Nebraska Cornhuskers: Imani Cross

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.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would break through to that plateau this season.

The league had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013 and a handful of others who got pretty close, and many of them return. The race for this year's rushing title should be extremely competitive. So Tuesday's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in rushing yards in 2014?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon is a big-play threat at Wisconsin.
There are so many good contenders here. It's hard to go against the heart and determination of Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford could be even better this year after coming on in midseason last year on his way to 1,422 yards and 18 scores. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is so explosive, and Northwestern's Venric Mark is back from injury.

But I keep coming back to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. He finished 81 yards behind Abdullah last season, and it was Gordon's first full year as a starter. He also had 206 carries, which was 75 fewer than Abdullah and 86 fewer than Langford. Heck, Gordon didn't even get the most carries on his own team, as James White received 221. I don't expect Gordon to suddenly become a 300-carry guy, and the Badgers will continue their successful backfield tandem style with promising sophomore Corey Clement.

I do believe, though, that Gordon will have more rushing attempts this season than he did a year ago, possibly in the 250 range. And for a guy who averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry a year ago, that could translate into a huge yardage total. Assuming he becomes a little better between the tackles and avoids fumbling issues, the Wisconsin junior should challenge not only for the Big Ten rushing title, but also the FBS one.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah will get plenty of chances to impress at Nebraska.
I'm really tempted to join you with the Gordon pick, as he's the nation's top big-play back -- a must-see every time he touches the ball. But I'm going with Abdullah for several reasons. He was the more consistent back in 2013, eclipsing 100 rushing yards in 11 of 13 games. Gordon got there eight times, but only twice in Wisconsin's final six games. White had a lot to do with that and he's not in Madison anymore, but I think the Badgers will have a tough time keeping Clement off the field.

That gets me to my second point. Although Clement and Nebraska's Imani Cross both are talented backups, I give Clement the edge. If he builds on a strong spring, I don't see Gordon logging more than 260 carries. The big-play factor could put Gordon ahead of Abdullah, but Abdullah should log more carries again. Abdullah is hardly a plodder, averaging 5.4 yards per carry in his career and six yards per carry last season. Only two Big Ten teams (Michigan and Iowa) held him to fewer than five yards per rush.

This is a really tough call, and like you, I wouldn't count out players such as Coleman, Langford and Mark. If Coleman gets enough chances behind a massively underrated line, he could be the league's yards leader. But Abdullah has been so good for so long, and he'll end his senior season atop the Big Ten's rushing chart.
Last week, Brian Bennett explained why he believes Ohio State's defensive line is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring practice. The Buckeyes return an excellent mix of depth and talent as players like Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington all are back.

Not surprisingly, Bennett's post generated some spirited responses from fan bases who believe different position groups merit top billing. Well, here's your chance to show what you think.

Today's poll question is simple: What is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring ball?

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's strongest position group coming out of the spring?

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    22%
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    38%
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    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,299)

The candidates ...

Michigan State's defensive line: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun became a superstar in 2013, leading the Big Ten in forced fumbles and recording 7.5 sacks. Underrated senior Marcus Rush returns opposite Calhoun, and there's good depth with Lawrence Thomas and Demetrius Cooper, who stood out in the spring game. There are more questions inside but Joel Heath looked promising this spring.

Nebraska's running backs: All-America candidate Ameer Abdullah leads an impressive group after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns during a spectacular junior season. The Huskers boast experience with Imani Cross, who has 17 career touchdowns, along with talented younger players like Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.

Ohio State's defensive line: The Buckeyes return three of the Big Ten's top six sack masters from 2013 in Spence, Bosa and Bennett. They have speed on the edge and athleticism inside, and they can plug in some space eaters like Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter.

Wisconsin's running backs: A year after producing the top single-season rushing tandem in FBS history -- Melvin Gordon and James White -- Wisconsin has another talented pair in Gordon and Corey Clement. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate entering his redshirt junior season, rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall. Clement looked great in limited work, and recruit Taiwan Deal enters the mix this fall.

