By: Joe Franco, Big Red Report intern
With the first week of fall practice in the books, it is only 22 days until college football is upon us.
Nebraska takes on Fresno State for their home opener on Sept. 3. Second year head coach Mike Riley is looking to pick up where he left off the last half of 2015, and use that momentum to have a better season this year.
With a talented roster, Riley has the tools to make a run at the Big Ten Championship game in Indy. Though this list does not break down Nebraska’s “best” players, it looks at five guys the Huskers cannot have success without.
5. Freedom Akinmoladun, DE
The sophomore defensive end posted solid numbers as a redshirt freshman last year, despite only starting four games. In the 11 games he played, Akinmoladun led the team in sacks with 4.5, and was also involved in 21 tackles. The 6-foot-4, 255-pounder emits an intimidating presence with his overwhelmingly toned physique. He’s extremely athletic and is Nebraska’s best pass-rusher at the defensive end position. The biggest concern is whether or not he can live up to the potential. The coaching staff is looking for players to step on the defensive line, and the former Big Ten All-Freshman Team member is a perfect candidate to lead this defense. As a young player, he is in control of his own destiny.
4. Nate Gerry, S
After leading the team in tackles last season, the senior safety will play his final season in Lincoln. Gerry is not only one of the best players defensively for Nebraska, but he is also a big leader. As a team captain last year, Gerry can set the tone for the young guys to follow. It is clear that when he is out on the field, his energy and passion can make an impact. Look back at how flat the defense looked against Iowa last season in the second half, after No. 25 had been ejected for targeting. Though they have Aaron Williams as another safety option, the Huskers will need Gerry out on the field to lead and stabilize this Blackshirt defense.
3. Kevin Maurice, DT
Maurice will have the task to fill the shoes of former defensive tackle Maliek Collins. After sending two defensive linemen to the NFL, the Huskers will call upon Maurice to be the leader in both his play and his guidance to younger players on the d-line. Maurice started his first game last year in Illinois and it was his best of the year, logging in eight tackles. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior has shown glimpses of what he can do in both the run game, as well as the pass rush, but he must show consistency for Nebraska’s defensive line to be taken seriously.
2. Nick Gates, OT
After graduating four of its top six men on the offensive line, Nick Gates and senior Dylan Utter are the only two returning starters on the Nebraska pipeline. Gates, now a sophomore, will have to take on the heavy load of being a leader for this new, young offensive line. As part of the Big Ten All-Freshman team, Gates showed he can push defenders for the run game, and also provide pocket protection. Although he started at right tackle his freshman year, the Las Vegas native will move to the left side this season. It is pivotal that he becomes comfortable in his new position, as Langsdorf and Riley have hinted that they would like to run the ball a lot this year.
1. Tommy Armstrong Jr., QB
The obvious candidate for the most indispensable player on this Nebraska Cornhusker team is senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. Nebraska’s offensive success rests on which Armstrong shows up to play. Last season as a junior, Armstrong had a rollercoaster year of success and failure, with over 3,000 passing yards and 400 rushing yards, but also 16 interceptions. His biggest weakness was trying to make a big play out of nothing; sometimes it worked out, sometimes it came back to bite him. If he can play smart and avoid turnovers, he may end up moving from second to first on Nebraska’s all-time career passing list. The senior captain could take this Nebraska team to the Big Ten Championship.
While they all may not jump out in the stat books every game, these five guys will help Nebraska win in any way they can. If the Huskers can keep all five of these guys healthy, they will have a surprising year in the Big Ten. If one, or more, of these players goes down with an injury, things could get interesting once again in Lincoln.