling will be a concern.
9. What will the offense do if the passing game is struggling? I believe that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf will try to cater the offense to the things that Armstrong does well and the throws he can consistently make. But accuracy has been an issue throughout Armstrong’s career. Several receivers not named Westerkamp have had their share of dropped passes over the years. And as previously mentioned, Armstrong may not always have a fully protected pocket to operate in. Finally, let’s not forget that Nebraska weather can be unpredictable in October and November.
Will Nebraska have a rushing attack that they can rely on if the pass is not there? Or will Nebraska use a short passing game to simulate a running game?
10. Can this team handle adversity? Will chemistry and unity be an issue after (or during) a loss? Without rehashing too much of years gone by, an all too common trait of Pelini teams was the “us against the world” bunker mentality as well as difficulty in rebounding when things didn’t go as planned. Far too often, things snowballed out of control into embarrassing losses.
From all appearances, Riley and his staff have done a great job of imparting their culture on the program. They seem to have buy-in from all of the returning players, many of whom were shocked and defiant when Bo Pelini was fired. But is everybody on board? Surely on a 120 man roster, there are some guys who remain loyal to Bo. Will riffs in chemistry appear when things get hard?
Remember, a large chunk of this team is familiar with experiencing an ugly blowout loss at least once a year. It may take time to undo that damage and get replace the “here we go again” feeling of helplessness with a mentality of “okay, we got this.”
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Again, I’m not predicting a doom and gloom season for the Big Red. I’m merely trying to point out some of the areas where there is a cause for concern in the hope that fans will be realistic when they set their expectations for Mike Riley’s first season.