Big Ten: Brent Qvale

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- For the first 2½ years of his career at Nebraska, Givens Price heard voices.

Voices at practice. Voices in the meeting room. Voices when he entered the playing rotation at guard in the second half of last season as injuries nearly decimated the offensive line.

Five senior offensive linemen in 2013 -- gone from Nebraska after starting a combined 127 games in their careers -- spoke to Price even when he stood alone on the sideline.

“We are the voices now,” Price said on Monday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIZach Sterup (57) and Ryne Reeves (65) are among those competing for spots on the Huskers O-line.
The Huskers are rebuilding the line this spring. Through six practices, improvement is steady, according to the linemen and the quarterback they protect, sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr.

“They’re going to get better,” Armstrong said. “We’re expecting that. At the same time, you’ve got to understand that sometimes mistakes are going to happen. They’re all out there to win a spot. They’re all out there to improve and push each other. They come out there and they’re ready to work.”

Despite the departures, Nebraska returns experience, primarily in left guard Jake Cotton, a senior who started 11 games last season. Others show notable promise, and the line, as a group, appears just as physically impressive as the 2013 cast.

Perhaps more impressive, in fact.

“We’ve got to get the mental side down,” Cotton said, “if we want the size to matter.”

Six practices into this spring, Cotton at left guard and junior Zach Sterup at right tackle appear most entrenched. Price has taken the majority of snaps at right guard, though senior Mike Moudy, out with a shoulder injury this spring, figures to compete for the job in August.

At center, senior Mark Pelini and junior Ryne Reeves are splitting time. And at left tackle, Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, a junior who has emerged as a top spring storyline, and redshirt freshman David Knevel, continue to compete.

“I think our whole room is full of competitors,” Cotton said “Some of the guys have come so far in [two weeks]. I wouldn’t have guessed it would go this fast.”

Many of the new candidates to start received an unexpected jump start last season.

With seniors Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick set to anchor the line, all appeared settled.

But after Long, an offensive captain and All-Big Ten pick in 2012, went down with a knee injury in early October, the injuries mounted. Moudy started three games in place of Long at right guard before the shoulder injury hit.

Cotton missed two games with a knee injury. Sirles and Pensick also missed practice time, forcing position shifts among the experienced linemen and youngsters like Reeves, Sterup, Pelini and Price into action.

Production suffered. Nebraska averaged 42.4 points and 291.6 rushing yards in the five games before Long’s injury; after, it was 25.4 and 168.2.

Still, Armstrong credits the veteran linemen, especially Cotton, with easing the quarterback's transition into the lineup.

“They all sat me down and said, ‘Hey, this is your time,’” Armstrong said. “’We saw how you practiced. Just go out there and have fun. We’re going to have your back 100 percent of the way.’ Jake Cotton said, ‘You’re the guy we want right now, and you’re the guy we need.'

“He told me we were going to win games, and that’s what we did.”

Armstrong finished 7-1 as a starter last season, including a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

Now it’s his turn to help nurture the young linemen.

The play of Lewis at left tackle grabbed Armstrong’s attention this spring. At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, Lewis, who started 12 games at Colorado in 2012, has meshed well with Cotton to help protect the QB’s blind side.

Lewis and Cotton, to put in nicely, make their presence known on the practice field.

“That’s double trouble right there,” Armstrong said. “They work hard. They’re outgoing. They’re rowdy. They just keep going.”

Cotton said the group is quickly developing a chemistry.

“You go the extra step to make sure guys are on the same page,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s just something about having open spots, with nothing guaranteed, that’s fun, because the competition is heated. Guys are gunning for spots.”

It will, no doubt, intensify in August as Moudy returns. Also set to join the mix are Nick Gates, D.J. Foster and Tanner Farmer, the most heralded group of linemen signees in coach Bo Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska. Another rookie, Mick Stoltenberg, could fit on the offensive or defensive line.

Regardless of the personnel, they’ll work without the guidance of veterans like Long and Sirles.

“Nothing stops,” Price said. “We’ve got to pick up from where they left off. The dream they had is still the dream we have -- that’s to make it to the Big Ten championship and win the Big Ten championship. It starts in spring football.”
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
It's Senior Bowl week, so you should be following our draft experts as they track the 15 Big Ten players suiting up for the North squad on Saturday in Mobile, Ala. Before turning the page toward the Senior Bowl, let's review how the Big Ten groups performed this past weekend in the East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.