Nebraska spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Nebraska.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Nebraska boasts an embarrassment of riches at running back: If there’s a better group of backs in the Big Ten, good luck to any defense tasked to stop it. The Huskers return the nation’s top yardage producer in Ameer Abdullah with a stacked group of runners behind him, led by Imani Cross.
  • Nathan Gerry’s position shift solidifies the secondary: After an inconsistent freshman season at linebacker, Gerry moved to safety, a more natural fit, and looked comfortable from the first practice. With Corey Cooper sidelined, Gerry and LeRoy Alexander more than held their own. That trio offers an upgrade over 2013.
  • The left side of the offensive line looks nasty: Jake Cotton at left guard already fits as the line’s leader. Cotton brings a mean streak. But the addition of Colorado transfer Alex Lewis at left tackle gives the Huskers an attitude that has long been missing up front.
Three questions for the fall

  • Who’s going to step up at linebacker?: Coach Bo Pelini challenged this group after the spring to find a big-time player or two. Nebraska has plenty of depth in the heart of its defense and a few potential stars in the making. But who’s going to do it now? Keep an eye on senior Zaire Anderson.
  • Who’s the backup QB?: Tommy Armstrong Jr. diffused the top storyline at the start of the spring by taking control at quarterback. While Johnny Stanton or Ryker Fyfe could still challenge Armstrong in August, their battle offers more intrigue. Stanton shows the higher ceiling, but Fyfe was more consistent through the spring.
  • Can the fun feeling carry over?: Pelini unveiled a side of his personality seen in the past only by Nebraska staffers and players. He was inviting and open to fun. The fall will surely bring a return of buttoned-up Bo, but can the lightened atmosphere of spring help the Huskers deal with scrutiny and pressure situations?
One way too early prediction

Nebraska’s streak of four-loss seasons will end in 2014. Six straight years of 9-4 or 10-4 have led to some feelings of unrest about the program’s direction. This is the year the Huskers move out of neutral. Will they shift into drive or reverse? The pieces are in place to make a run at the Big Ten title, but a stretch of five consecutive night games that starts on Sept. 13 at Fresno State could prove treacherous.
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.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska returned to spring practice on Monday after a 10-day break with a workout that pleased coach Bo Pelini.

“I thought the tempo was pretty good,” Pelini said after the ninth of 15 spring practices that culminate April 12 with the Red-White game at Memorial Stadium. “I thought the recall was pretty good. Like I told our guys, we’ve got to pick it up and finish up the spring the right way.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Lewis
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIAlex Lewis transferred to Nebraska from Colorado.
Pelini spoke publicly for the first time about the recent sentencing of junior offensive lineman Alex Lewis to 45 days in jail and two years of probation. Lewis, who transferred to Nebraska from Colorado last year, was convicted of misdemeanor assault for his role in a fight that involved an Air Force cadet last May in Boulder, Colo.

Lewis plans to serve the sentence after the spring semester ends in May. He was not allowed to join the team at Nebraska until January, conditions set by the school’s administration, Pelini said.

“He obviously made a mistake,” the coach said. “He’s paid dearly for that and he continues pay for that mistake.”

Lewis has “exceeded all expectations” since his arrival in Lincoln, according to Pelini.

“He’s done well academically,” Pelini said. “He’s done what he’s had to do away from football. And since he joined us in January, he’s done everything we asked of him. That’s all a kid can do.”

The terms of the sentence surprised Pelini after Lewis reached a plea deal in December that eliminated two felony charges.

“From the kid’s standpoint,” Pelini said, “you make the best of it and deal with the hand you’re dealt. I know he’ll handle it the right way.”

Lewis has taken hold of the top spot at left tackle in spring practice. Even before work began on the field, he earned the respect of his new teammates.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. said he was impressed in January as Lewis joined the quarterback in film sessions.

