Big Ten: Corey Cooper

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MADISON, Wis. -- Melvin Gordon didn't see Ron Dayne as he entered Wisconsin's interview room early Saturday evening.

Gordon sidestepped Dayne, just as he did numerous Nebraska defenders during an afternoon that won't soon be forgotten in a place used to seeing extraordinary running backs do extraordinary things.

"I should be kicking you in the legs or something," Dayne joked, which caused Gordon to turn back and grin.

Dayne had just watched those legs break his Wisconsin single-game rushing record (339). Dayne's milestone was just the first Gordon took down in Wisconsin's 59-24 mashing of Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium. Anthony Thompson's Big Ten single-game record of 377 yards -- set on the same field in 1989 -- fell during the third quarter. Moments later, on a 26-yard touchdown run, Gordon shattered LaDainian Tomlinson's FBS single-game record of 406 yards.

Afterward, Gordon took a small, appropriate bow.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin's Melvin Gordon was in rarefied air with his record-breaking effort on Saturday.
He finished with 408 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries for an average of 16.3 yards per carry that is ridiculous for any college running back not named Melvin Gordon. He also didn't play in the fourth quarter.

"You never know when a special day comes," Gordon said. "When it does, it's a special feeling."

Wisconsin running backs now hold the FBS single-season rushing record (Dayne), single-season touchdowns record (Montee Ball) and single-game rushing record (Gordon). But only Dayne has the most coveted individual award in college football, the Heisman Trophy, which he captured in 1999.

When Dayne won, it was common for running backs to hoist the Heisman. Texas' Ricky Williams had won in 1998, and running backs went back-to-back in 1994 (Colorado's Rashaan Salaam) and 1995 (Ohio State's Eddie George). But since Dayne, only two non-quarterbacks have won the Heisman -- USC running back Reggie Bush in 2005 and Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009. As Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, a good friend of Gordon's, told ESPN.com in September, "the Heisman's really become a quarterback's award."

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota entered Saturday as the clear Heisman front-runner. Another quarterback, one-time favorite Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, had an opportunity to gain on Mariota -- or perhaps eclipse him -- with a signature performance at Alabama. Gordon was in the mix, but after putting up big numbers against inferior teams and with an incomplete performance against LSU, he needed to make a convincing case on this day, against the nation's 20th-best rush defense.

Mission accomplished.

"I think he's the best of the best," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "And he proved it on the national stage when he was given the opportunity. There's some great players out there ... and the decision is going to be made by other people. But if I made that decision, it's going to this guy right here.

"A lot of people have God-given ability, and a lot of people don't do anything with that ability. He's taken it to the highest level."

Gordon still has to catch Mariota, a tough task because the Oregon quarterback does so much good and so little bad and leads a team gunning for a College Football Playoff spot. But the gap is narrowing.

On Saturday, Gordon earned more than a courtesy trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony on Dec. 13. He earned the right to be seriously evaluated as a Heisman contender.

"Just show the man respect," Wisconsin second-string running back Corey Clement said. "That's all I ask."

Gordon will forever be respected here. Students chanted his name and "Heisman!" as the snow turned Camp Randall Stadium into a Wisconsin wonderland (at just 26 degrees at kickoff, it was the coldest game at Camp Randall in 50 years).

The tributes flooded in during and after the game, from Tomlinson, Ball and others.

"The best of the best," Andersen said. "Unbelievable."

A fourth-year junior, Gordon could have skipped this season and likely been the first running back selected in the NFL draft. He returned to guide Wisconsin to a national championship, a dream that died in early October with a stunning loss to Northwestern. But a Big Ten title remains possible, individual awards are coming, and Gordon, a Kenosha, Wisconsin, native, will leave as one of Wisconsin's favorite sons.

"There's risks that come with coming back when you have the chance to leave," Clement said. "God willing, he doesn't get injured, so he can do what he needs to do."

What he does is record big runs. Gordon had four runs of 40 yards or more Saturday, which brought his season total to 14, including a 62-yard scoring burst in the second quarter, when he hurdled Nebraska's Corey Cooper.

"It's something special," Badgers guard Dallas Lewallen said. "Once he gets to the open field, you never know if he's going to take it [to the end zone]."

Added quarterback Joel Stave: "He wowed us all again today."

Gordon's first half included 238 rush yards, a touchdown and two lost fumbles, the first time he has lost multiple fumbles in a game. It will be a forgotten footnote to everyone but Gordon, who thanked the coaches "for just sticking with me."

Smart choice.

The snow continued to fall Saturday night and blanketed the field where Gordon made his Heisman move.

"His legacy is going to be left here for a long time," Andersen said. "His footprints are going to be left all over these hallways."

Whether those same footprints are behind a podium in New York in four weeks remains to be seen.

Gordon gained the nation's attention Saturday. Now he needs to keep it.
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MADISON, Wis. -- After falling behind by 14 points early, No. 20 Wisconsin surged back to wallop No. 16 Nebraska 59-24 behind junior running back Melvin Gordon, who delivered an unforgettable performance to bolster his Heisman candidacy in a national showcase game. Gordon broke LaDainian Tomlinson's single-game FBS record with 408 rush yards. He also broke the Big Ten and team single-game records held by Anthony Thompson and Ron Dayne, respectively.

