Nebraska is in great shape at quarterback
Glass half-empty guy might point to a vanilla defense worthy of praise from Baskin-Robbins as the reason four Nebraska quarterbacks completed 62-of-95 (65%) passes during the Red-White game. That might be the case, but we heard reports all spring of Tanner Lee and Patrick O'Brien completing passes at a 70% clip during practices. The spring game was not an anomaly. Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf finally have a room full of 'their' quarterbacks and the Husker offense is going to take a big step forward because of it.
Four days following the Red-White game, Mike Riley named Tanner Lee the starter heading into summer workouts. Even so, Patrick O'Brien looked good this spring and made the decision tough on coaches. Most fans and media members expected Lee to make short work of O'Brien this spring as the two battled for the starting spot vacated by Tommy Armstrong. We've been hearing glowing reports and high expectations of Lee since he arrived on campus a year ago after transferring from Tulane, and he has done nothing but live up to the hype ever since. He was named Scout Team Offensive MVP last season while he sat per NCAA transfer rules, and he looked sharp this spring. Lee has earned the confidence and respect of his teammates as well.
The fact that O'Brien made this thing interesting points directly to his potential and bodes well for the future of the position for the Huskers. Tanner Lee has 19 starts under his belt and is three years older than O'Brien. Lee has a strong arm and a quick release. He is a future NFL quarterback, and seeing O'Brien hold his own as a redshirt freshman is encouraging. He is only scratching the surface of his talent. O'Brien took a big step in the three months following the end of his redshirt season. The former Elite 11 and four-star recruit is light years ahead of where he was a year ago. Bottom line, the Huskers have two guys who are capable of starting and executing Langsdorf's offense.
All things being equal, Tristan Gebbia might have been the most impressive quarterback of the bunch during the Red-White Spring Game. In front of 78,312 fans, the early enrollee - and youngest player on the team - threw for 268 yards on 28-of-45 passing, mostly against the No. 1 defense. He looked particularly good during a first half drive against the top defense when he orchestrated a 12-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown. Gebbia showed very good pocket awareness for someone at his stage of development and we saw the arm that initially drew Langsdorf's attention on the recruiting trail. Gebbia will redshirt and eventually give O'Brien all he can handle when the Huskers replace Lee, whether that's following the 2017 season or heading into 2019.
The Huskers could field the Big Ten's best secondary
Early in spring, coaches decided to move Joshua Kalu from his boundary corner position and put him at safety. The move was made, according to both defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott, to get the best four defensive backs on the field. I love this move. Despite starting 26-games the last two years at corner, Kalu's best position - and his best shot at the NFL - is safety. Kalu was recruited as a safety by Bo Pelini and made two starts at nickel during his freshman year. The move gives the Huskers more flexibility, especially in passing situations because of his ability to cover receivers one-on-one. Kalu has been among the teams leading tacklers the last two years (2nd in 2015, 5th in 2016) and should pair nicely with Aaron Williams.
Three separate defensive staffs have been smitten of Aaron Williams. Bo Pelini recruited Williams with the idea of playing the Georgia-native at his all-important Peso position. Pelini and his staff were big fans of Williams' during the recruiting process. When Mark Banker was brought in with Mike Riley, he raved about Williams' football IQ. He started three games as a true freshman and followed that up this past season with 11. Enter Bob Elliott, who raised some eyebrows this spring by saying, "Aaron Williams is as smart of a player as I’ve ever been around. He’s grasping things I never dreamed a safety could grasp this quick. I really feel good about him. He’s really going to be a pleasure to coach." Strong praise from someone with 32 years experience primarily coaching defensive backs, including 11 years as a defensive coordinator.
The team lucked out when Chris Jones decided to ignore the lure of the NFL and return for his senior season. Jones, who has started 20 career games, will be among the best corners in the Big Ten. Bob Diaco and new cornerbacks coach Donté Williams have both raved about Jones' approach to the game. Diaco has said Jones "approaches his work with a deep professionalism." He has become a team leader on defense and his work ethic should help set an example to younger guys like Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee and Dicaprio Bootle.
One of the deciding factors that went into moving Kalu to safety was getting sophomore Lamar Jackson into the starting lineup. Donté Williams has said that Jackson has first-round talent, and he's right. At 6-foot-3 and 210-pounds, the former Under Armour All-American possesses ideal physical measurements and pairs them with outstanding athleticism. But fans need to taper expectations a bit. The top-ranked safety in the 2016 class according to Rivals, Jackson had not played cornerback until his first fall camp at Nebraska, and Jackson struggled as a freshman. Under Williams' tutelage, I expect Jackson to take a big step as a sophomore. There's little doubt he is going to get a lot of attention, especially with Jones on the other side of the field.