“He was ready to work,” Armstrong said. “I tried to put my hand on his shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you. You going to block for me next year or in the future. I’m going to have your back. You’re going to have my back.’”

Other news and notes from Nebraska practice on Monday:
  • Top safety Corey Cooper remained out with a foot injury. Reserve safety Drake Martinez also missed practice on Monday with an illness, and defensive end Joe Keels sat out.

  • Junior center Ryne Reeves practiced on Monday after he was hospitalized on March 19 following his injury in a drill. Reeves suffered from pain in his neck. “He checked out OK and felt good,” Pelini said. “I think the week off obviously helped him.”

  • Nebraska’s four-man combination at I-back continues to draw notice. The addition of redshirt freshman Adam Taylor to a group that already features the nation’s top returning rusher, Ameer Abdullah, in addition to Imani Cross and Terrell Newby, has caught the attention of many. “We have a stable of running backs that I feel great about,” Pelini said. “We’re going to have to use some of our ingenuity.” Offensive coordinator Tim Beck continues to consider options with multiback sets. “A lot of guys who can do a lot of different things to help us,” Pelini said. “It’s a good problem to have.” Count Abdullah among those happy with the depth. Taylor and Newby are “way ahead of where I was coming in,” Abdullah said. “I didn’t really consider myself a running back coming in. I was so raw. The game slows down so much as you get older.”


Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
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Time for another round of your emails ...

@RevDJEsq via Twitter writes: You're made dictator of the B1G with power to implement three changes. What are they?

Brian Bennett: Lobster for everyone! All bowl games in Maui! Wait ... I only get to make three changes? What kind of weak dictator am I?

Anyway, to take your question a bit more seriously, I would have to look at changes that could realistically be made by a Big Ten über-commissioner. So I wouldn't have the power to make changes to NCAA rules unless I decided to break away from the NCAA entirely. (Thinking ... nah, let's not do that).

So in that spirit, I'd make the following three changes:
  • 1. No more 11 a.m. CT kickoffs and more night games: I get that TV dictates a lot of start times and the Big Ten likes having the early college football time slot as a showcase. But for schools in the Central Time Zone, those 11 a.m. starts are just way too early. It's hard to have any energy in the stadium when people have to wake up at dawn just to try and squeeze in some tailgating. So I'd make sure no game ever started before noon local time and I would work to get more games in primetime, including those in November.
  • 2. A 10-1-1 schedule: Let's go to 10 conference games. Yeah, you heard me. We've got 14 teams, and there's nothing better than league play, so why not have more of it? That would create balanced home-and-road schedules and lead to a truer Big Ten champ. Sure, it could hurt the conference when it comes to winning national titles, but it's not like the league has been piling those up anyway. The rest of the schedule would have to include one game against a team from the other four power leagues, plus one against any other FBS team. You want a bowl bid or a playoff berth? Fine. Earn it.
  • 3. Rotate the Big Ten title game: Indianapolis is a wonderful host for the Big Ten championship game. But there are a lot of other great cities in the Midwest that could do a great job. So let's have it in Chicago. Detroit. Minneapolis. Cleveland. Move it around and let other towns throw a big ol' Big Ten celebration. And have it in some cold weather every once in a while.

You might not agree with these decisions, but I'm the dictator here, so too bad. Now, bring me some more of your finest meats and cheeses!




Ryan from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Husker fans are just now starting to wake up to spring football now that basketball season has ended. With Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby all returning for the Huskers this fall, plus an exciting new weapon in redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, would you say Nebraska has one of the most dynamic, if not most talented, stable of running backs in the conference? How do you think it currently stacks up against other programs such as Wisconsin, Michigan, or Ohio State?

Brian Bennett: Yeah, Ryan, Baylor was about the worst thing to happen to Nebraska since Steve Pedersen, eh? Anyway, I really like Nebraska's group of running backs. Heck, if the Cornhuskers had only Abdullah, I'd still really like them because he is one of the best and toughest players in the country. I thought Cross would have a little bit bigger impact last season, but he still scored 10 touchdowns and is a very effective weapon in short yardage. Newby is very promising, and I'm interested to see what Taylor can add.

