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  • Pernell: A look back at the 2015 season

    The 2015 Nebraska football season officially came to an end last Saturday following a 37-29 victory against a good UCLA team in the Foster Farms Bowl. It was a nice win to end the season. The Bruins were ranked in the Top 15 to open the year and spent 11 of the seasons 15 weeks in the Top 25 - reaching as high as No.7. After dropping to 3-6 following their loss to Purdue on Halloween, the Huskers turned the corner over the last month. Nebraska was able to end the season winning three of their last four games. That included then-No.6 Michigan State, who won the Big Ten and was a part of the four-team playoff.

    Coming into a new program and immediately succeeding doesn't happen very often. Even so, no team dealt with more bad luck in 2015 than the Huskers. Nebraska's first five losses were particularly excruciating. There was a season-opening loss to BYU on a last-second Hail Mary. A major fourth quarter comeback at Miami that fell short in overtime. The 14-13 loss to Illinois in the games final seconds when the Huskers failed to run out the clock. Wisconsin's field goal with :04 left to steal a 23-21 win after Nebraska couldn't gain a first down in the final 86 seconds to seal the victory. A 30-28 loss to Northwestern when a late two-point conversion failed. Four losses on the opponents final offensive play and five by a combined total of 13 points. All were winnable games. In retrospect, so were the losses to Purdue and Iowa. In the 55-45 loss in West Lafayette, the Huskers were led by backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe - who committed five turnovers. In the regular season finale against then-No.3 Iowa, the Blackshirts limited the Hawkeyes to 10 total first downs, 0-for-9 on third downs, less than 24 minutes time of possession, 250 total yards (97 coming on two consecutive touchdown runs) - poor quarterback play by Tommy Armstrong (4 INT) was clearly the primary factor in Nebraska's 28-20 loss. Honestly, it's conceivable that this team could have finished 10-3.

    Mike Riley finished his first year in Lincoln with a disappointing 6-7 record. Overall, Nebraska's seven losses came by a combined 31 points, or four points fewer than the margin of last year's 59-24 loss to Wisconsin. The Huskers had lost at least one game by 21 points or more every year since the 2011 season. This fall Nebraska was competitive in all 13 of their games and in a position to win each and every one of them. That came as a breath of fresh air. Despite a sub-.500 record, the success of the last month changes the entire outlook of the season. It helps with the perception of Mike Riley and the direction of this program. It should also give Nebraska a momentum boost going forward with recruiting as they head into the home stretch of the 2016 class. The positive vibes should help motivate the team throughout the offseason program. Even Riley's harshest critics have to acknowledge the turnaround this program has enjoyed since November. The finish to the season should be a springboard in terms of buy-in factor for the players currently on the roster and for prospective recruits who are taking a look at Nebraska.

    I can't stress enough how beneficial the bowl bid was for the Huskers as coaches now turn their focus towards 2016. Winning the game was nice, of course, but the extra practices received for making a bowl game are huge for programs still working through coaching transitions - like Nebraska. In many ways, Riley and his staff are still getting to know their personnel, especially the young players who spent the year on scout teams. The staff doesn't see those players very much throughout the season. They are understandably spending most of their time with the guys who are contributing. Thanks to the bowl game, the team was able to squeeze in 12 practices - basically an extra spring season. Riley and his coaches made it an emphasis to spend half of those practices working approximately 45 minutes with underclassmen who either redshirted, played on the scout teams or saw limited practice reps during the year. The older guys weren't even on the field. Those sessions were vital because coaches had a chance to rep dozens of young guys in their system that they haven't really seen all year. It's a huge advantage going into spring ball.

    Another benefit to bowl preparations taking place throughout December is that it enables Riley to keep his finger on the pulse of the team. The players stay in a routine by attending meetings and lifting weights. They interact daily with each other and with the coaches. The players and coaches continue to build camaraderie. Thanks to the bowl game, Riley and his staff got the chance to get to know this team a lot better moving forward and how they can use players in 2016 and beyond. It really is huge, especially for a first year coaching staff that is trying to further establish its systems and culture.

