Big Ten: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Last season was undoubtedly the "Year of the Running Back" in the Big Ten.

We've talked about it ad nauseam around here, but in case you need a refresher course, the league featured such star tailbacks as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Northwestern's Justin Jackson. When you have two 2,000-yard rushers and five others go over 1,100 yards -- including the offensive MVP of two playoff games -- then there's no debate which position is the strongest.

The running back position isn't going to drop off a cliff this year, either, as Elliott and Jackson return and new stars like Wisconsin's Corey Clement will emerge. But 2015 is going to be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook has a 23-3 record as a starter at Michigan State.
That might sound silly, just based on recent history. Elite quarterback play in this league has been hard to find at times in the past few years, and the conference has not produced a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That streak won't end with this spring's draft, either.

But the drought almost certainly will change with the 2016 draft. In fact, there's a good chance the Big Ten will have multiple quarterbacks taken in the first round next year -- and we're not just talking about all of Ohio State's guys.

The Buckeyes are a great place to start in this discussion, as one of their three candidates for this year's starting job -- Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- instantly will become a Heisman Trophy front-runner the second he earns the gig. Assuming all three stick around until the fall, that will be a continuing topic of conversation and curiosity in Columbus and beyond.

There's zero quarterback controversy in East Lansing, as Connor Cook decided to return to Michigan State for his senior year. He's got a 23-3 record as a starter (and is 16-1 in Big Ten games) and already has led the team to victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. If Cook can shore up some of his footwork and decision-making, he could be the first quarterback off the board next year ... unless, that is, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes out as a junior.

Hackenberg had major struggles last season as a sophomore, owing a lot to an offensive line held together with spit and string. But his natural talent is undeniable, and he reminded everybody of that by throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. With better protection and more experience at receiver, Hackenberg could bounce back in a big way in 2015.

There aren't as many household names under center at other Big Ten campuses. But Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has long been viewed as a pro prospect. His 2014 season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he should be fully healed by the start of 2015. Illinois' Wes Lunt also was hampered by injuries last year, but when he was healthy, he threw for at least 266 yards four times. Both Sudfeld and Lunt are listed at 6-foot-5 and have the classic quarterback builds.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. has the perfect last name for a quarterback and could take the next step in his development as a junior for Nebraska. He'll play in a more passer-friendly offense under Mike Riley, and Armstrong gave a hint of his potential with a 381-yard, three-touchdown showing against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Questions abound at other places, like Wisconsin, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan. But each team has talented options that could be unlocked. Mitch Leidner moves into his third year of starting for Minnesota and had one of his better games in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. C.J. Beathard appears to be the man moving forward for Iowa, and his big arm and fearlessness gave the offense a spark last year.

The Big Ten looks like it's on an upswing, especially after a strong showing in the postseason. Improved quarterback play is a big reason why. This will be the best crop of signal-callers throughout the league in a long time, which is why 2015 will be the Year of the Quarterback.

Big Ten mailbag

March, 11, 2015
Mar 11
5:00
PM ET
March mailbag madness:

Eric from Mequon, Wis., writes: Will Paul Chryst pick up right where he left off in Madison? Is there a QB that fits in the system or are we 2-3 years away from having "his" QB? What can we expect out of the Badgers in 2015?

Brian Bennett: If by picking up where he left off you mean coming close to replicating the 2011 season -- Chryst's last at Wisconsin as offensive coordinator -- then no, not at all. That was a historically great Badgers offense that averaged 44.1 points per game and had two of the best individual seasons of all time from Russell Wilson and Montee Ball. So, yeah, the bar is pretty high.

Still, Chryst inherits a very good situation in Madison. Sure, Melvin Gordon is gone, but Corey Clement is a star in the making, and running the ball shouldn't be a problem. The defense is in excellent hands with the return of Dave Aranda as coordinator. It really all comes down to the quarterback situation, and that is a big question mark. I think Chryst can work with and improve Joel Stave to a certain point, but he is pretty much what he is (and with a 20-6 career record, he's better than most people believe). If a youngster like Austin Kafentzis or D.J. Gillins is going to emerge, it probably will take him at least a year or two to realize his full potential, and the receiver options are slim.

But given the returning talent and the schedule, I think Wisconsin is the likely favorite to repeat as West Division champs.

Brian Bennett: I really like De'Mornay Pierson-El, and there is a lot of potential at the running back spot. But the obvious and correct answer is Tommy Armstrong Jr. He showed what he's capable of doing in the Holiday Bowl against USC, and with noted quarterback developer Mike Riley as his new head coach, Armstrong should take another step forward. With Abdullah gone, there's little doubt this is Armstrong's offense.