Nebraska almost always has great backs, so this is no surprise. I'd rank the Huskers slightly below Wisconsin, simply because the duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement could be devastating. Penn State has some excellent depth and options, and Ohio State has talent that's unproven. But Nebraska is up there near the very top.




Jake from MTL writes: Hey, Brian, with all the talk of the Michigan QB competition, why hasn't anyone mentioned Russell Bellomy? Has he dropped put of the competition and I just never got the news?

Brian Bennett: Bellomy is still there, Jake, although some might have forgotten about him after he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL he incurred in spring practice. He did play in five games in 2012 and famously took over for Denard Robinson in the loss at Nebraska. I just don't think it's realistic to believe he can overtake Devin Gardner or Shane Morris for the starting role, and Wilton Speight is the flavor of the month as the newcomer. But Bellomy can add some depth to the position if nothing else.




Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Brian, a lot has been made recently, with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the B1G, that this provides a natural rivalry for Penn State. There has also been a lot of mention about these not being real "rivalries" because Penn State has owned both of those football programs based on past records. I for one am OK with PSU NOT having a true "rival." I understand that some schools have built up rivalries over the decades, but I do NOT understand why the media has seemingly forced fans to think that their schools NEED to have a rival. You can't force these things, or just say because school X and school Y are in close proximity they have to be rivals. I believe MOST PSU fans would prefer to have Pitt scheduled every year, to continue that former "rivalry", as many PSU fans were taught from a young age, "if you can't go to college, you can always go to Pitt."

Brian Bennett: I agree with you that Pitt is Penn State's true rival, even though those teams haven't played since 2000. I'm so happy to see that series resume in 2016 and hope it becomes an annual occurrence. Ohio State has been a quasi-rival with the Nittany Lions, and Maryland and Rutgers at least bring some neighborly feuding to the table. But there's not a ton of juice there yet. Rivalries are great because they just add so much more intensity to the games -- see the recent Michigan-Michigan State installments or any edition of Ohio State-Michigan. Penn State already has a great home environment and fervent following, but it would be fun to see more true rivalry games for that program.




Cam from Lansing, Mich., writes: Other than for obvious money reasons related to TV, etc., does the move to the Big Ten make sense for Maryland and Rutgers? I think no from a competitive standpoint. Everyone knows football is the big money-making sport in college athletics, and with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in the same division as Maryland and Rutgers, in your mind how much of a shot do they have at being competitive?

Brian Bennett: Well, that's interesting, because most people ask if the move was a good one for the Big Ten, not the other way around. You cannot discount the money angle here, because both Rutgers and Maryland were in dire financial straits, and the Big Ten provided a lifeboat. Rutgers also had to get out of the crumbling shack of a home that was the American Athletic Conference. I fear for the Scarlet Knights men's basketball program after watching how bad it was in the AAC, but the football program at least has a solid footing. Rutgers, however, could be in for some culture shock with the week-to-week grind of the Big Ten.

Maryland doesn't gain a whole lot competitively from the move to the Big Ten East out of the ACC. But the Terrapins were already in the same ACC division as Florida State and Clemson and would have faced occasional games with Notre Dame. So it's not like the Big Ten is going to be all that much more difficult. If things don't go well, those schools' administrators can comfort themselves with their new giant bags of cash.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- With youth aplenty at quarterback and along the offensive line for Nebraska, coordinator Tim Beck understandably simplified some aspects of his system this spring.

Terminology has been reduced. But according to quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., that doesn't make the offense any less potent.

According to Armstrong, one focus involves better communication away from the practice field. He said the offensive players have spent more time this spring in multi-position group meetings.

“That’s the best thing for us,” Armstrong said, “making sure we’re all on the same page.”

The Huskers conducted their first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Armstrong said it went well for the offense, considering that they conducted just four practices before the scrimmage.

