LINCOLN — Nebraska will be replacing a four-year starter at quarterback, its leading rusher from the last two seasons and three senior receivers who have combined for 293 catches and 30 touchdowns in their careers.
Nick Gates sees all that as good reason for the Husker line to try to put the offense on its back next season.
NU will start four sophomore linemen in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, the same four who surrounded senior center Dylan Utter to finish the regular season.
And Gates said he and Jerald Foster will set the pace, the main objective being to find the intensity that can take Nebraska from something like 9-3 to something better.
“There’s definitely a lot of things we can fix, and that’s what me and Jerald plan to do in this offseason,” Gates said. “We’re definitely gonna get on people’s butts and get after them. So we’re not going to be everybody’s best friends, like it kind of was this year.”
Gates will be a third-year starter in 2017 and the ringleader at left tackle. Foster returned from a knee injury to start the last three games at left guard, Tanner Farmer started all but two games at right guard and walk-on Cole Conrad settled at right tackle with David Knevel battling an ankle injury.
The chemistry will start to show, Gates said, the longer some of the returnees work together. The potential impact of three redshirt freshmen also will be something to watch, starting with John Raridon at center.
“They’ll definitely step in and be right with us when their time comes,” Gates said. “We’re definitely excited for that.”
There will be an adjustment at quarterback, with Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien vying to replace Tommy Armstrong. I-backs Devine Ozigbo, Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon will see what they can do with Terrell Newby gone. Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El will have to handle whatever they can of the receiving void left by Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore.
The foundation of the line is obvious, however, and coach Mike Riley knows the value.
“I don’t want to start talking too much about next year, but there are some exciting parts like that,” Riley said last week.
Gates is OK with everybody leaning on the left side.
“Me and Jerald, we’re definitely going to be the leaders of it next year,” Gates said. “Not everybody is going to like us, because we’re definitely going to lead a little different than it was this year.”
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2016 offense in review
Nebraska might be left with a larger hole to fill at I-back than people think after Terrell Newby plays his final game at the Music City Bowl.
The senior accumulated 2,224 career rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, but was left with a tall order having to replace the popular and productive Ameer Abdullah after the 2014 season.
Newby won over coach Mike Riley, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and assistant Reggie Davis the last two seasons with his work and reliability. Some of the biggest dividends came in back-to-back fourth quarters against Illinois and Indiana this season, when Newby ran for 170 yards and 6.3 per carry to help secure much-needed wins.
“He’s a good football player,” Riley said in October. “He’s a versatile football player, and he’s a tough-minded guy. I really like him.”
Newby likely is headed for the No. 22 spot on the Huskers’ all-time rushing chart, needing 21 yards against Tennessee to pass Jeff Kinney in his final career game.
Tommy Armstrong added to career numbers that left him as the Huskers’ all-time leader in total offense, passing yards, completions and passing TDs. But it was a tough last few weeks to his final season after being knocked out at Ohio State and with his current hamstring injury.
Nebraska started Big Ten play with a win at Northwestern as Armstrong completed 18 of 29 passes for 246 yards with a season-high 132 rushing yards on 13 carries. A 59-yard throw to Alonzo Moore led to the go-ahead score just before halftime.
Armstrong never quite found the accuracy that Riley and offensive coordinator Langsdorf craved, completing a career-low 51.4 percent of his passes. It was accentuated in the three losses, with Armstrong going 29 of 81 (35.8 percent) with one TD.
Either Armstrong or Taylor Martinez has started 87 of the Huskers’ last 92 games, so Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien will offer some new blood next season — and a different look. Teammates have spoken highly of Lee, and the junior has the benefit of already playing two seasons at Tulane (19 starts).
Newby never put up the big-time numbers, but the senior was a consistent and steady performer. Newby would need 136 yards in the Music City Bowl to reach 1,000 for the first time.
Newby showed some of his durability and toughness against Illinois by running for 113 yards on 16 carries in the fourth quarter, and also catching a 21-yard swing pass. NU needed all of it, going into the fourth trailing 16-10 and without receiver Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter.
Nebraska needed a lift at Iowa with Armstrong hurting, but it just wasn’t there. The I-backs and fullbacks combined for 84 yards on 23 carries, and no run longer than 11.
Nebraska started to favor freshman Tre Bryant down the stretch as Devine Ozigbo was slow to recover from an ankle injury. Bryant, Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon all offer something different, but it will be up to Bryant or Ozigbo to take the next step without Newby.
If not for a midseason ankle injury that left Nick Gates hobbling for about a month, the left tackle might have pushed for more than third-team All-Big Ten honors. Gates is only a sophomore, and the Music City Bowl will be his 23rd career start.
It was before the injuries started to pile up — and before it became obvious that Oregon had defensive problems — but NU felt good about 228 rushing yards against the Ducks in September.
Nebraska never had everybody together healthy and playing well at the same time once it reached Big Ten play. It showed several weeks, including the Purdue game when a leaky Boilermakers defense held the Huskers to 83 rushing yards after three quarters.
There is reason for optimism with Gates among four sophomores who started the Iowa game (along with Jerald Foster, Tanner Farmer and Cole Conrad). The depth should improve, too, with four freshmen coming off redshirts, including three expected to possibly challenge for work right away.
Westerkamp’s numbers weren’t as gaudy as the season before, and the senior missed two-plus games with injury, but Westerkamp again made all the expected catches and some that left you shaking your head. Now out with a knee injury, he had 38 receptions this season, leaving him at 167 for his career.
Both Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore went over 100 yards receiving against Wyoming, and four others had at least one reception, including a 35-yard touchdown by walk-on Gabe Rahn.
Not much of anything worked at Ohio State, but NU had trouble with its receivers getting open and its quarterbacks finding them in the 62-3 loss. Westerkamp and Stanley Morgan were the only wideouts to catch passes.
It will be up to Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El to step up after Westerkamp, Moore and Brandon Reilly combined for 293 receptions and 30 TDs over the last four seasons. But the Huskers really like freshman JD Spielman, there should be more help from Rahn and Bryan Reimers, and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty are high-profile recruits.
Carter saw a drop in his receptions (from 24 to 17) and was down to 9.2 yards per catch, but he also missed three games because of an elbow injury. When he was healthy starting the season, his blocking helped fuel the run game.
Carter helped Nebraska break away at Northwestern with a 14-point third quarter. The senior caught a 4-yard touchdown pass, then had a 16-yard run on a reverse to get the Huskers into the red zone the following series.
The Husker tight ends supplied just three receptions for 26 yards in the three losses, and no play longer than 10 yards.
NU loses all kinds of experience with Carter, Sam Cotton and Trey Foster departing. Walk-ons Tyler Hoppes and Connor Ketter saw limited time behind them this season. This will be a huge offseason for Matt Snyder, David Engelhaupt and Jack Stoll to see who can take advantage of a wide-open opportunity.