Big Ten Spring Football Review: Nebraska

Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers should still have a strong running game to lean on, but questions about the offensive line and the defense as a whole surrounded Nebraska during spring ball.

Quick 2013 review:

Nebraska lost only one of its first six games last season, but it was a disappointing 41-21 setback at home that saw the proud Blackshirt defense ripped apart by the Bruins for a second year in a row. The Huskers later were pushed around in a 34-23 surprise loss at Minnesota and also dropped double-digit decisions to Michigan State and Iowa at home. They ended on a high note with a 24-19 win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl, but overall the season ended with questions about the direction of the program.

An offense that was expected to be elite suffered a big blow early in the season when Taylor Martinez was injured, leaving Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong Jr. to combine to complete 148 of 265 passes for 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Overall, the passing offense was among the worst in the Big Ten and the nation, but the running game remained strong. The defense ended up fourth in the Big Ten and 40th nationally in total yards. The Huskers were fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed and passing efficiency defense but only seventh against the run. It was a boom-or-bust unit that depended heavily on penetration, leading the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss. The Blackshirts were also great on third down (6th nationally).

As far as Football Outsiders rankings, Nebraska finished just eighth in the Big Ten in overall S&P+ (sixth offensively, seventh defensively). The defense was very poor on standard downs (88th nationally) but ranked 25th on passing downs while checking in much better against the pass (41st) than the run (84th).

Spring game recap:

I-back Imani Cross ran for 100 yards on only six carries and scored a pair of touchdowns as the offense beat the defense 55-46 in a scrimmage played in front of 61,772 fans at Memorial Stadium. Jordan Nelson and Terrell Newby ran for 54 and 51 yards, respectively, while five different players saw time at quarterback. The latter group was led by Johnny Stanton, who completed 8 of 12 passes for 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns while Ryker Fyfe went 9 for 12 for 89 yards and a score. Armstrong was 4 for 8 for 97 yards with an interception, and true freshman Zack Darlington went 3 for 11 for 21 yards and an interception. Taariq Allen led the way with five catches for 42 yards and a touchdown while Brandon Reilly topped the team with 92 yards receiving on four grabs. Erik Evans led the defense with nine tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack while Jack Gangwish and Michael Rose had eight stops apiece. Nate Gerry, Josh Banderas and Anthony Ridder had interceptions.

Issues addressed:

Reilly's big day could be significant for the offense, which lost its 2013 receiving yardage leader in Quincy Enunwa and needs someone to keep teams from ganging up on standout senior Kenny Bell, who returns after catching 52 pases for 577 yards last season.

"He could play a big role this year," Armstrong said. "He's a really big, physical guy. He can run, he can catch and he can move the ball down the field. That's the type of player this offense needs."

More important than finding a second receiver, though, is rebuilding an offensive line that lost four starters. Among the potential new starters is Alex Lewis, a tackle who transferred from Colorado and hopes to form a strong duo on the left side with Jake Cotton, the lone returning starter. Per the Lincoln Journal Star, Zach Sterup and Matt Finnin remain candidates at right tackle with Chongo Kondolo and Givens Price vying for right guard. Per, Mark Pelini and Ryne Reeves are candidates at center.

"I think the competition among themselves has made them better," head coach Bo Pelini said after the spring game. "Today we didn't see a lot of key players, but I think they are going to be fighting for some playing time. We just need guys to keep progressing, but we also need some guys to separate themselves. Hopefully that will happen. I think it's been a good experience for all these guys.'"

Now the man at quarterback heading into his sophomore season, Armstrong said he spent the spring concentrating on the mental side of the game primarily.

"I've worked on being mentally strong, going out there and playing my game and just have fun," he said. "I went out there and threw a pick the first drive, but I feel like last year I would have just shut down. This year, we responded the right way. We threw a pick then came out and scored the next three drives. I feel like that's important. We understand that mistakes happen, but I feel like this year we're going to respond the right way." 

As for the defense, Gerry was among the standouts after moving to safety from linebacker, where he helped out last season as a freshman when experience was low for the unit.

"He's really done a nice job this spring to put himself in a position to play a lot this fall," said defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who looks for his unit to benefit from having more experience overall this season even though five starters graduated.

"True confidence is only built when you have a great understanding of your role and responsibility," Papuchis said. "It was hard to have that swagger a year ago because guys were just learning. Now that they feel confident and comfortable with what they do, and with all of the hard work they've put in this offseason, they've earned the right to go out there, have some fun and just play. We're going to play much better when we're loose, flying around and jumping around. That's the way I want us to play, and that's the way they want to play, but you have to earn the right to get there."

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