“We did well,” he said. “We moved the ball. That’s a good sign, being a week and a half into spring ball with a bunch of young guys and going against an experienced defense.”

Nebraska showcased its depth at I-back in the scrimmage. Alongside returning All-Big Ten senior Ameer Abdullah, junior Imani Cross, sophomore Terrell Newby and redshirt freshman Adam Taylor have impressed teammates and coaches.

Taylor’s combination of talents intrigues Armstrong.

“He’s been working,” the sophomore QB said. “He shows it in the weight room, off the field and on the field. He’s strong, he’s physical, and he goes out there and runs hard.”

Also from Nebraska’s practice on Monday:

• Junior Taariq Allen has appeared to form a nice chemistry with Armstrong this spring. Allen caught three passes last season -- all against Michigan State -- before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

“He’s come back strong,” Armstrong said. “I give him respect for that.”

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Allen showed well in the scrimmage. His emergence might help the Huskers account for the loss of Quincy Enunwa, who caught a school-record 12 touchdown passes as a senior in 2013.

“I’m not even worried about a starting spot,” Allen said. “I’m worried about being who I am and just going out there and playing, showing the coaches that I’m back.”

• The Huskers will return practice again on Wednesday for their seventh workout of the spring. A Thursday night scrimmage is planned before the team scatters for spring break. Practices resume March 31.


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has completed three practices -- 20 percent of its spring workload -- with five sessions set for the next week before a weeklong break. Yes, it goes fast at this time of year.

Already, storylines are taking shape. Here are a few of the most interesting topics from the opening week:
    [+] EnlargeNebraska
    Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. has seized control of the quarterbacks group and taken the most reps with the first team so far this spring.
  • Tommy Armstrong Jr. is taking charge. Perhaps even more than expected, Armstrong has embraced his new role as leader of the quarterbacks. Nebraska coaches have made it clear in practice that he’s the man. Armstrong receives the majority of repetitions with the No. 1 offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton is a clear No. 2, and the experiment with Jamal Turner largely fizzled out after two practices. Sure, Turner may still factor in packages next fall, but Armstrong looks like the man for the job to direct this offense after starting eight games a redshirt freshman.

  • Look everywhere for leadership. Sure, teammates look to seniors like Ameer Abdullah, Jake Cotton, Kenny Bell and Corey Cooper. Josh Mitchell has emerged in the secondary. The defensive linemen watch Randy Gregory. Michael Rose, though just a sophomore, is a natural as quarterback of the defense. But key figures on the practice field come from all backgrounds. For example, senior linebacker Trevor Roach and junior receiver Sam Burtch, both of whom came to Nebraska as walk-ons, show up often in practice as two of the Huskers’ hardest workers. Teammates notice them too. Their work ethic makes a difference.

  • As advertised at linebacker. As soon as the full pads came out on Wednesday, the intensity increased. And Nebraska’s linebackers made their presence known. Tackling was not on the agenda, but that didn’t stop senior Zaire Anderson from delivering a few big hits. Anderson looks ready to make the most of his final season. Rose and David Santos have grown comfortable in their roles, and Josh Banderas has settled into a versatile spot. Coach Bo Pelini said the linebackers, as a group, have progressed to “another galaxy” from a year ago. Just wait until redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby settle into roles.

  • Keep an eye of the young safeties. Even without Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler last season who’s fighting a foot injury, the duo in the middle of the secondary rates as one of the most promising on the field. Sophomores Nathan Gerry and LeRoy Alexander have worked with the top defense. Both showed flashes a year ago and bring excellent athleticism. Behind them, though, redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton appear just as talented. If new secondary coach Charlton Warren harnesses the potential of these safeties, he may have a special group on his hands by the end of 2014.

