LINCOLN — At the risk of oversimplification, Mike Riley faced two major tests upon his hiring at Nebraska. In the final Rewind of the spring, we’ll review both.
The first test — to repair off-the-field relationships ruptured by the Bo Pelini era while winning over a locker room still loyal to Bo — Riley was practically born to pass, and he’s consistently aced it with boosters, fans, ex-Huskers and folks in the athletic department. He’s the first Husker coach since Tom Osborne to have political, people-reading and CEO skills who can navigate a nuanced Nebraska culture. It was the more important test in Riley’s first 100 days and he couldn’t afford to fail; a mass exodus of players would have set the program back a few years.
The second test — the on-field stuff — has just begun. The proctor just started the timer. Riley’s approach to this camp — a deep and time-consuming evaluation of the roster, a willingness to shape his staff around the strengths of what’s on hand — was at least as much about where Nebraska’s been as where it’s going.
Riley’s said all the right things about winning immediately — and, if a manageable schedule breaks right, maybe he will — but the plot hasn’t really changed from the start of spring. Fifteen practices later, we remain at: Be patient with the offense; be bullish on the defense; be demanding of special teams. It’s a broad set of maxims that may or may not win nine games, but it at least gets its arms around the state of the football stuff. I’ll break down all three phases:
» Offense: Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf want to strike a compromise, and Nebraska affords them a perfect chance to do it: Instead of having to learn the intricacies of a spread-zone option offense, they inherited players who already know it. That could delay the staff from putting its full offensive imprint on this bunch, but it probably staves off clunker games, too. The square peg-round hole games of the early Bill Callahan era.
Tommy Armstrong’s still the guy at quarterback heading into fall, and a quick bit of praise from Riley on Wednesday sealed it.
“There’s a lot of respect for that guy,” Riley said. “There should be. He shows a lot of confidence in going out there and playing, which is always good in every player, but you absolutely have to see it in your quarterback.”
Riley and Langsdorf were pleasantly surprised by wide receiver talent. The running game probably has, for now, less definition; it’ll be what the backs — I’ll take Terrell Newby and Mikale Wilbon, long term — can handle. The offensive line needs a clear starting five that may not be settled until Ryne Reeves and Zach Sterup are healthy and progressing through fall camp.
Saturday’s spring game mostly churned up intrigue at backup quarterback. AJ Bush has more physical tools while Zack Darlington seems to “get” the offense better. Darlington gave an interesting answer when asked when he thought the offense might completely gel.
“I’d give it maybe three weeks into fall camp until we can really start clicking,” Darlington said. “We have the offense, we have the ability to know what we have to do. Now, in the offseason, it’s just studying it and knowing it inside and out.”
You can’t show it if you don’t know it. Bush, gifted enough to play several positions, had better study up. Darlington — only a quarterback — will.
» Defense: Mark Banker’s system promotes playmaking and aggressiveness in attacking the backfield; so long as the cornerbacks are up to the coverage responsibilities — I think they will be — this unit can initially come close to its pass-defense prowess under Pelini while improving against the run. And let’s be clear: The Big Ten West will be won or lost on the ground, against the run. Do you see an NFL quarterback in this division? Neither do I.
On paper, Nebraska has the best defensive line in the West and arguably the best trio of linebackers. Josh Banderas, energized by a new staff and system, could be the defense’s breakout player. If the offense was vanilla in the spring game, the defense, aside from a twist scheme on a pass rush, was almost flavorless. Banker hasn’t shown much of what his defense can ultimately do.
» Special teams: Saturday’s prettiest play unfolded before De’Mornay Pierson-El caught his first punt. Special teams coordinator Bruce Read had designed a basic punt return so well, with such big lanes, a tight end could have rumbled for 20 yards; Pierson-El took Sam Foltz’s punt for 46.
Pierson-El is America’s top returning punt returner, while Foltz has a shot at being the Big Ten’s best punter. Read, paid $450,000 to run the special teams, should produce an elite unit with Nebraska’s sheer roster size. Read has the luxury of using players whose entire game day boils down to a couple kickoffs.
Special teams needs to be Nebraska’s edge.
So, too, does strength and conditioning.
Programs tend to guard what they do in the weight room even more closely than their playbooks — at least it’s been that way at Nebraska for more than a decade — so it’s not always easy to figure out where the Huskers excelled and where they struggled under previous strength coach James Dobson. You just saw the product on the field.
In four years of big games, when Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah, Rex Burkhead, Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell and Pierson-El weren’t making great individual plays, Nebraska was, from a physical standpoint, a middle-of-the-pack team in a middle-of-the-pack conference. That’s harsh reality and that even includes Randy Gregory, an elite athlete who’d nevertheless disappear in some Big Ten games.
In 2013 and 2014, you couldn’t tell Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and sanctions-ravaged Penn State apart physically — you could have switched jerseys and been none the wiser — and Michigan State was cut above all four. And Ohio State? The Badgers beat Nebraska 59-24. The Badgers lost to Ohio State 59-0, in case you want to know the indoor stadium-no-bad-weather gap between the Buckeyes and the Big Ten West.
New strength coach Mark Philipp has to change that.
He’s more visible and active — he, for example, helped lead the Tunnel Walk on Saturday instead of Riley — than Dobson was, which may lead to the consistent accountability that at times seemed missing in the previous era. Whatever the edge is, the Huskers can’t look second-tier to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State — three teams that seemed stronger and, in the case of the Spartans, faster than NU last season. There’s no excuse for it; these teams are not Alabama, LSU, Florida State, or even Ohio State but comparable Big Ten programs with worse facilities and lower-ranked recruits than Nebraska enjoys.