    Position Reviews:

    Quarterback.
    Tommy Armstrong had a rollercoaster year. He spent the non conference portion of the schedule looking like the best quarterback in the Big Ten. In Nebraska's first four games, Armstrong completed 59% of his passes for 1,266 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. He started Big Ten play going a combined 21-for-59 (35.6%) with 234 yards with a touchdown and an interception against Illinois and Wisconsin. He got back on track against Minnesota and Northwestern before missing the Purdue game because of a right ankle injury. He finished the regular season (three games) throwing five touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. All tolled, in Big Ten games Armstrong threw 10 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and was a 52% passer. His decision making and mechanics regressed as the season wore on. It's something he has taken ownership of and he has asked Danny Langsdorf to coach him hard in the offseason to help correct his issues.

    I commend Tommy Armstrong. He is a leader. He has heart and admirable resolve. His teammates like playing for him and they feed off of him. But the bottom line is Tommy needs to take a big step in the offseason in order for the Huskers to do the same as a team in 2016. On one hand, Armstrong led the Big Ten in touchdowns with 27 (21 passing, six rushing), but he was also second in the FBS with 16 interceptions. He is a skilled runner and is always dangerous when coaches mix in the zone-read or quarterback draw. It's as a passer where Armstrong really needs to take a big step forward. Tommy struggles with decision making, accuracy, reading coverages and his footwork tends to get sloppy. Too often he isn't stepping into his throws and is throwing off his back foot. He takes unnecessary risks and throws into double coverage. He tends to force throws instead of taking what the defense is giving. Over his career, he's thrown an interception once every 24.3 passes.

    Moving forward, it's going to be important for Riley and Langsdorf to pour over tape from this season to identify Armstrong's strengths and weaknesses and adjust the offense accordingly. The game plan against UCLA seemed the ideal way of using Armstrong. He threw the ball a season-low 19 times and rushed for 76 yards on 10 carries. I believe the coaches when they say they want to run the ball more next year, but nobody can be naive enough to expect 62 rushes a game on a regular basis. These coaches want to be versatile enough to beat you through the air or on the ground. A pro system, which these coaches favor, is predicated on being balanced. They want to be able to identify a defense's weakness and exploit it. Either by running it down the throat of an undersized front seven, or picking apart an overmatched secondary. Can they achieve that balance with Armstrong? I have my doubts.

    Riley and Langsdorf's reputations with quarterbacks are well known and well deserved. The question is what can they do at this point with Armstrong as a passer? A quarterback who, frankly, they would not have recruited for their offense. My issue stems from the fact that I believe Armstrong knows what to do. He knows the reads and the proper throws - it's not a question of knowledge. It's just that far too often the right decision isn't made when the bullets are flying during games. He threw boneheaded pick-sixes in losses to Northwestern and Iowa. Also in the Iowa game there was the infamous fourth-and-one when Tommy decided to throw a low-percentage 19-yard fade when the play design resulted in a wide-open Cethan Carter who never got a glance from Armstrong. He threw a pick at Miami on the first down of overtime when he could have just thrown the ball away. There was that third-and-seven at Illinois when Armstrong chose to throw the ball - on a called quarterback bootleg, in a situation where a quarterback with his experience shouldn't even think of throwing it.

    How much better can Armstrong get? Can coaches expect him to unlearn his habit of making risky decisions? Can Langsdorf transform a guy who's thrown 36 picks in 33 career starts, and is a 53.9% passer, into an efficient and productive quarterback? I tend to think these coaches got to Armstrong too late in his development to change ingrained habits and tendencies. I don't think he can become the passer the coaches want in their ideal offense. If they stick with Armstrong in 2016, I would expect to see a run-pass ratio out of Armstrong that more resembles his 2014 numbers (345 pass attempts, 145 rushes) than his 2015 output (402 pass attempts, 98 rushes).

    Which takes us to the next question: does the staff fully commit to using Armstrong's legs as much as his arm in 2016 or do they open the competition and ultimately go in a different direction? A direction they intend to take at some point. The main competition will come in the form of freshman Patrick O'Brien. The Elite 11 quarterback will be on campus in January and will immediately get to work learning the offense.

    Moving forward, it will be a top priority of this staff to try and upgrade the talent at quarterback. To that end, Nebraska is also considered to be among the top 3 choices for Texas A&M quarterback transfer Kyle Allen. A former five-star recruit, Allen led the Aggies with 2,210 passing yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 games this season. He also rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns. He threw 33 touchdowns versus 14 interceptions in his two seasons with Texas A&M. He still has a redshirt season to use and plans to enroll at his new school in January.

