College Football

Coaching Changes Are Needed

I’ve had enough.

Nebraska’s uninspiring 2-2 start has me wondering just what is going on with our beloved program.  Yeah, I hear you say that they are two plays away from 4-0, but to me that is the same as telling me I’m a $1 lottery ticket away from being a millionaire – irrelevant.

I’ve seen enough football to know when something isn’t working – and friends, this ain’t working.

We need changes.  And we need them now.

Where should we begin?  Let’s start with defensive coordinator Mark Banker.  Hello?  Have you seen the passing defense?  Even Kevin Cosgrove is embarrassed by this defense.  You say that his rush defense is actually pretty good?  I don’t care.  Nebraska plays in the Big Ten West, a division so dedicated to rushing offenses that the forward pass is still a novelty.  But Joel Stave, Mitch Leidner, and whomever plays quarterback for Northwestern are going to throw for 450 yards against Nebraska, probably in the fourth quarter alone.  Get Banker out of here – now.

While we’re at it, let’s get rid of secondary coach Brian Stewart.  You know the problem with Daniel Davie this year?  Nobody is yelling at him.  I believe that for Davie to be an effective cornerback, he needs a coach willing and able to scream at him on national TV.  You know Riley is too soft to get the job done, so that puts it on Brian Stewart.  Apparently he’s not up to the task either, so he’s got to go.

And don’t get me started on the front seven of this defense.  Everybody says that Trent Bray is this hotshot up and coming linebacker coach, but he can’t get three starters on the field at the same time.  Instead he’s playing guys like Chris Weber.  Did you know he’s not the Chris Webber from the Michigan Fab Five team?  No, this Chris Weber is some white kid from Elkhorn.

Up front on the line, I have no idea what is going on.  Maliek Collins has yet to become an all time great player like Ndamukong Suh.  Heck, Collins may not even be the best player on the line this year.  That would be a former tight end.  Hank Hughes, I think you need to head back to Cincinnati.

But let’s not pretend that everything is peaches and herb on offense.  I think there need to be some changes there too.  Attention Danny Langsdorf:  I don’t care well Tommy Armstrong is playing, or that your offense is putting up big yards and 30+ points a game.  You need to scrap this pro style, West Coast, fancy pants offense for direct snaps to Andy Janovich.  Didn’t you watch the Southern Miss game?

Mike Cavanaugh, why do you only play five offensive linemen?  How are you supposed to build depth?  Haven’t you seen that one guy who sucks and the other guy who said those things on social media?  Since we can’t fire the players, we’re firing you.  And since lineman are supposed to block for running backs, feel free to hold the door open for Reggie Davis on your way out.  This bum Davis is incapable of convincing Riley that Mikale Wilbon should be the starter.  Don’t try to tell me that Wilbon’s lack of pass blocking ability may get Tommy Armstrong killed.  If Wilbon runs like he did on those three carries in the BYU game, we could win out with Janovich at QB….which come to think of it is not a bad idea.

I want to like this new receivers coach, Keith Williams, but Jordan Westerkamp has had like three balls hit his hands and not be caught.  That’s more drops than he had his first two seasons.  And don’t try to tell me he’s human, because I’ve watched the YouTube clip of that behind the back catch 200 times.  Speaking of receivers, I was told the tight ends were going to catch the ball in this offense, but the tight ends remain as effective as they were under Tim Beck – i.e. the apparent sixth progression after taking a 15 yard sack or throwing to Janovich.  I don’t care that as a grad assistant Tavita Thompson makes like $6.25 an hour, he needs to go.

Did you know Nebraska has a Special Teams Coordinator?  Seriously, that is his only job.  And get this – Bruce Read gets paid $450,000 a year.  For $450,000 a year, NU should never, ever miss a field goal, block at least three punts a game, and return the others for touchdowns.  And yet this chump Read allows an onside kick against Southern Miss?  Let’s go back to the days when one coach led a position group, coordinated the special teams, spearheaded recruiting, and put the “N” stickers on the helmets.