Let's look at how it went down at Camp Randall Stadium.

How the game was won: Wisconsin overcame a sloppy start and used a 21-point second quarter to take control. Gordon reeled off runs of 62, 44 and 39 yards in the quarter to put the Husker defense on its heels. His play seemed to energize Wisconsin's defense, which turned up the heat on Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong and then began forcing turnovers. After halftime, it was all Gordon, who scored three of Wisconsin's four touchdowns in the third quarter to put away the Huskers.

Game ball goes to: Hmmm, really tough choice here. I guess we'll go with Melvin Gordon. He had 238 rush yards and a touchdown at halftime. And then he really got rolling, racking up 170 yards in the third quarter to break Tomlinson's record. He averaged 16.3 yards per rush with four touchdowns on 25 carries. Gordon did lose two fumbles, something no one will remember after this one.

What it means: Wisconsin is alone atop the West Division after entering the day in a three-way tie for first place with both Nebraska and Minnesota. The Badgers can clinch a spot in the Big Ten championship game with a win next week at Iowa, and a Minnesota loss at Nebraska. The loss almost surely knocks Nebraska out of the division race and turns up the heat on coach Bo Pelini, who hasn't been able to avoid meltdown-type performances in the Big Ten.

Playoff implication: Nebraska's loss means Ohio State is likely the Big Ten's only realistic playoff candidate. The Huskers were a long shot going in despite only one loss -- a five-point road setback against Michigan State -- but they're definitely out of it now. It could hurt Ohio State's case as the Buckeyes hoped to face an 11-1 Nebraska team ranked in the top 10 at the Big Ten championship game. Wisconsin will move up the rankings but won't be able to overcome a loss to Northwestern.

Best play: So many Gordon runs to choose from, but his 62-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter is the pick. Gordon hurdled Nebraska safety Corey Cooper at the 37-yard line and scooted untouched the rest of the way.

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What's next: Wisconsin visits rival Iowa next week, looking to possibly lock up the West Division crown. Nebraska returns home to face Minnesota.

Big Ten morning links

October, 31, 2014
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Happy Halloween. Let’s get your Friday started with three questions that may have slipped through the cracks -- until now -- about Week 10 in the Big Ten.

Can Austin Appleby keep it going this week against Nebraska? Sure. While the Cornhuskers rank third nationally in limiting opponents to a 48.1-percent completion rate, Appleby can look for high percentage throws to speedy backs Akeem Hunt and the do-it-all Raheem Mostert. They've combined to catch 40 passes this year. Miami burned Nebraska in September with a similar style. It’s a good formula for a talented, young quarterback such as Appleby, whose 83.4 QBR index ranks seventh nationally and leads the Big Ten. Since taking over for Danny Etling, the 6-foot-5 sophomore has completed 66.3 percent of his throws and led the Boilermankers to 35.7 points per game. With what we saw from the Nebraska defense last week against Rutgers, reason exists to believe that Appleby can have another good day.

Have we seen the last of Maryland’s feel-good story for this season? The Terps’ fast start took a dramatic turn for the worse last week at Wisconsin. Maryland’s quarterbacks have been beaten up. Its running game was non-existent in Madison. The turnovers are starting to mount -- with nine in the past three games -- and it faces two of the Big Ten’s top defensive units next in Penn State, a familiar foe to coach Randy Edsall, and, after a bye, Michigan State. Maryland looks like it’s a year or two away from a breakthrough. It has recruited athletes such as William Likely and Stefon Diggs, plenty capable of changing games against Big Ten competition, but the infrastructure is not yet strong enough. It’s conceivable, despite five wins in its first seven games, that Maryland will still be in search of a bowl eligibility-clincher in the regular-season finale on Nov. 29 against Rutgers.

Is Illinois on track to salvage its season? The easy answer is no. The Fighting Illini scored a lot of points behind Wes Lunt, now injured, early in the season, and it hasn’t been the same since Reilly O'Toole took over this month. Before its upset win over Minnesota last week, Illinois had lost four of five games, including a clunker at home to Purdue. But suddenly, the Boilermakers look much better. Illinois was competitive in losing at Wisconsin, and it punched Minnesota in the mouth, capitalizing on three turnovers and four sacks. Don't expect Illinois to win Saturday at Ohio State for the first time in seven years, but if it can continue to build on last week, a bowl appearance is not out of the question with a closing stretch at home against Iowa and Penn State and a visit to Northwestern.

East Division
West Division
The sad news Thursday at Nebraska of a season-ending injury to defensive back Charles Jackson was followed Friday with a shocker: Sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, the top candidate to start alongside Corey Cooper, has been suspended for the 2014 season.

Coach Bo Pelini made the announcement in a press release, saying that Alexander would remain on scholarship and practice with the team. The coach plans to make no additional comment.

