Nebraska coach Mike Riley spent more than 45 minutes talking to fans at the Big Red Today Breakfast on Tuesday. And then he addressed reporters for 35 more minutes Wednesday to preview preseason camp.
So he’s shared a lot about his team this week.
Below is a condensed compilation of those comments — a position-by-position breakdown of Riley’s thoughts on the Huskers’ personnel. Obviously, things will change. NU has 27 practices scheduled before its season opener against Fresno State.
But for now, here’s a glimpse at where the Huskers stand:
Starter: Senior Tommy Armstrong. He’s in “great shape” and he’s taken another step forward as a leader, Riley said. Armstrong spent the summer watching lots of film with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, too. One on-field trait of Armstrong’s that Riley especially likes: the ability to make throws outside the pocket. “Tommy is an excellent play-action bootleg guy,” Riley said. “He throws as well on the run as anybody I’ve ever been around. I love it.”
Backups: Senior Ryker Fyfe, sophomore AJ Bush and freshman Patrick O’Brien. ... Fyfe has “come a long way in what we’re doing,” Riley said. He still has that quick release, and Riley noted that the Grand Island product has made significant strides in the weight room — “I told him the other day, ‘You’ve got shoulders now.’” ... On O’Brien, a likely redshirt, Riley said this: “We’re really excited about him, and his future development.”
Newcomer to watch: Junior transfer Tanner Lee. He can’t play this year. But he, along with Bush and O’Brien, give NU a solid core to work with once Armstrong and Fyfe graduate, Riley said. “When we hit it up again next winter time, it’s going to be a good look,” Riley said.
Starters: It’s complicated, Riley said Wednesday. There are three contenders — senior Terrell Newby, sophomore Devine Ozigbo and sophomore Mikale Wilbon — and at this point, no one’s emerged as the No. 1. “We’re going to continue to just let those guys play,” Riley said. “It might be where we rotate those guys (this season), but we don’t have to say that today.”
Newcomer to watch: Freshman Tre Bryant. He’s impressed already. Riley brought him up as he spoke Tuesday and Wednesday. “He may jump up in our fall camp and get in the picture there, too,” Riley said.
Starters: It could be a three-man rotation all season long, based on matchups and in-game scenarios. ... Junior Harrison Jordan is the bruiser. ... Junior Luke McNitt has some versatility, able to play the H-back position, catch the football and run with it. It’s intriguing to have a guy like that, Riley said. His thoughts on players with McNitt’s skill set: “You can use them in motion in the backfield. Be that lead guy. They can motion to the edge and be that H-back that you like there.” ... Senior Graham Nabity is listed at 210 pounds, but that’s just fine. Riley said he has used slimmer fullbacks before. Said Riley: “He’s going to be able to run the zone play inside. He can be a smart blocker. He can be an excellent receiver coming out of the backfield.”
Starters: Seniors Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. That’s just a guess based on those players’ experience level. Riley didn’t really even hint at who’ll start. He just said the group is as deep as he’s ever had.
Backups: They’re all going to play. Sophomore Stanley Morgan caught 25 passes last year. ... Junior De’Mornay Pierson-El is healthy again. “Being able to look at him and incorporate him into all those thoughts I had a year ago today about him — that would be exciting to do,” Riley said.
Newcomers to watch: Freshmen JD Spielman and Derrion Grim. ... Riley noted that Spielman is fully healthy after a knee injury — a piece of his kneecap broke off last spring, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Grim got a head start by joining the program last semester.
Starter: Senior Cethan Carter. He’s proven to be well-equipped as a receiver and a blocker. So look for NU to move him around a bit. “He will do some fullback-like things sometimes and he’ll do some tight end-like things sometimes,” Riley said.
Backups: Seniors Sam Cotton and Trey Foster. Riley said he wants to mix and match formations, hinting even that he feels more comfortable this year with the offense’s depth and that NU may change personnel groups more frequently. So there will be plenty of scenarios with two — and three — tight ends on the field.
Starters: Sophomore left tackle Nick Gates, sophomore left guard Jerald Foster, senior center Dylan Utter, sophomore right guard Tanner Farmer and junior right tackle David Knevel. “We have a set group probably on the offensive line right now,” Riley said. ... Farmer “made a big, big jump in the spring,” Riley said. ... Utter is well suited at center — “He’s smart and he’s tough,” Riley said. ... And Knevel, listed at 6-foot-9, 315 pounds? Said Riley: “He’s going to be the first guy off the bus.” Knevel has been encouraged by his own offseason work in the weight room, Riley said.
