Big Ten: A.J. Natter

LINCOLN, Neb. – First-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley looks forward to connecting faces to the names of many of his players as spring practice opens Saturday.

Riley has had a whirlwind of experiences in three months on the job. The first 60 days were largely devoted to recruiting. In weeks since signing day, he’s fulfilled obligations with Nebraska’s fan base, donor community and the media. He completed his staff recently with the hiring of Brian Stewart as secondary coach.

When time permitted, Riley spent time on evaluations and relationship-building with his 121-player roster. Most of his assistant coaches, in fact, have spent more time with the Huskers than Riley.

“The one that’s behind on all that is me,” Riley said. “I don’t like this feeling.”

He’s planning to focus almost exclusively on personnel and teaching during the upcoming 15 practices that conclude April 11 with the Red-White game -- expected, as usual, to draw a huge crowd to Memorial Stadium.

The coach and several Huskers met Wednesday with the media to discuss expectations and plans for the spring.

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Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesNebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong is looking forward to getting work in the pocket in Mike Riley's offense.
News and notes:

• Riley said the Huskers who filled starting roles last season, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., will enter spring practice with the edge to win jobs.

“I think it’s important for every player to have an opportunity to win a job,” Riley said. “[But] those guys have earned spots in this program. We owe it to every player to evaluate in closely as we go.”

Armstrong started all 13 games for the Huskers in 2014, completing 53.3 percent of his passes (184 of 345) for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 705 yards and six touchdowns.

Armstrong offers a different style of quarterback for Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who spent nine seasons together at Oregon State before Langsdorf coached quarterbacks for the New York Giants in 2014.

Armstrong said his new coaches informed him soon after their arrival that he’s not a running back. The rising junior said he expected to spend more time in the pocket this spring than in the past and will operate out of the shotgun and under center.

“Footwork is going to be the key to my success,” Armstrong said.

• Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has made a positive impression on senior linemen Givens Price and Alex Lewis. Price said Cavanaugh asked the linemen to list for him their preferred positions. Price, who has played guard and tackle at Nebraska, figures to work this spring at right tackle.

“It’s exciting to get a fresh start,” Price said, “but it’s also an opportunity to get better.”

Of Cavanaugh, Lewis said: “He’s going to coach you hard and love you harder.”

• Riley said he plans to try a style of practice new to him through the first half of drills. The Huskers have been divided into two teams – both with a mix of experience – and will rotate in drills. The idea, he said, is to maximize repetitions and allow the new coaches to better evaluate.

“I did not want a team period where 22 guys were playing and 100 guys were watching,” Riley said. “I just don’t like standing around. We’re going to give guys opportunities.”

Depth at linebacker and center presented a problem in dividing personnel, Riley said.

The coach plans to mix scrimmaging into workouts this spring about every third practice, though some of the live work might last for as few as 10 minutes.

• Several defensive players said they were excited in anticipation of practicing under coordinator Mark Banker.

“It’s a lot simpler,” junior safety Nate Gerry said. “Coach Banker wants us to emphasize flying around. Last year, we had a lot of people thinking. Banker’s just letting us loose. That’s one thing, as a defense, that’s going to help us out.”

Gerry said he welcomed the expected fierce competition for spots as the new coaches assess the roster.

“Everybody sees it as all doors are open,” he said.

• Defensive back Charles Jackson, who missed last season with a knee injury, safety LeRoy Alexander, suspended in 2014, and I-back Adam Taylor have all been cleared to start practice on Saturday.

Linebacker David Santos, according to media reports, remains out after undergoing knee surgery after Nebraska’s National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC. Offensive tackle Zach Sterup and center Ryne Reeves are not ready to practice.

The Huskers limited by injury include receiver Jamal Turner, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, guard Corey Whitaker and defensive end A.J. Natter.

Riley described the impending practices as “the dawn of a new day.”

“We’ve got a lot to do,” he said. “More to do than normal.”

Position battles: Nebraska Cornhuskers

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
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Our pre-spring journey around the Big Ten continues with a look at open-for-competition positions at Nebraska.

