Nebraska Cornhuskers: Charles Jackson

Huskers lose back Adam Taylor to injury

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
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Another day and another setback at preseason camp for Nebraska.

Coach Bo Pelini said on Monday that sophomore I-back Adam Taylor is out indefinitely with a broken ankle suffered on Saturday.

A depth chart at the open of practice this month likely would have listed Taylor at No. 4 behind senior All-Big Ten back Ameer Abdullah, junior Imani Cross and sophomore Terrell Newby. But even casual observers of the Huskers knew Taylor was far from your average fourth-stringer.

He shined in the spring after a redshirt year. Taylor, at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, gained 2,754 yards and scored 45 touchdowns as a senior for 5A state champion Katy (Texas) High School in 2012.

If healthy, Taylor would have been in line for playing time this fall, even in a crowded backfield.

“I feel bad for Adam,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He has had a great spring and was really playing well this fall. My heart goes out for him. He has worked extremely hard, but on the same token, it’s a very loaded position for us.”

Taylor's injury capped a brutal opening week of practice in Lincoln as Nebraska lost three potential defensive starters for the entire season. Junior nickel back Charles Jackson went down first. Pelini then announced the suspension of sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, and sophomore middle linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey sustained a knee injury.
The hits keep on coming for the Nebraska defense.

Sophomore Michael Rose, the returning seven-game starter at middle linebacker, announced over social media on Friday night that he had suffered a serious knee injury and would miss the 2014 season.

Rose posted a photo to his Instagram account, writing in a response that he had torn an ACL, possibly an MCL and cartilage.

“I’m hurting… I’m not gonna lie. I’m hurting bad,” Rose wrote in the photo caption. “So much work out in this offseason to get my weight down and body fat to prove to people I can be an every down linebacker.

“It’s hard right now for me. I can barely express how I feel right cause I’m numb to it.”

He also made several comments about the injury on Twitter.

The 5-foot-11, 240-pound Rose set the Nebraska freshman record last season with 66 tackles, including 17 against Iowa. He was battling classmate Josh Banderas for the starting role in preseason practice this month.

The loss of Rose comes after a season-ending knee injury suffered by junior Charles Jackson, who was scheduled to start at nickel back, and a season-long suspension, announced on Friday, for safety LeRoy Alexander, also a projected starter.

Rose is a former Under Armour All-American out of Kansas City, Missouri. He earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2013.
The loss of junior defensive back Charles Jackson in the opening week of practice at Nebraska represents a major setback for the Huskers.

[+] EnlargeCharles Jackson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCharles Jackson was expected to boost Nebraska's secondary before his season-ending knee injury.
Coach Bo Pelini announced Thursday night that Jackson would require season-ending surgery to repair a knee injury. After a breakout spring, Jackson started camp well Monday with several head-turning plays from the nickel position.

His progress ended abruptly.

One of Nebraska's top athletes, Jackson factored heavily on special teams in 2012 and 2013 but failed to earn significant time in the secondary as he struggled with defensive concepts. He turned a corner in March and April.

The nickel spot in Pelini's scheme has long served as a key spot to earn mismatches and create big plays. Ciante Evans performed well in the spot last year.

Jackson, because of his athleticism, promised to add an important spark to a secondary faced with the loss of cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and safety Andrew Green in addition to Evans.

The Huskers must now incorporate another newcomer. Junior-college transfer Byerson Cockrell, who played nickel and cornerback in the spring after joining the Huskers in January, is the favorite to fill Jackson's role.

"I love Byerson Cockrell," Pelini said Thursday. "He is a really good player. He is a very smart and very intelligent player."

Cockrell likely must focus full time on nickel, leaving the cornerback spot opposite returning starter Josh Mitchell to junior Jonathan Rose, redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or junior Daniel Davie. None have notable experience.

True freshman Joshua Kalu will also get a look this month at nickel, Pelini said.

Kalu starred at Houston's Alief Taylor High School, a Texas 5A power. Regardless, the thought of a starting nickel with no experience at the FBS level may lead to a restless month for first-year secondary coach Charlton Warren.

For Jackson, the excruciating wait continues. He hasn't played a full game since his senior year of high school at Spring (Texas) Klein Collins in 2010.