So Philipp, like Read, has to be an edge-maker. Amid Riley’s staff, they won’t get as much publicity, but they’re important cogs in the machine.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Defensive end Jack Gangwish: A high-spirited leader, Gangwish doesn’t do much quietly, but he had a good spring camp, topped with a sack in the spring game. Gangwish will be a more complete player in 2015 than he was in 2014 as a breakout player.
» Defensive tackles Kevin Maurice and Kevin Williams: Found their stride midway through the game and got into the backfield a few times. They’re needed for depth.
» Linebacker Dedrick Young: Love his speed and instincts. He may start as a true freshman.
» Wide receiver Jariah Tolbert: While a work in progress, in Tolbert you can see the faint outlines of a Maurice Purify. He’ll play in 2015 and bloom in 2016.
» Cornerback Chris Jones: Went stride-for-stride a few times with Brandon Reilly on deep passes. The sophomore and redshirt freshman Trai Mosley both had strong camps; they, along with Josh Kalu, are favorites to back up Daniel Davie and Jonathan Rose heading into fall camp.
» Running back Graham Nabity: I’m not sure where he fits into the running back puzzle, but I prefer him to at least one scholarship running back right now. Ran for 66 yards in reserve work.
» 20 percent: Nebraska’s conversion rate on third and fourth down combined. The red-zone conversion rate — 33 percent — wasn’t much better, but Riley chose not to kick many field goals in the red zone.
» Zero: Lost fumbles. Nebraska had only one major exchange gaffe, too, when Darlington didn’t get a snap. According to the 2014 spring game stats, NU didn’t lose fumbles that afternoon, either. Though fumbles lost can often be a matter of luck — where the ball bounces, and to whom — raw fumbles aren’t necessarily. Nebraska nationally ranked 122nd (27 fumbles), 123rd (32), 121st (35), 117th (32) and 120th (45!) during the last five years in fumbles. The 2010 mark of 45 actually ranked dead last; there were 120 teams in Division I.
» 14: Scholarship offensive linemen that line coach Mike Cavanaugh must try to organize as he puts together a depth chart. That 14 doesn’t include walk-on Dylan Utter — who’s in the hunt for a starting job. This is a tough job, because Cavanaugh’s probably working with more depth and potential talent than he did at Oregon State, but he also wants a top five who can develop chemistry and continuity. Keeping this whole bunch prepared — and happy — will be a challenge, but Cavanaugh may find the Big Ten is more rugged on offensive linemen than the Pac-12 was. By the end of each Husker season in the Big Ten, the line has been battered and hobbled. For whatever reason, it doesn’t hold up.
» 123: All-purpose yards from Pierson-El. On seven touches. One touchdown, one return to set up a field goal, and one run that helped set up a touchdown. What could Pierson-El do during the season? Ameer Abdullah averaged 174.8 all-purpose yards per game last season, 153.8 in 2013 and 134.6 in 2012. At Oregon State, James Rodgers averaged 152.8 in 2008, Jacquizz Rodgers averaged 150.9 in 2009 and 122.6 in 2010. That 2012 Abdullah rate looks like a pretty good goal for Pierson-El, who’s going to get the ball a lot next season. A. Lot.
» Three: Scholarships over the 85 total limit. That’s what Nebraska is if all of its 2015 recruits academically qualify. So at least three players who went through spring probably aren’t with the program in the fall. Don’t be surprised if transfer announcements start this week, and don’t be alarmed; turnover is natural in any regime change.
After each game, I ask Husker fans to head to my Facebook page and give feedback on what they saw. Selected responses are below.
Aaron Britton: “I like our team. Think we match up well in the Big 10. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re going to lose to BYU and other spread teams that have the talent. We looked very spread out like (former defensive coordinator) Craig Bohl in 2001. Our linebacker splits were huge. Maybe no big deal, especially against Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, etc. But against some speed/spread teams? Not sure.”
Larry Casper: “I liked the positive vibe from the Coaches, team and crowd. The former players in attendance added to the stamp of approval.”
David Robert Harding: “Armstrong looked decent, but he still seems to lack the ability to throw passes with different speeds. He always seems to want to throw it as hard as he possibly can, but sometimes a touch pass would do. Some nice runs by other running backs, QBs looked a little shaky overall but I’m trusting the coaches to continue to develop them – I think they’ll be fine by September.”
Philip Rongisch: “What really can be gleaned from the spring game? We always leave the game with heroes and zeroes but the final product come fall is always different. Patience is the key. I believe the defense will need to carry the load before the offense irons things out when the games mean something. For now, positive vibes with the defense; tenuous optimism with the offense.”
Matt Bauerly: “Definitely felt weird not seeing a head coach lead the team out on the field during the tunnel walk. The team has a lot athletes that are going to be put into position to make plays... I hope they make a lot of them.”
Northwestern held its “spring game” — more of a practice with peppy fun — on the women’s lacrosse field, which is actually a cool setting because it’s on Lake Michigan. The Wildcats, searching for quarterback stability frankly since Dan Persa left, will consider Zack Oliver, Clayton Thorson and Matt Alviti. They have all 57 career attempts between the three of them, all coming from Oliver, a junior.
Minnesota played its spring game at its stadium in front of 10,000, a good crowd in a pro sports town. The Gophers are tinkering with a no-huddle attack on offense — maybe an offshoot of BYU’s spread option system — but the talk of camp, according to the Star Tribune, has been defensive end Hank Ekpe, a three-star recruit coach Jerry Kill found in Texas a few years ago. Ekpe is a junior.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Kill told the Star Tribune after the 6-foot-5, 244-pound Ekpe had two sacks in the spring game. Hank Ekpe’s brother, Scott, is a senior and could start at defensive tackle this year.
Hope, fear, no loathing. And maybe a Mike Riley sighting in Omaha if Nebraska just happens to make a run to the College World Series. Hey - it’s worth a shot, right?
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