Mike Riley’s debut at Nebraska resulted in a losing record (6-7), but the Cornhuskers were better than their win total indicated. A minus-12 turnover margin was largely to blame for six losses by eight points or less. If Nebraska eliminates some of the turnovers, improving its win total by a couple of games and contending for the Big Ten West isn’t out of the question. The offense should show improvement behind quarterback Tommy Armstrong and one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. The biggest question mark for Riley is the defensive line, which loses standout tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine.
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Previewing Nebraska’s Offense
Husker fans were encouraged not only by a bowl victory against UCLA but also by the way it was accomplished, with a season-high 326 rushing yards.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., the bowl’s offensive MVP, was efficient in his passing and decision-making, something that needs to continue. Though he passed for 3,030 yards last season, he also threw 16 interceptions. Touted freshman Patrick O’Brien, a pro-style quarterback suited to Danny Langsdorf’s system, enrolled for second semester and went through spring practice. He could be No. 2 come fall.
The Huskers have a wealth of receivers, led by Jordan Westerkamp, Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly, the fastest of the group. Westerkamp, who has the best hands, led the Huskers with 65 catches (second-most in Nebraska history) for 918 yards (third-most) and seven touchdowns. Tight end Cethan Carter, a proven receiver, has stepped up as a blocker and appears headed for an NFL future.
Armstrong also has three running backs with whom to share the ball-carrying load: Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon. The plan is to again to use a fullback, and not just as a blocker.
The question mark is up front. Nick Gates and Dylan Utter are the only returning starters and the only linemen with meaningful experience. Gates moves to left tackle from the right side, and Utter moves from left guard to center.
Previewing Nebraska’s Defense
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Assignments were restructured, with former Husker John Parrella replacing Hank Hughes as line coach. In addition, coordinator Mark Banker is working with the safeties, allowing Brian Stewart to focus on the cornerbacks.
Defensive line is a major concern with the departure of four tackles with a season of eligibility remaining, two by way of the NFL Draft, one transfer and another who decided to focus on graduate school. That leaves Kevin Maurice as the only tackle with starting experience: one game. The ends are similarly inexperienced. Ross Dzuris and Freedom Akinmoladun have eight starts between them.
The Huskers are deep in linebackers. Coach Trent Bray has at least six from which to choose, led by seniors Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey and sophomore Dedrick Young, who tied Banderas for fourth on the team in tackles.
The top two tacklers were safety Nate Gerry and cornerback Joshua Kalu. The others in the secondary will be talented but young and inexperienced.
Nebraska ranked No. 122 nationally in passing yards allowed per game. Obviously, that must improve.
Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists
Sam Foltz led the conference with a 44.2-yard average and earned the Eddleman-Fields Big Ten Punter of the Year Award. He had 16 punts of 50 yards or more, and his career average (42.6) ranks fifth all-time at Nebraska. Drew Brown, second-team All-Big Ten, is on pace to break school career records for field goals and scoring, after setting a Husker sophomore record by kicking 21 field goals.
Nebraska lost seven games in Mike Riley’s first season, something that last happened in 2007. But four of the losses were by three or fewer points and the first was a result of a Hail Mary pass. So 6–7 was closer to the consistent nine-win seasons of Riley’s predecessor, Bo Pelini, than it might seem, without the personal meltdowns that became an embarrassment.
Riley’s engaging personality and his aggressive approach to recruiting have bought him time. And despite a schedule with the toughest Big Ten opponents on the road, there’s optimism in Lincoln. Eight wins would seem reasonable. If the breaks were to go Nebraska’s way, and given the weaker division, the Huskers could reach the Big Ten title game.