Nebraska expects plenty of competition at high-pressure positions. It starts in the trenches. The offensive line must replace three starters. The defensive line is deep. The secondary hopes to make significant strides after a roller coaster 2015. And, not the least: Who will emerge with the inside track to the backup quarterback job?
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FIVE POSITION BATTLES
Offensive line: Three starters depart, and the two who remain — Nick Gates and Dylan Utter — may move to different positions this spring. NU has seasoning at all of the offensive skill positions, but the offensive line is a major question mark that Mike Cavanaugh has to start to answer over 15 practices. Gates could move from right tackle to left tackle, while Utter, a guard last season, may get a look at center. Watch Paul Thurston and Michael Decker at center, too, and potentially Decker at guard, as well. Also at guard: Jerald Foster, Tanner Farmer and perhaps Jalin Barnett, who could be great on one play and average on the next. Behind Gates, there are few proven tackles, but 6-foot-9 junior David Knevel will get the first crack, with redshirt freshman Christian Gaylord and perhaps fifth-year senior Corey Whitaker potentially emerging. The competition should be fierce, and it needs to be.
Defensive line: In theory, Nebraska could start four seniors — Kevin Maurice, Kevin Williams, Greg McMullen and Ross Dzuris — across the front four. But that doesn’t seem likely if McMullen, now at 300 pounds, slides inside to tackle. New defensive line coach John Parrella will have four redshirt freshmen — Alex Davis, Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis and DaiShon Neal — and four sophomores — Freedom Akinmoladun, Mick Stoltenberg, Sedrick King and Peyton Newell — to coach up. Watch, too, for senior walk-on Logan Rath to make a move for playing time. He probably should have played more in 2015.
Backup quarterback: It’s better for everyone — everyone — if Tommy Armstrong is Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2016. He’ll be the No. 1 guy in spring, and he should hold on to the job pretty handily. But that No. 2 job needs to be all the way up for grabs, and four guys — Ryker Fyfe, AJ Bush, Zack Darlington and Patrick O’Brien — will be competing. Fyfe showed some flashes — good and bad — in his lone start at Purdue, but he can grow as a passer and decision-maker. Bush is the best athlete, but he needs to quiet his throwing motion and show more confidence in short passes. Darlington needs to flash more of a big-league arm. And O’Brien, who has so many of the best physical tools, needs to show an elementary grasp of the offense as an early enrollee.
Linebacker: From weakness to potential strength, here’s a position where perhaps only one starting job — the one belonging to Josh Banderas — is truly locked down. Banderas could play in the middle or on the outside, but he showed over the last half of the season that he needs to be on the field. But the outside ’backer jobs are up for grabs. Dedrick Young, Michael Rose-Ivey, Marcus Newby, Mohamed Barry and Luke Gifford will all get their looks. In the middle, Chris Weber will battle with Tyrin Ferguson. It’s likely that all of these guys will play on special teams. This unit could be a major strength in 2016 if position coach Trent Bray plays it right.
Safety: Nebraska has a clear starter in Nate Gerry, but the rest of it is as clear as mud since one potential starter, Antonio Reed, will miss spring football with a shoulder injury and Aaron Williams will miss at least part of it after getting a meniscus repaired. Who does that leave? Kieron Williams, who has his best chance yet to make a move; redshirt freshman Avery Anderson, a natural playmaker in high school; some walk-ons; and perhaps Charles Jackson, unless he fits better at cornerback. When Nebraska uses a nickel or dime formation, which is likely in early-season games against Fresno State and Oregon, it’ll have to find an extra cornerback or two, as well.
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FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Cethan Carter: Nebraska found some creative ways to use the skills of the 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end last year, particularly in the season’s second half. He finished with 24 catches — and 10 of those came in the final three games. He ran a couple of reverses and caught a few screen passes. He showed his big-play ability — breaking loose downfield for long gains or leaping over defenders for highlight-reel grabs. He was a tenacious blocker, too. Carter did it all, really. Which makes you wonder: What more can he do? Coaches are certainly brainstorming. Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf always had the reputation of getting the most out of their tight ends at Oregon State. So one would expect Carter’s role to grow in his senior season.