This was supposed to the year. It came to a cruel end in the first week of practice. And the most inexperienced area of the Nebraska defense just grew a little more green.
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

Next up, a key position on the back end of Nebraska’s fast-maturing defense:

[+] EnlargeCharles Jackson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCharles Jackson looks poised to excel at nickel back, a key to making the Huskers' defense dominant.
Spring breakout player: DB Charles Jackson

Connect the dots here. Nebraska’s top defensive units under Bo Pelini -- in 2003, his lone year as coordinator, and 2009 in his second year as head coach -- stopped the passing game as well or better than any team nationally.

The linchpin, arguably, to a dominant Pelini secondary is a standout at nickel back. The nickel, highlighted when the Huskers require a fifth defensive back against many of today’s pass-happy offensive foes, demands versatility and intelligence.

Ciante Evans performed admirably as the nickel a year ago.

This spring, Jackson, a junior who has long been a promising figure for Nebraska, emerged as the projected starter. A 2011 signee out of Spring, Texas, who sat out that first fall to clear eligibility hurdles, Jackson has tantalized the Huskers with flashes of athleticism on special teams for the past two seasons.

But when opportunities arose for playing time, he failed to prove his readiness at cornerback and safety.

That’s all changing now.

“You want to talk about guys that are light years ahead of where they were a year ago?” Pelini said early in the spring. “He obviously put some time in prior to spring practice. I think things are starting to slow down for him and make sense for him, which is a good thing, because he’s a really talented kid.”

Jackson, 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, got serious about film study after last season, when he played in all 13 games but finished the season with just seven tackles -- six of which came on special teams.

“I feel like if you really want it -- want to succeed -- then it shouldn’t be too hard,” Jackson told reporters last month. “I really want it, so I just go in and watch film and get it done. Every single day. It’s just a way of life.”

His strong spring allowed the Huskers to move newcomer Byerson Cockrell from nickel to cornerback; Cockrell is challenging Jonathan Rose for a starting spot opposite Josh Mitchell. With Corey Cooper back at safety alongside LeRoy Alexander or converted linebacker Nathan Gerry, the secondary -- thanks in part to Jackson -- suddenly looks like a strength for the Huskers in 2014 under first-year assistant Charlton Warren.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Red-White game began in truly unique fashion on Saturday as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini exited the locker room for the Cornhuskers’ traditional Tunnel Walk cuddling a cat.

In continuing a series of humorous moments related to his Twitter alter-ego, Pelini held the feline aloft seconds before the Huskers took the field for a scrimmage won by the offense, 55-46, over the defense before a crowd of 61,772 at Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTommy Armstrong Jr. still has work to do to solidify his hold on the starting quarterback role at Nebraska.
None of that means much to the Huskers in 2014. Here’s a look at what does matter from Saturday:

As suspected, this stable of I-backs might rate as Nebraska’s best in many years. With Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher, on the sideline, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor put on quite a show. Cross, in particular, showed great skill on his six carries, netting 100 yards and two touchdowns. The junior produced scoring runs of 20 and 39 yards in the first half against the No. 1 defense. Cross flashed a few moves and, of course, the power that helped him rush for 447 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Newby gained 51 yards and caught a pass out of the backfield. The redshirt freshman Taylor rushed for 41 yards. He actually looked more impressive in other spring workouts. Each of the top four offer skills to help this offense.

The quarterback situation remains unsettled. Tommy Armstrong Jr. used this spring to solidify a once-tenuous hold on the No. 1 position, but he’s still not a lock to start on Aug. 30, when Florida Atlantic visits Lincoln. Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe displayed improvement through the 15 practices of March and April. Stanton, in particular, looks much more comfortable and in command of the offense in comparison to a month ago. If Armstrong slips, either backup is capable of snatching the job. Stanton threw for a team-high 135 yards and two scores on Saturday; Fyfe threw for 89. Neither QB was intercepted, and safety Nathan Gerry picked off Armstrong on the first drive of the day. Look past the numbers, though: Armstrong faced better competition. This position is about leadership. Because of his experience and overall poise, Armstrong has an edge. But watch the race for No. 2, and know the gap could be further sliced.