East-West Shrine Game

Players who registered statistics:
  • Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon led the East team with four receptions for 55 yards
  • Purdue CB Ricardo Allen ranked second on the East team in tackles with five. He also had three punt returns for 56 yards, including a 30-yarder
  • Purdue DT Bruce Gaston Jr. had two tackles for the East team, both on run plays that went for one yard
  • Penn State LB Glenn Carson had four tackles for the East team
  • Penn State S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had three tackles and a pass breakup for the West team
  • Indiana TE Ted Bolser had two receptions for eight yards for the West team
  • Michigan State LB Max Bullough had three tackles for the West team
  • Minnesota S/CB Brock Vereen had one tackle for the West team
  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa had one tackle on special teams but no receptions for the West team
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl

Players who registered statistics:
  • Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton completed 1 of 4 pass attempts for nine yards. He also lost a fumble for Team American
  • Wisconsin TE Brian Wozniak had two receptions for 25 yards for Team American
  • Nebraska OT Brent Qvale registered a tackle on the play where Guiton fumbled for Team American
  • Ohio State S C.J. Barnett had a tackle for Team American
Ohio State backup quarterback Kenny Guiton became a cult hero in September, putting up big numbers in place of Braxton Miller and leaving some wondering whether he was the league's second-best signal caller.

Those evaluations might have been a bit overboard, but Guiton is a fun player with a fun story, and possibly an NFL future. The Ohio State quarterback leads a contingent of five Big Ten players who will participate in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, to be played Jan. 18 at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.

Rosters for the game have been finalized. All five Big Ten players will play for the American squad. 'Merica!

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.

Chance to move forward excites Huskers

December, 12, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The last time we saw Jeremiah Sirles before Wednesday, the Nebraska senior emptied his heart in support of coach Bo Pelini, embroiled in controversy after the Huskers’ Nov. 29 loss to Iowa to end the regular season.

[+] EnlargeJeremiah Sirles
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJeremiah Sirles and his teammates are glad Nebraska's focus is back on football.
Sirles, a four-year starter at offensive tackle, and several teammates spoke passionately about Pelini and his staff, yet it appeared to many observers that the sixth-year coach may not survive the weekend at Nebraska.

Well, he did.

And the program lunged forward. The Huskers received a break from the game to rest and prepare for final exams. Pelini and his staff gained momentum on the recruiting trail. The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, in a move unexpected before the final hours on Sunday, paired Nebraska with Georgia for a New Year’s Day rematch of the Capital One Bowl from last season.

As the team readies to get back to practice this weekend, the air around Memorial Stadium appears free of the toxicity from two weeks ago.

Count Sirles among those relieved that Nebraska football has moved past a November dominated by questions about the job security of its coach.

“It’s hard to have all these unanswered questions around this place because it always seems like there [are] these unanswered questions," Sirles said Wednesday, as a group of Huskers met with the media for the first time since the regular-season finale. "Being able to have answers to all that and being able to have a stable base for going into the bowl game and even going to next year, I think, is huge.”

About 19 hours after Iowa cemented its 38-17 win in Lincoln, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst issued a statement of support for Pelini.

Sirles said he was “proud” of the administration for its decision.

“Every word that I said was 100 percent from the heart and 100 percent true,” Sirles said. ‘I hope that people around the stadium could really tell that we really love and we care for our coaches, and that they love and care for us.”

Fellow senior lineman Brent Qvale said he understood the sentiment from some Nebraska fans that an 8-4 regular season fell short of expectations.

Still, the coaches don’t deserve blame, he said.

“It’s just a culture around Nebraska that championships are expected,” Qvale said. “And it should be. You play this game to win championships.”

Senior receiver Quincy Enunwa said he stayed away from listening to the media speculation and criticism of November.

“We know what’s going on inside the program,” Enunwa said. “We know that we have our coaches back. We believe that we’re a good team; there have just been a lot of setbacks for us this year.”

That said, the Huskers are excited about the opportunity to finish strong.

Several Nebraska players interviewed on Wednesday said they were excited to face Georgia again.

“It might be frustration if we just blew them out last year,” Enunwa said, “but we lost.”

Said defensive back Josh Mitchell: “I didn’t really have much of a reaction. It’s just another game to me. We just need to get another win.”

