Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, February 23, 2017

Year Three under Mike Riley is dawning for Nebraska. And make no mistake about it: It?s a big one.


The Cornhuskers made progress last season, going from 6-7 in 2015 to 9-4. But many are hoping for a breakthrough this season for the Huskers, who haven?t won a conference championship since taking the 1999 Big 12 title. To shake things up, Riley altered his staff, shocking many by firing (by phone) defensive coordinator Mark Banker, who had been at Riley?s side for years. Riley made a splash by replacing Banker with former UConn coach Bob Diaco, who was the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame before taking the UConn gig. Also, secondary coach Brian Stewart left to run the defense at Rice and Riley turned around and hired sage Bob Elliott, who has been a defensive coordinator at places like Iowa, Kansas State and San Diego State.

Now, on-field work looms - and here are three areas to watch this spring in Lincoln.

Quarterback. Tommy Armstrong leaves with a raft of experience and records. Now, Mike Riley will have a quarterback who is a better fit for what he wants to do offensively. This is very interesting ? and exciting. The staff is going to let Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and touted redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien battle this spring and into fall camp. But conventional wisdom tells you the fifth-year junior Lee will likely have the edge. He was granted an additional year of eligibility for 2018, which technically would be his sixth year in college. The staff thinks he's a legitimate pro prospect, and he should be able to operate this offense at the level Riley was used to from his days at Oregon State. O?Brien is a talented kid from California who arrived on campus with a fat scrapbook. True freshman Tristan Gebbia is a mid-year enrollee.

Offensive line: This unit hasn?t been dominant in years but the situation keeps improving. There is talent, but potential problem spots loom at center and right tackle. How could the group line up? It may look like this: junior left tackle Nick Gates; sophomore left guard Jerald Foster; redshirt freshman center John Raridon; sophomore right guard Tanner Farmer; junior right tackle Cole Conrad or senior David Knevel or redshirt freshman Matt Farniok. Gates is the best of the bunch. Also, keep your eyes on redshirt freshman Boe Wilson. He could make a run at either guard spot. Another redshirt freshman to watch is Farniok. Bottom line: Nebraska has probably eight solid guys that can play going into the spring.

Defensive line: It?s important to note that a new 3-4 scheme is being installed, so a lot will be going on this spring as DC Bob Diaco takes the reins. The unit returns everyone up front but Ross Dzuris and Kevin Maurice. The group is strong on the inside with sophomore Carlos David, sophomore Khalil Davis and junior Mick Stoltenberg. Junior Freedom Akinmoladun should also be a nice fit in the 3-4 as an end. In fact, the personnel probably fits a 3-4 better on the line because the Huskers don't really have any true pass rushing defensive ends. Hence, the flip to a 3-4 from a 4-3 by Diaco. Nebraska does have a lot of hybrid guys that are better fits at the outside linebacker position rather than being an end in a 4-3 alignment.


Record: 9-4 overall; 6-3 Big Ten/T-2nd West (lost to Tennessee in Music City Bowl)

Spring ball starts: March 4

Spring game: April 15

Key players back: DE Freedom Akinmoladun; K Drew Brown; OT Cole Conrad; DT Carlos David; DT Khalil Davis; G Tanner Farmer; G Jerald Foster; OT Nick Gates; CB Chris Jones; CB Joshua Kalu; WR Stanley Morgan; RB Devine Ozigbo; WR De?Mornay Pierson-El; S Antonio Reed; DT Mick Stoltenberg; S Kieron Williams; LB Dedrick Young

Key players gone: QB Tommy Armstrong; LB Josh Banderas; TE Cethan Carter; DE Ross Dzuris; DT Kevin Maurice; RB Terrell Newby; WR Brandon Reilly; LB Michael Rose-Ivey; C Dylan Utter; WR Jordan Westerkamp

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