No obvious hole exists within the Nebraska defense. The Huskers looked strong at linebacker to start the spring. The results of Saturday did nothing to dispel that belief as Zaire Anderson, Michael Rose and Josh Banderas -- a potential starting trio -- produced nice moments. Optimism comes from the growth of the secondary and the line. At safety, Gerry played well before suffering a shoulder stinger. LeRoy Alexander finished a solid spring at a position set to grow stronger with the return of Corey Cooper. Charles Jackson developed into a good option at the nickel spot. Up front, even without Randy Gregory on Saturday, the linemen held their own. Greg McMullen showed impressive pursuit of Armstrong on a sack. Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins also appeared to play well.

Spring game preview: Nebraska

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
1:00
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A big crowd, as usual, is expected on Saturday as Nebraska wraps spring practice amid the annual festivities on campus that accompany the Red-White Game. Here’s a preview:

When: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

Admission: Reserved seats are $10. As of Wednesday, nearly 48,000 tickets had been sold. Youth in eighth grade or below receive free admission for participating in the Drug Free Pledge at halftime; a complimentary ticket is required. Free youth tickets are available only at the stadium ticket office.

TV: Big Ten Network (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET)

Weather forecast: Warm and possibly wet. A mix of clouds and sun is forecast, with a high of 82 degrees and wind from the south at 16 mph. The chance of rain is 60 percent during the day, with the potential for severe thunderstorms.

[+] EnlargePelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsBo Pelini will watch from the sidelines as his Cornhuskers close the spring with Red-White Game on Saturday.
What to watch for: First, know that the format is atypical. Coach Bo Pelini plans to roll out a scoring system that awards points to the offense and defense for good plays. There will be no Red and White teams, as in the past. The top offense will match against the No. 1 defense, No. 2 against No. 2 and so on. Leave the social scene outside the stadium a few minutes early, so you can get a grasp on the format before kickoff. An explanation will likely be displayed on the HuskerVision screens.

Nebraska opted for this change in order to protect its players from injury. With a roster of two teams, the Huskers would have been spread thin for the coaches' comfort level.

That said, you’ll see plenty of the top Huskers, minus returning All-Big Ten honorees Ameer Abdullah at I-back and defensive end Randy Gregory. They’ve done enough this spring.

Behind Abdullah, Nebraska features an exciting group of backs. Keep an eye on the expanded pass-catching role of Terrell Newby and the tantalizing combination of size and speed offered by redshirt freshman Adam Taylor.

Of course, the quarterbacks will draw many eyes. Watch how Tommy Armstrong Jr. commands the attention of teammates and shows a noticeable improvement over his redshirt freshman season in surveying the field. The performance on Saturday of Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe will serve as the last opportunity for nearly four months to impress coaches in their bid for the job of No. 2 QB.

Defensively, Josh Mitchell provides a vocal presence from his cornerback position. Alongside Mitchell, safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry have enjoyed breakout springs to help solidify the secondary. Corners Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell are locked in a battle, and Charles Jackson has appeared to finally come of age in taking control of nickel spot.

Up front, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have taken hold of the top spots in the interior and may give Nebraska its most talented pair of tackles in five years. Collins also shifts to the outside, where the Huskers are thin and have begun to look to linebacker Marcus Newby as an intriguing option to rush the passer.
LINCOLN, Neb. – Spring is for competition. Preparation can largely wait until August. Now is the time to wage battles on the practice field.

Nebraska is 60 percent finished with spring practice. Just five workouts remain until the April 12 Red-White game, for which more than 41,000 tickets have been sold.

At some positions, this time has served only to more deeply entrench top players. I-back Ameer Abdullah, receiver Kenny Bell, cornerback Josh Mitchell, defensive end Randy Gregory and left guard Jake Cotton need not worry about losing their starting jobs.

[+] EnlargeSam Burtch
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesSam Burtch, who Bo Pelini says is headed for a scholarship, continues to impress after three touchdown catches in 2013.
Others, such as left tackle Alex Lewis, nickelback Charles Jackson and safety LeRoy Alexander, have made strong moves to win positions.