Faiz from Canterbury, Kent, U.K.: Would Purdue be relevant in the next 2-3 years? Are they just a coach away from becoming one? Or is it due to the whole structure of the program, that leads to most prospective athlete not wanting to be associated with the program?

Brian Bennett: Can we go back and give Joe Tiller some more coach of the year awards? In hindsight, what he accomplished at Purdue is pretty remarkable, and the program hasn't been nearly as good since he left. It may have just been a case of the right coach at the right time, because the Boilermakers job is not an easy one for anybody. The facilities aren't among the best in the league, there aren't a lot of players in the Boilers' backyard and the school has rigorous academics. I like and respect Darrell Hazell a lot, but this is a tough mountain to climb. Probably the worst thing Purdue can do right now is have an itchy trigger finger. Give Hazell time to build something.


Donald from Connecticut writes: Is there any realistic scenario under which newcomers Rutgers or Maryland could ever climb to the top of the East Division standings in the next 10 years? It just seems that there is such a huge gap between these schools and the top of the division that it is insurmountable.

Brian Bennett: Is it possible? Yes. The right blend of players and a season where everything comes together could result in one of those programs winning the East in the next 10 years. The best reason for optimism for both teams is that plenty of high school talent comes from their areas, so a couple of good recruiting classes could have a dramatic impact. Now, here's the bad news: Ohio State isn't going to go away any time soon and certainly not as long as Urban Meyer is around. Michigan State has established itself as a national power, and Michigan and Penn State are definitely on the rise. That makes the East one of the most competitive divisions in football, and finding a way up that ladder will be incredibly difficult.

Brian Bennett: How about a side step? I need to see some tangible proof that the defense has improved before I believe that the Illini are going to take a major step forward. The team doesn't start spring practice until this weekend, so the jury won't be returning a verdict on that for a long time. There is potential here, starting with an offense built around Wes Lunt, Mikey Dudek and Josh Ferguson and including a nonconference schedule with four very winnable games (Kent State, Western Illinois, at North Carolina, Middle Tennessee). If Illinois takes care of business in September and simply matches its Big Ten win total from last year, that would be seven victories. Very doable.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is a big time for buzzwords.

You’ve heard them all: Evaluation, development, leadership, confidence, maturation. Each term, while a bit cliché, applies on campuses everywhere in the spring. After all, it’s smack in the middle of the offseason, and we’re dealing with players at various stages in their growth around the game.

At Nebraska this month, one buzzword trumps the others: adaptability.

Ten coaches, all new to the Huskers, are wading through their first week of practice at the opening of a new era. Wednesday marks the third workout under coach Mike Riley.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
AP Photo/Nati HarnikMike Riley is stressing to his new staff that they be adaptable while they settle into their first spring in Lincoln.
Media types and fans alike want answers to all the usual questions as the weather warms, on cue, to greet the Huskers with conditions perfect for work on the grass fields that sit in the large shadow of Memorial Stadium.

Who are the leaders? What are the expectations? Where are the position battles?

Hold off on all of it for now.

What matters most, more at Nebraska than any school in the Big Ten this spring, is this: Can the coaches and players find common ground?

Adaptability is key. Unlike the situations at Michigan and Wisconsin, where Jim Harbaugh and Paul Chryst inherited remnants of the former staffs -- not to mention their deep, personal ties already in place -- in Lincoln, well, Mark Banker can explain.

“Everything is new to everybody,” the Huskers’ first-year defensive coordinator said Monday after the second practice of the spring.

It means efficiency is essential. Good communication is crucial. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, as the saying goes, and at Nebraska, in these first few months, the temptation to do just that will be great.

“I tell the coaches continually that we have this one chance to make a first impression about how we’re going to coach,” Riley said, “how we’re going to teach, how we’re going to build this team.”

Specifically, the challenge appears monumental on the offensive side. Nebraska, under former coordinator Tim Beck (who landed the best gig in the country, coaching quarterbacks at Ohio State), operated a spread attack that emphasized tempo and the QB run game.

Tommy Armstrong Jr., the clear favorite to retain his starting spot under Riley and new coordinator Danny Langsdorf, rushed for more than 700 yards last season in addition to throwing for nearly 2,700.

Among the first order of business for Langsdorf this spring, according to Armstrong, is to make sure the rising junior no longer plays or thinks like a running back. In the initial practice Saturday, Armstrong appeared to fight the urge at times to run as soon as his first read look covered.

No doubt, the voice in his head -- Langsdorf used a walkie-talkie to transmit his message into the helmets of the quarterbacks -- preached patience.

It’ll improve. But it’ll take time. These changes are significant.

The Huskers received their new playbooks about two weeks before practice opened. On Saturday, the players were expected to know their assignments, said senior I-back Imani Cross.

“Some guys did good at that,” Cross said. “Other guys didn’t do so well.”