David Knevel: He’s spent three seasons preparing for this chance. All of the weight-room workouts, the on-field drill work, the individual film work. Knevel is finally a favorite to earn a starting job, no longer viewed as a developmental project who could grow while veterans handled the on-field duties. This time, it’s the 6-foot-9, 315-pound junior-to-be from Canada who will enter spring as the example-setting first-teamer. The expectations suddenly rise. Is Knevel ready for the increased role? He’s barely played, always labeled as a guy still trying to put it all together. The Huskers certainly need him to figure it out. They don’t have many options at offensive tackle.
Tommy Armstrong: A team’s quarterback naturally attracts the most attention. And this spring is no different. After an up-and-down season, Armstrong vowed to focus on improving all aspects of his game, starting with the fundamentals. Throwing mechanics, footwork, passing progressions. “Treat me like a freshman,” he told the coaches. Top priorities are cutting down on the 16 interceptions and improving the 55.2 completion percentage. But will there be any evidence of Armstrong’s renewed commitment this spring? Just in case he needed any more motivation, a new fan favorite — freshman Patrick O’Brien — will be standing alongside him in practice. Armstrong has never been one to back away from competition.
Marcus Newby: There was a thought two years ago that Newby could be an effective pass-rush specialist. He did show promise in that role as a redshirt freshman, but the extent of Newby’s ability as a true linebacker was unknown. What was his ceiling? Could he handle all of the responsibilities at linebacker? He answered some of those questions last season. Despite being slowed by injury, Newby recorded 34 tackles. Five of those came behind the line of scrimmage. He led all linebackers with four pass breakups. He’ll be squarely in the mix for playing time at outside linebacker in the fall.
Freedom Akinmoladun: The former tight end had quite the start to his redshirt freshman year. Akinmoladun’s athleticism stood out in practice. His work ethic off the field indicated that he was committed to learning all he could about his new position. But the Huskers probably didn’t expect him to get 4½ sacks in the first five games. Then a knee injury slowed his pace. Akinmoladun never seemed as explosive after surgery, but he’s had time to recover. Now he can dive deeper into the intricacies of the defensive end position. He has plenty of potential. He’ll be in better position to fulfill it this spring.
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Will the defense defend the pass better?: The defensive line was a wrecking crew last spring, but the pass defense was far more leaky. The coverage issues carried over into the season. Nebraska’s secondary has more than enough talent and experience returning to improve on its 2015 performance.
Who emerges at running back?: There will be a healthy competition at the spot, but it’s hard to tell if the Huskers have an elite player here — an Ameer Abdullah or Rex Burkhead or Roy Helu. Terrell Newby started most of the season and was fair, but he didn’t always seem to attack holes. Devine Ozigbo had a strong game in the Foster Farms Bowl. Mikale Wilbon and Adam Taylor have to make a move. At fullback, you may see a battle between Harrison Jordan and Graham Nabity.
Does Mike Riley have the ears — all of them — of the current roster?: NU withstood a tough transition from one coaching staff to the next. Players have admitted to some struggles with buying in and bonding with the new head coach and his assistants. After a season that nobody really enjoyed — 6-7 isn’t that much fun — all of the Huskers need to be on the right page.
Which walk-ons emerge?: Each season, there are usually one or two who make a move in the spring. Last year, it was Chris Weber, Lane Hovey and Ross Dzuris. Who are the guys in 2016? Watch offensive and defensive tackle, and perhaps safety.
Is Tommy Armstrong ready to take the final step?: He can be an effective on-field leader. He can be an explosive playmaker. He can run tough and sometimes make the hardest passes look easy. So what’s left? Game management. Sound — and sometimes boring — decision-making.