Alexander’s absence further damages the prospects for a secondary that already featured some of the most pressing questions on a defense expected to serve as the strength of Pelini’s seventh team in Lincoln. The Huskers were faced with replacing three starters in the five-man defensive backfield from a year ago, and now, two of those replacements are lost.

Alexander started one game last year as a redshirt freshman out of Toledo, Ohio, and collected 34 tackles with one interception.

He performed well in spring practice alongside converted linebacker Nathan Gerry at safety as the senior Cooper sat out with an injury.

With Cooper back, Gerry, who played safety in high school, likely slides into a starting role.

Depth is a concern. Redshirt freshman D.J. Singleton and true freshman Kieron Williams, solid in the opening week of preseason practice, appear to fit as the top backups at safety. Drake Martinez left the program in the offseason after a redshirt season last fall.

The losses of Jackson and Alexander remove two of the top athletes from this Nebraska defense. Still three weeks from the Aug. 30 opener against Florida Atlantic, the Huskers can ill afford more bad news in the secondary.

Big Ten lunch links

August, 1, 2014
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Smell that? Camp is in the air.
  • Michigan believed it had a future star during training camp last August, but then wide receiver Amara Darboh was lost to injury. The Wolverines are counting on him to get back to the level he was at a year ago.
  • A detailed look at reasons Penn State can rise to contention in the East Division.
  • Not surprisingly, Oregon and a "statement game" aren't far from the minds of Michigan State as it reports for practice.
  • Drug charges were dismissed as former Ohio State defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle pleaded no contest to an amended charge of attempted failure to comply with a police order. His status with the Buckeyes hasn't been reevaluated by Urban Meyer.
  • Steered by sports, Nebraska safety Corey Cooper stays on the right path to success.
  • Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is motivated heading into camp and "sick and tired of being 1-11."
  • Converted linebacker Alec James provides a perfect example of what Wisconsin is trying to build on the defensive line.
  • Gary Nova isn't officially the starting quarterback at Rutgers yet, but he's likely to be the pick and his relationship with offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen could be crucial if the program is going to surprise in the Big Ten.
  • Iowa was left out of the preseason top 25 by the coaches. Might that be a good thing for the Hawkeyes?
  • There's little doubt Minnesota can run the football. Will the passing attack move up from last in the Big Ten this fall?
Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Big Ten media days are less than two weeks away, To get you ready, we’re running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago on July 28 and 29.

Next up is Nebraska, which will bring head coach Bo Pelini, running back Ameer Abdullah, wide receiver Kenny Bell and safety Corey Cooper to the Windy City. Here's some of what they may be asked:

1. Can the Huskers get over the hump?

Sure, it's a tired subject. But when you're Nebraska and you've gone since 1999 without a conference championship and since the 2001 season without playing in a major bowl, the question will persist. Most programs would kill to have the Huskers' recent run under Pelini: 58 wins in six years, and never fewer than nine in a season. Yet Nebraska is not most programs. Pelini appears to have one of his better defenses of late, and there is vast opportunity in the wide-open West Division. Can the Huskers get it done?

2. Is Tommy Armstrong Jr. the answer?

All in all, Armstrong performed pretty well last year for a redshirt freshman quarterback who was asked to take over for Taylor Martinez in midseason. But now he needs to be more than a solid replacement. He has to be the guy who leads the Nebraska offense, and in many ways, be the face of the team. It helps that he has outstanding veteran leadership like Abdullah and Bell to help him out. Still, he has to improve on last year's 51.9 completion percentage and stop the Huskers' maddening recent trend of losing the turnover battle in big games.

3. Is Pelini on solid footing?

And you thought No. 1 was a tired question. Pelini's job status nearly engulfed last season, and most people didn't think he'd be back for a seventh year in Lincoln. Yet the tone has changed around him since the dark days following the loss to UCLA last September. The win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl provided a nice boost to the offseason, and Pelini showed a lighter side by goofing around with Twitter parody alter ego Faux Pelini. There are good vibes around Pelini and the Husker camp now. Can that last through the fall?
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

Next up, a key position on the back end of Nebraska’s fast-maturing defense:

[+] EnlargeCharles Jackson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCharles Jackson looks poised to excel at nickel back, a key to making the Huskers' defense dominant.
Spring breakout player: DB Charles Jackson

Connect the dots here. Nebraska’s top defensive units under Bo Pelini -- in 2003, his lone year as coordinator, and 2009 in his second year as head coach -- stopped the passing game as well or better than any team nationally.

The linchpin, arguably, to a dominant Pelini secondary is a standout at nickel back. The nickel, highlighted when the Huskers require a fifth defensive back against many of today’s pass-happy offensive foes, demands versatility and intelligence.

Ciante Evans performed admirably as the nickel a year ago.

This spring, Jackson, a junior who has long been a promising figure for Nebraska, emerged as the projected starter. A 2011 signee out of Spring, Texas, who sat out that first fall to clear eligibility hurdles, Jackson has tantalized the Huskers with flashes of athleticism on special teams for the past two seasons.