I think we need to make some changes in the strength and conditioning program too.  Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas are both out with groin injuries.  Since we blamed James Dobson for every ACL injury in the 402 area code, Mark Philipp needs to be held accountable for all pulls and sprains within the program.  But could you tell him that he’s been fired?  That dude frightens me.  Instead, I’ll tell Jamie Belt to pack up his dumbbells.  Look at this guy.  Seriously, this is an assistant strength coach?  Do you even lift, bro?  And what kind of name is Jamie?  My daughter is named Jamie.  She probably has a better bench press too.

If you look at all these losers who need to be fired immediately, there is a common thread* tying them together:  the chain of command that hired them:

*Okay, two common threads:  the chain of command and the ugly and unpopular adidas apparel everybody in the Athletic Department wears.  While we’re cleaning house, let’s send all of the adidas stuff to Goodwill – especially those alternate uniforms.  

Head Coach Mike Riley, it was a nice experiment.  Let’s see what happens when the nice guy coach from the crappy, underfunded program gets the keys to one of the richest and most passionate programs.  It worked for a while.  You said the right things, made us feel good, and won your way into our hearts with your “ah shucks” charm.  But enough is enough.  Bob Devaney didn’t start 1-2.  Neither did Tom Osborne.  Heck, even Callahan started 3-1.

But the biggest thing that ticks me off is this nice guy persona.  What a joke.   I didn’t realize it until I heard the host of one of the 16 post game call in shows say it last week:  you don’t show any emotion on the sidelines.  This must mean that you either don’t care or cannot fix the problems that are right in front of your 62 year old eyes.  And have you noticed how Riley is still living out of a hotel after nine months on the job?  Clearly, he’s going to jump at the first good job offer to come his way.  He’s probably itching to get back to the Canadian League.

And then there is guy who hired Riley:  Shawn Eichorst.  Obviously, all of this is Eichorst’s fault.  He hired Riley and his Band of Beavers.  More importantly, he fired Bo Pelini – a good coach who won nine games a year.  NINE!!  Do you know how many schools win nine games or more a year?  Only the top 30% of teams in college football, that’s who.  Eichorst should have swallowed his stupid pride and allowed a subordinate to walk all over him, publicly disrespect him and the University, and lose games any way he damn well pleased.

I bet Harvey Perlman is smiling at all of this.  You just know he has been dead set on destroying the University ever since he took over.  You know he gave Pedersen a contract extension, right?  Right?  Clearly he is the exact same as he was back then.  You realize that Harvey since was named chancellor in 2001 (on April Fool’s Day, I might add) Nebraska has not won a conference championship.  Coincidence?  Nope, it’s a “no-incidence”, as in there no way that is a coincidence.  While we can’t fire Perlman, I am counting down the days until retirement ends Harvey’s reign of terror.  Mark my words, Nebraska will never lose again once that BCS-loving scoundrel is gone.

While we’re cleaning house, we might as well get rid of all of the under-performing dead weight that surrounds this once glorious program.  These chumps may not be directly coaching the players on the field, but I guarantee you that their shoddy performance is to blame for the 2-2 start.  When I call your name, come forward to collect your pink slip:

  • Graduate Assistant Max Onyegbule.  What the hell kind of name is Onyegbule?  The first time I typed “Onyegbule”, I dislocated three fingers and my Spellcheck didn’t work for a month – and I type “Akinmoladun” on a regular basis.
  • Recruiting Coordinator Andy Vaughn.  I was looking at the latest recruiting rankings and see that Nebraska has commitments from several three star prospects.  Three stars?  You can’t be a dominating program with three stars.  This ain’t Corvalis, bub.  Why Nebraska is even offering guys with less than four stars is baffling to me.  But you totally need to offer this kid from my small town Nebraska high school.  He is tearing up class C-2 this year.
  • Chris Brasfield.  You call yourself a “director of high school relations”.  Ha!  Are you telling me that high school kids and/or football coaches are supposed to take you seriously?  You’re wearing a freaking bow tie!!  Who do you think you are, Ross Dzuris?
  • Graduate manager Hardie Buck.  What kind of made up, adult movie name is Hardie Buck?  Get out of here.
  • Public address announcer Lane Grindle.  I don’t really have a problem with you, but the team has played poorly since you became public address announcer.  We can’t take any chances if we want to return to dominance.  I’d apply for the job, but those comments I made about Perlman likely taken me out of the running.
  • Cornhusker Marching Band director Doug Bush.  I noticed that when the band forms the shape of Nebraska during the pregame spectacular, the shape is not geographically accurate.  The southern border is often crooked, and your woodwinds cannot form the Missouri River to save their lives.  Also, remember when you spelled out “Fear Ameer” last year?  It is inexcusable that you have yet to spell out “Son of a Janovich” at halftime.
  • Chris Pankonin.  Sonny boy, I have had enough of this Hip Hop Hogwash you play over the speakers.  You need to play more Black Betty.  And Seven Nation Army.  And Nickelback.
  • Assistant AD for Digital Communications Kelly Mosier.  Hey mister social media guru.  I tweet all game long, and not once have any of my tweets been shown on HuskerVision.  Are you afraid of the truth I’m bringing about how far this program has fallen?  Does my love for homegrown fullbacks make you uncomfortable?  Don’t suppress my First Amendment rights, Kelly!
  • Der Viener Schlinger guy.  Every game I see you shooting hot dogs into the West Stadium balcony and the sky boxes.  Why?  Surely the rich folks in the fancy seats can afford their own hot dogs.  Let’s see you put a dog in the 600 level of East, tough guy.