    Running Back. One of the most important things that will need to be settled offensively in the offseason is the running game, specifically who the coaches choose to lean on moving forward. These coaches have commented in the past that they prefer a workhorse to receive the bulk of the carries. They want their tailback to get a feel for the game and the additional touches allows them to get into a rhythm. In 2015 the coaches settled on Terrell Newby as that guy - at least for the first eight games or so, and the junior had varying success. There were games when Imani Cross, Devine Ozigbo, and fullback Andy Janovich were given the bulk of the carries. Then Newby suffered a foot injury against Purdue that severely limited his production for the remainder of the season. Over the first eight games, Newby averaged almost 15 carries a game. He also had 10 carries in the first half of the Purdue game before suffering his injury. He finished the season (four games) with 18 total carries. On the year, Newby rushed for a team-high 765 yards and six touchdowns in eight starts.

    Newby gave way to Imani Cross, who carried the ball 73 times in the last four games. As a whole this season, nobody really took the reins and stood out. Nebraska went without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2008. The job should be wide open heading into the 2016 season. I would suspect Terrell Newby opens spring ball with the first team. The staff likes his package as a runner, receiver and pass-protector. Keep an eye out for Devine Ozigbo, though. He showed a lot of promise as a true freshman this past fall and used the Foster Farms Bowl as an audition heading into the offseason. He appears to have the overall skillset coaches prefer out of their running backs.

    Will Mikale Wilbon position himself to make a push? He practiced his way to the No.2 job after strong spring and fall camps. After receiving nine carries in the first two games, Wilbon went AWOL. He spent most of the season on the bench as coaches made sure he got some academic issues squared away. Incoming freshman Tre Bryant will also be given a hard look. The four-star recruit out of St. Louis (MO) Christian Brothers Academy appears a good fit for the offense. The running back position never really got settled in 2015, that can't be the case in 2016. My early favorite is Ozigbo. His size, balance and decisiveness running the ball standout compared to Newby. Losing Janovich at fullback hurts. Hopefully Harrison Jordan is up to the task. He has big shoes to fill.

    Wide Receiver and Tight End. The Huskers went into fall camp with a lot of depth at the wideout position. They ended up needing every bit of it as nearly every member of the group was nagged by something. There were a run of injuries beginning in fall camp that continued through November. The most disappointing of course involved De'Mornay Pierson-El. The sophomore missed the first four games of the season after suffering a Jones fracture to his foot in mid-August. Pierson-El returned to participate in a limited capacity for five games before suffering a torn knee ligament and a fracture to his left leg against Purdue. It was a pretty severe injury. He will miss spring ball and may be hampered going into the summer. He maintains a skillset that should thrive in this offense.

    The receivers played well on a weekly basis despite several players dealing with various injuries. Keith Williams is one of the countries best wide receiver coaches and his presence was felt immediately by this group. Thanks to Williams, players like Brandon Reilly (754 yards) and Alonzo Moore (395 yards) made huge strides during their junior years. The two also combined for 64 catches and 10 touchdowns. Williams also took Stanley Morgan under his wing and the freshman sensation turned in a very promising rookie year.

    Jordan Westerkamp (65 receptions, seven touchdowns) took his game to another level and was just 82 yards shy of becoming the first wide receiver to gain 1,000 yards in a season. The team returns just about everybody from this season: Jordan Westerkamp, De'Mornay Pierson-El, Stanley Morgan, Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore and Lane Hovey. The team will also welcome Lavan Alston, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year after sustaining a knee injury during camp. I am interested in seeing how much better these players get after a full offseason with Williams. Don't be surprised to see Morgan take a big jump in year two. I also expect Westerkamp, Reilly and Moore will continue making strides towards becoming complete wideouts. Every offseason's top priority will be to keep another team from poaching Williams off this staff.

    At tight end, Cethan Carter really came into his own in the second half of the season. He was suspended for the first two games and it took him a while to get into the swing of things. Carter possesses one of the most impressive skillsets at tight end in the entire conference and could be an All-Big Ten candidate next year. Graduate assistant Tavita Thompson handles the tight end duties and Carter has given him a lot of credit for his development. The staff is excited about Matt Snyder who redshirted last year. He was mentioned as someone who looked good playing on the scout team. He and Carter should form a nice 1-2 punch next year with guys like Sam Cotton, Trey Foster and Luke McNitt also looking for snaps.