But when opportunities arose for playing time, he failed to prove his readiness at cornerback and safety.

That’s all changing now.

“You want to talk about guys that are light years ahead of where they were a year ago?” Pelini said early in the spring. “He obviously put some time in prior to spring practice. I think things are starting to slow down for him and make sense for him, which is a good thing, because he’s a really talented kid.”

Jackson, 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, got serious about film study after last season, when he played in all 13 games but finished the season with just seven tackles -- six of which came on special teams.

“I feel like if you really want it -- want to succeed -- then it shouldn’t be too hard,” Jackson told reporters last month. “I really want it, so I just go in and watch film and get it done. Every single day. It’s just a way of life.”

His strong spring allowed the Huskers to move newcomer Byerson Cockrell from nickel to cornerback; Cockrell is challenging Jonathan Rose for a starting spot opposite Josh Mitchell. With Corey Cooper back at safety alongside LeRoy Alexander or converted linebacker Nathan Gerry, the secondary -- thanks in part to Jackson -- suddenly looks like a strength for the Huskers in 2014 under first-year assistant Charlton Warren.

Nebraska spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Nebraska.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Nebraska boasts an embarrassment of riches at running back: If there’s a better group of backs in the Big Ten, good luck to any defense tasked to stop it. The Huskers return the nation’s top yardage producer in Ameer Abdullah with a stacked group of runners behind him, led by Imani Cross.
  • Nathan Gerry’s position shift solidifies the secondary: After an inconsistent freshman season at linebacker, Gerry moved to safety, a more natural fit, and looked comfortable from the first practice. With Corey Cooper sidelined, Gerry and LeRoy Alexander more than held their own. That trio offers an upgrade over 2013.
  • The left side of the offensive line looks nasty: Jake Cotton at left guard already fits as the line’s leader. Cotton brings a mean streak. But the addition of Colorado transfer Alex Lewis at left tackle gives the Huskers an attitude that has long been missing up front.
Three questions for the fall

  • Who’s going to step up at linebacker?: Coach Bo Pelini challenged this group after the spring to find a big-time player or two. Nebraska has plenty of depth in the heart of its defense and a few potential stars in the making. But who’s going to do it now? Keep an eye on senior Zaire Anderson.
  • Who’s the backup QB?: Tommy Armstrong Jr. diffused the top storyline at the start of the spring by taking control at quarterback. While Johnny Stanton or Ryker Fyfe could still challenge Armstrong in August, their battle offers more intrigue. Stanton shows the higher ceiling, but Fyfe was more consistent through the spring.
  • Can the fun feeling carry over?: Pelini unveiled a side of his personality seen in the past only by Nebraska staffers and players. He was inviting and open to fun. The fall will surely bring a return of buttoned-up Bo, but can the lightened atmosphere of spring help the Huskers deal with scrutiny and pressure situations?
One way too early prediction

Nebraska’s streak of four-loss seasons will end in 2014. Six straight years of 9-4 or 10-4 have led to some feelings of unrest about the program’s direction. This is the year the Huskers move out of neutral. Will they shift into drive or reverse? The pieces are in place to make a run at the Big Ten title, but a stretch of five consecutive night games that starts on Sept. 13 at Fresno State could prove treacherous.
The NFL's affinity for bigger, longer cornerbacks might be a recent trend, but the size debate is nothing new for players who lack it, such as Nebraska's Josh Mitchell.

"People are always going to question my size," Mitchell told ESPN.com "I don't think its so much for me to say anything about it as much as it is to show. I just try to go out there and show that the size doesn't affect my game."

He showed a lot in his most recent performance, against Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound Mitchell had his best game as a Husker, recording an interception and a fumble recovery, both in Bulldogs territory. Both takeaways led to Nebraska touchdowns in a 24-19 victory.

Those in Husker Country hope the bowl victory springboards a team striving to break through the four-loss ceiling and capture a Big Ten championship. Mitchell sees the game as a catalyst.

"That was really important for me," he said. "It set me up for the next season. Coming off that game, I feel like my confidence was at an all-time high."

No kidding. Here's what Mitchell tweeted three weeks after the game:



Mitchell has never struggled to express himself -- "I talk a lot," he said -- but chattiness and confidence are different things. He didn't always have the latter, at least when the lights shined brightest.

The Corona, Calif., native started eight games in 2012 but recorded only one interception, against FCS Idaho State. Before the bowl breakout, Mitchell wasn't involved in a takeaway last season. Nebraska's defense struggled with them, recording just 18, second-fewest in the Big Ten and tied for 95th nationally.

Boosting the takeaway total is a chief goal for the Blackshirts this coming season.

"We have a faster, more explosive group," Mitchell said. "I feel like if we get more guys flying around, we'll create more turnovers. That's one of my goals. I don't have too many in my career, and I think that's just from playing nervous.

"If I can play with more confidence, I can make more plays."