Defensive end Greg McMullen described Banker’s system as “very simplistic,” a notable variation from the scheme used by former coach Bo Pelini. But the changes on defense, clearly, are not as dramatic.

“He wants us to run fast and get to the ball,” McMullen said. “I believe in what he’s doing.”

The adjustment period, of course, works both ways. While Armstrong and the others strive to adjust for the coaches, Riley and his assistants are equally on the hook.

It only works if they meet in the middle.

“That’s probably going to be the key to success,” Riley said. “When you coach as long as I have, you have lots of ideas through accumulation of many years. You’ve got to pare that all down and do what the kids can do -- and what they’re good at doing.”

Riley said he liked the tempo employed by Beck and that the new staff would find a way to capitalize on the players’ ability to operate a fast offense.

The 61-year-old coach is already showing he can adapt. He examined Nebraska roster and saw a group larger, at approximately 120 players, than anything he managed at Oregon State. Considering the size and his staff’s unfamiliarity with the players, Riley introduced a unique setup that essentially split the team in half.

The 60-player groups are holding separate practices for the first half of spring, joined in the middle by special teams. The staff, as a result, spends long days on the field.

It’s no problem, though. At this early stage, the more time together, the better -- for the players and their coaches.

“They have to learn,” Riley said, “and we have to adapt to what they can learn.”

Nebraska spring preview

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
12:30
PM ET
Nebraska's offseason of change reaches an important measuring point over the next five weeks as coach Mike Riley and his staff get a first look at their players on the practice field.

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.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
Nati Harnik/AP PhotoAs Mike Riley and his staff settle in at Nebraska, the challenges and expectations of the upcoming season begin to take shape for the newcomers.
For an additional primer, check out our pre-spring state of the Nebraska program and key position battles.

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.
We have a hard enough time predicting what's going to happen in the games in the fall -- you've seen our picks records, right? So trying to forecast what's going to happen in spring practice -- not a game, we're talking 'bout practice -- seems especially futile.

But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:

1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.

2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.

3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Beathard enters spring as the starting quarterback at Iowa.
4. C.J. Beathard wins Iowa's quarterback competition: Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't abandon a two-year starter like Jake Rudock lightly. But Beathard seemed to give the entire offense a spark when he entered games last season, and the Hawkeyes could sure use some energy on that side of the ball. Ferentz surprisingly listed Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback on a rare January depth chart, so he's obviously serious about a possible change.

5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.

6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.

7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.

8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.

9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.

10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.
LINCOLN, Neb. – First-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley looks forward to connecting faces to the names of many of his players as spring practice opens Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ve got a lot to do,” he said. “More to do than normal.”
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.
It's here. Spring practice in the Big Ten starts this week. Michigan opens Tuesday; Northwestern begins Wednesday. Right on time, we’ll examine the Big Ten’s position groups.

Let’s get started with a look at the league’s quarterbacks – always the premier position but especially in 2015 as the Big Ten looks likely next year place a quarterback in the opening round of the NFL draft for the first time since Kerry Collins in 1995. Only Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern are replacing starters, and nine teams return a quarterback with more than one year of experience as the man in charge.

Intriguing storylines abound.

Best of the best: Ohio State and Michigan State

Any conversation about Big Ten quarterbacks begins with the Buckeyes and their three-headed monster of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. We won’t go in depth on the trio, but know this: Ohio State would be favored by many to repeat as national champion with any of three at the helm next fall. Miller and Barrett, of course, must return to good health after the spring. Health is not a concern for the Spartans, who have a bonafide star in rising senior Connor Cook. Cook could have made a splash in the draft this year but opted to return after throwing for 24 touchdowns and 3,214 yards last season in leading MSU to a second straight top-five finish. As long as he’s at the helm, Michigan State won’t be far from the national spotlight.

Next up: Penn State and Nebraska

The numbers aren’t over-the-top great for Christian Hackenberg, who took a step back statistically as a sophomore with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His completion percentage of 55.8 also dropped, but Hackenberg remains arguably the most physically gifted Big Ten QB. And if Penn State improves on the offensive line, a breakout season would surprise few. The situation is more murky for Tommy Armstrong Jr. and the Huskers. He must first win the job over inexperienced contenders as new coach Mike Riley takes stock of talent in the spring. But for Armstrong, the ceiling is high. He started eight games as a redshirt freshman, then threw for 2,695 yards and rushed for 705 last year. Armstrong still fought consistency but displayed big-play skills in accounting for more than 400 yards in the Huskers’ Holiday Bowl loss to USC.