Hopefully by now you’ve realized* that this was written in Sarcasm Serif font (12 point).  It has only been four games, so calling for anybody’s job is so over the top knee jerkingly crazy – even by Nebraska fan standards – that I struggle to find an appropriate way to describe how ridiculous you sound.

*If not, I kindly suggest upping the dosage on your meds and/or switching your allegiance to the Iowa Hawkeyes.

I get it – you are not pleased with being 0-fer against teams that do not have “south” in their name.*  It is frustrating seeing team after team roll up 300 yards of passing while the cornerbacks refuse to look turn and look for the ball.

*Any chance we can get the Badgers to go by “South Wisconsin” next week?  Or maybe Southern Michigan State?

Maybe you have doubts about this pass-happy offense.  Yeah, it looks good now, but you’re concerned about what happens in November when it’s 12 degrees and the starting I Back is still bouncing every run to the outside.  Trust me, I’m with you:  Option football, when coached and run effectively, if absolute poetry.

But it sure is nice to not have to resign yourself to a punt when it’s 3rd and long.  This team is pretty good in 3rd and long.  I’m not sure if any Osborne team (save 1995) could make that claim.

And maybe you don’t think a coach that wins nine games every year should have been fired.  You are certainly entitled to that opinion.  My opinion is Bo was fired for multiple reasons, but his win/loss record was not among them – but that’s another post for another day.  Regardless, I’m guessing you gave Bo and his staff more than four games – or did you bail on him when he started 3-3?

At the end of the day – or at the end of the season – making massive changes to the staff if likely not the way to go.  Replacing coaches every couple of years takes a toll and makes the sustained success we all want that much harder to achieve.

I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my kids when we’re in the car and they’re getting antsy:  Take a breath, be patient, and enjoy the ride.

We’ll get there.

Big Ten Predictions – 2015

The Big Ten conference schedule kicks off in full this weekend, which means it’s time to predict how the teams will finish within their division.  I purposefully wait to make my picks until the non-conference schedule is over, so I can have a better idea of who is a contender and who is a pretender.  Given my prognosticating history, I need all the help I can get.

Once conference play gets rolling, I’ll do a weekly ranking of Big Ten teams 1 through 14, but for the initial round we’ll keep it East and West.  As we’ll discuss, the two divisions could not be more different this year.  Let’s start with the East…

East Division

The second edition of the Big Ten East reminds me a lot of the Big Eight of the 1980s.  Ohio State and Michigan State play the role of Nebraska and Oklahoma – legitimate national championship contenders, who will fight for the title.  Michigan has the role of Colorado – a team with potential, but one that’s probably a few years away.  The other four teams will play the role of KU, KSU, ISU, MU, and OSU – teams that will peak at average and will pose little threat to the two big dogs.