Here’s a look at the three battles that have only intensified as the spring progressed:

  • Cornerback opposite Mitchell. With the departure of Stanley Jean-Baptiste, junior Jonathan Rose appeared poised to win a starting spot this spring. Rose had the advantage of two years in the program after transferring in 2012 from Auburn. A former elite recruit out of Alabama, he worked primarily with the top defense early in spring. But as Jackson emerged at nickel, the Huskers felt comfortable shifting newcomer Byerson Cockrell to cornerback. Now, Rose, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, and the 6-foot, 185-pound Cockrell, who played safety last year in junior college, look nearly interchangeable at corner. “I like everything about Byerson Cockrell,” coach Bo Pelini said on Monday. “I think he’s physical. I think he’s really picked things up well. He’s fast. He competes. He can change direction. He plays with an attitude. He’s going to help us.”
  • Middle linebacker. Sophomore Michael Rose began the spring with a sizable edge over the competition to remain as the Huskers’ No. 1 option in the heart of the defense. Rose, who recorded a Nebraska freshman-record 66 tackles last year, figures hold his starting job, but he has competition. Classmate Josh Banderas took snaps ahead of Rose with the first-team defense on Monday, Pelini said. He said the Huskers want to continue to “tweak” the spot and ensure versatility. More than likely, they also want to push Rose, who made 40 tackles in the Huskers’ final four regular-season games, including 17 against Iowa. Banderas, who played well at time as a freshman last fall, had worked primarily at Buck linebacker this spring. The shifts Monday, as Nebraska returned from a 10-day break, no doubt, reminded all among a young group of linebackers that the competition remains fierce.
  • Wide receiver. Aside from Bell, who is on track to leave Nebraska after next season with an armful of career records, competition continues at slot receiver between sure-handed sophomore Jordan Westerkamp and senior big-play threat Jamal Turner. The other starting spot, though, looks just as intriguing as juniors Taariq Allen and Sam Burtch compete for snaps. It has been a breakout spring for Allen, who was slowed by injury and caught just three passes last year. But the development of Burtch, who walked on out of Murdock, Neb., is just as notable. He caught 12 passes last fall, including three touchdowns, and keeps getting better, Pelini said. “The guy understands how to play football. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s fast. There’s a lot of different things he does to help our football team. On top of that, he’s a great character kid and a big-time leader.” Burtch has developed into a favorite option of Armstrong in practice. Asked if Burtch has been placed on scholarship, Pelini said, “If he’s not, he will be soon.” Congrats in advance, Sam.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
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Eyes closed, head first, can't lose.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has yet to release an update on junior offensive lineman Ryne Reeves, who experienced pain in his neck and was removed from the practice field by stretcher on Wednesday.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini described the actions to immobilize Reeves, who did not lose any feeling or ability to move, as precautionary.

“Let’s hope it turns out to be that,” Pelini said, “very precautionary.”

Reeves, bidding to start at center next season, received the most extensive playing time of his career late last season because of multiple injuries on the offensive line.

The Huskers worked out in full pads. They will scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Thursday, reaching the halfway point of spring practice before a break until March 31.

Pelini said he wants his players to treat the Thursday workout like another practice and “not get freaked out because it’s a scrimmage situation.”

“It’s taking what they’ve been coached and apply it,” he said. “It’s about executing what we’re asking you to do.”

At nearly the midpoint of spring drills, Pelini said he’s pleased with the team’s focus.

“I think our guys are a lot more to the point where they know what to do,” the coach said. “Now, we’ve got to get into the details. I’m seeing progress on both sides. I’m seeing guys who are competing.”

Also from Wednesday at Nebraska practice:
  • Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark Mangino attended the afternoon workout. Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis and offensive coordinator Tim Beck coached on Mangino’s former staff at Kansas. Pelini also knows Mangino well.

    “He wanted to come over and see what we were doing,” Pelini said, “how we do some things. It gave us a chance to pick his brain a little bit. He’s a heck of a football coach and a good man.”

    Before going to work for Paul Rhoads at Iowa State, Mangino coached as an assistant for two years at FCS-level Youngstown State in Pelini’s Ohio hometown.

  • A key to spring progress in the Nebraska secondary involves the emergence of a strong candidate to replace Ciante Evans at the nickel position. The Huskers hoped it could be Charles Jackson, who has struggled to practice well enough earn playing time at safety and cornerback the past two seasons. So far, Jackson looks the part. So what’s he done differently?

    “Not taking a day off and just paying attention,” Jackson said. “Watching film, watching angles people take every single day. Once you get in that mentality to watch film and get out there and translate it all into the game, it becomes a lot more natural.”

