LINCOLN — Nebraska football opens camp on Thursday with a collective heavy heart following the tragic death of punter Sam Foltz in a car crash.
It won’t be easy to move forward, especially at first. But, prior to Foltz’s passing, NU players, particularly the seniors, had big plans for the 2016 season — a desire to correct some of the mistakes they made in 2015 when the team lost five games by 13 points en route to a 6-7 season.
If Nebraska can reverse some of its small errors — and that’s a big if — the Huskers have a shot at playing for the Big Ten title. The Big Ten West can be won.
Here are five camp storylines to watch:
1. This season’s for Sam
One doesn’t “turn the page” from the loss of a good friend, or “move on” from the death of Nebraska punter Sam Foltz. Foltz’s memory will be on every page of the book, and the Huskers can move forward with that memory walking beside them. The 2016 season had set up as a simmering second chapter in the Mike Riley era, a chapter that promised to be more about whether the team could forge a better chemistry and which side of the still-ongoing debate of the Bo Pelini era might get the upper hand. Now the season has a completely different feeling to it. The team will have better chemistry and a much firmer purpose now. There will be far less room for pettiness. Whether it turns into wins, that’s hard to say. But Nebraska football — its coaches, players and fans — can come together over Foltz’s life and memory. NU’s special teams coordinator Bruce Read has to find a punter and a holder, and Foltz’s close friend, kicker Drew Brown, has to be given time to process the grief of Foltz’s passing.
2. Banker’s Boys
The Big Ten is a league full of great defenses. The offenses are at times challenged by recruiting location limitations, and thus mediocre skill talent. But the defenses? They’re stout. They’re physical. They’re well-coached. They stop the run and they generally create a lot of turnovers in the passing game.
Nebraska’s defense wasn’t nearly good enough in 2015, allowing 5.5 yards per play in Big Ten games. That ranked 10th in the Big Ten. The bottom four Big Ten teams in that category finished 5-27 in the league. The top four teams in that category finished 25-7.
Get the picture?
Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker has been Riley’s confidant and loyal lieutenant for more than a decade. But he hasn’t coordinated a top-50 scoring defense since 2012. His last three finished 91st, 98th and 75th in that category. Banker needs to bring it in 2016, especially in the secondary, where he personally took over coaching the safeties.
If Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin can field top-30 defenses, Nebraska can, too. No excuses not to.
3. Better backs and OL?
The too-simple answer to improving Nebraska’s run game, which wasn’t that bad in 2016 anyway, is to run quarterback Tommy Armstrong more often. Maybe that would work, but NU’s offensive line — and its running backs — could stand to improve, too. The Huskers’ line was so-so and inconsistent for most of last season — turning a corner over the last four games — while the running backs never seemed to get comfortable in the new offense and ran tentatively. Too often in 2015, a play that could have gained 5 yards gained only 3, a sharp reversal of, oh, many decades to the contrary. Ameer Abdullah gained 5 yards when only 3 were there. So did Rex Burkhead. So did Brandon Jackson. And Cory Ross. And Lawrence Phillips and Scott Baldwin and Doug DuBose and Rick Berns and Tony Davis and Jeff Kinney.
NU’s backs have to run better. And they have to be coached better. On the offensive line, Riley and his line coach, Mike Cavanaugh, have a real affinity for this young group, which could include three sophomores and three first-time starters. It’s been a while since the Huskers had a great offensive line. It has been only a year since they had a great running back. The absence of Abdullah hurt — dearly.
4. Tommy’s Time
There’s this great quote from “The Social Network.” Maybe you’ve heard it.
“If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
The logic is simple: When you’ve done it, then you did it. If you didn’t, then you haven’t.
And that’s kind of where the final season of Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong sits when it comes to avoiding big mistakes.
He’s one of the best playmaking quarterbacks Nebraska has ever enjoyed. He also throws way too many interceptions while trying to make those great plays. At this point, Armstrong will either stop throwing interceptions or he won’t. The coaches can, indeed, put him in a better position to succeed — third-and-7 at Illinois comes to mind — but that line, at least for some, is also just a cheap way to critique Riley. After all, Armstrong has made these baffling “mistake throws” for his entire career. So did his predecessor, Taylor Martinez. Armstrong and Martinez both make plays you can’t teach — and decisions you’d never teach them to make.
So Armstrong, a smart, tough guy with a strong arm, will either play within the system or he won’t. Riley’s offense has long been pretty aggressive — deep throws, jet sweeps and the like — but Armstrong, now in his fourth year of starting, will have to be more judicious on when to take chances. And he’ll have to be that way in November as much as he is in September.
Armstrong has the potential to do all of the stuff that’s being asked of him, which is why he’s never been challenged as NU’s starter since Riley arrived.
5. Full rooms on different sides of the experience spectrum
Nebraska wide receivers coach Keith Williams and defensive line coach John Parrella have something in common: They both have a lot of talented scholarship guys in their rooms.
Williams’ players are just much older. And much more proven.
NU’s wide receivers corps is top three in the Big Ten, and the camp battles for playing time should be interesting, because the Huskers have five guys — Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan — who could start. There are talented youngsters, like Derrion Grim and Lavan Alston, plus a walk-on, Donovan McDonald, who could be a deep threat.
Parrella’s defensive line has a ton of potential but not very much production aside from seniors Ross Dzuris and Kevin Maurice. Parrella will ask defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun to put together a full season and the redshirt freshmen Davis twins to begin battling for playing time at tackle. Also watch sophomores Mick Stoltenberg and Peyton Newell at tackle. Out at end, DaiShon Neal and Alex Davis have the frames of SEC guys. Parrella, who played in the NFL and understands techniques needed to win at the line of scrimmage, has to mold this clay, but it’s really good clay from which to work.
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