    With Carter, Cotton and Foster all being seniors next fall, the staff is trying to replenish the position with the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes. Nebraska already has a commitment from Aurora (CO) Regis Jesuit standout Jack Stoll and are hoping to add one more before signing day. They are holding out hope they can flip Iowa commit Noah Fant who attends Omaha South. Expect tight end to be a focal point in the 2017 class as the coaches will likely try and add two more bodies.

    Offensive Line. The Husker offensive line was far too inconsistent this season. If Riley intends on making a stronger commitment to the run next year, he is going to need the offensive line to step up. The coaches hope to use the Foster Farms Bowl as a starting point to that commitment. The Huskers finished the regular season seventh in the Big Ten with 167.8 rushing yards per game, their lowest average in six years. If Nebraska is to achieve its goal of finishing in the top three of the Big Ten, it will start up front.

    The line battled inconsistency in run blocking in 2015 but there will be several jobs opened up because of graduation. The roster is full of promising youngsters who are on the verge of breaking out. Outside of redshirt freshman Nick Gates, who started at right tackle, no one is guaranteed a spot heading into 2016. Gates consistently graded out as Nebraska's top lineman and has the look of a future All-Big Ten performer. Left tackle Alex Lewis and center Ryne Reeves also played well for the most part. The team struggled at both guard spots throughout the year, however, and Chongo Kondolo was eventually replaced by Zach Sterup on the right side. Overall the group is losing four of its top six contributors from last season.

    Former walk-on Dylan Utter returns for his senior season after starting at left guard last year. I think he would be better suited throwing his hat into the ring to replace Reeves at center. I believe he is outmatched physically at guard. The favorite for the vacated center position should be Paul Thurston, who filled in after Reeves was injured early in the bowl game. Other candidates are redshirt freshman Michael Decker and junior-to-be Zach Hannon. Don't be surprised if incoming freshman John Raridon makes a big push in fall camp if he is tried at center by the staff.

    The most interesting battles should come at the guard spots. Jalin Barnett impressed on the scout team while redshirting and sophomore-to-be Jerald Foster is on the cusp of making a move up the depth chart. Former four-star recruit Tanner Farmer has also impressed coaches. Guard is another position where Raridon could make his mark.

    Who takes over at left tackle? Do coaches move their best lineman (Gates) and audition the right side? David Knevel, Christian Gaylord and Sam Hahn are the only other tackles currently on the roster. This is why coaches have made 2016 recruiting targets Matt Farniok and Royce Newman such high priorities. Undoubtedly the staff will again make the tackle position a recruiting priority with the 2017 class.

    Spring and fall camps are going to be important to the staff. Not just to determine the starting five, but also to establish the mentality needed to truly be a dominant running team. I don't think the staff made a true commitment to it last year. If you're not physical and committed to it Monday through Friday, it's hard to expect that you're going to be able to flip a switch and be physical on Saturday. In fact, there is no way that will realistically happen. It just won't. The new mentality and approach to dominating the line of scrimmage begins with winter conditioning and is put into action in March.

    Defensive Line. The front four was stout against the run all season but failed to produce a consistent pass rush. The line suffered through injuries to key players and in all, 17 games were missed by starting defensive linemen. Maliek Collins' numbers were down from his sophomore year but he enjoyed another All-Conference caliber season. He will be missed, but as a likely top 50 NFL Draft pick he probably made the right decision in leaving early.

    Vincent Valentine was limited to only seven starts and finished the season with just 10 tackles. He is also considering leaving early, though he is likely no higher than a 5th-round pick. Even in a worst-case scenario and Nebraska loses both starting tackles, the team should be okay with a lot of returning depth. The team will benefit from a 6th year being awarded to Kevin Williams. He and Kevin Maurice played their best football for the Huskers this past season. Mick Stoltenberg saw limited snaps but coaches feel he is progressing well at tackle. Twin brothers Carlos and Khalil Davis lived up to their recruiting hype during redshirt seasons and coaches are excited to get them on the field. Carlos nearly bypassed his redshirt and played with the injuries sustained along the line.