Sleeper: Indiana

Don’t forget about Nate Sudfeld, back from surgery on his non-throwing, left shoulder to reclaim the starting position for a third season. He threw for 2,523 yards in 2013 and started well last fall, leading a late drive to beat Missouri before he was hurt against Iowa. Sudfeld’s absence crippled the IU offense, which got a boost this offseason with the transfer of a Jordan Howard and Marqui Hawkins, a dynamic running back-receiver combo from UAB. It’s up to Sudfeld to make the pieces fit and carry the Hoosiers back to a bowl game.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

New coach Paul Chryst inherits an interesting situation with Joel Stave, who missed the first four games of his junior season with a case of the yips. After his Octoer return, Stave rarely showed the poise from his first year as a starter in 2013. He completed 61.9 percent of his throws as a sophomore; it was just 53.4 last year with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. For some, patience has worn thin for Stave, who must adjust to life without Melvin Gordon in the backfield. Still, he looks like the Badgers’ best option unless someone emerges this spring from the group of Tanner McEvoy, who could move back to defense, Bart Houston or freshmen Austin Kafentzis and Alex Hornibrook.
As spring practice approaches, we're taking a snapshot of the state of each Big Ten program. We're looking at recent performance, won-loss trends, coaching, current personnel and future personnel.

Up next: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

2014 record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

Three-year record: 28-12

Coaching situation: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst was full of surprises, as he fired Bo Pelini despite another nine-win season and hired longtime Oregon State coach Mike Riley as his replacement. Riley is nationally respected but endured losing seasons in three of his final five years at Oregon State. He must show he can recruit and develop players at a program with greater resources and much greater expectations. Riley brought several assistants from Oregon State, including longtime defensive coordinator Mark Banker. He reunites with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, twice an Oregon State assistant who most recently worked with the New York Giants.

Roster situation: The Huskers lose their best offensive player (running back Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (end Randy Gregory) but return quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and some other key pieces. They need Jordan Westerkamp to take over as No. 1 receiver for Kenny Bell, and there are a few holes to fill along the offensive line and in the secondary. Playmaking safety Nate Gerry (five interceptions) is back alongside productive defensive linemen Maliek Collins, Greg McMullen and Vincent Valentine.

Recruiting situation: Riley and his staff did a good job limiting the attrition that often accompanies a coaching transition. Nebraska added a key piece to its offensive line in guard Jalin Barnett and bolstered its secondary with Eric Lee, Avery Anderson and others. There were only two recruits from the Big Ten footprint -- both from Omaha, Nebraska -- so it will be interesting to see if Riley's staff can recruit, or chooses to recruit, much in the Midwest.

Trajectory: Sideways. Many Nebraska fans felt the team went sideways under Pelini, who won nine or 10 games each season but always lost four. Still, few FBS programs win as consistently as Nebraska had under Pelini, and Riley never lost fewer than four games at Oregon State. It might be tough for Riley to replicate Pelini's standard records in Year 1, but he will have time to elevate a championship-starved program. The recruiting dynamic will be fascinating. The staff brings an innovative approach and Riley has ties to Texas, but Nebraska must make some inroads in the Big Ten footprint. Many felt Riley got the most out of Oregon State for much of his tenure, but this is a different stage with much more pressure to perform.
The Big Ten had mixed results during the BCS era, making more appearances (29) than any other league but finishing with only one national title and a 14-15 overall record. The New Year's Six era, while still in its infancy, has been promising for the Big Ten, which sent two teams to the big bowls and came out 2-0.

It's never too early to project for the 2015 season, and colleague Brad Edwards has done exactly that with his forecast. InsiderEdwards pegs Ohio State for the playoff semifinal against USC in the Orange Bowl, and Michigan in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. He's clearly buying the Jim Harbaugh effect in Year 1.

I've been tasked to examine the Big Ten's New Year's Six contenders and what must go right to reach the Orange, Fiesta, Rose, Sugar, Cotton or Peach Bowls this season. Few would have pegged TCU and Arizona to make NY6 games last season, so anything can happen.

But these are my selections for the Big Ten's realistic candidates, from most likely to least likely. While Edwards is bullish on Michigan and its potential for immediate success under Harbaugh, the Wolverines don't make my list.

Here it is ...

OHIO STATE

2014 record: 14-1 (National champions, Big Ten champions)

Key returnees: QBs Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller; RB Ezekiel Elliott, DE Joey Bosa, LB Darron Lee, S Tyvis Powell, CB Eli Apple

Path to New Year's Six: Just show up? It's never that simple, no matter how strong a team appears on paper. The Buckeyes will be favored in every game and must show they can handle last year's success without letting up. They must manage a unique quarterback situation that, despite all the talent, could turn sour if the right decisions aren't made. Ohio State needs continued progress from young linebackers like Lee and Raekwon McMillan as it builds depth in the defensive midsection. It also must fill holes at defensive tackle and cornerback after losing Michael Bennett and Doran Grant. There's no shortage of playmakers on offense but Ohio State needs a top deep threat to emerge after losing Devin Smith.