After playing alongside All-Big Ten corners such as Alfonzo Dennard and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Mitchell wants to be Nebraska's top cover man this season, matching up against opponents' best receivers. He has connected well with new secondary coach Charlton Warren and spent much of the spring working on press technique, a strength for any elite corner.

[+] EnlargeJosh Mitchell
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell said his "confidence was at an all-time high" after he had two takeaways in the Gator Bowl win over Georgia.
He also is taking a greater leadership role in the secondary alongside safety Corey Cooper, a fellow senior.

"Very instinctive, plays the ball very well," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of Mitchell. "He's a good football player and a guy I think is going to have a big senior year for us. Love the way he competes.

"He brings great enthusiasm to the field and really adds a lot to our defense."

Pelini notes that Mitchell is getting bigger this offseason. But the two-time academic All-Big Ten selection is smart and realistic about his limits.

He would like to play his final season between 170-175 pounds.

"Of course I want to become bigger and stronger," he said. "I just don't want to get to the point where that’s where all my focus is and I start becoming stiff and losing speed. I rely on speed and footwork.

"I don't have a huge frame, so I don't want to push it too far."

Mitchell's size always might be the first thing people notice about him. If his senior season at Nebraska goes as planned, it won't be the only thing.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is done. It’s time to work on the little things, which, for Nebraska, equate to the big things.

Coach Bo Pelini left the Huskers with a message after Nebraska completed 15 practices over the past five weeks.

“The challenge I laid out to this football team is to move forward,” Pelini said. “If we don’t keep thinking about football, if we don’t attack it and we don’t keep continuing to work at it, to spend some time away from the facility, put themselves in position to keep learning and build, if we forget about football until August and just worry about the conditioning part of it, it won’t happen for this football team.”

Pelini’s words are as clear as a slap in the face. It’s not good enough to remain in good shape during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini is looking for team leaders to be serious about offseason workouts.
College players once went above and beyond by staying committed to a training regimen in the summer. Today, that’s only half the quest, especially at Nebraska, where mental aspects of the game have appeared, in recent years, to largely prevent a breakthrough back into the nation’s elite.

The Huskers struggled again last season in some areas of special teams. Turnovers were costly, too, as Nebraska finished minus-10 in its four losses. It was minus-11 for the season, 117th out of 126 nationally and one of two teams -- Cincinnati was the other -- to place among the bottom 57 while winning more than eight games.

“Everything’s out there,” Pelini said, “as far as I’m concerned, for this football team to achieve, but it won’t happen by chance. It won’t happen if we’re half in. We’ve got to have a group of guys who are absolutely all in to get done what we want to get done. I think they understand that.”

Pelini delivered his message with notable eloquence. The seventh-year coach, no doubt, has devoted considerable thought to this subject.

He’s looking for leaders within the team to repeat his words in May, June and July.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” senior receiver Kenny Bell said. “We did it this entire winter. The hard work doesn’t stop.”

Offensively, Bell and classmate I-back Ameer Abdullah at I-back, alongside senior linemen Jake Cotton and Mark Pelini, have formed a strong voice. They’re joined by sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in keeping Pelini’s message on the minds of the Huskers.

Armstrong, in particular, said he wants to continue to drill the importance of ball security through the offseason.

“I take all responsibility for it,” he said.

Armstrong said he believes the turnover problems were responsible for every Nebraska loss last year – a debatable assertion that, nonetheless, marks a step in the quarterback’s development as a leader.

“We can win all of our games if we take care of the football,” Armstrong said.

Teammates share similar confidence in the ability of Armstrong to lead.

“When you see it day in and day out, a guy putting your team in right positions, you have confidence,” junior I-back Imani Cross said. “That’s something we have in Tommy.”

Defensively, leadership remains more uncertain. Senior defensive backs Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper are entrenched. Among the front seven, the Huskers look to junior Randy Gregory and veteran linebackers David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach.

The defenders hear the same message.

“I think everyone has to come together,” Anderson said, “and be committed to the team being able to make strides every day.”

It’s no easy task, Pelini said. Even this spring, he said, the Nebraska coaches saw various levels of commitment.

“There are some guys taking advantage of their opportunity and some who haven’t,” Pelini said.

“There are some guys who probably haven’t put the necessary time in. Bottom line, when that happens and I put on the film day after day and I see repeat errors, you send a message to us as coaches that it’s not important enough to you – either that or you don’t show the ability to be able to execute our football.”

The majority of the Huskers moved forward this spring, he said. The coach walked away from spring practice with a good feeling about his team and an understanding of areas in which Nebraska must improve.

There’s a plan in place, he said.

“Now it’s going to be time to go into the next phase and move this football team forward,” Pelini said. “This has just begun.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Red-White game began in truly unique fashion on Saturday as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini exited the locker room for the Cornhuskers’ traditional Tunnel Walk cuddling a cat.

