After a rocky first season in Lincoln, head coach Mike Riley looks to restore the winning culture at Nebraska.
The Huskers finished 6-7 in 2015 – just their third losing season since 1961. But they did finish strong, winning three of their last four games. It began with a win over No. 6 Michigan State Spartans and ended with an upset over UCLA Bruins in the Foster Farms Bowl. Their one loss during the stretch was to No. 5 Iowa in a one-score game.
Former head coach Bo Pelini never won less than nine games a year during his seven seasons in Lincoln. He would have struggled to get to that mark last year. Too many breaks went against Nebraska. Plus, the culture in Lincoln needed to be changed. This is Riley’s team now and fans are going to see the benefits from it in 2016. Nebraska will be improved and nine wins is not out of the question with the schedule.
Riley made noise shortly before Christmas when he told bowl reporters his goal for the Huskers’ offense in 2016 was to be at least third in the league in rushing.
After seeing Nebraska slip to No. 8 in the Big Ten this season, most fans dismissed the idea.
The Huskers’ bowl performance against UCLA maybe proved otherwise.
Nebraska finished with 326 yards on the ground in a 37-29 win, rushing 62 times for a 5.3 yards per carry average.
Four-year starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong returns with 33 starts to his name. The senior was up and down in 2015, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns, but also 16 interceptions. The biggest question is where will his comfort level be in year two of the offense? If he continues at his high turnover rate, it’s likely Nebraska’s record doesn’t improve drastically.
The running back situation has question marks heading into the fall. It’s likely Nebraska takes a committee approach with senior Terrell Newby (147 carries, 765 yards in 2015), sophomore Devine Ozigbo (38 carries, 209 yards in 2015) and Mikale Wilbon. Ozigbo had a strong showing against UCLA in the bowl, carrying the ball 20 times for 80 yards.
The wideout position will once again be one of the top units in the Big Ten, led by senior second-team All-Big Ten receiver Jordan Westerkamp (65 receptions, 918 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. The Chicago native will likely become Nebraska’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards this season. In addition, starters Alonzo Moore (senior), Stanley Morgan (sophomore) and Brandon Reilly return. Reilly caught 40 balls for 754 yards and four touchdowns last year. And did we mention De'Mornay Pierson-El? If completely healthy, there aren’t many guys in the Big Ten with his home run ability.
Nebraska will have to find a way to replace three graduating starters up front on the offensive line, but have multiple former high school All-Americans who looked ready in spring football to step up. The list includes sophomores Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster. Redshirt sophomore Nick Gates will move from right tackle last year to the left side – Gates has NFL potential.
Nebraska lost a pair of defensive tackles early to the NFL in Vincent Valentine (third round) and Maliek Collins (third round). Senior DT Kevin Maurice played well to close out 2015 and will be one of the starters. Opposite of him is anyone’s guess, but it could be one of the Davis twins - a pair of redshirt freshman DTs who looked the part in the spring and were highly sought after recruits in the 2015 class.
The linebacker spot was ravished with injuries last season, but the good news is five different players with starting experience return. One of the more interesting storylines in the fall will be the growth in year two of Dedrick Young. The former four-star prospect had 61 tackles as a true freshman in 2015.
In the secondary, juniors Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones became solid starting corners by the end of last season. Both project to be first-team guys in 2016. Senior safety Nathan Gerry has started every game the last two seasons (although he’s been ejected from a few of them). Who will be playing next to him is a mystery, but it will likely be sophomore Aaron Williams, who logged time as a true freshman. Williams did miss some time in the spring.
Assuming they can stay healthy, the Nebraska defense should have learned a lot from some major growing pains last season. If previous game experience translates to depth – Nebraska either has a lot at certain positions and very little at others.
Nebraska fans don’t want to brag about it too much, but senior punter Sam Foltz could be the best in the nation and has a chance to get drafted in 2017. The returning Big Ten Punter of the Year averaged 44.2 yards per punt last season and focused on hang time this spring. Riley has coached in the NFL and had eventual NFL punters at the college level – he thinks Foltz is right up there.
When it comes to the place-kicking duties, junior Drew Brown returns after earning second-team All-Big Ten honors last year from the media. Brown connected on 21-of-27 field goals including 13-of-17 from 40+. This will be his third year as the Huskers’ starting kicker.
If it is anybody other than Armstrong, Nebraska is likely in trouble. As a four-year starter, the quarterback has to take his game to the next level for the Huskers to improve on their 6-7 record from a year ago. Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf limited Armstrong’s abilities to make a mistake against UCLA in the bowl game, by using Armstrong more in the run game and pounding the rock. It resulted in a pretty good stat line for the signal-caller: 12-of-19 for 174 passing yards and one touchdown. 10 carries for 76 yards and one touchdown
Unlike last year, the opportunities for young guys to step in and make an immediate impact might be limited.
We will go with Scout.com four-star defensive back Lamar Jackson. Something tells us Jackson will find a role in the two-deep. He’s just too talented and has the versatility to play multiple spots in the secondary. We won’t be surprised to see Jackson playing some NICKEL.
Also four-star defensive back Marquel Dismuke and early enrollee wide receiver Derrion Grim have a great shot to play early.
2015 Record: 6-7 (3-5 B1G)
2015 Final Rank: N/A
2015 Postseason: 37-29 victory over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl
Letterman Returning: 51 (9 starters offense, 7 starters defense, 4 special teams)
Letterman Lost: 23
Out: DL coach Hank Hughes (fired)
In: DL John Parrella, coached at Northern Michigan the last two seasons. Parrell is a former Nebraska defensive lineman who played in the NFL for 11 seasons. He was also coached by Mike Riley in San Diego.