  1. Ohio State.  I know the Buckeyes have not been clicking on all cylinders.  Quarterback is still a bit of a question, but this program has earned the benefit of the doubt until somebody knocks them down.  Also, they host Michigan State in the Horseshoe.
  2. Michigan State.  Oregon’s blowout loss took some of the shine off of what initially looked like a big Spartan win.  Regardless, it’s still the best win by a Big Ten team this year.  Michigan State has a challenging conference schedule with road games at Michigan, Nebraska, and Ohio State.  If they win all three of those, they will have earned the division title.
  3. Michigan.  It’s not that I think Hail to the Harbaughs are the third best in the division, it’s that nobody else has impressed me enough to be ranked ahead of the Wolverines.  If I could, I’d insert a blank space to help illustrate the gap OSU/MSU and Michigan.
  4. Indiana.  Picking the Hoosiers fourth is as much about the mediocrity of the division as it is about Indiana discovering how to play non-awful football.  They may be 4-0 now, but there is a good chance they;ll be 5-3 or even 4-4 by November 1.
  5. Penn State.  There are good arguments to be made for any of the three remaining teams to be picked last.  From what I’ve seen of Penn State, they look rather dreadful despite having one of the finest quarterback talents in the country in Christian Hackenberg (hashtag sarcasm font).  But, they already own a head to head win over Rutgers.  Expect the Nitany Lions to beat a team they have no business beating, but to lose a lot of ugly games.
  6. Maryland.  In my first draft, I had Maryland ahead of Penn State.  But as miserable as PSU has looked, they haven’t been blown out by West Virginia and – yikes – Bowling Green.  Maryland’s season may be uglier than their uniforms, which is saying a lot.
  7. Rutgers.  I’m a little disappointed that Rutgers beat Kansas.  Had they lost to the Jayhawks, Rutgers would have been locked into the #14 spot in the weekly power rankings for the season, no questions asked.    Seriously, it might have taken wins over Ohio State and Michigan State to remove them from the cellar.  As it is, the odds are very good the Scarlet Knights will have more suspensions (five, not including coach Kyle Flood) than wins.

West Division

The West should be wild this year, as every team except Illinois and Purdue has a puncher’s chance of winning a trip to Indianapolis be blown out by a far better team from the East.  Before the season, this looked like a three horse race between Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota.  But strong starts from Iowa and Northwestern have pushed them into the conversation.  Predicting an order of finish is like flipping a five-sided coin – it’s damn near impossible.  The two biggest factors in the West will likely be a) who can protect their home field and who has favorable cross-over games with the East.  Teams that can win on the road and/or avoid OSU and MSU will have a leg up.  Regardless, I’ll be surprised if a team wins this division with fewer than two losses.

  1. Wisconsin.  Much like Ohio State, Wisconsin gets the nod based more on track record than clear potential.  The injury to Corey Clement is big (Husker fans, feel free to insert a cell phone joke here), and the NFL scouts aren’t lining up to see Joel Stave.  But the Badgers do have the easiest cross over games (Rutgers and at Maryland), have Iowa at home, and likely have a healthy mental edge on Nebraska.
  2. Minnesota.  Arguably the best defense in the division, the Gophers would likely be a strong favorite if a) their offense was better and/or b) they didn’t have the toughest schedule in the division (Michigan and at Ohio State).  Still, you underestimate Minnesota at your own risk.
  3. Nebraska.  The Huskers have the best offense in the division, a very strong run defense, and game-changing weapons on special teams.  But the Big Red has big issues with pass defense and pass rush, and is paper-thin at many critical positions.    There are other concerns with NU’s ability to avoid penalties and mental errors, and to avoid the one quarter each game where nothing goes right.  NU certainly has the talent and coaching to win the division, but this program needs to prove it can win big games again.
  4. Northwestern.  In the relatively short time I’ve been following the Big Ten, one pattern has become clear:  When Northwestern gets preseason hype, they fall apart.  When the Wildcats are ignored, they are sneaky good.  This is a sneaky good year, having beaten Stanford and Duke (thus winning the Brainiac Cup).  October is big for the other NU:  if they can go 4-0 or 3-1 against Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska, they could coast into Indy.
  5. Iowa.  Kirk Ferentz’s seat was getting very very hot, but four straight wins have the Hawkeye faithful ready for a return to glory  – or at least willing to hold off on shoving Ferentz out the door.  If he can get a program that has been mediocre (if not bad) in the last three years to Indy, he deserves a contract extension.  Cross over games with Maryland and at Indiana will help his cause.
  6. Illinois.  It’s never good when you fire your head coach a week before the season starts, yet the Illini may be better for it – especially in the long run.  The issue in Champaign is talent and consistency.  Don’t be surprised if they play a spoiler role for one of the teams above them in the standings.
  7. Purdue.  The bad news:  The Boilermakers do not currently have a win over a FBS team.  The good news:  Purdue probably could finish fifth or sixth in the East.

