Dienhart: What I will be watching for in Nebraska's spring game
Mike Riley takes another step forward in his debut season at Nebraska with the spring game on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2Go.
Riley walks into a good situation that is set up for success in 2015. In fact, Nebraska could win the Big Ten West. But several areas of the team must develop for the Cornhuskers to make a run at the division crown and then the program’s first conference title of any sort since 1999. Here is what I’ll be looking for from the press box of Memorial Stadium on Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.
How does the offensive line look?
The unit lost some key players, including starters Jake Cotton, Mark Pelini and Mike Moudy. That trio accounted for 50 starts. The Cornhuskers have a good one in left tackle Alex Lewis, who began his career at Colorado. He plays with a defensive mentality. The right tackle slot should be solid with rangy Zach Sterup, but he has been out with injury. Givens Price also has starting experience at tackle. It’s the interior that’s coming together. Guard Chongo Kondolo has looked good for new line coach Mike Cavanaugh. Keep an eye on young Tanner Farmer at guard and Ryan Reeves at center, but Reeves has been limited at a position that remains in flux.
Who will rush the passer?
Randy Gregory has taken his elite edge rushing skills to the NFL early, leaving a big void on this defense after registering seven of the team’s 29 sacks in 2014. He had 17.5 sacks and 29TFLs in two seasons in Lincoln. Nebraska will feature one of the top tackle tandems in the Big Ten in Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. But who will bring the heat off the edge? Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish are the veteran hands up front. McMullen is a big-bodied type and the team’s top end. Gangwish is a small-town Nebraskan and former walk-on. There is a raft of youngsters who also could come on, including A.J. Natter, Joe Keels, Peyton Newell and Freedom Akinmoladun.
Is Tommy Armstrong developing?
While at Oregon State, Mike Riley developed some good quarterbacks, including Sean Mannion, Matt Moore and Derek Anderson. And his attacks ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the Pac-12 in passing in 2012 and 2013. Armstrong may have to rein in some of his running under Riley after ripping off 705 yards on the ground in 2014. And working in a new “pro-style” scheme, Armstrong will need to improve a completion percentage that was 53.3 percent last year and 51.9 in 2013. He also has 20 picks the last two seasons. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush has been a spring surprise and is pushing Armstrong. I can’t wait to see the 6-4 lefty. He has been one of Nebraska’s biggest spring stories.
Is there life after Ameer Abdullah?
He was a transcendent player on many levels for Nebraska, equally impressive off the field as he was on the field. A true leader and pillar of the program. Well, Abdullah is gone after three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. New coordinator Danny Langsdorf will have plenty of options, including Imani Cross, Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby. Don’t be shocked if a committee approach isn’t used at first. Cross and Taylor—who missed 2014 with injury–are physical, while Newby is the speedy option. Cross is the veteran hand with 1,184 career yards and 22 TDs. Diminutive Mikale Wilbon also is in the mix.
Are linebackers OK?
It seems this defense continues to mold a Big Ten-worthy collection of linebackers, as transfers, injury and dismissals have chipped at depth. The team has lost Zaire Anderson, Courtney Love and Trevor Roach from last year’s squad. Michael Rose-Ivey is back after missing 2014 with a knee injury. David Santos is also coming off a knee injury that has forced him to miss the spring. Josh Banderas is physical enough for the Big Ten. Stay tuned to see how this unit develops in coordinator Mark Banker’s 4-3 scheme that will feature quarters coverage.
Is the secondary solidifying?
Nebraska has many options at cornerback. Daniel Davie looks to have one slot sewn up. The other? That’s where it gets interesting. Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones have looked good. And Trai Mosley also has had his moments. At safety, Nate Gerry looks locked in at strong safety. But who is his running mate? Byerson Cockrell, LeRoy Alexander (missed last year with suspension) and Kieron Williams have looked good.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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