  • A crowded backfield. The nation’s top returning rusher doesn’t need to fear for his starting spot. In fact, Abdullah’s prowess is something to behold. But the guys behind him aren’t getting complacent. Top backup Imani Cross, who scored a team-high 10 touchdowns last season, has added weight to more resemble his shape as a freshman two years ago. Terrell Newby looks ready to assume a more important job, particularly as a pass catcher. And the new guy to the mix, redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, might possess the best mix of physical attributes of any back in the group. The Huskers want to get creative with personnel groupings, so don’t be surprised to see more of the two-back sets next seasons.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
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Happy Patriot League tournament final day.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.

Top spring position battles: No. 3

February, 26, 2014
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Snow is in the forecast. Single-digit temperatures have returned. Can’t you tell it’s almost time for spring football at Nebraska?

Our countdown of the top spring position battles has reached the midway point. The next battle will rage largely in the shadows, but it’s equally as important as many of the fights to win a starting position. At No. 3 on the list:

[+] EnlargeCross
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsJunior Imani Cross scored 10 touchdowns in a backup role last season, but he'll have to fend off Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor to maintain that spot.
Backup I-back

The contenders: Junior Imani Cross; sophomore Terrell Newby; redshirt freshman Adam Taylor

The storylines: OK, barring an injury to Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher, the race to win Nebraska’s No. 2 spot in the backfield matters little, right? Wrong. For starters, the guy who gets the bulk of carries behind Abdullah in 2014 earns the inside track to start in 2015.

Moreover, maybe Nebraska could get even more efficient play from its returning All-Big Ten back if he carries the football fewer than the 281 times he toted it in 2013.

The bodies and the talent are there to give Abdullah an occasional rest. Cross, who rushed for 447 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns last season, enters spring with the most experience of the contenders for the No. 2 spot, a position he has filled for much of the past two seasons.

But the young guys are coming. Newby gained nearly 300 yards as a true freshman, and Taylor, at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, starred on the scout team.

Newby and Taylor offer the same kind of lightning-and-thunder combo as Abdullah and Cross. And in the category of interesting facts, the two young backs represent California and Texas, respectively, mirroring the geographic identity of former backfield mates Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead and current quarterback contenders Johnny Stanton and Tommy Armstrong Jr.

The outlook: Last week, we rated Newby as the No. 5 player to watch in spring practice. He brings the most versatility of the candidates for backup I-back. And Newby’s continued growth might rank as most important among the three expected reserves to the Nebraska offense.

But the Huskers figure to look for a complement to Abdullah. More than likely, that’s the 225-pound Cross, a proven force at the goal line. Taylor, too, provides an intriguing option. Of the three backs, we know the least about him.

Spring practice should produce a few answers.

Countdown of Nebraska position battles to watch in spring practice:
No. 5: Outside linebacker
No. 4: Quarterback
The first week of our countdown to spring football is in the books, with the defensive line anointed as the position group with most room to improve at Nebraska.

This week, we will count down the top five players to watch in spring practice, which begins on March 8.

First, a few ground rules: This is from my perspective, not the perceived view of Bo Pelini or his staff. I don’t sit through meetings or receive access to watch every snap of the 15 practices set for March and April. As a result, my criteria for inclusion on this list is no doubt different than the benchmarks of, say, offensive line coach John Garrison.

We’re looking for potential breakout players -- the Cornhuskers most likely to take a big leap in 2014, or, at least, those whose progress could most make an impact the program.

With that, let’s get started with a second-year Husker whose playmaking ability could help the Nebraska offense in many ways:

[+] EnlargeTerrell Newby
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsTerrell Newby provided a spark in limited opportunities as a freshman and should receive more work as a sophomore.
Sophomore I-back Terrell Newby

Why to watch: Newby earned his spot as the No. 3 back last year behind veterans Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. And while all three return, Newby might actually stand in line to receive the biggest jump in playing time from last season to the upcoming one. Sure, Abdullah is the workhorse and an All-America candidate, but Newby averaged 5.5 yards on 54 attempts a year ago. His responsibility could increase significantly in 2014, even among a crowded backfield.