In continuing a series of humorous moments related to his Twitter alter-ego, Pelini held the feline aloft seconds before the Huskers took the field for a scrimmage won by the offense, 55-46, over the defense before a crowd of 61,772 at Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTommy Armstrong Jr. still has work to do to solidify his hold on the starting quarterback role at Nebraska.
None of that means much to the Huskers in 2014. Here’s a look at what does matter from Saturday:

As suspected, this stable of I-backs might rate as Nebraska’s best in many years. With Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher, on the sideline, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor put on quite a show. Cross, in particular, showed great skill on his six carries, netting 100 yards and two touchdowns. The junior produced scoring runs of 20 and 39 yards in the first half against the No. 1 defense. Cross flashed a few moves and, of course, the power that helped him rush for 447 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Newby gained 51 yards and caught a pass out of the backfield. The redshirt freshman Taylor rushed for 41 yards. He actually looked more impressive in other spring workouts. Each of the top four offer skills to help this offense.

The quarterback situation remains unsettled. Tommy Armstrong Jr. used this spring to solidify a once-tenuous hold on the No. 1 position, but he’s still not a lock to start on Aug. 30, when Florida Atlantic visits Lincoln. Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe displayed improvement through the 15 practices of March and April. Stanton, in particular, looks much more comfortable and in command of the offense in comparison to a month ago. If Armstrong slips, either backup is capable of snatching the job. Stanton threw for a team-high 135 yards and two scores on Saturday; Fyfe threw for 89. Neither QB was intercepted, and safety Nathan Gerry picked off Armstrong on the first drive of the day. Look past the numbers, though: Armstrong faced better competition. This position is about leadership. Because of his experience and overall poise, Armstrong has an edge. But watch the race for No. 2, and know the gap could be further sliced.

No obvious hole exists within the Nebraska defense. The Huskers looked strong at linebacker to start the spring. The results of Saturday did nothing to dispel that belief as Zaire Anderson, Michael Rose and Josh Banderas -- a potential starting trio -- produced nice moments. Optimism comes from the growth of the secondary and the line. At safety, Gerry played well before suffering a shoulder stinger. LeRoy Alexander finished a solid spring at a position set to grow stronger with the return of Corey Cooper. Charles Jackson developed into a good option at the nickel spot. Up front, even without Randy Gregory on Saturday, the linemen held their own. Greg McMullen showed impressive pursuit of Armstrong on a sack. Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins also appeared to play well.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Let’s face it, the Nebraska defense played at an average level in 2013.

Early in the season, the Huskers were below average. Remember the 38 consecutive points scored by UCLA and the 465 yards surrendered to South Dakota State? Later, Nebraska rated better than the norm, winning away from home against Michigan, Penn State and Georgia largely on the back of the Blackshirts.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory expects the Nebraska defense to reach new heights this fall.
But in 12 of 15 key defensive categories, Nebraska ranked no higher than third in the Big Ten and no lower than ninth.

So yes, as a whole, the group was average.

All-league defensive end Randy Gregory and his teammates want a new label for 2014.

Dominant or suffocating -- either is fine. How about being the strength of coach Bo Pelini’s seventh team?

“Definitely,” Gregory said. “Let’s be physical. We can dominate. If we play our game, we can play with anybody.”

The defensive performance and growth this spring appear to substantiate Gregory’s claim. This Nebraska defense looks stronger, deeper and more physical than any of the past few seasons.

Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska in 2009 and as coordinator in 2003 stand out as the best of the post-championship era in Lincoln. Both units ranked among the top two nationally in scoring and passing yardage allowed. They both featured a play-making All-American among the front seven. And both units surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. They were the only Nebraska defenses of the past 12 seasons to reach the threshold that was commonly crossed in the 1990s, when the Huskers contended for five national titles, winning three.

“I think we can be a top-10 defense,” linebacker Zaire Anderson said. “If we keep working and making progress, we can be a great defense.”

Why such optimism? Well, first of all, it’s spring; positive energy abounds in April. But such talk did not flow from Nebraska camp a year ago as the Huskers attempted to replace several key pieces.

“They learned a lot last year,” linebacker Trevor Roach said.

Through the growing pains emerged a mix of experience and athleticism from front to back. Much like its dynamic mixture at I-back on the offensive side, the Huskers did not necessarily concoct the diversity of this defensive lineup.

It just kind of happened, with Gregory, an All-America candidate in his second season at Nebraska, anchoring a front four that has turned the heads of many observers this spring. At linebacker, seniors Anderson and Roach and junior David Santos have grown into the elders, but youth still rules.

In the secondary, where the Huskers need it most, cornerback Josh Mitchell is the vocal leader of the entire defense. And perhaps more than anywhere else on the field, the maturity of young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry -- in the absence of injured veteran Corey Cooper -- has rated as a key surprise.

At all three levels, positive storylines have emerged this spring.

The evidence of defensive chemistry was on display Wednesday in Nebraska’s 10th practice of the spring.

Late in the workout in a sequence between the top offense and the Blackshirts, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Anderson and Gregory pressured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. on three consecutive plays, the last of which resulted in a Gerry interception that had the whole defense abuzz.

