Big Ten: David Santos
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Within days of their arrival at Nebraska in December, Trent Bray and defensive coordinator Mark Banker convened to review the Huskers’ depth at linebacker.
Bray, pegged by Mike Riley to coach the position after playing it in college at Oregon State and coaching linebackers for the past three seasons with that team, anticipated some kind of a shortage. After all, the Huskers often favored stacked looks in the secondary over the base defense that featured three linebackers under the former coaching staff.
But four guys?
Bray counted four returning scholarship linebackers after the transfer of Courtney Love and loss to graduation of Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach from a defense that ranked ninth in the Big Ten in scoring last year and eighth in yardage allowed.
“Yeah, it was surprising,” Bray said Monday after the sixth of 15 spring practices in Lincoln. “Usually, you want to carry around 12. But there was nothing you could do about it, so we just had to look forward and fill some spots in that recruiting class.”
The Huskers signed four linebackers in February, including Dedrick Young of Peoria, Arizona, who enrolled for the spring semester and may factor in as a true freshman in the fall.
Of immediate concern this spring, Bray has tried to teach the Huskers’ new defensive scheme as he manages a thin group. He’s cautiously optimistic about the early results.
“The good thing is,” Bray said, “everyone’s getting a lot of reps.”
Young and converted safety Luke Gifford, a redshirt freshman, provide depth, while senior David Santos -- with starting experience in each of the past three seasons -- continues to rehab a knee injury.
Banderas said he recognizes that observers may view the dearth of linebackers a weak link of the Nebraska defense.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, he said.
“As soon as Santos gets back,” Banderas said, “I don’t see us taking much of a hit, if not growing a little bit.”
Banderas fought inconsistency as a part-time starter over the past two seasons. Rose-Ivey, after starting seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2013, missed all of last year with a knee injury suffered in August.
Once competitors for the middle-linebacker spot, they’re teaming this spring as Banderas mans the middle and Rose-Ivey settles outside.
He may shift inside at times, Bray said. Young also offers versatility.
Banderas likes the defensive scheme.
“Just less thinking,” he said. “Less thinking, more playing. You just play faster. It’s more reactionary. See it and go, instead of see it and think about it and then go.”
Bray’s plan for Banderas after the coach watched film of his sophomore year?
“Give him the freedom to play,” Bray said. “He hesitated, and he wasn’t quite sure of going and getting things.”
Bray told Banderas not to worry about making a mistake.
If you make it, we’ll correct it,” he said. “I want to see you do stuff fast. And he’s really taken to it. Josh has had a really good spring so far. He’s had a number of interceptions. He’s got his hands on the ball.”
Newby, at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, possesses the physical ability to make plays, Bray said. And Young, according to the coach, is “picking things up real fast for a guy who should be going to his prom.”
With more depth in the secondary, the Huskers may prefer to regularly play five defensive backs, as in recent years, though it’s not a certainty.
“That is dictated by the personnel we have,” Bray said. “We’ve had years [at Oregon State] where we’ve played a ton of base defense, because those were our best 11 guys.
“We’ve had other years where we were in nickel a lot.”
Other defenders have confidence in the linebackers.
“They’re tough,” said safety LeRoy Alexander, Rose-Ivey's roommate who also sat out last season. “I know we don’t have a lot of them, but the ones we do have, they’re doing everything they can.”
Bray plans to look for multiple freshmen to play. In the meantime, walk-ons have filled reserve roles in the spring.
“There’s guys who have been here a couple years that have never gotten a rep at a practice,” Bray said. “So this is an opportunity. Here it is. Show us you can play.”
It’s a mantra for Nebraska’s entire corps of linebackers.
After seven consecutive nine- or 10-win seasons under Bo Pelini, fired three months ago, the expectations for Riley will be high in his first season. The former Oregon State coach inherits a team with the talent in place to contend in the Big Ten West.
Fifteen practices this spring will provide a better indication of the schemes Nebraska will run next season.