The Bulldogs beat Nebraska 45-31 to end last season in Orlando. Georgia scored the final 22 points behind a prolific performance from quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s out for the Gator Bowl with a knee injury.

“We felt like we had a good chance of beating these guys last year,” Sirles said. “We kind of let it slip through our fingers a little bit. It’s almost a good chance to get back and get a little redemption.”

Sirles and Enunwa were among a long list of Huskers slowed by injuries this fall. They said they’ll be healthy for the Gator Bowl.

The Huskers, in fact, should field a team in Jacksonville, Fla., that's healthier than at any point since early October. Of the key contributors who went down, only guard Spencer Long is ruled out.

“I’m ready to play a game where most of our offense is healthy,” Enunwa said.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who played in just one game after the Huskers’ Sept. 14 loss to UCLA, continues to rehabilitate a foot injury. His availability for the Gator Bowl looks unlikely.

Sirles said many Huskers have “lived in the treatment room” since the regular season concluded. With most of the coaches away, the players participated in a few conditioning drills last week.

The tempo increased this week. The full group was at work, without pads, inside the Hawks Championship Center, on Wednesday afternoon.

Pelini and Georgia coach Mark Richt are set to meet in Jacksonville on Thursday afternoon to officially accept the Gator Bowl invitations.

Then it’s back to work.

“We’re going to come back healthy,” Sirles said. “We’re anxious to get back on the practice field and start banging again.”

Huskers find born leader in freshman QB

November, 14, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- There’s a cold-blooded side to Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong.

You saw it in the final minutes last week as the Huskers rallied behind him to beat Michigan on the road.

You hear it as he talks. Armstrong’s confidence, for a redshirt freshman thrust into a starting role, is unusual, even striking in how it resembles a Nebraska legend.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong has what his coaches call the "it factor" and is one of just three QBs in Nebraska history to win their first five starts.
Armstrong walks on the edge -- with his words and in his play.

Of Michigan State, which enters Memorial Stadium on Saturday with the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, Armstrong said, “they can be beat.”

Sure, but beaten by injury-plagued Nebraska, which has sputtered in recent weeks against defensive units far inferior to the Spartans?

“Our offense,” he said, “when we’re clicking, I don’t think anybody in the country can stop us.”

Armstrong turned 20 last week. He has much to learn about the Big Ten and college football. But this much we know, after five starts: The kid commands respect. His presence instills a belief among teammates.

He embraces leadership. Armstrong carries himself like a veteran. He said he feels like a captain in his first season of action.

Armstrong, according to offensive coordinator Tim Beck, has the “it factor.”

“How do you describe that?” Beck said. “How do you describe that he has that instinct for running the option? How does he have the instinct for making that calm throw? How does he have the instinct to check to the right play?”

“He has it,” Beck said. “It just applies to all the things that he does as a player and as a person.”

Listen to the Huskers.

“He’s mature beyond his years,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “No situation is too big for him. It’s something you need in your quarterback. I love his poise. I love how he handles himself.”

Said junior I-back Ameer Abdullah: “He isn’t a young guy any more. He’s a leader. … He says the right things when they need to be said.”

And from senior fullback C.J. Zimmerer: “We trust him with everything now. He’s our guy, and we’re going to go with him ‘til the end.”

Armstrong inherited a difficult situation, taking over for injured senior Taylor Martinez, the starter since his redshirt freshman year in 2010. Fellow senior Ron Kellogg III, seemingly a friend to everyone, including Armstrong and Martinez, eased the transition.

But Armstrong made this work.

A week after he threw a costly, fourth-quarter interception against Northwestern, Armstrong watched Jordan Westerkamp -- the hero alongside Kellogg against the Wildcats -- drop a punt in a moment similar to Armstrong’s mistake.

Armstrong said he rushed to Westerkamp on the sideline. The quarterback told him the Huskers would get it done, that they would drive for a winning score. After a Michigan field goal, Armstrong made good on his word.

He completed 5 of 7 passes for 59 yards on the final march. He checked to a fourth-and-2 throw that gained 26 yards. He improvised an option call at the goal line, cooking up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Abdullah for the winning points.

So what happens against Michigan State?

“Tommy Armstrong is not going to be intimidated,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “That much I know.”

Armstrong has given his teammates reason to follow him.

He’s had help, for sure, but only two other Nebraska quarterbacks won their first five starts -- Martinez and Brook Berringer, who won nine straight as a junior after playing behind Tommie Frazier for two years.

