I’ve never been to Nebraska, but I imagine this is pretty much what the state did, in unison, after football season was over under Bo Pelini. There have been three ten-win seasons in the last seven years, but the other four were all exactly nine win seasons. This apparently got so old that the administration saw fit to can a guy with a 76-28 record there.
Tommy Armstrong, Jr. put up pretty solid numbers under center for the Huskers last season through the air and on the ground. He threw 22 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, and also punched in six touchdowns on the ground. The big problem was that he was not particularly consistent on a game-to-game basis, and as Armstrong went, so did Nebraska’s odds of winning. If Armstrong can produce at a more consistent level in 2015, then Nebraska has a legitimate shot at a division title, and he has the help at receiver to pull it off.
Jordan Westerkamp is one of the most sure-handed receivers in the conference. He caught over 65% of his targets last season on his way to 747 receiving yards, which is tops among all returning receivers. His primary running mate this season will be sophomore De’Mornay Pierson-El, who emerged as an all-purpose threat last season doing damage in both the return game and as a receiver. Pierson-El caught 23 passes for 321 yards in 2014.
Ameer Abdullah may be gone, but his top two backups return. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby combined for 681 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns last season behind Abdullah, who rushed for 1,600+ yards and 19 touchdowns himself. So, while the actual returning production doesn’t look great, there is no reason to believe that Cross and Newby can’t take the torch from Abdullah and perform up to task.
The main question surrounding this offense will be line play. Tackles Alex Lewis and Zach Sterup are the only players on the team with double-digit starts, and only three other linemen have any starting experience. The other three expected starters (Chongo Kondolo, Dylan Utter, and Ryne Reeves) are all upperclassmen, so they have been in the program for a few years at least, although that may not be as big of a deal with the coaching change.
Randy Gregory may have been a key contributor at defensive end for this Husker defense these last few years, but he is the only loss up front, so the line should remain strong. Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentin, and Maliek Collins all return up front, and the trio combined for 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks a season ago. Those three will be joined in the starting lineup by Jack Gangwish who has a great name and had three tackles for loss in relief duty last season.
Secondary should also be a relatively solid unit for this defense led by safety Nate Gerry. Gerry had 68.5 tackles, five interceptions, four pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery as a sophomore in 2014. Daniel Davie also returns at cornerback, where he had two picks and broke up five passes last season.
Linebacker is the iffiest unit on the defense, but they are still a talented group at the very least. David Santos and Josh “Don’t Call Me Antonio” Banderas will start at two of the three linebacker spots, although neither of them were particularly productive a season ago. Michael Rose-Ivey’s return will be a key for this group. Rose-Ivey was a Big Ten All-Freshman linebacker in 2013, but missed all of 2014 after suffering a knee injury in training camp. He had 50+ tackles and 5 tackles for loss as a freshman.
I know what you’re thinking, “Not again!” Yes, again. This team has the talent to get over this hump, but I fear that acclimating to a new regime, as well as having to replace a fair amount on offense will lead to another nine or ten win season. However, the silver lining of this (if it turns out to be true, which almost certainly won’t happen) is that if the Huskers can win their bowl game then they would break the streak of seven consecutive seasons with exactly four losses! The schedule won’t make this easy though with early season non-conference games against BYU and at Miami, plus having to play Michigan State as one of their cross-division opponents.