Schedule: The Huskers open practice Saturday morning and will follow a Monday-Wednesday-Friday Saturday pattern, with a March 21-29 break, before the April 11 Red-White game. As usual, expect close to a full house at Memorial Stadium for the end-of-spring festivities.
What's new?: What's not new? Riley and his nine assistants, none of whom have coached at the school, bring a fresh look to the Huskers. The coaching staff will use an interesting practice format for the first half of spring drills, with the 120-player roster divided into two teams -- red and white. They will hold separate practices, connected by special teams in the middle. The idea? Give the coaches more individual time with the players and eliminate down time on the practice field.
Biggest question: How's the offense going to look? Riley and Tommy Armstrong Jr., the returning starter at quarterback, offered a few hints this week, primarily by noting Armstrong will act much less like a running back in this scheme than under the previous coaching regime. He rushed for 705 yards last fall as a sophomore, and the Huskers will incorporate his mobility into the offense, but it figures to come out of pro-style sets similar to what Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf used at Oregon State. Sophomore receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El is sure to receive an increased role in the offense, and the four I-backs in contention for the starting job ought to provide the Huskers with a solid ground game. Also, get to know Cethan Carter, the Huskers' athletic junior tight end, likely to get more involved in a hurry.
Three things we want to see:
1. Answers at center and linebacker. The main problem with Riley's plan to split the Huskers into two spring teams involves a lack of depth at a few spots. At center, senior Ryne Reeves, often injured, is not ready to practice, leaving Paul Thurston, Dylan Utter and whomever offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh can find to snap the ball. Linebacker is equally thin as David Santos and Michael Rose-Ivey continue to rehab. For the three spots, the Huskers have one experienced healthy player in Josh Banderas, promising sophomore Marcus Newby, redshirt freshman Luke Gifford and a crew of walk-ons.
2. Return of key pieces on defenses. Though Rose-Ivey remains limited after suffering a knee injury in August, safety LeRoy Alexander, suspended in 2014, and versatile defensive back Charles Jackson, who missed last season with a knee injury, are ready to go. All three were ready to play important defensive roles last season. Alexander and Jackson can help stabilize the secondary under new assistant Brian Stewart after the Huskers lost safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Josh Mitchell.
3. An I-back worthy of the starting job. It's not enough for Imani Cross, Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor and Mikale Wilbon to simply practice well this spring. One of them needs to emerge from the pack. Realistically, the bulk of the carries next season could go to any of the four. Taylor, out last year with an ankle injury, and Wilbon have yet to play a down at the college level. One back likely can't account for the loss of Ameer Abdullah, but the Huskers would be best served to determine a pecking order here over the next five weeks.
Riley has had a whirlwind of experiences in three months on the job. The first 60 days were largely devoted to recruiting. In weeks since signing day, he’s fulfilled obligations with Nebraska’s fan base, donor community and the media. He completed his staff recently with the hiring of Brian Stewart as secondary coach.
When time permitted, Riley spent time on evaluations and relationship-building with his 121-player roster. Most of his assistant coaches, in fact, have spent more time with the Huskers than Riley.
“The one that’s behind on all that is me,” Riley said. “I don’t like this feeling.”
He’s planning to focus almost exclusively on personnel and teaching during the upcoming 15 practices that conclude April 11 with the Red-White game -- expected, as usual, to draw a huge crowd to Memorial Stadium.
The coach and several Huskers met Wednesday with the media to discuss expectations and plans for the spring.
• Riley said the Huskers who filled starting roles last season, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., will enter spring practice with the edge to win jobs.
“I think it’s important for every player to have an opportunity to win a job,” Riley said. “[But] those guys have earned spots in this program. We owe it to every player to evaluate in closely as we go.”
Armstrong started all 13 games for the Huskers in 2014, completing 53.3 percent of his passes (184 of 345) for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 705 yards and six touchdowns.
Armstrong offers a different style of quarterback for Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who spent nine seasons together at Oregon State before Langsdorf coached quarterbacks for the New York Giants in 2014.
Armstrong said his new coaches informed him soon after their arrival that he’s not a running back. The rising junior said he expected to spend more time in the pocket this spring than in the past and will operate out of the shotgun and under center.