Frazier, in fact, was the original cold-blooded Nebraska quarterback.

He won national championships. The talent around him was remarkable. He was a once-in-a-generation combination of skill and savvy, determination and confidence.

And of all who played the position over the past two decades in Lincoln, Armstrong’s athletic and intellectual makeup appears to resemble no one more closely than Frazier.

It’s not a fair comparison, Tommy and Tommie.

Gotta figure the kid likes it.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Toughness shows its face on fourth-and-2, late in the fourth quarter, down three points before a crowd of 112,000 on enemy ground.

Pride emerges on the goal line in a tie game, when a defensive stand is the only answer that will lead to a victory.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesCoach Bo Pelini's Nebraska team has back-to-back come-from-behind victories over Northwestern and Michigan.
Resiliency rises to the surface, 83 yards from the end zone with 74 seconds to play in the shadowy din of a home stadium set to turn hostile.

Ten days ago, before Northwestern visited Memorial Stadium, most observers had left Nebraska out in the cold to die in the wake of a loss at Minnesota, stunning in how the Gophers punched Bo Pelini’s team square in the face and drew little response.

With two minutes left against the Wildcats on Nov. 2, the Huskers were all but buried despite a tenacious defensive performance over the final 2 quarters.

Yet here they sit as mid-November arrives, riding a renewed sense of confidence ahead of a visit Saturday from Legends Division leader Michigan State (3:30 p.m. ET/ABC-ESPN2).

Again.

This is old habit for the Huskers. Dig a hole, crawl inside, then as the walls appear set to collapse, find an escape route.

Nebraska punches its way out of a corner better than any team in the Big Ten. We’ve often wondered in Pelini’s six years about the identity of his teams. Maybe, after another dramatic victory on Saturday at Michigan -- the Huskers have won seven straight games decided by a touchdown or less -- it’s this: They’re a direct reflection of their coach, who for his all his faults, never stops fighting.

Pelini is a survivor. He thrives in averse situations, or so it seems. When the walls around him drew near in September after the ill-timed release of an embarrassing, two-year-old audio tape, he used the support of his former boss, Tom Osborne, to fend off critics and hunkered down for a rough week.

When his defense, bruised and confused by the likes of Minnesota, UCLA and Wyoming, faced a do-or-die moment against Northwestern, it responded just like Pelini had drawn it up.

Over the past two weeks among teams that have played twice, Nebraska’s defense ranks third nationally in allowing 250.5 yards per game.

No team, in two games this month, has fared better defensively on third down.

“We play for one another,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans said. “We’re never going to lay down for anybody. We’re tough. When you’re backs up against the wall, you have to come out fighting.

“That’s something we see from the coaching staff.”

Often, in the midst of a demanding time, it’s difficult to see what’s happening right in front of you.

Pelini said on Monday that he’s not sure if the Huskers’ resiliency reflects his persona.

“Hopefully, it’s reflective on the culture of our program,” he said.

The coach said he and his staff preach a culture of togetherness.

“Fight until the end,” he said, “no matter what happens.”

That message, above all others, gets through.

“Guys have embraced what our coaching staff has asked us to do,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “One of our big things is just stay the course. Don’t ever give up. Don’t ever get down on yourself. You’ve got to have a short memory when you play. That’s something they’ve instilled in us.”

Whatever they’re doing, it helped freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., starting away from home for just the second time, stare down the Michigan defense and its imposing crowd and convert a fourth down with a pass to Kenny Bell en route to the game-winning touchdown on Saturday.

It helped Evans, linebacker David Santos and budding star Randy Gregory at defensive end stuff back-to-back Northwestern runs in the red zone, forcing a field goal to keep the Huskers alive in the final minutes.

It helped backup QB Ron Kellogg III engineer a decisive drive that revived the Huskers’ season.

A formidable challenge arrives this week as the Spartans bring the nation’s top-ranked defense to Lincoln.

Nebraska crawled out of its hole last year to beat MSU, one of four double-digit deficits overcome by Pelini's team in Big Ten play. The Huskers, if nothing else this week, promise to fight.

“One of these weeks,” Qvale said, “we’ll be ahead in at the start the fourth quarter. That would be nice.”

With the inexperienced Armstrong and a patchwork offensive line, the Huskers look overmatched.