Backups: Senior Corey Whitaker “made a nice jump” during the spring, Riley said. “(He) competed well and is on the edge of stepping in.” ... Watch out for redshirt freshman guard Jalin Barnett. “This is a talented guy,” Riley said. “He has another few months to work. And how does he show up? He might show up in a way that we say, ‘Hey, this guy has a chance to be in the mix to be a starter.’” ... Three other names mentioned: redshirt freshman center Michael Decker, redshirt freshman tackle Christian Gaylord and senior tackle Sam Hahn.
Newcomer to watch: Freshman tackle Matt Farniok. Riley’s not named him this week, but the 6-foot-6, 300-pound South Dakota native was NU’s prized O-line addition in the last recruiting cycle. Keep an eye on him.
Starters: Sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun. With the way Akinmoladun approaches the game, he’s going to get better, Riley said. “A tremendous kid,” Riley said. “Hard-worker. Always up in the office. Always wanting to learn. Everything you want to do physically, Freedom works at it, and he studies it.” ... Senior Ross Dzuris seems like the early favorite for the other spot.
Backups: Redshirt freshman Alex Davis, who’s gained about 50 pounds in a year, can “run and move” and he has the work-ethic component, too, Riley said. “Alex is another one of those guys who can make a move,” he said. ... Sophomore Sedrick King is “one of those guys, frankly, we need to step up” — because he has some potential as a pass rusher, Riley said. King performed well in spring ball before an injury, but he’s worked hard since and has carried a good attitude throughout, Riley said. ... Redshirt freshman DaiShon Neal wasn’t named specifically, but he’ll surely be in the mix.
Newcomer to watch: Freshman linebacker Quayshon Alexander. NU needs a pass rusher. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional defensive end. “Anybody that can surface like that, whether it’s a defensive end or a guy that we substitute in there that might be kind of that hybrid guy that’s a pass rusher/backer/defensive end — but he can rush the passer and make a difference,” Riley said.
Starters: Six guys could play. NU may very well need all six, too. ... Senior Kevin Maurice, the only one with significant in-game experience, is “prime for his best football,” Riley said. And the Huskers will need him. Said Riley: “He’s got to be that guy that we can really rely on.” ... There’s sophomore Mick Stoltenberg, who Riley said rehabbed “like crazy” after suffering a knee injury in bowl prep. “We’re all excited about Mick,” he said. ... The Davis twins — redshirt freshmen Carlos and Khalil — are talented and eager, but “they’re still learning about playing the game at this level,” Riley said. He did note Wednesday that the Davis brothers have “the greatest chance for upside as the season goes on.” ... Sophomore Peyton Newell took advantage of an opportunity back in April. “(He) really wasn’t in the picture a year ago, and all of a sudden he’s making some plays in spring practice,” Riley said. ... Senior Logan Rath continues “to work,” Riley said. He thinks Rath could put himself into that regular rotation.
Starters: Senior middle linebacker Josh Banderas. ... At outside linebacker: pick two between senior Michael Rose-Ivey, sophomore Dedrick Young and junior Marcus Newby. (The third guy will still play a ton.)
Backups: Junior Chris Weber, who ranked sixth on the team with 49 tackles last year, will work behind Banderas, Riley said. ... Said Riley: “Luke Gifford has had a great offseason physically.” The sophomore from Lincoln missed the second half of last season with a hip injury. ... Sophomore Tyrin Ferguson and redshirt freshman Mohamed Barry seem like candidates to at least make some special teams contributions — though Riley didn’t mention either this week.
Starters: Juniors Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones. Said Riley: “I really like the two corners that kind of emerged as we struggled with a lot of play at that position a year ago. Chris Jones and Josh Kalu — those are prototype-looking corners.”
Backups: Junior Boaz Joseph, senior Charles Jackson and redshirt freshman Eric Lee were the guys in the spring.
Newcomers to watch: Freshmen Lamar Jackson and Tony Butler. Neither was mentioned this week by Riley — but they certainly look the part. Jackson’s listed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. Butler’s 6-foot-2, 195 pounds. Riley did name Jackson back in June as one of the first-year guys who stood out immediately.
Starters: Senior Nate Gerry and sophomore Aaron Williams. ... Gerry provides NU with “stability,” Riley said. ... Williams, who missed spring ball with a shoulder injury, seems to be the favorite for the other safety spot. “(He’s) a real good football player,” Riley said. “Loves to play, plays with a lot of intensity, smart for a young guy.”
Backups: Riley noted that sophomore Antonio Reed gained some valuable experience in the Foster Farms Bowl. ... Junior Kieron Williams and redshirt freshman Avery Anderson will be there as well.
Starters: Junior kicker Drew Brown. ... Sophomore long snapper Jordan Ober. ... Freshman Caleb Lightbourn and redshirt freshman Isaac Armstrong will compete for the punting job — a battle that Riley would like to make a quick decision on. ... At holder, it’ll be Lightbourn, Armstrong or sophomore receiver Zack Darlington.
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