  • The shift of sophomore Nathan Gerry from linebacker to safety is more than a spring experiment.

    “I feel really good about our linebacker spot,” Pelini said, “and I love the way he’s playing at safety right now.”

    Gerry has worked with the No. 1 defense alongside LeRoy Alexander in the absence of returning starter Corey Cooper, who remains out with a foot injury.

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nathan Gerry often felt overmatched last season, and you can’t blame him. He was a freshman linebacker playing at just a couple meals over 200 pounds and was asked, play after play, to challenge players more than 100 pounds heavier.

Former Cornhuskers secondary coach Terry Joseph suggested that he would steal Gerry this offseason, labeling him John Lynch as an homage to the ex-All Pro safety.

[+] EnlargeNathan Gerry
John S. Peterson/Icon SMINathan Gerry, who had 32 tackles at linebacker in 2013, has moved to safety for the Cornhuskers.
Joseph left Nebraska in December for Texas A&M, but his words stuck with Gerry, who approached Nebraska coaches after the Gator Bowl to inquire about a move to the secondary.

Tuns out, they were thinking the same thing.

“I feel like it’s more natural to me,” Gerry said after three practices this spring in the secondary.

He’s part of a revamped backfield under new secondary coach Charlton Warren, who came to Lincoln after nine seasons at Air Force. Gerry and fellow sophomore LeRoy Alexander have manned the safety spots this month in the absence of senior Corey Cooper, out with a foot injury.

They form the leading line of a youthful but athletic group of safeties that includes redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton. Early enrollee junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell and fellow junior Charles Jackson, a reserve safety last season, have played primarily at the nickel position managed well by Ciante Evans in 2013.

“I don’t think people really see the athleticism we have at the safety spot,” Alexander said. “Drake and D.J., they’re young guys, but they’re getting it. Me, Corey and Nate are going to try to bring them along, because they’re a play away -- I don’t know if they realize that yet – just like I was.”

Alexander emerged last season, something of a surprise as Nebraska searched for consistency alongside Cooper, who led the team with 91 tackles.

“He has a base,” coach Bo Pelini said of Alexander, who collected 34 tackles as a redshirt freshman. “He has some experience, has been there, done that a little bit. He’s made some great plays in practice the first couple days. I think he’s a lot more comfortable. I think he can be exceptional down the line.”

Pelini said he feels the same way about Gerry, who started three games and had 32 tackles last fall. The 6-foot-2 Gerry, a former state high-school champion sprinter in South Dakota, actually added about 10 pounds to reach 215 this winter in anticipation of the move to safety.

Gerry said he prefers the view from his new position.

“The farther away you move from the ball in this defense, the easier it gets.” he said.

The Huskers practice Friday, Saturday and three times next week before taking time off for spring break. Don’t expect much movement from Cooper until the team reconvenes on March 31 for the second half of spring drills.

“He could probably practice right now,” Pelini said, “but when you have the sprain that he has, we don’t want him to aggravate it. He’s had great offseason up to this point. He has a lot of experience in our system.

“This gives us a chance to work the younger guys and get them ready, make sure that Coop’s 100 percent before he gets back out here.”

Alexander and Gerry said they’ve enjoyed working with Warren as the coach transitions to Nebraska. It’s played out smoothly over the first two months.

Warren is a strong communicator, the players said. Occasionally, that military background is evident.

“You can tell when he raises his voice,” Alexander said. “He doesn’t like repeat errors.

“He’s not afraid to tell us anything. For him to come in and coach us like he’s had us for years is really a positive.”

Good thing, because the Huskers needed to avoid disruption in the secondary. Warren must find the right fit at safety and cornerback, where Nebraska has used junior Jonathan Rose and redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph to replace Stanley Jean-Baptiste opposite senior Josh Mitchell.

So far, so good.

At safety, especially without Cooper, the growth will continue. But the early impact of Alexander and Gerry rates as one of the key developments this month on the practice field.

“We’ve got a lot of depth, but it’s going to come down to the playbook,” Gerry said. “Everybody’s an athlete back there. (Whomever) knows what to do in these situations is going to determine who gets to play and who doesn’t get to play.”
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
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Video: B1G shoes to fill, Nebraska

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
3:30
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Mitch Sherman discusses the hole left by Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans and the challenge for the Huskers to replace him.

