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Lessons learned from spring practice: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Spring practice is complete. The longest period of offseason waiting is upon us. But we can always look back. This week, we’re taking stock of the lessons learned during the 15 practice sessions of spring for each Big Ten team. Up next is Nebraska.

1. The Cornhuskers are going to be young on offense up front.

The departure this spring of senior Paul Thurston, who was the top candidate as the offseason began to start at center, only accelerates the youth movement. Slated to start on the offensive line, from left to right, are sophomores Nick Gates and Jerald Foster, senior Dylan Utter, sophomore Tanner Farmer and junior David Knevel.

And that description doesn’t quite explain the lack of experience. Gates, the Huskers’ most highly regarded lineman, started 10 games at right tackle last season. Utter, a former walk-on, made every start at left guard.

The Huskers are especially high on Foster and Farmer, key pieces in the 2014 recruiting class, and Knevel -- a 6-foot-9, 315-pound Canadian who may have come of age after three seasons of development.

Expect redshirt freshman Michael Decker, who started at center with the first-team offense in the spring game, and classmate Jalin Barnett to fight for spots in the playing rotation.

2. Speaking of inexperienced, the defensive line is one big project.

The Huskers have hit the reset button on the defensive front four. First, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left a year early -- and both tackles were drafted Friday in the third round. Then, coach Mike Riley fired defensive line coach Hank Hughes after one season.

Enter new assistant John Parrella. And exit a pair of seniors after spring ball. Greg McMullen, who started last year at defensive end, left to pursue his career outside of football. Tackle Kevin Williams is transferring. So it’s up to senior Kevin Maurice in the middle, senior Ross Dzuris on the edge and a lot of youth.

That’s not all bad. Start with sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun, Nebraska’s best pass-rusher, and move inside to find sophomore Mick Stoltenberg and redshirt freshman twin tackles Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis.

Parrella’s got plenty of tools at his disposal -- if he can get them all sharpened in time for September.

3. Nebraska’s going to run the football or go down trying.

The verdict is in on the pass-happy attack of 2015. It was not a winning formula. Not with quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who threw 402 passes in 12 games. He was intercepted 16 times, the second-highest figure nationally.

Armstrong is a dynamic runner, but Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf were not comfortable last season allowing him to use his legs regularly. They are more so now, evidenced in part by the QB draws installed this spring and showcased in the April 16 spring game. Armstrong rushed for a team-best 120 yards in the final scrimmage of the spring.

Despite the new-look offensive line, the Huskers appear set up well to run the ball in 2016, featuring I-backs Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon. They are a diverse set of runners, and Nebraska’s outstanding group of wide receivers will get involved in the running game, too.

The biggest key to major improvement over the 6-7 finish last year? Cut the turnovers. And the most efficient way to practice ball security? It involves better decision-making from Armstrong -- and his coaches, too. This spring helped illustrate their commitment to rushing the football.