“As much as I’ve seen, I know we’ve got a lot of upside right now,” said cornerback Jonathan Rose, who is competing with newcomer Byerson Cockrell for a top job opposite Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s like a whole 'nother defense coming out this year.”

Gregory said he liked what he saw, too, on Wednesday, but the junior warned that a few practices in the spring can mark only the beginning.

Even early in the season last fall, the defense possessed plenty of talent, he said. It just wasn't making plays.

“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.

“It all starts, really, in the film room.”

Gregory notices more teammates studying film. They’re “taking it upon themselves to put in the work,” he said.

The Huskers could use a highly rated defense to help ease pressure on the offense, which will work with a reconstructed line and an inexperienced group at quarterback. Behind third-year sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games as a substitute for the injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, no quarterback has handled a collegiate snap.

"We have faith in our offense, certainly,” Roach said, “because we have a ton of weapons. But we have to focus on us. We have to worry about what we’re doing. I get the vibe that we have the potential to do great things.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has yet to release an update on junior offensive lineman Ryne Reeves, who experienced pain in his neck and was removed from the practice field by stretcher on Wednesday.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini described the actions to immobilize Reeves, who did not lose any feeling or ability to move, as precautionary.

“Let’s hope it turns out to be that,” Pelini said, “very precautionary.”

Reeves, bidding to start at center next season, received the most extensive playing time of his career late last season because of multiple injuries on the offensive line.

The Huskers worked out in full pads. They will scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Thursday, reaching the halfway point of spring practice before a break until March 31.

Pelini said he wants his players to treat the Thursday workout like another practice and “not get freaked out because it’s a scrimmage situation.”

“It’s taking what they’ve been coached and apply it,” he said. “It’s about executing what we’re asking you to do.”

At nearly the midpoint of spring drills, Pelini said he’s pleased with the team’s focus.

“I think our guys are a lot more to the point where they know what to do,” the coach said. “Now, we’ve got to get into the details. I’m seeing progress on both sides. I’m seeing guys who are competing.”

Also from Wednesday at Nebraska practice:
  • Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark Mangino attended the afternoon workout. Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis and offensive coordinator Tim Beck coached on Mangino’s former staff at Kansas. Pelini also knows Mangino well.

    “He wanted to come over and see what we were doing,” Pelini said, “how we do some things. It gave us a chance to pick his brain a little bit. He’s a heck of a football coach and a good man.”

    Before going to work for Paul Rhoads at Iowa State, Mangino coached as an assistant for two years at FCS-level Youngstown State in Pelini’s Ohio hometown.

  • A key to spring progress in the Nebraska secondary involves the emergence of a strong candidate to replace Ciante Evans at the nickel position. The Huskers hoped it could be Charles Jackson, who has struggled to practice well enough earn playing time at safety and cornerback the past two seasons. So far, Jackson looks the part. So what’s he done differently?

    “Not taking a day off and just paying attention,” Jackson said. “Watching film, watching angles people take every single day. Once you get in that mentality to watch film and get out there and translate it all into the game, it becomes a lot more natural.”

  • The shift of sophomore Nathan Gerry from linebacker to safety is more than a spring experiment.

    “I feel really good about our linebacker spot,” Pelini said, “and I love the way he’s playing at safety right now.”

    Gerry has worked with the No. 1 defense alongside LeRoy Alexander in the absence of returning starter Corey Cooper, who remains out with a foot injury.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has completed three practices -- 20 percent of its spring workload -- with five sessions set for the next week before a weeklong break. Yes, it goes fast at this time of year.

Already, storylines are taking shape. Here are a few of the most interesting topics from the opening week:
    [+] EnlargeNebraska
    Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. has seized control of the quarterbacks group and taken the most reps with the first team so far this spring.
  • Tommy Armstrong Jr. is taking charge. Perhaps even more than expected, Armstrong has embraced his new role as leader of the quarterbacks. Nebraska coaches have made it clear in practice that he’s the man. Armstrong receives the majority of repetitions with the No. 1 offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton is a clear No. 2, and the experiment with Jamal Turner largely fizzled out after two practices. Sure, Turner may still factor in packages next fall, but Armstrong looks like the man for the job to direct this offense after starting eight games a redshirt freshman.

  • Look everywhere for leadership. Sure, teammates look to seniors like Ameer Abdullah, Jake Cotton, Kenny Bell and Corey Cooper. Josh Mitchell has emerged in the secondary. The defensive linemen watch Randy Gregory. Michael Rose, though just a sophomore, is a natural as quarterback of the defense. But key figures on the practice field come from all backgrounds. For example, senior linebacker Trevor Roach and junior receiver Sam Burtch, both of whom came to Nebraska as walk-ons, show up often in practice as two of the Huskers’ hardest workers. Teammates notice them too. Their work ethic makes a difference.

  • As advertised at linebacker. As soon as the full pads came out on Wednesday, the intensity increased. And Nebraska’s linebackers made their presence known. Tackling was not on the agenda, but that didn’t stop senior Zaire Anderson from delivering a few big hits. Anderson looks ready to make the most of his final season. Rose and David Santos have grown comfortable in their roles, and Josh Banderas has settled into a versatile spot. Coach Bo Pelini said the linebackers, as a group, have progressed to “another galaxy” from a year ago. Just wait until redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby settle into roles.