In other words, they're right at home.
The numbers don’t look good for Nebraska.

Michigan is 19-0 at home under coach Brady Hoke in three years. Over that same time, Nebraska is 7-8 away from home, including a 6-4 mark in Big Ten opponents’ stadiums.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong Jr. struggled in his only road start, throwing three interceptions Oct. 12 at Purdue.
When the Huskers visit the Wolverines on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the visitors won’t take good memories of their last trip to Michigan Stadium -- a 45-17 loss in 2011.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska’s expected starter, of course, wasn’t there two years ago. He’s started just one road game, Oct. 12 at Purdue, and threw three interceptions before he was replaced in the second half.

Northwestern also intercepted Armstrong three times last week in Lincoln.

So how will the Huskers and their young quarterback survive the mayhem of the Big House and more than 100,000 fans?

“We’ve just got to make sure we don’t turn the ball over and give our defense a chance,” Armstrong said. “They’re starting to click at the right time.”

The Blackshirts held Northwestern scoreless on 11 consecutive drives from midway through the second quarter until the Wildcats kicked a go-ahead field goal in the final two minutes. The Huskers will likely need a similar effort against Michigan, which is averaging 46.6 points in five home games this year.

“I guess I can’t really explain it,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of the Wolverines’ elevated play at home. “I know I feel a lot more comfortable here, playing at home, because of our crowd and the energy they bring.

“I’m sure Michigan shares the same thing. I’ve played in Ann Arbor, and they’ve got a good fan base. The place will be loud. It’s 110,000 people, so obviously that gives them an advantage. We have to understand that going in.”

Another key for Nebraska involves stability on the offensive line. It lost All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long against Purdue last month. Guard Jake Cotton went down last week with a sprained knee ligament.

The Huskers may shift tackles Andrew Rodriguez or Brent Qvale to guard or move center Cole Pensick and play backup Mark Pelini at center.

Regardless, they must avoid mistakes like the three penalties that cost Nebraska a pair of scoring opportunities in the fourth quarter against Northwestern.

“We’ve got to find guys who can step up,” left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “And when they step up, they’ve got to step up with a purpose. We have a standard that we set. It stays the same, no matter who’s in there.”

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Nebraska is accelerating its offensive tempo and entering a league loaded with daunting defensive linemen.

What does that mean for the Huskers' offensive line? Hopefully more hands on deck.

Line coach Barney Cotton has wanted to establish an eight-man rotation up front. The past two seasons, Nebraska rarely used more than six in games. Cotton hopes the number can change this fall.

"This year, it’d be great to play 10," Cotton told me earlier this week. "I don't know if that's possible or not, but the spring is all about competition and development, and we've got a good start on that."

Nebraska returns two starters up front in center Mike Caputo and tackle Jeremiah Sirles. Tackle Marcel Jones missed most of last season with a back injury, but he has starting experience from 2009. The Huskers also bring back linemen like Andrew Rodriguez who saw a bit of time as reserves in 2010.

But the need to build depth is very real. Nebraska loses both of its starting guards, including first-team All-Big 12 selection Ricky Henry. The new offense largely eschews huddling and wants to stay a step ahead of the defense. There's also the matter of durability, especially after the poor end to last season.

"We're all about competing here and how we finish," Cotton said, "and we're certainly not happy up front with how we finished, especially those last two games.”

Conditioning will be a focal point in the summer months, but Cotton wants to have as many options as possible.

"Creating not just depth but playing depth is what’s really going to be important for us," Cotton said. "By playing depth I mean guys we feel comfortable putting in the game when the game's on the line."

Caputo fits into that category. The former walk-on started throughout last season and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors.

Cotton calls Caputo "the unquestioned leader" of the line, a role Caputo embraces.

"I’m working on that, trying to become more vocal," Caputo said. "Last year, we were all kind of old and now, me and [Marcel Jones] are really the only old guys left. It's a little different."

Caputo has seen several young linemen step up this spring, including Rodriguez, Brent Qvale and Brent Long, all sophomores. Nebraska's revamping of the coaching staff this offseason put a greater emphasis on the line as Bo Pelini promoted John Garrison to assist Cotton and coach the tight ends.

"This year, we’re very young," Cotton said. "We have three seniors in the top 10, so we've got kind of a youth movement here, but there are a lot of guys who look like they’re ready and willing to step up to the plate."

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