Nebraska has won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s six years in Lincoln. Despite amassing 58 wins during that span, the Cornhuskers have not played in a BCS bowl and are still looking for a conference title under Pelini. None of those statistics or facts is anything new to Nebraska fans. They want more from this program. Can Pelini and his staff turn the corner and get the Cornhuskers back into BCS bowl or Big Ten title contention in 2014?
There’s enough returning talent for Nebraska to be a top 25 team next season. But there’s also plenty of reasons to be concerned heading into offseason practices. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong needs to take the next step in his development, and the offensive line returns only one starter. The defense needs to find depth in the trenches, while the secondary needs to be retooled after losing both starting cornerbacks.
The Big Ten is set to shuffle its divisions with the additions of Rutgers and Maryland. Nebraska will move to the West Division, which is a favorable place to be with Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan in the East.
Considering Wisconsin – the early favorite in the West – has holes to fill, Nebraska should be a factor for the division title.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)
Spring Practice Opens: March 8
Spring Game: April 12
Four Things to Watch in Nebraska’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. Tommy Armstrong’s job to lose at QB?: Taylor Martinez was supposed to have an All-Big Ten type of performance in his final year in Lincoln. Unfortunately for Martinez, he suffered a foot injury early in the season, which limited him to just four games. While it wasn’t easy to replace Martinez’s production, the Nebraska coaching staff got an extended look at Tommy Armstrong Jr. He was the No. 19 quarterback by Athlon Sports in the 2012 signing class and redshirted his first year on campus. Armstrong Jr. shared the quarterback duties with Ron Kellogg III last season and finished with 966 yards and nine touchdowns. He also added 202 yards and two scores on the ground. While Armstrong had his share of ups and downs as a redshirt freshman, there was plenty for the coaching staff to build on in 2014. Now, it’s up to Armstrong to take the next step in his development and secure the starting job this spring. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton is an intriguing dual-threat option and will have a chance to unseat Armstrong over the next two months. True freshman Zack Darlington enrolled in January and is likely to spend 2014 working as the No. 3 quarterback. Will this spring be about Armstrong’s growth as the starter? Or will Stanton turn this into a battle that continues into the fall?
2. New faces on the offensive line: Outside of the quarterback battle, the offensive line is easily the biggest concern for Nebraska coordinator Tim Beck. This unit was hit hard by departures, including center Cole Pensick, guard Andrew Rodriguez and tackle Jeremiah Sirles. Guard Jake Cotton is only returning starter here, but Mike Moudy and Mark Pelini combined for five starts in 2013 and will battle for open jobs on the interior this spring. Chongo Kondolo is a name to watch after spending 2013 as a redshirt in his first season from the junior college and could start at guard or center. The tackle spots are up for grabs with a handful of candidates in the mix. Junior Matt Finnin and sophomore Zach Sterup worked as the backups at tackle last year and would seem to have an inside track on the starting spots. Colorado transfer Alex Lewis is another name to watch at tackle, as he transferred from Boulder after starting all 12 games for the Buffaloes in 2012. Massive redshirt freshman David Knevel (6-foot-9, 305 pounds) is also expected to factor into the mix at tackle. There’s a lot of uncertainty about this group and plenty of names are looking to earn a spot on the two-deep. Can Nebraska finish spring with some clarity in the starting five? Or will this position battle carry into the fall, allowing true freshmen Nick Gates and Tanner Farmer to battle for a starting spot?
3. New faces on the defensive line: The Cornhuskers are set at one end spot with the return of first-team All-Big Ten performer Randy Gregory. In his first season in Lincoln, Gregory recorded 66 tackles and 10.5 sacks. He will anchor a line that loses three key performers from last season, including honorable mention All-Big Ten end Jason Ankrah. For Gregory to be just as effective as he was in 2013, the rest of the line has to give him some help. The interior appears to be more stable than the depth at end, as Aaron Curry, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine return. But the situation at end is slightly more concerning for Pelini. Greg McMullen recorded 16 tackles last season and is the only other end with significant experience on the roster. Recent work on the recruiting trail by Pelini may help here, with junior college recruit Joe Keels in the mix, and redshirt freshman A.J. Natter - the No. 329 national recruit in the 247Sports Composite last year - also ready to contribute. This spring is all about getting players like Natter and Keels acclimated to the defense and ready to play in 2014.
4. Rebuilding project in the secondary: Nebraska’s secondary was hit hard by departures this offseason. Gone are starting cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, and safety Andrew Green also expired his eligibility. The pass defense was a strength for the Cornhuskers last season, allowing just eight touchdown tosses in Big Ten play. Can Nebraska quickly reload in the secondary? Safety Corey Cooper returns after starting all 13 games last season and should be the leader for the defensive backfield in 2014. Josh Mitchell made six starts and recorded 31 stops last year and is expected to finish spring atop the depth chart at one of the cornerback spots. Junior college recruit Byerson Cockrell could be the answer at the other cornerback spot, but junior Jonathan Rose played in nine games last year and will factor into the mix this spring. New defensive backs coach Charlton Warren certainly has his hands full over the next two months. The Cornhuskers have options, but Jean-Baptiste, Green and Evans will be tough to replace.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 7-9
Nebraska is an intriguing team to watch this spring. Armstrong and Stanton could both be productive options at quarterback, and whoever wins the job will be handing off to one of the top running backs in the nation in Ameer Abdullah. Assuming the line and quarterback play stabilizes, this team should be in the mix to win the Big Ten’s West Division. Even though the defense loses a handful of key players, Pelini should be able to keep this unit in the top half of the Big Ten in yards allowed. But the key to 2014 could be what transpires in road games. Nebraska plays Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa away from Lincoln. For the Cornhuskers to claim the division title, November road tests against the Badgers and Hawkeyes are must-win contests.