For now, the nickel spot belongs to Eric Lee, who enjoyed a very strong spring. The third-year sophomore seems to have flourished under Donté Williams. The light seems to have gone on for Lee, a prized recruit in 2015, but he can expect additional competition to push him this summer. Consensus four-star recruit Elijah Blades arrives in June and he comes with as much promise as Lamar Jackson. The 6-foot-2 Blades was regarded as the third-best cornerback in the nation by 247 Sports. Blades might be too talented to keep off the field and is expected to challenge for time in Nebraska's nickel and dime packages.
The Blackshirts are deep at linebacker, especially on the inside
Trent Bray has done a tremendous job of building up the linebacker room. When he arrived in Lincoln with Mike Riley, the Huskers were looking at just four returning scholarship linebackers heading into the 2015 season. In the short time he has been here, Bray has filled that room with promising young talent. With the switch to a 3-4, the coaches are still figuring out where a few guys fit best. Spring practices showed us that the staff still needs to prioritize finding the ideal outside linebacker on the recruiting trail, but they are set for several years on the inside.
Dedrick Young moved from the outside in Mark Banker's 4-3 and into the weakside inside linebacker spot. It has been a nice transition as his skillset seems better suited for where he is at now. The junior is Nebraska's most experienced linebacker, having started 20 games. Chris Weber is lined up next to Young at strongside inside linebacker. Weber started four games in 2015 and always seems to be in the middle of a pile. He knows this system better than anyone and he has earned Diaco's praise. He will be one of the leaders of this defense.
Both of them are being pushed by their backups. True freshman early enrollee Avery Roberts has the highest ceiling in the room. Coaches will want to start to scratch the surface of what he can become. The guy who probably took the biggest step forward this spring is Mohamed Barry. The sophomore is fast and instinctive and has really flourished in the new scheme. He is going to play a lot this fall. Greg Simmons is a hard hitter just coming off his redshirt season. He is someone to keep an eye on in the future. The staff also has high hopes for Collin Miller, who missed spring with a toe injury. Miller was named Scout Team Defensive MVP last season while working at defensive end. The staff is still deciding where he will ultimately end up in this scheme, but the plan heading into spring was to try him on the inside.
It should be interesting to see how the coaches divvy up the reps in the middle this season. The team has four legit options on the inside. You have two experienced starters who are adjusting to the new defense nicely. But the two youngsters nipping at their heals have higher ceilings. Weber and Young are going to be the better options come September. The thing coaches will need to debate is would the team be better by November if they play Roberts and Barry - guys with more potential - instead. There's a balance somewhere, the coaches need to find it.
The outside is a little different. Marcus Newby and Luke Gifford have a nice competition going at the open-side outside linebacker spot. Gifford had a great spring and pulled even with Newby, who has started 10 games over the last two seasons. The short-side outside linebacker spot is manned by Alex Davis at the moment, but it's being reported (although not yet confirmed by Nebraska) that Davis recently suffered a Jones fracture. De'Mornay Pierson-El suffered the same injury in mid-August of 2015 and missed four games. The typical recovery time for a Jones fracture is 6-8 weeks.
Davis had moved from defensive end and is still learning the position. He embodies the physical ideal for the position (6-5, 255), but has only played organized football since his senior year of high school. He still has a ways to go. Prior to the injury, I expected him to get a big push in fall camp from Tyrin Ferguson. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Diaco move Marcus Newby to the short-side and start he and Gifford. There are a few other youngsters with promise on the outside: Quayshon Alexander is a former four-star recruit and Pernell Jefferson split Scout Team Defensive MVP honors with Miller last year.
The team is pretty thin at wide receiver
Mike Riley admitted depth at wide receiver could become an issue. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The Huskers graduate Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. That's a big chunk of Nebraska's passing game the past two years. Then you consider the last-minute flips from Desmond Fitzpatrick (2016) and Jamire Calvin (2017). You couple that with the transfers of Lavan Alston and Derrion Grim, leaving the Huskers with just one receiver from the 2015 (Stanley Morgan) and 2016 (J.D. Spielman) recruiting classes. With the trio of seniors leaving, Nebraska was looking at just five scholarship players (including a converted quarterback) at the position heading into the 2017 recruiting class and upcoming season. It's going to take Keith Williams another class or two before Nebraska has the numbers and depth desired at the position.
Despite losing Calvin late, Keith Williams still brought in one of the top 5-7 wide receiver classes in the entire country this past February. He's on his way towards one-upping himself with the 2018 class, so the future is definitely bright. But 2017 will be a prove-it year for several youngsters and unproven guys.
