Nebraska football needed a culture change heading into 2015, and in new coach Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers have that. Nebraska traded the abrasive, tightly wound Bo Pelini for the former Oregon State coach who is known for being one of the most relaxed coaches in a profession marked by Type A personalities. Whether Riley can deliver different results from his predecessor remains to be seen. Nine and 10 wins became the norm for Pelini, yet that was a mark Riley hit only once since 2008.
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Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2015
Mike Riley has installed a pro-style offense with returning starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback. Armstrong, the team’s second-leading rusher a year ago behind the departed Ameer Abdullah, will become more of a pocket passer.
Among the first things offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf told Armstrong was that he wasn’t a runner, though the threat of his running will continue to be a concern for opposing defenses, especially in third-down situations. Armstrong completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns with 12 interceptions last season. Langsdorf is expecting increased efficiency.
Look for De’Mornay Pierson-El to be featured at wide receiver, along with veteran Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly, who came as a walk-on.
Terrell Newby and Imani Cross are the most experienced of the running backs, a position where there will be continued competition for playing time in fall camp as the Huskers look to replace departed All-American Ameer Abdullah.
Regardless of the system, success will depend on the play up front. The line is built around left tackle Alex Lewis, a candidate for postseason honors and the only returning lineman who started every game last season. He sets the tone emotionally.
Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2015
In the spring, players on defense talked about being freed up to make plays in coordinator Mark Banker’s system. Banker said, jokingly, he didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or that it meant the system was “like being in elementary school.”
Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are returning starters at tackle. Collins’ quickness allowed him to lead the team in tackles for a loss in the previous system, so he could be even more effective. Valentine is a “load to block,” says defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Kevin Williams is a third proven tackle.
Depth is a concern at defensive end, where Greg McMullen returns, and linebacker, where young players will be in the mix with David Santos, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, who returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
Safety Nate Gerry, cornerback Daniel Davie and nickel Byerson Cockrell are a place to start, but the secondary rotation will include young players, possibly a true freshman or two.
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Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2015
Pierson-El was among the best punt returners in the country as a true freshman, returning three for touchdowns. Special teams coach Bruce Read doesn’t plan to use him on kickoff returns, however, because of his importance as a receiver. Sam Foltz and Drew Brown are the returning punter and placekicker, respectively, and the recruits include long-snapper Jordan Ober. Nebraska hasn’t had an assistant assigned solely to special teams in the past. But such a position is “very, very key,” Riley says.
Nebraska won nine or more games in each of Bo Pelini’s seven seasons as coach. His overall record was 67–27. So Riley can expect to be held to a high standard. But he is considerably more engaging than his predecessor, which probably means there will be some degree of patience during the transition.
The non-conference schedule could be challenging, with an opener at home against BYU and a trip to Miami (Fla.) two weeks later. But the conference schedule is such that nine wins, even in transition, should be possible. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. Winning one this year would be a stretch, though the Huskers should contend in the Big Ten West if the defense improves.