What to watch: Newby has more to offer, especially in the passing game. He caught just three passes last season, but these offseason practices serve as an excellent opportunity for the Huskers to incorporate him as a versatile threat. The Huskers aren’t likely to reveal any secrets in the Red-White game, but what would you think of Newby as an option in the slot? The Huskers are intrigued by his athleticism and will look for ways to utilize it.

What to expect: There was a temptation here to go with Adam Taylor, a big redshirt freshman back from Texas who wowed Nebraska coaches and teammates on the scout team last fall. But really, that’s just a fascination with the unknown. Newby is the more proven option -- and the guy most likely to serve as an x-factor for the Nebraska offense. He might find an increased role on special teams and, by August, provide many ways to alter the game. This spring is just a preview.

Five things: Northwestern-Nebraska

November, 2, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska went back to the drawing board in the wake of a troubling loss at Minnesota, shuffling personnel on both sides of the ball as it looked to sharpen focus with the strength of the schedule at hand. Will it make a difference against Northwestern?

Here’s what we'll be watching:

The return of Tommy Armstrong: Every discussion about this roller-coaster ride of a season for the Huskers seemingly starts with the quarterback position. This week, Taylor Martinez is out, and the redshirt freshman Armstrong is back for a fourth start, marking the first season since 1999 that two Nebraska QBs will have started more than three games. A sense exists that if Armstrong and his backup, senior Ron Kellogg III, enjoy success on Saturday, the move away from Martinez, regardless of his health, might turn permanent.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCould a solid performance against Northwestern give Tommy Armstrong the starting job for the remainder of the season?
Distribution of the football: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck drew criticism for his balance in the game plan last week. The Huskers rushed the football 30 times and threw it 30 times. Sounds good, but a closer look shows that Nebraska experienced much more success on the ground than through the air. Considering the weather conditions favored a ground attack, and with Martinez’s iffy health, Beck might have been better suited to stay conservative. The same thing applies this week, though star I-back Ameer Abdullah missed practice time with an ankle injury. The Huskers might have to rely some on backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby -- plus Armstrong in the option game -- against the Wildcats.

Leadership on defense: It’s safe to say the Huskers are continuing to search for answers on the defensive side. After the Gophers gouged Nebraska for 271 yards rushing, the Blackshirt jerseys disappeared from practice in Lincoln this week. Two starters were replaced in the heart of the defense. Perhaps freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose can provide the necessary spark for this unit to regain some of the energy it displayed against Illinois and Purdue, but they’re young, obviously, as is so much of that front seven.

Northwestern’s state of mind: Since a 4-0 start, the season has turned disastrous for the Wildcats. They’ve lost four in a row and played large stretches without star running back Venric Mark and play-making quarterback Kain Colter. Mark might try to take a redshirt. Colter, instrumental two years ago in his team’s win in Lincoln, returned last week in the Wildcats’ overtime loss at Iowa, but he’s still limited by an ankle injury. So will Northwestern look at Saturday as an opportunity to get well against another wounded team, or have the Wildcats lost their way in this difficult stretch?

It’s that time of year: Coach Bo Pelini’s teams have traditionally played their best football in November. The Huskers are 16-4 in the final month of the regular season in five seasons under Pelini, including perfect Novembers in 2009 and 2012 to earn division championships. The calendar flipped just in time for Pelini, who might feel the walls closing in a bit as the margin for error in this season has grown thin. A poor performance against Northwestern would threaten to send the Huskers into a tailspin, facing a trip to Michigan next week, followed by a visit from Legends Division front-runner Michigan State.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.

Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.

Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.

Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, forcing a shift on the Nebraska offensive line.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.

Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.

“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”

Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.

He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.

He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.

Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.

“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”

Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.

Coaches have talked this week of shifting Pensick, using untested Ryne Reeves or Givens Price or even pulling the redshirt from junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.

What happened?

“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”

Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.

He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.

The other linemen chided him for the mistake.

“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”

Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.

The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.

I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.

Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.

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