    Greg McMullen came into the season a little overweight and had an up and down year. His versatility did come in handy as he spent some time at tackle and played well. His best position could actually be as a 3-technique tackle. Jack Gangwish missed four games because of injury, but still led the team with seven quarterback hurries. Freedom Akinmoladun flashed a lot of potential in his first year at defensive end after moving over from tight end last offseason. He led the Huskers with 4.5 sacks, which he gathered through the first five games. Akinmoladun's production tailed off after suffering a knee injury. He missed two games and was hobbled for a few others because of it.

    Husker coaches are hoping that redshirt freshman Alex Davis is the answer to their pass rush problems. Perhaps no other player received more praise during their time on the scout team than did Davis.

    Linebackers. Coming into the season the linebackers were expected to be the weak link of the defense. The year began with almost no depth or experience. Only Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey came into the season having played meaningful minutes at the position. Then the season started and the unit was hit pretty hard by injuries. Thirteen combined games were missed by the starting linebackers. Trent Bray was able to maintain consistency from his group and helped develop Marcus Newby and Chris Weber into reliable starters.

    What started out as unknown quantities was transformed into depth. Josh Banderas (9 starts) and Chris Weber (4 starts) both played well in the middle. True freshman Dedrick Young (11 starts) became the first true freshman to start an opener for Nebraska since CB Ralph Brown in 1996. He ended up playing more snaps than any other linebacker and has a huge upside. Rose-Ivey suffered through an injury plagued season where he was limited to just seven games and two starts. The aforementioned Newby started six of the 10 games he played in and showed his versatility. The sky is the limit for how much better he can get under Bray's tutelage. Both Newby and Young could take huge jumps this offseason with more time to learn the defense.

    The linebackers should be a strength of the defense next season and could be among the best groups in the Big Ten. The unit proved it could succeed with any combination of Banderas, Young, Newby, Rose-Ivey and Weber in the starting lineup. When they are all healthy, Bray will be able to insert specific players into particular packages that best suit their strengths. Look out for sophomore Tyrin Ferguson who spent his freshman season on special teams. He was close to seeing the field this year at linebacker. Nebraska will also benefit from the addition of redshirt freshman Mohamed Barry, whom Trent Bray singled out as a guy to keep an eye on next year. Bray is in the same category as receivers coach Keith Williams. He too is an offseason priority. The two of them are the teams best recruiters and also the two best position coaches. Other schools will undoubtedly come sniffing around and look to pluck them off this staff. Husker fans have to hope Shawn Eichorst will be willing to open up the checkbook in order to keep them around. It's not a matter of if, but when schools come calling.

    Defensive Backs. The Husker defensive backs struggled with the new scheme. They are being asked to do things now that are completely opposite of what they formerly were doing. The defensive backs struggled with the situational awareness that comes with the scheme. They struggled with knowing when to press, when to play back and where to lineup opposite of a receiver as it pertained to help. It took a while to adjust and break old tendencies. Poor play and trouble learning the new system led to confidence issues for the majority of the season. They weren't helped by a lack of a pass rush, but Nebraska's inability to stop the pass led directly to several losses this season. On the bright side, though, the Huskers made gradual progress throughout the year and were a better unit towards seasons end.

    The Huskers lose senior cornerbacks Jonathan Rose (5 starts) and Daniel Davie (5 starts), but by the end of the season the two best cornerbacks were sophomores Joshua Kalu (13 starts) and Chris Jones (7 starts). You could see the confidence build in both Kalu and Jones down the stretch. They will head into the offseason on a high note after both caught interceptions against UCLA. The secondary will also welcome former four-star recruits Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, both of whom impressed on the scout team while redshirting. The competition at the cornerback spots should get pretty heated.

    Byerson Cockrell also graduates which leaves an opening next to Nate Gerry. Safety is such an important position in this defense and the future seems bright. Both Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed played as true freshmen. Williams seems an excellent fit for either safety or nickel, where he started three games this season. Reed, who possesses an amazing size-speed combination, played his most extensive minutes during the Foster Farms Bowl. He spent the majority of the season on special teams. Don't be surprised if incoming freshman Marquel Dismuke skips a redshirt season and plays his way onto the field.

    Players should benefit from a second year in the system and another year with Brian Stewart, the Huskers' fifth secondary coach since 2010. This defense would benefit from a few players taking big steps in 2016. There are a lot of underclassmen who are playing important roles for this defense. The secondary as a whole needs to take a big step forward in 2016 if the Huskers expect to do the same.