“Footwork is going to be the key to my success,” Armstrong said.
• Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has made a positive impression on senior linemen Givens Price and Alex Lewis. Price said Cavanaugh asked the linemen to list for him their preferred positions. Price, who has played guard and tackle at Nebraska, figures to work this spring at right tackle.
“It’s exciting to get a fresh start,” Price said, “but it’s also an opportunity to get better.”
Of Cavanaugh, Lewis said: “He’s going to coach you hard and love you harder.”
• Riley said he plans to try a style of practice new to him through the first half of drills. The Huskers have been divided into two teams – both with a mix of experience – and will rotate in drills. The idea, he said, is to maximize repetitions and allow the new coaches to better evaluate.
“I did not want a team period where 22 guys were playing and 100 guys were watching,” Riley said. “I just don’t like standing around. We’re going to give guys opportunities.”
Depth at linebacker and center presented a problem in dividing personnel, Riley said.
The coach plans to mix scrimmaging into workouts this spring about every third practice, though some of the live work might last for as few as 10 minutes.
• Several defensive players said they were excited in anticipation of practicing under coordinator Mark Banker.
“It’s a lot simpler,” junior safety Nate Gerry said. “Coach Banker wants us to emphasize flying around. Last year, we had a lot of people thinking. Banker’s just letting us loose. That’s one thing, as a defense, that’s going to help us out.”
Gerry said he welcomed the expected fierce competition for spots as the new coaches assess the roster.
“Everybody sees it as all doors are open,” he said.
• Defensive back Charles Jackson, who missed last season with a knee injury, safety LeRoy Alexander, suspended in 2014, and I-back Adam Taylor have all been cleared to start practice on Saturday.
Linebacker David Santos, according to media reports, remains out after undergoing knee surgery after Nebraska’s National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC. Offensive tackle Zach Sterup and center Ryne Reeves are not ready to practice.
The Huskers limited by injury include receiver Jamal Turner, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, guard Corey Whitaker and defensive end A.J. Natter.
Riley described the impending practices as “the dawn of a new day.”
“We’ve got a lot to do,” he said. “More to do than normal.”
Here's a look at what the next coach figures to inherit:
Defense: Even without defensive end Randy Gregory, who is expected to leave early for the NFL, the Huskers’ strength remains up front with the return of Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentine and star-in-the-making Maliek Collins. Nebraska is dangerously thin, though, at end, and linebackers Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach are gone, leaving a lot of work for the next staff. They’ll be tasked to find the right spots for once-promising Josh Banderas and David Santos. Youngsters Marcus Newby and Courtney Love look the part but did not contribute as expected. Linebacker Michael Rose and safety Leroy Alexander return and should offer a big boost. In the secondary, first-year coach Charlton Warren may have a chance to stay. He did great work with safety Nate Gerry this year, and this area features the team’s best collection of young talent with the likes of Kieron Williams, Josh Kalu and Chris Jones.
Special teams: Looks good all around, with the return of punter Sam Foltz, who developed into a weapon in his second season, and freshman place-kicker Drew Brown. Pierson-El amassed more punt-return yardage -- by a margin of 30 percent -- than any other team nationally, returning three kicks for touchdowns. His value to the next coach cannot be overstated.
Fan base: Here’s where it gets tricky. Husker Nation is again splintered after the firing of Pelini, whose backers will struggle to accept anything less than the Bo standard of nine or 10 wins. Even then, if the Huskers don’t win a conference title in a short time, a faction of fans will loudly question the need for change. It has the potential to get toxic in a way similar to the dark days of the Bill Callahan era, when many fans and former players felt alienated. All of this magnifies the need for Nebraska to find a coach who embraces the school’s tradition and can unite people. There are hurt feelings to soothe, and if Pelini’s replacement doesn’t understand that, he’s facing a stacked deck from the start. Nebraska has sold out an NCAA-record 340 consecutive games. And since the expansion of the stadium to more than 90,000 in 2013, ticket demand has softened. As an institution, Nebraska can’t afford empty seats in the stadium.