I-back: Among the most difficult tasks thrust before new coach Mike Riley and his staff is finding a replacement for three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Many options exist, starting with rising senior Imani Cross, who has scored 22 touchdowns in situational play over the past three seasons. Where Cross is limited, Terrell Newby offers quickness and a receiving threat out of the backfield. Adam Taylor features perhaps the best blend of skills, showing diversity in practice last year before an ankle injury ended his redshirt freshman season in August. Additionally, Mikale Wilbon impressed teammates and coaches as a redshirt last fall, and new signee Devine Ozigbo figures to get a look in August.

Offensive guard: Starters Mike Moudy and Jake Cotton are gone, leaving a competitive situation to assess in spring practice. No one appears locked into a starting spot, though Chongo Kondolo owns an experience edge after playing a key backup role as a sophomore in 2014. First on the list of challenges for new offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh is to simply separate candidates to play guard from center -- and, in some cases, tackle, where the situation looks more solid. The group at guard figures to include Tanner Farmer, a top recruit in 2014, classmate Jerald Foster, sophomore Zach Hannon and junior walk-on Dylan Utter, who rose to fill a top reserve spot late last year amid depth issues. Senior Ryne Reeves will likely start somewhere; if not center, he has experience at guard. And Jalin Barnett joins the program in the summer as an elite recruit.

Defensive end: An already thin position took offseason hits as Randy Gregory declared for the NFL draft and Avery Moss’ expulsion from school was upheld. It leaves the Huskers with junior Greg McMullen as a returning starter and a scramble to win the other spot in Mark Banker’s 4-3 alignment. Senior Jack Gangwish, a walk-on, has played his way into a key role and enters the spring with an experience advantage. Joe Keels made only a minor contribution last year in his first season out of junior college. A.J. Natter is an intriguing prospect as a sophomore, and Sedrick King will enter the mix after a redshirt season. Don’t be surprised also if a new candidate or two emerges as a result of position shifts. Speculation about a move to defense has followed redshirt freshman Freedom Akinmoladun since before his arrival in Lincoln last year.
The loss of Avery Moss for the 2014 football season -- and possibly for good -- rates as a significant setback for Nebraska.

Moss has been banned from Nebraska campus for one year, he confirmed to the Omaha World-Herald, as a result of a 2012 incident in which he was charged with exposing himself to a campus convenience store worker. He pleaded no contest on Monday to one count of public indecency.

According to the newspaper report, Moss could appeal in December. If denied, he would face a four-year campus ban, which would eliminate his opportunity to play again at Nebraska.

As it stands, the chances appear less likely that he’ll continue his career in Lincoln. Moss would have to not only win the December appeal but also spend a year in limbo, delaying his football progress during a time in which he could spend in practice with another FBS program or play at a lower level.

Moss, as a redshirt freshman, displayed ability that would eventually make him a nice NFL prospect -- the caliber of talent that’s been in short supply on the Huskers’ defensive line since the 2009 departure of Ndamukong Suh.

Moss collected 36 tackles last season, including eight behind the line of scrimmage with 4.5 sacks.

The pairing of Moss with returning junior Randy Gregory, an All-Big Ten selection in his first year at Nebraska last fall, would have given the Huskers an experienced pair of ends next season on par with any duo at the school in the past decade.

With remade groups on the offensive line and in the secondary and a new full-time starter at quarterback, the front seven on defense must still serve as one of Nebraska’s top position groups.

So where do the Huskers turn without Moss?

Spring practice looms large for inexperienced, young ends Greg McMullen and A.J. Natter. The careers of upperclassmen Donovan Vestal and Walker Ashburn were cut short last year because of injuries. Beyond that, walk-ons dot the roster.

Gregory was a boon last season out of junior college. Maybe Joe Keels, the No. 4 juco defensive end prospect, can make a similar impact. And more than a week remains until signing day for Nebraska to win over another prospect to help at the position.

The Huskers have decent depth at the interior line spots and lots of manpower at linebacker. Might Nebraska tinker in the spring with an alignment similar to the 3-4 look that worked well for Wisconsin last season? If so, it would mark a departure from the norm for coach Bo Pelini.

Regardless, the loss of Moss looms large.

Big Ten lunchtime links

June, 3, 2013
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