 

Big Ten Championship

If everything holds to form, we’ll see a repeat of Ohio State and Wisconsin in Indianapolis.  This time, the Badgers make the game interesting…for a quarter, before the Buckeyes rout them again.

Dark horse prediction:  Michigan State pulls the upset in Columbus and heads to Indy undefeated and ranked #1.  They face a Nebraska team who lost 35-17 to the Spartans in Lincoln as Connor Cook threw for 375 yards and five touchdowns.  This time, Cook goes out with an early injury and Mark Banker’s run defense shuts down the Spartans.  Mike Riley’s offense clicks on all cylinders as Nebraska shocks the nation with a 31-9 win.

Near (Southern) Miss

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Feit Can Write

Hurri-Can’t Believe They Broke My Heart Again

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Feit Can Write

South Alabama Slamma Jamma

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Why?  As a writer for the site, I earn a fraction of a penny per page view.  And with three mouths to feed, and a poor wife who becomes a football widow 12 Saturdays a year, I need those penny parts to keep everybody happy.  

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Feit Can Write

B. Y. (is it always one second) U.

Thanks for stopping by!  While I am very grateful for those who take the time to read my work, I would greatly it if you read this one on HuskerMax.com.  

Why?  As a writer for the site, I earn a fraction of a penny per page view.  And with three mouths to feed, and a poor wife who becomes a football widow 12 Saturdays a year, I need those penny parts to keep everybody happy.  

Thank you,

Feit Can Write

2015 Husker Preview – Unanswered Questions

In taking an in-depth look at what to expect for the 2015 season, we’ve covered some reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be pessimistic.  Between them, you’d think we have a pretty good gauge on how things will go this fall.

But yet, lingering questions remain.

Some of these may be evident by the end of the BYU game, while others may not be known until January.  Here are some lingering questions, along with my best guess on how they’ll be answered:

Does Mike Riley fully understand what he’s gotten himself into?  This is a question that I’ve thought about many times this off-season.  As you and I know, Nebraska is a unique place* and our singular focus and passion for the football team can catch outsiders by surprise.  For an example, consider the two previous head coaches.  I’m guessing each of them had a moment when they thought “Holy crap, what have I done?”.

*Some say there’s no place like it.

I thought about this during his introductory press conference (broadcast live on multiple TV and radio stations across the state).  Or when 60,000 people showed up for a scrimmage in April.  Or last month at Fan Day when the line for his autograph stretched over 100 yards and he was mobbed by fans as he tried to leave the field.

For his part, Riley has said all the right things in every interview.  He truly appears to appreciate our particular brand of football fervor and seems genuinely appreciative and excited to be a part of it.  There’s a part of me that thinks he “Gets It”.

But there is a part of me that knows Mike Riley has never come out of the tunnel on Football Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska with 90,000 fans in red going crazy.  When he does, will he say “Holy crap” or “Here we go”?

Will Tommy Armstrong be Joe Dailey 2.0?  For those who have repressed memories of  2004, here is the short version:  Joe Dailey was a good quarterback recruited to play in an option based offense.  When Frank Solich was replaced by Bill Callahan, they tried to make Dailey into Rich Gannon.  Dailey looked amazing in the Spring Game, and showed some flashes during the 2004 season.  But mostly, Dailey looked a square peg being pounded into a round hole, and his numbers (17 TD, 19 INT, 49% completion) reflected that.  More importantly, Callahan and company navigated Dailey and the Huskers to a 5-6 record, losing multiple games by trying to win them through the air (see also: Iowa State, 2004).