    Special Teams. The return game was noticeably worse in 2015, but losing a guy like De'Mornay Pierson-El will do that. The coverage units were adequate, but overall special teams play wasn't very impressive. At 450k a year, Bruce Read is one of the highest paid special teams coordinators in the country. With very little recruiting responsibilities, I would expect more out of Read's units. Perhaps as the talent level increases we will see better results, but for now I am underwhelmed.

    Where we did see outstanding play was from punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown. The two of them played at an All-Conference level. Foltz led the Big Ten in punting average (44.2) and had 15 of his 56 kicks land inside the 20. He also had nine of his punts fair caught. Brown started the year missing kicks from 40 and 41 in the opener against BYU. He finished the season 21/27 (with one blocked) with a long of 50.

    Expect to see incoming freshman J.D. Spielman given a shot at both return spots. The electrifying all-purpose athlete out of Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year. Spielman played running back, wide receiver, safety and returner. He accounted for 26 touchdowns as a senior: 19 rushing, two receiving, two interceptions, two punt returns and a kickoff return.

    Moving forward offensively. Mike Riley said from day 1 that he wanted to have balance on offense. Some fans complained about the new offense this season. Mostly about the perception that Langsdorf threw the ball too much. This season the Huskers had 496 rushes and 458 passes. To be more accurate, put the team's 14 sacks in the passing column (sacks count as rushes in college football) and the numbers are now 482 rushes and 472 passes. That means Nebraska ran the ball 50.5 percent of the time and threw it 49.5%. That's the definition of balance.

    I believe the coaches when they said during the year that they wanted to run the ball even more. The offensive line didn't help with that intention. In several games coaches would try and establish the run, but many times were put behind the eight ball with some 2nd and 3rd and medium-longs. Some game situations also dictated that the coaches pass more than they may have game planned. I personally feel that Langsdorf did a very good job in his first season with the Huskers. The Huskers finished 2nd in the Big Ten in total yardage and 3rd in scoring. Those are good numbers for a group of coaches who are trying to blend pro-style schemes and concepts with a team full of players that were recruited for a spread read-option offense. Players are continuing to grow confident in Langsdorf's system and if the offensive line reaches another level, I expect a big jump in 2016.

    Moving forward defensively. Mark Banker's system puts an emphasis on stopping the run. To that extent the team is right on track. The Blackshirts finished 9th nationally against the run, allowing just 109.8 yards per game. There is still room for improvement in this area as the defense gave up a few long runs this season. But as a whole, the team was night and day stuffing the run in 2015 compared to the last few years.

    Unfortunately, the same can be said about their ability to defend the pass. This team obviously needs to take a huge jump in that department. Banker's system is a zone defense against shorter passes, but it's more of a man defense once the routes go deeper down field. In this scheme, the safeties are called upon to help against the run and spend a lot of time in the box. In the previous system, the two safeties would generally play 12 yards off the ball and helped corners defend deep routes. How the defensive backs defend certain routes - especially vertical routes, is completely different from the previous system. The transition in year one of the new scheme didn't go too smoothly. The secondary needs to take the next step and further develop a comfort in this system.

    The primary factors that make Mark Banker's defense go are versatile safeties, lockdown corners and solid pass rushers. When you have a front four that can pressure the quarterback, the back seven really flourish and make this system hum. Safeties need to be able to drop into coverage and cover slot receivers, and also be able to come down and support the run. They need to be very reliable tacklers. Most of the time it's the play of the safeties that prevent this defense from giving up big plays. If you've got great corners, you can play more press coverage and leave them out on islands more often. Banker doesn't yet have all the parts needed for his defense - especially at pass rusher. Nebraska is recruiting well, though, and are probably another recruiting class (2017) away from acquiring enough personnel specifically suited for his system.

    When you are looking for what this defense could eventually become, you look no further than Michigan State circa 2011-2013. That's when former defensive coordinator Par Narduzzi had all his pieces in place. The athletes whose skillsets were a perfect fit and who knew the scheme inside and out. Banker and Narduzzi share a lot of the same principals in their Cover 4 systems. Narduzzi and the Spartans struggled defensively when he first arrived at Michigan State. The Spartans gave up 5.31 yards per play in 2008, 5.42 in 2009 and 5.27 in 2010. Those numbers ranked 64th, 62nd and 48th nationally. Not terrible, but nowhere near the 2011-2013 teams that ranked 5th, 5th and 1st in that category.