Administrative support: It’s strong. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst, asked why he fired Pelini after a 9-3 regular season when 8-4 was good enough to stay last year, pointed immediately to support from the administration. Pelini made requests, particularly to better fund recruiting, and Eichorst complied. Even the former coach mentioned several times that Eichorst provided all the resources that Nebraska needed to win. Was it a scheme from the boss, who planned to fire Pelini all along and wanted to remove every potential excuse? That’s a theory for the most fierce of the Pelini loyalists. Regardless, the next coach will be Eichorst’s guy, tied to him for the duration, so it stands to reason that Nebraska’s administrative support, already outstanding, will only grow. The school has millions in its reserve fund, evidenced by the ease with which it is handling Pelini’s $7.9 million buyout. And as long as the stadium remains full, the resources will expand after the Big Ten inks a new, rich TV contract in 2016.
Recruiting: Nebraska had a small senior class in 2014 and expected to sign a group of less than 20 in this recruiting cycle, though normal attrition that accompanies a coaching change could increase the demand for reinforcements. If a coach is hired soon, he could likely salvage much of the 2015 class, headlined by Louisiana running back Kendall Bussey, who has re-opened his recruitment, and Coloradans Avery Anderson and Eric Lee. Anderson and Lee, defensive backs who signed early enrollment paperwork in August, can still renege. In the big picture, Nebraska could benefit from a coach with connections in talent-rich California, Texas or the South. And at a minimum, the next staff must feature the diversity and experience to recruit nationally. Nebraska faces challenges here that are unique among the elite programs, but the right group of recruiters can make it work well.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the forthcoming season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can and did pretend with this fantasy itinerary, and it was a lot of fun.
Let's close it out with the Week 14 options:
Illinois at Northwestern
Nebraska at Iowa
Michigan at Ohio State
Michigan State at Penn State
Minnesota at Wisconsin
Purdue at Indiana
Rutgers at Maryland
Adam Rittenberg's pick: Michigan at Ohio State
This wasn't a slam-dunk choice as there are potentially good options in Iowa City, Madison and State College. But after attending last year's 42-41 thriller in Ann Arbor, I'm not passing up another edition of The Game. The rivalry has become much more interesting since Brady Hoke came to Michigan. He beat Ohio State in his first year and nearly pulled off a significant upset in last year's contest, where defense was most certainly optional. It's a big year for Hoke, whose wins total has declined from 11 to eight to seven, and while he's not on the hot seat now, he could be on Nov. 29. A Michigan win at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2000 would be a major boost for the Wolverines and their coach.
Braxton Miller will try to prevent it in his final home game for the Buckeyes. Miller has been productive in his first three games against Michigan, especially on the ground with 301 rush yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback could be closing in on an unprecedented third Big Ten offensive player of the year award, and possibly the Heisman Trophy, but OSU will need a stronger defensive performance, especially in the secondary, after allowing Devin Gardner to go nuts last season. Gardner will be aiming for a signature win.
The Ohio State-Michigan matchup in the Big Ten title game never came to fruition, but the teams could be competing for a spot in Indy, and maybe more in 2014. No better place for me to end this road trip than The Shoe.
Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Iowa
I strongly considered The Game, which is always a great choice. But since we'll both be in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game, that would mean five straight weeks in the same city as Rittenberg. I'm afraid we'd start bickering like an old married couple.
So instead, I'll spend a second straight weekend in Iowa City, this time on Black Friday. Maybe I'll just stay there for the full seven days, crash on Kirk Ferentz's couch. The Heroes Game hasn't really reached liftoff as a must-watch rivalry yet, but the Hawkeyes' upset win in Lincoln last year added some ignition fluid to the series. Perhaps the West Division title will be on the line here, which would really start to make this rivalry combustible.