MICHIGAN STATE

2014 record: 11-2 (Cotton Bowl champions)

Key returnees: QB Connor Cook, LT Jack Conklin, C Jack Allen, DE Shilique Calhoun, LB Ed Davis, S R.J. Williamson

Path to New Year's Six: The Spartans leaned more on their offense in 2014 and might have to again after losing key defensive pieces at all three levels. They need a huge season from Cook, a national awards candidate who could leave as the program's most-decorated quarterback. Michigan State looks for a running back and a top receiver to emerge after losing the underrated Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett. The Spartans must maintain their typical defensive excellence against the run, on third down and in pressuring the quarterback. No Big Ten team faces a tougher schedule than MSU, which hosts Oregon and must travel to Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan.

WISCONSIN

2014 record: 11-3 (Outback Bowl champions)

Key returnees: RB Corey Clement, QB Joel Stave, C Dan Voltz, LB Vince Biegel, S Michael Caputo, CB Darius Hillary

Path to New Year's Six: The Badgers have a tough opening draw with Alabama, but a loss wouldn't take them out of New Year's Six contention. They're still the team to beat in the Big Ten West Division. New coach Paul Chryst must stabilize quarterback play with Joel Stave and inject some life into a passing game that ranked 116th nationally in 2014. Chryst wisely retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who will continue to upgrade the unit's speed and find a filler for nose tackle Warren Herring. Unflappable at home, Wisconsin often looks like a different team away from Madison, where it faces Alabama, Nebraska and Minnesota.

MINNESOTA

2014 record: 8-5

Key returnees: QB Mitch Leidner, WR KJ Maye, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB Eric Murray, S Damarius Travis

Path to New Year's Six: Like Wisconsin, Minnesota opens with a huge challenge against national title contender TCU. And like Wisconsin, Minnesota won't be out of NY6 contention with a loss but likely would have to win the West Division. The Gophers once again will rely on their defense, which could boast the Big Ten's most complete secondary, led by Boddy-Calhoun. Minnesota loses bell-cow running back David Cobb but should field a good ground attack. The key is sparking a pass game lacking playmakers after Maxx Williams' departure. Minnesota visits Ohio State and Iowa but gets division challengers Nebraska and Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium.

NEBRASKA

2014 record: 9-4

Key returnees: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., WR Jordan Westerkamp, WR/PR De'Mornay Pierson-El, DT Maliek Collins, DE Greg McMullen, S Nate Gerry

Path to New Year's Six: Nebraska needs a strong start like it had last season and a stronger finish to the regular season. The Huskers' non-league slate isn't a pushover with both BYU and Miami on it, but they aren't facing Oregon, Alabama or TCU, either. First-year coach Mike Riley must develop quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., maintain the team's nice run at wide receiver and fill the massive void left by Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska also loses its most feared defender in Randy Gregory, and will rely on new playmakers to emerge around Nate Gerry.

PENN STATE

2014 record: 7-6

Key returnees: QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Akeel Lynch, WR DaeSean Hamilton, WR Geno Lewis, DT Anthony Zettel, CB/S Jordan Lucas

Path to New Year's Six: The Lions might not seem like a realistic candidate to some, but their schedule and potential for improvement on offense gives them an outside chance. They don't play a Power 5 opponent in non-league play and have five of their first six games at Beaver Stadium. A 6-0 start certainly is possible. Penn State obviously needs significant improvement from an offensive line that will be deeper at most spots. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still a special talent and has weapons around him. The defense might not be quite as dominant but should hold up well under Bob Shoop's direction. Trips to Ohio State and Michigan State will be tough, but if Penn State gains a split, it could enter NY6 contention.

Season report card: Nebraska

January, 28, 2015
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Our grading of the Big Ten teams in 2014 continues. Up next to get its report card is Nebraska.

Offense: B

The Huskers posted gaudy numbers against their nonconference opponents and ranked among the top five in the Big Ten in every statistical category of note but passing yards. Tommy Armstrong Jr., improved at quarterback as a sophomore. I-back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell passed numerous milestones. But we’re ignoring the important stuff. Nebraska continues to be judged on its performance in key games. And at Michigan State, the offense disappeared for three quarters. Against Wisconsin and Minnesota, with Abdullah hobbled, it failed to hold up. Coordinator Tim Beck's group had plenty of good days, including a 525-yard output and inspiring effort in the Holiday Bowl loss to USC, but its ill-timed periods of ineffectiveness factor in the grade.