    Nebraska has a ways to go before they achieve the level of precision that those great Spartan teams reached. It wasn't until Narduzzi's fifth year that Michigan State started to dominate. I don't think it will take that long for Nebraska if they continue to recruit well. The Husker roster is more talented than the one Narduzzi inherited in 2007, which could speed up the timeline. I don't think it will be in 2016, though. I think it's going to take another year for players to be able to systematically react to things instinctively. We saw this season that when you are changing systems and most of your principals are fundamentally different from the previous scheme, it takes players time to unlearn some old habits. They need to learn new responses and react to them quickly, regularly until it becomes second nature. That might be difficult for some of the older players who already had two or three years invested into another system. Had the schemes been similar it might not be such a dramatic learning curve, but the fact is they aren't. I expect improvement over 2015, but I think they are still a year off. I would expect to see a lot of freshmen and redshirt freshmen get long looks this spring and summer.

    Early thoughts on 2016. With year one of the Mike Riley era in the books, the Husker staff will do plenty of self-scouting prior to spring and look at what can be done better or differently heading into year two. Despite the positive vibes reverberating through the program after an encouraging finish to the season, Riley is going to need to sit down with his staff and have some tough conversations. They are going to need to look at how this season played out - primarily through the first nine games, and figure out what they need to do to fix a lot of things that went wrong. Frankly, they may need to show a few guys the door that they know haven't bought in and probably never will. Riley needs to identify the guys who want to be at Nebraska and are committed to this staff. He needs to continue to build a culture moving forward around what he wants the program to look like. Make everyone accountable to the standards you are setting.

    The Huskers could enjoy a pretty big jump in 2016. It will depend on three things I covered above: quarterback play, offensive line play and the defenses ability to better stop the pass. Nebraska had 41 different players start a game for them this year; 21 on offense and 20 on defense. Even with Collins' departure, and depending on Valentine, the team returns 30 of those players in 2016. There are also a number of talented underclassmen who are coming into their own. Nebraska led the conference with four selections to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team: WR Stanley Morgan, OT Nick Gates, LB Dedrick Young, DE Freedom Akinmoladun.

    A lot of the mistakes that were made last year were mental. I think those issues will be cleared up after an additional year learning the systems. After a year learning the personnel, Nebraska should be able to get more out of the spring than they did in their first go around. Unlike last year when offensive and defensive systems were being installed, this time the players will start to understand the "whys" and not trying to figure how the "hows." I continue to believe Riley is a good coach who can win big in the West Division when his system takes and the Huskers maximize their recruiting potential.

    Recruiting being the key. When Riley was first hired by Nebraska, I opined that his success in Lincoln would hinge largely upon his victories on the recruiting trail. Riley still has to upgrade and rebuild a few positions on this roster. The quarterback room needs to get more talented. The offensive line and linebacking corps need to be built. A new skillset needs to be recruited in the secondary. A few weeks ago Boyd Epley assessed the talent level of the current roster. Epley, who is bringing back his highly proven Athletic Performance Index, stated that the staff needs to do a better job of bringing in talented recruits. "If we could stop the world and let Mark (Philipp) go develop these guys for a year and a half, I think we would be right back where we need to be," Epley said. "That's about how far off we are. About a year and a half of development."

    Epley is a big fan of strength and conditioning coach Mark Philipp. He said that Philipp already has demonstrated he can make significant progress with the current players and praised the work he has already done. When coaches are out recruiting this time of year, Philipp becomes the de facto head coach. He sees the players every day. He's in charge of motivating players and getting work done. This is a big offseason for Philipp's and the football program.

    The Huskers have 54 upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) on their 105-man roster. Out of those players, I only see around a half dozen who will likely be NFL Draft picks - and one of them is punter Sam Foltz. That's not good enough. It will be Riley's top priority to bring in the kind of talent that will change that around. Riley appears to be off to a great start. Of the 19 (out of 21) recruits still on the roster from last years recruiting class, seven (Dedrick Young, Stanley Morgan, Aaron Williams, Devine Ozigbo, Antonio Reed, Tyrin Ferguson, Jordan Ober) played and contributed as freshman and the other twelve (Jalin Barnett, Eric Lee, Carlos Davis, Alex Davis, Avery Anderson, Khalil Davis, Michael Decker, Matt Snyder, Mohamed Barry, Lavan Alston, Christian Gaylord, DaiShon Neal) have received high praise coming off their redshirt years. Most classes are lucky to hit on 50-60% of their players. It's obviously very early, but this class is positioning itself to be a program shifting class, potentially.