Iowa's 2014 season could well be made or broken by its final two games as it hosts Wisconsin and these Huskers at Kinnick. Nebraska limped into last year's meeting while dealing with an assortment of injuries and couldn't deal with the Hawkeyes' senior linebacker trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. This time around, the Huskers could have a dominant defense if its young linebackers like Michael Rose, David Santos and Josh Banderas continue to develop over the course of the season. It will also be Ameer Abdullah's final regular season game, and I'd expect him to leave everything on the field, which he always does.
My ultimate road trip began in Ireland, and it ends with me spending Thanksgiving in Iowa. Sounds just about perfect.
Road trip itinerary
Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
Week 13: Brian and Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa
Michael from Remsen, Iowa, writes: Do you think that NEBRASKA's young but very talented linebackers will take that step up this year and be the best linebacking group in the Big Ten? Also, who do you think wins the starting left tackle spot?
Brian Bennett: Michael, the potential is certainly there. Not all of the linebackers are young; the coaches have loved senior Zaire Anderson's talent and potential for some time, but he's just got to stay healthy and in the lineup. Michael Rose looks like a rising star, Josh Banderas has turned some heads in spring practice so far, and David Santos gained a lot of experience last year. Throw in newcomers like Marcus Newby and Courtney Love, and this is a deep group with loads of athleticism. Best in the Big Ten? I'm not so sure about that, but the league did lose an abundance of star linebackers to the NFL draft. I still need to see the Huskers' defense deliver consistently, but the future looks really bright in that front seven.
As for left tackle, Alex Lewis has been getting reps with the No. 1 unit so far this spring. Lewis transferred in after playing two years at Colorado and withstood some legal troubles. The reshuffling of Nebraska's offensive line remains a big story to watch this offseason.
Brian Bennett: A Rose Bowl victory followed by a Big Ten tournament title and seemingly every expert picking them to win the NCAA tournament understandably has Spartans fans feeling a bit chesty. Michigan State's defense has locked things down against Michigan the past few years. You need some bulletin board material, Doug Nussmeier?
Brian Bennett: The return of the dreaded double-bye does make for some less-than-stellar weeks on the 2014 schedule. But the nonconference opponents this year are much better than they were in 2013, and there are still some excellent heavyweight matchups sprinkled throughout the conference season. Ohio State-Michigan State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Penn State-Michigan, Michigan State-Michigan, Ohio State-Penn State are just a few of those. The biggest question from the broadcast side is how many games will be picked up for primetime, especially in November? But the Big Ten isn't exactly hurting for exposure.
Brian Bennett: No doubt there are still some doubters on Minnesota (and polls like that tend to favor the biggest fan bases). The Gophers had a great run in the 2013 season but have yet to really break through as serious division contenders. It's going to be tough to do that without some major improvement in the passing game, something the team is emphasizing this spring for sure. Minnesota has a tougher schedule this year with a road game at TCU, crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan and intra-division road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, a solid core returns from last year's team, and the arrow is pointing up in Minneapolis. I'm guessing Jerry Kill doesn't mind being the underdog right now.
Brian Bennett: Biegel ... animal ... Jack Russell ... nope, I'm going to stay strong. Biegel made an impact as a redshirt freshman at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and will step into a much bigger role this season. He needs to because the Badgers lost so much talent and experience in that front seven, including linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Biegel has great size and a good chance to make some plays from that pass-rushing position. He's still a young guy, but he'll have to be an anchor for this rebuilt defense.
Already, storylines are taking shape. Here are a few of the most interesting topics from the opening week:
- 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.
Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).
Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.
Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.
Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.
Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.
Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.
Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.
Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.
Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.
Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.
Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.
Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:
It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.
Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.
Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.
Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.
What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.
What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.
To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.
“I’m very excited about the defense,” Enunwa said.
Nebraska heads into the postseason ranked No. 36 in total defense, allowing 367 yards per game, and 37th in yards allowed per play at 5.22. In the same categories at the start of October, the Huskers sat 107th and 108th, respectively.
“They’ve grown up a lot, matured,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The maturity brought the confidence out of them.”
The turnaround started, according to Enunwa, after a team meeting that followed the slow defensive start.
“We told them that we knew what they can do,” Enunwa said, “and they responded. The past three, four games, they were leading the team. They were the ones who were picking us up.”
