Nebraska opens its second spring practice under coach Mike Riley hoping to build off the momentum from a 37-29 victory over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. The Cornhuskers finished 6-7 in Riley’s first year, but six of the seven defeats came by eight points or less. Even with the departure of a couple of key players, there is reason for optimism in Lincoln. The Big Ten West is more forgiving than the East Division, and Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa could take a small step back in the win column in 2016. If Nebraska is able to find more consistency on the ground and eliminate some of the turnovers that plagued this offense last year, Riley’s team can easily make a run at nine wins next fall.
5 Storylines to Watch in Nebraska’s Spring Practice
1. Tommy Armstrong’s Development
Both methods of attack on offense need improvement. However, the biggest area of focus for Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf has to be quarterback Tommy Armstrong. In 12 games last season, Armstrong threw for 3,030 yards and 22 scores but also tossed 16 interceptions and completed just 55.2 percent of throws. His mobility on the ground – 400 yards and seven touchdowns – is a huge asset in this offense, but Armstrong has to find a way to eliminate the mistakes. A second year under Langsdorf and Riley and within the scheme should help Armstrong take a step forward. However, the starting job isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Talented true freshman Patrick O’Brien enrolled in time to compete this spring and is the future for the Cornhuskers under center.
2. Establishing the Ground Attack
Nebraska’s rushing attack averaged only 180 yards per game last season, which was its lowest mark since joining the Big Ten in 2011. This unit showed some life in the bowl game, gashing UCLA for 326 yards and four touchdowns on 62 attempts. Was that a sign of things to come? Don’t expect 300 yards a week, but small improvement on the ground would be a good step forward for Riley’s offense. Terrell Newby (765 yards and six scores) is the headliner, but Devine Ozigbo (5.5 ypc), Mikale Wilbon and Adam Taylor will push for snaps. How will the pecking order look at running back by the end of spring ball?
3. Revamped Offensive Line
Four key members of last year’s offensive line are gone, including left tackle Alex Lewis and center Ryne Reeves. While the losses are heavy, the cupboard isn’t totally bare. Rising star Nick Gates started 10 games as a redshirt freshman at right tackle last season and is expected to move to the left side to replace Lewis. Dylan Utter started all 13 games at left guard in 2015 and will spend time this spring at center. Gates and Utter will anchor this group next season, but three other starters must emerge. Sophomore Tanner Farmer is a name to watch at right guard, while Jalin Barnett could be an answer on the other side. David Knevel played in nine games as a reserve last year and is considered the frontrunner to start at right tackle. The Cornhuskers have a good mix of talent and size here. However, this unit is inexperienced. How quickly will the starting five mesh this spring?
4. Rebuilding the Defensive Line
This unit was one of the positions hit the hardest by offseason departures. Additionally, the defensive line is under the direction of a new coach – John Parrella – this spring. Standout defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left early for the NFL, and end Jack Gangwish expired his eligibility. The presence of Collins and Valentine on the interior was a big reason why Nebraska ranked second in the Big Ten against the run in 2015. Needless to say, both players leave big shoes to fill. Greg McMullen saw snaps at end and tackle last year and could stay on the interior to alleviate some of the losses there. Kevin Maurice (21 tackles in 2015) is likely to step into the other starting role on the interior. At defensive end, Freedom Akinmoladun (4.5 sacks) is poised to build off a promising redshirt freshman season. The Cornhuskers are also relying on Ross Dzuris, A.J. Natter and Sedrick King to step up in 2016. On paper, this unit is weaker than it was in 2015. However, this spring will go a long ways to finding the right answers.
Luck – good and bad – plays a big role in the turnover department. While this area can be emphasized by the coaching staff, it’s not a skill that’s easy to translate into takeaways or preventing giveaways. However, this is one area the Nebraska coaching staff has to stress this offseason. The Cornhuskers posted a minus-12 in turnover margin last year, which ranked 13th among Big Ten teams. Any improvement to the positive side or simply even could net Nebraska a win or two next season. The defense (only 15 forced turnovers) needs to create more takeaways, while the offense (27 giveaways) needs to do a better job of holding onto the ball.
Pre-Spring Nebraska Outlook in the Big Ten
Considering the bad luck in the turnover department and close losses, it’s fair to say Nebraska was better than its record indicated. According to Football Outsiders’ F+ ratings from 2015, the Cornhuskers ranked as the No. 36 team in the nation – just behind Wisconsin at No. 32 and ahead of Iowa at No. 38. And after the bowl win against UCLA, there’s reason for optimism for the Cornhuskers. However, translating hope and optimism into wins won’t be easy with the revamped lines of scrimmage. The offense needs more from its ground attack, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to take a step forward in this scheme. If Armstrong limits his mistakes and settles into the offense, the passing game should thrive with nearly all of its playmakers in the receiving corps back for 2016. A matchup against Oregon is the toughest non-conference game, but Nebraska misses Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in crossover play. How quickly the Cornhuskers reload in the trenches and handles road trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa will decide how high this team climbs in Mike Riley’s second season.