Defense: C-minus

The late-season improvement we've come to expect from a Bo Pelini-coached defense simply did not happen in 2014. Nebraska struggled down the stretch against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Melvin Gordon's 408-yard rushing performance grabbed the headlines, but the Huskers avoided a three-game losing streak to end the regular season only because of an overtime comeback to win, 37-34, at Iowa. Defensively, Nebraska missed linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and defensive back Charles Jackson, hurt in August, and suspended safety LeRoy Alexander. Safety Nate Gerry, linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Maliek Collins matured well, but nagging injuries prevented defensive end Randy Gregory from reaching his All-America potential.

Special teams: A

Sparked by freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska performed better as a group in this area than any team in Pelini’s seven seasons. Pierson-El led the nation with 596 punt-return yards with three touchdown returns. He ignited the comeback at Michigan State, which fell short, and at Iowa, where Nebraska won in overtime. Punter Sam Foltz developed into a weapon. Abdullah did well on kickoff returns, and the coverage units were strong. Place-kicker Drew Brown fought through midseason inconsistency to finish well, hitting 14 of 21 kicks as a freshman. Even in their losses, the Huskers generally won the special-teams battle.

Coaching: C

Pelini lost his job not because of any coaching decision or mishandled situation, though Gordon's Heisman moment against the Huskers served to validate the belief Nebraska was not improving in its bid to compete well in the big games. It was just the opposite -- the blowout against the Badgers, a second straight loss to Minnesota. Of course, Pelini may have survived in spite of all that if he and athletic director Shawn Eichorst better saw eye to eye on issues that extended beyond the field of play. Credit the coach for fixing the special teams, a concern in past years, and his staff for fostering the development of Armstrong, Gerry, Collins, Pierson-El and other young players. They did a lot right in 2014 but failed ultimately to alter the program's trending direction.

Overall: C

In a vacuum, 2014 looked like a decent season at Nebraska. If new coach Mike Riley equals Pelini's nine wins in 2015, perhaps without a lopsided defeat, the mood will be much different around Lincoln next winter. That’s what change can do. And 2014 largely illustrated the need for a new approach at Nebraska after a seventh consecutive 9-4 or 10-4 finish. These Huskers weren’t good enough to convince observers that the program is ready to compete for a Big Ten title; they weren’t bad enough to prompt a mandate for change among the fan base. They were, in fact, stuck in neutral.
We've been counting down our postseason Top 25 player rankings for the Big Ten's 2014 season all week. There's still a ways to go until we get to No. 1, and I won't spoil who topped the list (it's not that hard to figure out).

These postseason rankings are fun because we base them on actual performance in the previous season, not projections or expectations. But let's do a little bit of those latter things here and look ahead to who might top the player rankings in 2015.

It should be an exciting race, full of star power. Let's start with what I'll call the Buckeye 5, a quintuplet of Ohio State stars all returning to Columbus:

Joey Bosa: The league's reigning defensive player of the year is just a true junior, and after leading the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss and nearly winning some national awards, he could be ready for another leap forward. Which is truly a scary thought.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesEzekiel Elliott could become the Big Ten's top star in 2015 after shining down the stretch this season.
Ezekiel Elliott: The MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Elliott caught fire down the stretch and finished with more than 1,800 yards. With the Big Ten's plethora of star backs moving on, he could become the new face of the league. Unless it's one of his teammates in the backfield like ...

Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones: Miller finished No. 1 on our player rankings the previous two years, so he'd be an obvious choice ... if we were sure that he'd A) stay at Ohio State, B) resume full health in his throwing shoulder and C) reclaim his old starting job. Barrett was No. 5 in the Heisman Trophy voting this season after a record-breaking campaign, while Jones merely led the team to victory in all three postseason games. No one can say for sure at this point who the Buckeyes' main QB will be in the fall, but whoever it is figures to put up massive numbers for what could be a truly great team.

Ohio State is stuffed full of contenders, and our money is on one of them. But what if they all cancel each other out? Here are a few other candidates:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He needs to eliminate some of his careless throws, but no one shakes off a mistake and bounces back with a great play like Cook. Getting him back for his senior season was huge for the Spartans, and he'll have an excellent supporting cast around him.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: OK, so much of his sophomore season was miserable. But he reminded everyone of his talent with a 371-yard, four-touchdown performance against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. If the Nittany Lions can block for him, watch out.

Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong: Is Armstrong ready to carry the Huskers' offense without Ameer Abdullah? He threw for 381 yards and had four total touchdowns against USC in the Holiday Bowl, and new coach Mike Riley has a reputation as a strong developer of quarterbacks.

Illinois QB Wes Lunt: A bit of a reach, perhaps, but Lunt missed five games because of a broken leg and battled hurt through others while still passing for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns. A healthy, second year of starting in Bill Cubit's system, with top-notch receiving target Mikey Dudek, could equal big numbers.

Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Melvin Gordon is gone, but the Badgers aren't going to stop running the ball at a highly successful rate. Clement, who ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as Gordon's understudy, should see a huge spike in carries and is a leading candidate to top the Big Ten in rushing this year.

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: His reputation outpaced his 2014 production from a pure statistical stretch (eight sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss), but Calhoun still is one of the most feared pass-rushers around. The 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year surprised many by returning for his senior year, and he could be in line for a monstrous final go-round in East Lansing.

Offseason to-do list: Nebraska

January, 21, 2015
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Around the Big Ten we go, continuing with our week-long look at three items each team must address in the offseason. Up next is the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

1. Get comfortable with the coaching staff: New coach Mike Riley and his assistants face a real challenge in earning the trust of the Huskers, in particular the veteran players who spent multiple years with former coach Bo Pelini. For better or worse, Pelini was fiercely loyal -- and his players felt the same about their coach. Riley has the right personality to smooth the waters quickly, but he and his staff can't ignore that some of the Huskers feel alienated by the administration and may struggle to embrace change. The coordinators and position coaches, like Riley, bring an experience level and likeability factor that ought to make the spring go about as well as possible. Still, the transition won't always be easy.

2. Create an offensive identity: Nebraska has been plagued for the past decade, really, by the lack of a go-to offensive plan. Sure, it's had excellent players at times. When they graduate or get hurt, though, it leaves Nebraska without a backup plan. The scheme needs to be strong enough to account for the inevitability of football. That's where Riley and Danny Langsdorf must succeed. What is their bread and butter? They'd be well served, at first, to craft a system that fits the strengths of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.. But in the long term, Nebraska needs to find a way to sustain offensive success in the Big Ten. And it ought to feature a strong running game.

3. Fortify the defense: For all of Pelini's defensive acumen, he never mastered that side of the ball in the Big Ten. The league's top offenses gouged Nebraska repeatedly after its 2011 move from the Big 12. And while the old staff leaves nice pieces such as defensive tackle Maliek Collins and safety Nate Gerry, Nebraska is dangerously thin at linebacker. Coordinator Mark Banker and line coach Hank Hughes must find a replacement for end Randy Gregory. This spring marks the return of key pieces Michael Rose-Ivey at linebacker, Charles Jackson and LeRoy Alexander in the secondary. The Huskers need them all, in addition to the emergence of a few backups to provide depth.
Amid a furious news cycle in the Big Ten as Michigan introduced Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State counted the hours until its colossal meeting with Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a pair of moves Tuesday at Nebraska helped shape its immediate future.

Say goodbye to Randy Gregory, the All-American caliber defensive end who made it known that he plans to leap to the NFL with one remaining year of eligibility.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
AP Photo/Nati HarnikRandy Gregory became the first Nebraska player in seven years to leave early for the NFL draft.
And say hello to Danny Langsdorf, the Huskers’ new offensive coordinator who's set for a reunion with coach Mike Riley after spending just one season with the New York Giants.

Neither item came as a big surprise. Gregory’s departure was a near certainty, in fact, after the Nov. 30 firing of Bo Pelini. Speculation for much of this month named Langsdorf as a candidate to join Riley’s staff.

Regardless, Tuesday's developments might eventually rank as the most significant of the offseason at Nebraska as Riley tries to maintain the order in place and infuse his system to take the Huskers to a new level.

Safe to say, one of the moves is positive; the other is not.

First, the good news: Langsdorf is a crucial hire for the Huskers. And don’t lump him with the four coaches who followed Riley from Oregon State to Nebraska.

The additions of Mark Banker, Trent Bray, Mike Cavanaugh and Bruce Read -- presumably to serve as defensive coordinator, linebackers coach, offensive line coach and special-teams coordinator, respectively -- were safe. Easy for Riley to orchestrate, you might say.

Langsdorf, 42, is different.

His departure from the Giants was met with disappointment from coach Tom Coughlin and others. Langsdorf spent the past year alongside Eli Manning, helping retool the game of the two-time Super Bowl MVP and former No. 1 overall draft pick. Manning’s production improved dramatically from 2013 with the help of Langsdorf.

At Oregon State from 2005-13, Langsdorf molded quarterbacks Sean Mannion, Matt Moore and Sean Canfield.

Too often under former coordinator Tim Beck, who was likely handcuffed by Pelini, Nebraska lacked an identity. Especially when forced to look past its favorite option because of injury or an obstacle posed by the defense, the Huskers were exposed as a group without direction.

Riley and Langsdorf, who have worked together extensively, figure to possess a chemistry that will bode well for the Nebraska offense. And they’ve got tools with which to work, starting with quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who threw for 381 yards last Saturday in the Huskers’ 45-42 loss to USC in the National University Holiday Bowl.