That should continue next season with the Huskers set to return their top five tacklers in 2014, led by safety Corey Cooper and linebacker David Santos. But Cooper, a senior next year, and the rising junior Santos are just two of many reasons for optimism on defense.
An overall infusion of youth and athleticism, which figures to continue next season, tops the list.
Start with defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 9 ½ sacks as a sophomore in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. An offseason in Lincoln figures to turn Gregory from a first-team all-conference pick into an All-America caliber defender.
“He brings a kind of athleticism to the defense that we haven’t had here in a while,” Ankrah said.
But it’s more than Gregory that excites Enunwa and the Huskers.
Fellow bookend Avery Moss earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten, as tabbed by ESPN.com, along with middle linebacker Michael Rose, who emerged as a leader in the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine showed promise, as did freshman linebackers Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and Jared Afalava.
Speedy outside linebacker Zaire Anderson returns as a senior. Throw in Courtney Love, the defensive scout team MVP, and Marcus Newby, both of who redshirted, and you’ve got a deep and versatile group of linebackers.
Up front, Kevin Maurice and Maliek Collins played as true freshmen this year. Commitments from junior college tackle Terrell Clinkscales and end Joe Keels show that the Huskers aren’t slowing in their bid to stockpile man power.
“We have a lot of guys with a lot of great ability,” returning defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “We’re losing the most in the secondary, so that’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re going to fill in.
“But I think we’re going to be very explosive and very fast.”
Cooper and Mitchell, who has played multiple spots, return in the secondary in addition to part-time starting safety Harvey Jackson and promising underclassmen LeRoy Alexander and Charles Jackson.
The Huskers lose top cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, easily the biggest shoes to fill. Both intercepted four passes this year.
Secondary coach Terry Joseph will likely shift a few bodies, and the Huskers could rely on redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or little-used Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose to compete for time.
Regardless, the challenges look minimal in comparison to the hurdles cleared this year.
And this month -- and New Year’s Day -- should only help springboard the Cornhuskers into next season, Mitchell said.
“It’s going to give us a jump on next year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to remember their last couple practices. So whatever you learn now and whatever we can improve on now, it will carry over into the spring.”
Pride emerges on the goal line in a tie game, when a defensive stand is the only answer that will lead to a victory.
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 ½ 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).
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 Huskers have handled business well since the loss to the Bruins, and coach Bo Pelini’s squad has done it without fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez. He’s missed the past three games with turf toe. In his place, freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III filled in nicely, relying on a strong stable of backs and receivers to carry the load for a talented offensive unit.
Nebraska ranks eighth nationally in rushing yards per game at 284.8, and it’s averaging nearly 500 yards of offense. Ameer Abdullah is the workhorse at I-back, and Quincy Enunwa has caught seven touchdowns among his 25 receptions.
Defensively, it’s been a wild ride from the start. Nebraska squandered a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter of the opener against Wyoming, holding on to win 37-34. The 38 consecutive points surrendered to UCLA ranked as the low point, though Pelini was equally upset with the first quarter a week later against South Dakota State.
The Huskers have bounced back well in Big Ten play, in particular last week at Purdue in a 44-7 victory. Nebraska nearly pitched a shutout and held the Boilermakers to 216 yards. Defenders Ciante Evans at cornerback, defensive end Jason Ankrah, and linebacker David Santos have emerged of late, while defensive end Randy Gregory and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste have been solid from the start.
Offensive MVP: Adbullah, the junior I-back, has followed up his 1,100-yard season with a better campaign. He’s rushed for 816 yards, second in the Big Ten and sixth nationally, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. And he’s caught 14 passes for 137 yards.
Defensive MVP: Gregory, the sophomore newcomer out of Arizona Western Community College, burst on to the scene as a feared pass rusher and play-maker on the defensive line. His strong play helped spark the defensive improvement of the past two weeks. Gregory enters the second half with a team-high eight tackles for loss. More of the same is necessary in November, when the schedule turns difficult.