Despite Riley’s reputation for running “pro style”, pass heavy offenses, I don’t see Armstrong being asked to throw it 40+ times a game or Riley and Langsdorf trying to implement their system completely in Year 1.  Instead, they understand that Nebraska is a “win now” job and Riley has said he wants Armstrong running plays he feels confident that he can execute.  That said, keep an eye on the passes that Armstrong struggles with – are they being removed from the playbook or will Langsdorf keep calling them?

Is completion percentage the stat to track if you want to gauge Armstrong’s success?  Nope, forget completion percentage.  While Armstrong will certainly need to improve upon his 53% completion rate from 2014, that stat can be misleading.  With the combination of another year of experience, an actual quarterback coach, and an increased use of screen passes and short throws to backs and tight ends, a jump in completion percentage is all but guaranteed.

Instead, the stat to watch is touchdown to interception ratio.  To me, TD:INT speaks to Armstrong’s accuracy as a passer, as well as the offense’s success.  Is Armstrong leading the team on scoring drives or is he making bad decisions and forcing throws?  In 2014, Armstrong had a TD:INT ratio of 1.83 (22 TDs to 12 INTs).  That ranked him 56th in the nation (tied with Rutgers QB Gary Nova).  In the Big Ten, Armstrong and Nova were tied for fourth – which really says how poor the quarterbacking in the B1G was last year (four quarterbacks, including three from the West, had more interceptions than touchdowns).

Where should Armstrong end up?  Well for comparison, check out the numbers put up by some other QBs last season:

  • Marcus Mariota:  10.5
  • Cody Kessler:  7.8
  • Brett Hundley:  4.4
  • J.T. Barrett:  3.4 (led the Big 10)
  • Jake Rudock:  3.2
  • Connor Cook:  3.0
  • Dak Prescott:  2.5
  • Brad Kaaya:  2.2
  • Sean Mannion:  1.9
  • Christian Hackenberg:  0.8
  • Trevor Siemian:  0.6 (last of the 12 B1G QBs with enough attempts to qualify)

With the first year in a new offense, I think 2.0 – 2.5 is a good target.  If Armstrong can get above 3.0, Nebraska probably wins the West and Danny Langsdorf earns every penny of his salary.

Who will be the breakout players on offense and defense?  There are lots of young guys getting their first big taste of playing time.  And there are existing guys who may blossom with new schemes and coaching (think Ndamukong Suh after Bo and Carl Pelini came to town).

On offense, I think of guys like Nick Gates, freshmen phenoms Stanley Morgan and Mikale Wilbon, or former walk-ons Lane Hovey and Trey Foster.  However, I’m going with tight end Cethan Carter.  He has the physical traits of the new breed tight ends playing on Sundays and has shown that he can get open.  Unlike Beck who thought the tight end was antiquated, Riley and Langsdorf seem willing to make them viable weapons in the offense.  I know there have been some questions about Carter’s work ethic in camp, along with his suspension for the BYU game, but I’m hoping that serves as a wake-up call.

Defensively, there are a bunch of options.  I like the raw talent of Josh Kalu and Kieron Willams.  I’ve heard great things about Luke Gifford and Dedrick Young.  I’m planning on waving the Jack Gangwish flag at every opportunity.  But I’m going with Josh Banderas.  You can see the athletic ability dripping off of him, and even in the graduate level calculus of Bo Pelini’s defense, you could see the potential.  I’m thinking that in a “high school” defense that encourages him to make plays, Bando could be all conference.

Who takes a step back?  The flip side of talented underclassmen and a coaching change is that sometimes guys who were contributors last year are lost in the depth chart this year.  On offense, I reluctantly look to Imani Cross.  There are too many guys splitting too many carries for Cross to show what he could do as an every down back.  I like Cross a lot and think he could be a great every down back in the right system – I just don’t think Nebraska is going to run that system.

On defense, I’m leaning towards Charles Jackson.  A year ago in fall camp, he was being hyped as physical freak and a star in waiting. Now after being hurt all last year and a coaching change, he is somewhat without a defined position or role.

Of all of the questions, I’m hoping I’m wrong about this one.