Stanley Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El should form one of the most dangerous one-two punches in the Big Ten. Morgan has continued to develop his game and looks like a sure-fire NFL player when he leaves Lincoln. Pierson-El looked confident and healthy this spring. He appears to have regained the speed and agility that made him such a dangerous weapon as a freshman in 2014. Beyond them is nothing but question marks.
The coaches are hoping guys like Bryan Reimers, J.D. Spielman and Keyan Williams can step up and make some noise. Reimers is currently the No. 3 outside receiver, while Spielman and Williams are in a virtual dead heat for the top slot position. Walk-ons Conor Young and Gabe Rahn are also battling for snaps this fall. The team was hit with a bit of bad luck when true freshmen early enrollees Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty were unable to utilize all of spring due to injuries. McQuitty was unable to go through any contact while recovering from a shoulder injury and Johnson played catch up this spring after suffering lingering symptoms from an appendectomy in December. On the bright side, both Johnson and McQuitty will be good to go this summer and can spend the next few months prior to camp digesting the playbook.
The third member of the 2017 wide receiver class, Tyjon Lindsey, will arrive this summer. The highest-rated receiver to ever sign with Nebraska, Lindsey will show up with Marlon Lucky-esque expectations. Widely regarded as the best slot receiver to enter college the last two or three years, Lindsey is a legit threat to leapfrog Spielman and Williams this summer and emerge as the No. 1 slot receiver. I never like burdening a true freshman with such high expectations, but Nebraska is going to need Lindsey to come in and contribute.
There are some concerns at offensive line
Nothing will determine how successful this upcoming season will be more than the play of the offensive line. And to some, that could be a cause for concern. Why? Well, Mike Riley himself said Nebraska needs to be "very, very" concerned about growth on the offensive line, even though the position returns almost everyone from last season. Midway through spring ball Riley said, "I think that we need confidence, and I also think we need to be mentally tough." Not what you would want or expect to hear out of a group with so much experience returning.
The problems and underwhelming play of the offensive line long precedes Mike Riley and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh's arrival to Lincoln. Nebraska hasn't been dominant on the offensive line for several years. But while some of the past troubles can be associated with a lack of depth, the Huskers won't have that excuse in 2017. Nebraska returns five guys who started games in 2016. Four of the five projected starters are former four-star recruits (LT Nick Gates, LG Jerald Foster, RG Tanner Farmer, RT David Knevel) returning for at least their second seasons as starters. Gates probably has an NFL future (IMO, at guard), while Foster and Farmer have shown all-conference ability.
The résumés of the guys behind them are impressive as well. At guard, Boe Wilson (Under Armour All-American) has drawn praise since his freshman year last year and is someone who probably could have played last fall if coaches wanted to sacrifice his redshirt. He's been battling Farmer and not giving up much ground. The battle for the No. 2 left guard spot is between John Raridon (four-star, Army All-American) and Jalin Barnett (four-star, Under Armour All-American). Tackle Matt Farniok (four-star, Army All-American) is positioning himself as one of the top eight linemen. Also members of that room are former four-star recruits Christian Gaylord and Bryan Brokop. Early enrollee Broc Bando started at guard as a junior and at tackle during his senior season, playing for IMG Academy, one of the nation's top prep teams. This summer the Huskers add another pair of tackles from the 2017 class, Brenden Jaimes and Matt Sichterman.
The center job vacated by Dylan Utter will be won by either Michael Decker, entering his third year in the program, or Cole Conrad, a former walk-on who started five games at right tackle in 2016. Conrad, who I expect to win the job, is versatile enough to play anywhere along the line. If either Gates or Knevel go down, Conrad can slide into their spot and Decker could take over at center.
In 10-years with Riley at Oregon State, 23 of Cavanaugh's linemen earned all-conference honors. You're talking about two and three-star recruits that Cavanaugh developed onto those teams. Cav was offered the OL position at USC following the 2012 season and was also looked into by Alabama the same year. You don't get opportunities like those unless you have a strong reputation, which Cavanaugh does. But frankly, this will be Cavanaugh's third year with these guys. He has recruited most of this room and the guys he didn't bring in have spent more time with him than anyone else. Cav's culture and expectations should be in place. It's time to see some tangible results out of this group. He's never had more natural talent available than what he now has to work with. No more excuses. Nobody is expecting the reincarnation of the 1995 pipeline, but Nebraska can't suffer through another inconsistent year out of their guys up front, not if they have any aspirations of winning the Big Ten West.
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all football website N2FL.com. He served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on recruitment and talent analysis, including the NFL Draft. You can email him at N2FL@hotmail.com.
Five things we learned from Spring Ball
A look at where the Huskers stand at a few positions heading into fall camp.
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