For the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a look at where each B1G team needs to improve and answering pressing questions this offseason. For some it’s establishing depth, and for others, it’s learning a new system. Whatever it is, each team has at least five things to take care of before 2016 kicks off.
1. Figure out offensive identity
Didn’t it seem like 2015 was just a confusing, hot-and-cold first year in Danny Langsdorf’s offense? One week, Tommy Armstrong would complete 66 percent of his passes, and the next week, he completed 32 percent. It just felt like Nebraska never established the offensive groove it hoped it would in Langsdorf’s pass-happy offense.
Well, at least until the Foster Farms Bowl, when Nebraska ran the ball three times as much as it threw it. Armstrong didn’t look like the guy who led the B1G in interceptions. Instead, he was decisive, efficient and steady. Those are three words that haven’t exactly described the senior quarterback throughout his career. That game was huge for him heading into this offseason.
Was that an early turning point in the Mike Riley era? It could’ve been if Nebraska truly intends on being a run-first team. Given how loaded the Huskers are at receiver, that might not be an easy thing to do.
All signs out of camp have been positive on that front. The interceptions are down, balance is being established and the Huskers seem to have finally found out what works for Armstrong in his fourth year as a starter.
2. Find the next Andy Janovich
Janovich was a cult hero in Lincoln. The former walk-on became with a household name with his breakaway runs and rare versatility from the fullback position. (What kind of a fullback averages six yards per carry?) But Janovich, who the Denver Broncos drafted in the six round, was also a bulldozing blocker and Nebraska’s best special teams tackler.
Asking one person to take on all of Janovich’s jobs is too tall of a task. But Luke McNitt could be that guy. Another former walk-on, McNitt played quarterback and tight end at Division II University of Nebraska at Kearney. He walked on to Nebraska as a tight end, but is the spring favorite to earn the fullback job. McNitt’s bruising running style will remind Nebraska fans of Janovich. At 6-2, 240 pounds, McNitt is already a natural at the position.
Janovich also served as a change of pace back for Terrell Newby, who figures to get the lion’s share of the carries if he can stay healthy. Devine Ozigbo could add a similar presence. The 230-pound back got 20 carries in the Foster Farms Bowl as a true freshman, and his big-play ability could satisfy another Janovich-sized hole.
If Nebraska plans on getting back to the power-running game, it needs someone — or several guys — to do the dirty work that Janovich did.
3. Develop young DL replacements
Nebraska will basically have a brand new defensive line. Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine both cashed in early on the NFL, Jack Gangwish graduated, Greg McMullen left football and Kevin Williams transferred to Michigan State.
So what’s Nebraska left with? Well, there’s still some talent up front. It’s just young.
The Davis twins have generated a lot of buzz after stellar spring camps, and all while starring on Nebraska’s track and field team as discus throwers. The redshirt freshmen-to be (Khalil and Carlos) could be the next set of dominant Nebraska tackles.
Sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun is still a raw, but capable pass-rusher. Redshirt freshmen Alex Davis and DaiShon Neal could also crack the defensive end rotation.
Nebraska does have senior Ross Dzuris, who was huge last year with all of the injuries the Huskers dealt with up front. The former walk-on could wind up becoming an All-B1G player after bursting on to the scene in 2015.
Talent aside, Nebraska is relying on a lot of underclassmen to grow up and beef up in a hurry. If that doesn’t happen, it could be another inconsistent season for the Blackshirts.
4. Get/keep De’Mornay Pierson-El healthy
If there was a guy who couldn’t catch a break last year, it was Pierson-El. A broken foot in spring camp sidelined the preseason All-American for the first five games, and a few weeks later, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament celebrating a Stanley Morgan touchdown against Purdue. It was a lost season.
He spent his spring working his way back to full strength, and he’ll continue to do that this summer. The goal is still for him to be ready to go by September, but given his injury in last year’s training camp, Nebraska will be extra cautious with him this fall.
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It wasn’t long ago that Pierson-El led the nation in punt-return yards and was considered the most electric player in the B1G. It remains to be seen if he’ll be that guy after returning from two serious lower-body injuries in the last nine months.
And when Pierson-El does return, what will his role be? Nebraska isn’t exactly desperate for receivers, but Pierson-El did show a better understanding of the position in his limited time there in 2015. He might not see the snaps at receiver that some thought he would when he emerged as a Freshman All-American.
But if he makes a full recovery, Nebraska will add a game-changing weapon to an already explosive offense.
5. Erase close-game woes
If there’s one offseason mantra I can’t stand, it’s when a coach says, “We were five plays away from being a 10-win team.” Newsflash: There are a whole lot of teams that can say that. College football is a win-loss business. Nebraska won five regular season games and there’s no changing that. It doesn’t matter that the Huskers lost seven games by a combined 31 points.
Here’s the stat to focus on: Nebraska was 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less.
The Huskers developed a “not-to-lose” mindset, which is about the worst thing that can happen to a team. That can stay with college kids.
Nebraska can’t afford to have that happen.
No team in America should spend more time simulating late-game situations than Nebraska. So many times, the Huskers collapsed because of mental errors. Whatever the coaching staff can do to try and prevent that in 2016, it has to do.
Otherwise Riley might not get the chance to say “we were five plays away from being a 10-win team” come next offseason.