Is Mike Cavanaugh’s plan to only play a starting five on the offensive line a smart idea?  In interviews, I have seen Coach Cav say that he prefers to name a starting five who get the vast majority of snaps.  Players have said that if you’re on the starting five, you may not see the field.  The idea is that by having the same five guys out there series after series, game after game, the line will play more as a cohesive unit than a revolving door of linemen (which, by the way, is an amusing mental image).

I understand the concept, but I wonder if there isn’t value in bringing in a “swing” player once or twice a quarter to give a guy a rest, provide some extra coaching, or allow them to kick start a rushing game that may struggle at times.  It’s often said that Nebraska has more fans interested in the intricacies of offensive line play than any other fan base.  If that’s true, consider this something else to keep an eye on.

How many touches will the fullback get?  Speaking of things that are unique to the Nebraska fan base, there is the obsession that some of us have with getting the fullbacks involved in the offense.  I’m definitely a member of the Fullback Cult (give me a couple of minutes and I probably could name every starting fullback for the last 20 years), but my fullback fanaticism is multiplied by the senior season of Andy Janovich, from my hometown (Gretna, NE).  To the best of my knowledge, nobody from my alma mater has scored a touchdown for Nebraska.  Heck, I think Janovich’s career yardage total (35) is 35 yards more than all of the other Gretna Dragons combined.  So yeah, I’m invested in this one.

The good news is I think Janovich could see the ball once or twice a game, if not more.  If he gets into the end zone, the guy losing his mind in North stadium will probably be me.

Will the “tap out” rate be lower than it was in years past?  I’m not referring to MMA here.  Instead, I’m talking about how players signal that they need to come off the field by tapping their helmet.  In the past few years, there were several players a game who would tap out.  Some were injured, and some just needed a breather on the sideline before coming back in.

I respect players for knowing when they are not able to give 100% – I’d rather have a back up get beat for a touchdown than a starter who is gassed.  But in a perfect world, the player would be in good enough shape to not need a blow during an eight-play drive.  I never bought into blaming former Strength & Conditioning coach James Dobson for knee injuries, but players tapping out because they’re tired definitely goes on his tab.  The reviews on new S&C coach Mark Philipp have been very positive.  I’m hopeful that translates to the field.  We should find out during an unseasonably warm September Saturday afternoon.

What is the statute of limitations for comparisons between Bo Pelini and Mike Riley?  You know it is going to happen.  A lot.  Somebody talking or writing about Nebraska will make some type of comparison between how things are under Riley and how they were under Bo.  The odds are good that most will – innocently or otherwise – imply that Bo’s way was wrong.

But when should these compare and contrast sessions cease and desist?  When the ball is kicked off on Saturday?  At the end of the season?  When conference play starts?  At some point in the last nine months?  Never?

We all know Riley will appear in a lot of comparisons to Pelini this year.  The one word overview of each coach (fiery versus nice) makes for an easy target – especially for national media who are not around the program every day. As for the local guys and gals, I’d like to see everybody get start the season with four* Coaching Comparison cards where you can analyze how “Riley is doing X different from how Bo did it” without upsetting the masses.

*Technically, everybody started with five Coaching Comparison cards, but everybody used one when the Blackshirts came out before a game was played.

Use them all on the BYU game or horde them for the next four seasons.  The choice is yours, but when they’re gone you’re done using Pelini to illustrate a point about how Riley is running his program.

I’ll try to abide by this too, so feel free to call me out when I use up my cards.

How should we gauge success / progress?  This is the million dollar question for the season.  The simple answers you’ll hear are “meet or exceed Bo’s 9-4 record” or “avoid blowouts”.  But I’m not sure that tells the whole story.

Admittedly, this is a loaded question as “success” tends to refer to wins and losses while “progress” deals more with how the program has changed with Mike Riley at the helm.  Those are not necessarily the same thing.

As far as wins and losses go, yes, I think that the season will be declared a success if the 2015 Huskers win nine (or more) games.  It doesn’t matter if you consider nine wins to be the standard, a minimum expectation, or irrelevant.  When a national pundit does a two sentence summary on if Nebraska is trending up or down, the number of wins will be something they look closely at.  Without getting into the whole nine win debate, it will be likely be tough to make an argument that an 8-5 season under Riley was better than any of Bo’s 9-4 seasons.