Armstrong needs coaching. He needs to be refined. Langsdorf and Riley look like the right pair to help him -- that is, if Armstrong emerges from a pack of five quarterbacks in the spring that includes Johnny Stanton, coveted two years ago out of California by his new head coach and offensive coordinator.

The intrigue will be thick in March.

No doubt, in deciding to leave the NFL, Langsdorf considered the resources available at Nebraska and the returning talent, headlined by receivers De’Mornay Pierson-El and Jordan Westerkamp, a versatile group of running backs and underutilized tight end Cethan Carter.

That Langsdorf said yes to Riley indicates something about the coordinator’s assessment of the potential on offense and his confidence in Nebraska's plan to build a productive scheme for the Big Ten environment.

Gregory, meanwhile, leaves a gaping hole. He earned third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press, but his junior season never quite developed as hoped after the talented juco transfer led the Big Ten in sacks in 2013.

He was slowed early in 2014 by a knee injury and bothered by cut-blocking strategies. Gregory’s performance on Sept. 27, with two sacks against Miami in Nebraska’s best win of the season, left the Huskers wanting more. They won’t get it.

He’s the first Nebraska player to leave early for the NFL draft since Brandon Jackson in 2007, which speaks to the dearth of elite talent during the Pelini era -- and the loyalty of players like Ndamukong Suh and Ameer Abdullah.

So the Huskers, still in need of a defensive line coach, will look to defensive end Greg McMullen and tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine to anchor the front four.

With Gregory, the group would have rivaled any in the Big Ten and rated as the Huskers’ clear defensive strength. Without him, the line remains solid, especially if Avery Moss can return from a one-year suspension, but depth could be a real concern.

Tuesday gave Nebraska reason for hope and cause for concern. Like two ships passing in the night, Gregory and Langsdorf moved in and moved out, another sign of the changing times in Lincoln.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- There are two distinctly different ways to look at the mindset of Nebraska’s players as they get ready for the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday against USC.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Huskers look to end their season with a win over USC.
The Huskers, who leave Tuesday for San Diego, have endured a tumultuous month -- from the firing of coach Bo Pelini on Nov. 30, two days after their overtime win at Iowa, to the deconstruction of his old staff as new coach Mike Riley hired his own assistants.

There was also the public reveal last week, presumably initiated by someone among them, of a volatile audiotape from Pelini’s final meeting with the players Dec. 2.

How, after all of that, can the Huskers be ready to play a football game? It’s a question for which they offer few answers. The past is behind them, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.

“I’m focused on our staff,” he said. “These players and getting ready for USC.”

From the alternate perspective, the events of the past three weeks might have galvanized the Huskers.

As Armstrong suggests, they are driven to play well for interim coach Barney Cotton and the other eight assistant coaches, seven of whom likely will not remain at Nebraska after this week.

Riley plans to keep only secondary coach Charlton Warren.

Essentially, this is the last chance for the Huskers to work with the coaches who recruited them. It’s a motivating factor.

So is the desire to show well in front of Riley. The former Oregon State coach has watched from afar as Nebraska practiced this month and figures to use the Holiday Bowl as another chance to start evaluating his 2015 roster.

Mainly, though, they want to end this season well for one another.

“The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us,” safety Nate Gerry said. “We’ve kind of realized Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other -- not really worry about anything.

“Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.”

If you get past the forest of subplots, an interesting matchup awaits.

Nebraska, 9-3 and winless in four games against the Trojans (most recently a 49-31 home loss in 2007) has a chance to finish with its best record since 2003 -- the season after which coach Frank Solich and his first-year defensive coordinator, Pelini, were fired.

Parts of this game, to be telecast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, look especially appetizing.

The Huskers the lead the nation in opponent completion rate at 47.5 percent; USC is No. 1 in completion percentage at 70.1. Nebraska ranks 10th in yards per opponent pass play and ninth in third-down conversion rate allowed; the Trojans rank 18th and fourth in the respective offensive categories.

It's safe to say, though, Nebraska has not faced a foe such as USC. Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” defensive end Greg McMullen told reporters last week. “That could probably benefit us by them throwing a whole lot.”

McMullen said he thinks the Nebraska defensive line can pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory. The junior, an elite NFL prospect, missed the season finale. He battled injuries most of the season and returned to practice Friday in Lincoln.

Nebraska also faces injuries on the offensive line. At center, Mark Pelini and top backup Ryne Reeves are out, as is Zach Sterup at right tackle.

“We’ve got to make sure we win our one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “They play a lot of man -- make you beat them on the outside. And they’ve got a great, physical defensive line.”

No matter the individual battles, for Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl will boil down to a question: Can the Huskers find the right mindset?

“It’s not about how I want to end,” said senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, allowed extra time to heal from a knee injury that slowed him in November. “It’s about how we should end things.”

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