Top spring position battles: No. 2

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
9:00
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Our countdown of the spring’s top position battles at Nebraska has visited the offensive backfield for the past two days.

The next stop takes us to the secondary, where the Huskers have questions at cornerback and potential battles looming at the No. 2 spot on our list:

[+] EnlargeIowa/Nebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCorey Cooper will man one starting safety position. The other starter is anyone's guess right now.
Safety

The contenders: Seniors Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson; juniors Charles Jackson and Byerson Cockrell; sophomore LeRoy Alexander; redshirt freshmen D.J. Singleton and Drake Martinez

The storylines: Cooper, the Huskers’ top tackler in 2013, is a lock to start. And while Nebraska coaches don’t differentiate in title between the two safety positions, Cooper plays the traditional role of a strong safety.

He’s at his best when moving downhill and tackles well in space, as evidenced by his team-best 52 solo tackles. He also recorded five tackles behind the line of scrimmage and figures to team with Josh Mitchell as the leaders in the secondary.

Opposite Cooper, the race is on. Harvey Jackson and Charles Jackson have received opportunities to take hold of the spot. Harvey Jackson started three games last season, recording 33 tackles, but never claimed the position over the departed Andrew Green. Charles Jackson, whose ceiling rates as high as any defensive back on the roster, has yet to show the consistency required to earn quality minutes.

Alexander was something of a breakout performer last season as a freshman, with 34 tackles and flashes of big-play ability.

Cockrell, the new guy out of junior college, gets a chance in the spring to earn an edge over fellow new signee Luke Gifford.

And the redshirt freshmen are intriguing. Martinez reputedly possesses the same kind of speed that allowed his brother, Taylor, to rush for nearly 3,000 yards and shatter Nebraska’s school record for total offense. Singleton earned strong reviews during his first fall in Lincoln, especially late in the year.

The outlook: The safe prediction says that Alexander or Harvey Jackson will win a starting safety spot by August.

New secondary coach Charlton Warren could benefit plenty, though, from an awakening by Charles Jackson or a surprisingly quick rise out of Singleton. Either is a possibility.

A wild card here is Nathan Gerry, the sophomore safety-turned-linebacker who, with lots of depth at linebacker, might shift back into the secondary on a permanent basis or contribute more as part of the Huskers’ dime package.

Countdown of Nebraska position battles to watch in spring practice:
No. 5: Outside linebacker
No. 4: Quarterback
No. 3: Backup I-back
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Less than three weeks remain until Nebraska opens spring football practice. We’ve counted down the position groups with most room to improve. This week, it’s the top players to watch in the spring.

You’ll notice this group includes several Cornhuskers with unreached high ceilings. Count the next guy on the list, at No. 4, among that collection of players:

[+] EnlargeCharles Jackson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCharles Jackson has teased Nebraska fans with his promise, but he'll have to deliver results in 2014.
Junior safety Charles Jackson

Why to watch: Because it’s time for Jackson to break through. We’ve heard plenty about the athletic Texan since he signed with Nebraska in 2011. Jackson sat out the 2011 season while working to gain eligibility, primarily played on special teams as a freshman and provided depth at safety last season while again contributing heavily on special teams. With the departure of several key members of the secondary, Jackson’s time to take a big leap is now.

What to watch: Where will the Huskers play him? Part of Jackson’s delay in developing as a difference-maker on defense likely involves the indecision by Nebraska’s coaches in finding a permanent spot for him. And while there’s a temptation to move him to the position most in need -- because Jackson appears capable to fit anywhere in the defensive backfield -- his progress will accelerate if he remains committed to one spot, be it cornerback or safety. The Huskers have a need at both places.

What to expect
: Jackson appeared on the verge of making a jump into the Nebraska lineup last season, especially early in the year as the Huskers struggled to find a safety opposite Corey Cooper who could tackle. It never happened, apparently because Jackson couldn’t show the consistency in practice to earn a starting spot. If things fall right for Jackson, this spring can serve as the launching point for him to earn the confidence of new secondary coach Charlton Warren and fit as a major cog amid a group in need of a couple breakout performers.

Countdown of Nebraska players to watch in spring practice:
No. 5: Terrell Newby

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