  • Keep an eye of the young safeties. Even without Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler last season who’s fighting a foot injury, the duo in the middle of the secondary rates as one of the most promising on the field. Sophomores Nathan Gerry and LeRoy Alexander have worked with the top defense. Both showed flashes a year ago and bring excellent athleticism. Behind them, though, redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton appear just as talented. If new secondary coach Charlton Warren harnesses the potential of these safeties, he may have a special group on his hands by the end of 2014.

  • A crowded backfield. The nation’s top returning rusher doesn’t need to fear for his starting spot. In fact, Abdullah’s prowess is something to behold. But the guys behind him aren’t getting complacent. Top backup Imani Cross, who scored a team-high 10 touchdowns last season, has added weight to more resemble his shape as a freshman two years ago. Terrell Newby looks ready to assume a more important job, particularly as a pass catcher. And the new guy to the mix, redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, might possess the best mix of physical attributes of any back in the group. The Huskers want to get creative with personnel groupings, so don’t be surprised to see more of the two-back sets next seasons.

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nathan Gerry often felt overmatched last season, and you can’t blame him. He was a freshman linebacker playing at just a couple meals over 200 pounds and was asked, play after play, to challenge players more than 100 pounds heavier.

Former Cornhuskers secondary coach Terry Joseph suggested that he would steal Gerry this offseason, labeling him John Lynch as an homage to the ex-All Pro safety.

[+] EnlargeNathan Gerry
John S. Peterson/Icon SMINathan Gerry, who had 32 tackles at linebacker in 2013, has moved to safety for the Cornhuskers.
Joseph left Nebraska in December for Texas A&M, but his words stuck with Gerry, who approached Nebraska coaches after the Gator Bowl to inquire about a move to the secondary.

Tuns out, they were thinking the same thing.

“I feel like it’s more natural to me,” Gerry said after three practices this spring in the secondary.

He’s part of a revamped backfield under new secondary coach Charlton Warren, who came to Lincoln after nine seasons at Air Force. Gerry and fellow sophomore LeRoy Alexander have manned the safety spots this month in the absence of senior Corey Cooper, out with a foot injury.

They form the leading line of a youthful but athletic group of safeties that includes redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton. Early enrollee junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell and fellow junior Charles Jackson, a reserve safety last season, have played primarily at the nickel position managed well by Ciante Evans in 2013.

“I don’t think people really see the athleticism we have at the safety spot,” Alexander said. “Drake and D.J., they’re young guys, but they’re getting it. Me, Corey and Nate are going to try to bring them along, because they’re a play away -- I don’t know if they realize that yet – just like I was.”

Alexander emerged last season, something of a surprise as Nebraska searched for consistency alongside Cooper, who led the team with 91 tackles.

“He has a base,” coach Bo Pelini said of Alexander, who collected 34 tackles as a redshirt freshman. “He has some experience, has been there, done that a little bit. He’s made some great plays in practice the first couple days. I think he’s a lot more comfortable. I think he can be exceptional down the line.”

Pelini said he feels the same way about Gerry, who started three games and had 32 tackles last fall. The 6-foot-2 Gerry, a former state high-school champion sprinter in South Dakota, actually added about 10 pounds to reach 215 this winter in anticipation of the move to safety.

Gerry said he prefers the view from his new position.

“The farther away you move from the ball in this defense, the easier it gets.” he said.

The Huskers practice Friday, Saturday and three times next week before taking time off for spring break. Don’t expect much movement from Cooper until the team reconvenes on March 31 for the second half of spring drills.

“He could probably practice right now,” Pelini said, “but when you have the sprain that he has, we don’t want him to aggravate it. He’s had great offseason up to this point. He has a lot of experience in our system.

“This gives us a chance to work the younger guys and get them ready, make sure that Coop’s 100 percent before he gets back out here.”

Alexander and Gerry said they’ve enjoyed working with Warren as the coach transitions to Nebraska. It’s played out smoothly over the first two months.

Warren is a strong communicator, the players said. Occasionally, that military background is evident.

“You can tell when he raises his voice,” Alexander said. “He doesn’t like repeat errors.

“He’s not afraid to tell us anything. For him to come in and coach us like he’s had us for years is really a positive.”

Good thing, because the Huskers needed to avoid disruption in the secondary. Warren must find the right fit at safety and cornerback, where Nebraska has used junior Jonathan Rose and redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph to replace Stanley Jean-Baptiste opposite senior Josh Mitchell.

So far, so good.

At safety, especially without Cooper, the growth will continue. But the early impact of Alexander and Gerry rates as one of the key developments this month on the practice field.

“We’ve got a lot of depth, but it’s going to come down to the playbook,” Gerry said. “Everybody’s an athlete back there. (Whomever) knows what to do in these situations is going to determine who gets to play and who doesn’t get to play.”

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