    The 2016 class is already shaping up nicely as well. Fans are getting restless with Nebraska having not received a commitment since punter Caleb Lightbourn pledged in late November. Finishing in second place with David Reese, Maurice Chandler and Markell Simmons a few weeks ago didn't help, either. But the fact is the Huskers are in on some very good players. Nebraska is arguably the favorite to sign four-star recruits Lamar Jackson, Matt Farniok, Isaiah Simmons, Desmond Fitzpatrick and Royce Newman. They are sitting good with guys like Tony Butler, Amir Watts, Tramal Ivy, Chase Allen and Cameron Goode. They are still fiercely recruiting Jaleel Laguins.

    It's easy to forget about the ingredients already in the basket while you're continuing to shop. The Huskers already have several key positions and position groups committed with solid players. Riley's all-important regime change class is expected to number at least 25. Regime change classes are typically large. This was also the case back in 2005, when Bill Callahan signed a 30-member class considered by most recruiting services to be a top 5 class. That class turned out to be the foundation of Bo Pelini's best teams (2009, 2010). In contrast, Pelini missed his chance at a large regime class. It contained just 20 members. One of Pelini's weaknesses as a first-time head coach was roster management and early on, a cohesive recruiting plan. He made the mistake of recruiting a giant class (28) just a month after he'd arrived on campus. An experienced coach would have known to wait until you have had a chance to play your initial year before adding a large class. That way you have a chance to see first-hand the kind of holes and weaknesses you are dealing with on the roster and what your primary needs were. The 2008 class numbers and ensuing 2009 class size contributed to the depth and talent gaps that plagued the 2011 and 2012 Husker teams. Riley is doing it the right way. He just needs time.


    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.
    Comments 9 Comments
    1. the fountainhead's Avatar
      the fountainhead -
      Good recap of the season and some good new info also.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Outstanding recap. Really like the direction of the program under Riley. Thank you for the great read.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Great read, Jeremy. I couldn't agree more with your overall assessment and future outlook. I'd like to add one thing, though. I was generally pleased with Langsdorf's play calling, but would like to see him get a better grasp on the marginal success rate of his plays. How many times this year did we see an incompletion on a low-percentage long pass on third and short? I understand NU hired a statistics guy this year. My fervent offseason hope is that Riley and Langsdorf get to know what he has to offer in terms of maximizing our odds of success. Again, thanks for the great article! GBR!
    1. Red Don's Avatar
      Red Don -
      Comprehensive and Objective!

      I, for one, am excited about the Huskers' prospects for the future!
    1. HuskerWeatherman's Avatar
      HuskerWeatherman -
      Excellent analysis, N2FL.
    1. The Impaler's Avatar
      The Impaler -
      Great read, thanks Jeremy.
    1. HskrDean's Avatar
      HskrDean -
      Very nice article. I think Riley and staff can pick up some good recruits for 2016, and if they Huskers have a successful 2016 season, he will be able to get REALLY good recruits for the 2017 class. Halfway through Pelini's tenure, I'd said Bo wasn't a coach who would get NU to win the B1G or to the NCG, that NU needed an "administrative" coach who can manage his staff and let his staff manage the team but still be able to coach-up both players and coaches alike. I also said NU needed a coach who has won a championship, or was on the cusp of it. It seems like Riley is capable of being that "administrative" coach and he has the CFL championships on his resume, so it will be VERY interesting over this year and next to see if he has what it takes to do what Callahan and Pelini could not.
    1. Sonuvahusker's Avatar
      Sonuvahusker -
      A bit off topic, but I saw your use of "all tolled" and thought "gosh, I've been using that expression wrong all of these years." So I did a little research.

      http://www.businesswritingblog.com/b...-totaled-.html
    1. Mack The Shark's Avatar
      Mack The Shark -
      You just went 57 style, Sonny.
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