As for “progress”, it is tougher to set trackable metrics around that.  Is “avoiding blowouts” not losing a game by 20+ points?  Is it having a higher ranked recruiting class?  Moving the team GPA and arrest numbers in the appropriate directions?

Husker Hot Takes – 9/2/2015

Let’s await Game Day with another edition of Husker Hot Takes:


Jon Schuetz is in (and then right back out) as public address announcer.

This fiasco is not a good look – at all – for the University.  First off, are they really setting the precedent that  all social media posts are fair game, even those made months before you are a candidate for a job?  I completely get not saying anything negative while a UNL employee, but the idea that something posted months ago disqualifies somebody from a job is concerning.

Then, there is the perception that University leadership is does not tolerate those who publicly criticize University officials.  I am a supporter of Chancellor Perlman, especially for the things he has done for UNL (you know, the actual school – not necessarily the athletic department).  But by this standard I’m likely disqualified from ever holding a public-facing job at UNL – as are the majority of people with a Facebook or Twitter account.  I don’t recall bashing Perlman here or on social media, but the odds are good that somebody could find something they find objectionable.

Finally, how do you make the hire – let alone send out a press release – when you haven’t finished vetting the candidate?  If a review of the candidate’s social media accounts for questionable content is protocol, then you probably should let that process finish before making any announcements.  Had UNL done that, they find the “offensive” post, tell Schuetz that they’re going another direction, and both parties are spared public embarrassment.

As for Schuetz, kudos to him for taking the high road and handling this with nothing but class.  He didn’t try to say he was “hacked” – he owned what he wrote and respects UNL’s decision.  From what I’ve heard, that is the type of man and professional he is.  Long time company man Lane Grindle will be behind the PA mic on Saturday.  I haven’t read if he has the job permanently or on an interim basis.  In any case, it’s worth noting that Perlman is set to retire in June.

All the cool kids are wearing black

I’m happy to see the Blackshirts handed out – if for no other reason than avoiding the weekly Blackshirt Watch by the local media.  I’m also happy to see the tradition returning to its roots instead of the much maligned way that Pelini and staff handled it.  There are – to my knowledge – no written rules or criteria on when and how the Blackshirts should be handed out.  Although, I’m sure that given a choice, “how they did it in the mid-90’s” would be the preferred standard.

And that’s part of why this topic is close to “shark jump” status:  Had Pelini’s defenses maintained the high level of the 2009 squad, his method of giving out the shirts when they were “earned” on the field would probably become accepted as the right way.  But since his last few defenses had big issues, we almost universally reject his way of doing it.

Personally, I liked the Craig Bohl method of handing them out in a ceremonial type setting instead of just hanging them on a locker.  I think that method helps to underscore the legacy and exclusivity of the Blackshirt mystique (as well as creating a made-for-YouTube moment), but alas, Bohl’s defenses struggled too.

Jack Gangwish is my hero

Jack Gangwish had himself a pretty good Monday.  He endeared himself to the local media by offering some great quotes in the press conference (with “head-butting mother fathers” being a personal favorite) while displaying the passion that got him elected a team captain.  Then prior to practice, he received a Blackshirt and had an emotional reaction that has gone viral.

Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for in-state walk-ons who toil in obscurity, pay their dues, and earn key roles on Saturdays (see also: Makovicka, Jeff and Joel; Rigoni, Brandon; and dozens more).  Gangwish has entered that elite pantheon, and I’m excited to root for him this fall.

Mormons have a sense of humor (and Photoshop skills)

Husker fans on Twitter already know Faux Pelini (@fauxpelini) Tunnel Walk of Shame (@tunnelwalkshame), and Zombie Devaney (@ZombieDevaney) are some funny folks to follow.  But for the BYU game, you may want to consider following Boney Fuller (@boneyfuller).  He’s had some pretty funny tweets taking some good-natured swipes at the media guide head shots of Husker players (freshman TE Matt Snyder is a personal favorite, with honorable mention to kicker Drew Brown), as well as noting the resemblance between some Husker players and ears of corn.  My guess is he’ll have some more good content between now and the end of the game.

2015 Husker Preview: Reasons for Pessimism

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.”

*   *   *

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.

2015 Husker Preview: Reasons for Optimism

Finally.

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.

Exactly.

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.

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