Mike Riley was a surprise hire at Nebraska, and the former Oregon State coach enters his first spring practice in Lincoln with key personnel question marks to address.
The Cornhuskers return 12 starters, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong and standout defensive tackle Maliek Collins, but receiver Kenny Bell and running back Ameer Abdullah must be replaced. On defense, Nebraska has room to improve after allowing 5.5 yards per play in Big Ten games last season.
Here are five storylines to watch for Nebraska this spring.
1. Tommy Armstrong’s development
In his first full season as Nebraska’s starter, Armstrong threw for 2,695 yards and 22 scores. He also rushed for 705 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. Armstrong showed progress throughout 2014, which included his first 300-yard performance (USC). Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf will adapt to their personnel, but it’s notable Oregon State ranked first or second in the Pac-12 in passing in 2012 and 2013. Armstrong should still have opportunities to run in 2015. However, the offense needs him to develop more as a passer.
Abdullah finished a standout career at Nebraska with his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. Nebraska isn’t hurting for options at running back to replace Abdullah’s production, but which player will emerge as the go-to back? Senior Imani Cross has the most experience, while Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby are two other capable backs for Langsdorf to use in 2015.
3. Rebuilt offensive line
Three starters — Jake Cotton, Mark Pelini and Mike Moudy — expired their eligibility after the Holiday Bowl. Despite the personnel losses, the Cornhuskers are in relatively good shape up front. Alex Lewis earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season and returns to anchor the left side at tackle. Zach Sterup started 10 games in 2014 and should start at right tackle. The interior spots are up for grabs and should be the focus of spring ball. There’s experience returning in the way of Paul Thurston, Zach Hannon, Chongo Kondolo, Ryne Reeves, Dylan Utter and Givens Price, while redshirt freshmen Nick Gates, Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster are also expected to push for time and add quality depth to the trenches.
The biggest question mark for new defensive coordinator Mark Banker is the defensive end position. Gregory was the unit’s top player over the last two years and accounted for seven of the Cornhuskers’ 29 sacks in 2014. The line isn’t overflowing with proven depth, but Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish are experienced and should anchor the starting spots. However, Banker needs to develop depth here this spring. Will Joe Keels emerge as a key contributor in his second year in Lincoln? Players like redshirt freshman Freedom Akinmoladun, A.J. Natter and Peyton Newell need to provide quality snaps in 2015.
5. Find the right mix in the back seven
Banker inherits a defense that ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense last season but allowed 206.8 rushing yards in Big Ten contests. Gone from last season’s unit are linebackers Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach, along with cornerback Josh Mitchell and safety Corey Cooper. How will Banker solidify the linebacking corps and secondary this spring? Michael Rose-Ivey is back after missing 2014 due to a knee injury and could step into a starting role. Banker has options, but he just needs to find the right mix.
Pre-spring outlook on Nebraska in the Big Ten
Wisconsin is the early favorite in the Big Ten West division in 2015. Can Nebraska close the gap this spring? The scheme transitions on both sides of the ball present a challenge for contention in the West, along with a schedule that features a crossover game against Michigan State and a road trip to Minnesota. Riley is a good coach who won a tough place (Oregon State). If the personnel blends with the new schemes, Nebraska has a chance to win nine games in 2015.