Nebraska Cornhuskers: Nebraska Cornhuskers

It’s getting close now. Spring practice starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Can you feel it?

We’ve spent the past three weeks counting down the position groups with most room to improve, the top players to watch and position battles. Now is the time for predictions.

Let’s get to it, with No. 5:

A receiver is going to break out

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNebraska has no worries about top returning WR Kenny Bell, but who will emerge as the No. 2 target?
Senior Kenny Bell is set to challenge school records next season for career receptions and receiving yardage. He’s the top target of Nebraska’s quarterback, for sure.

Bell can’t do it alone. And he won’t have to.

Though the Huskers lose Quincy Enunwa -- likely to be just the second Nebraska receiver to land in the NFL draft in the past decade -- plenty of talent exists to fill his shoes.

Candidates include sophomore Jordan Westerkamp, already etched in Nebraska history for his Hail-Mary grab last year to beat Northwestern; oft-injured senior Jamal Turner, who has game-breaking ability; junior Taariq Allen; junior Sam Burtch and redshirt freshman Kevin Gladney.

Sophomore Alonzo Moore, who started two games last season, is out this spring with an injury.

Rich Fisher in three seasons has earned his stripes as a receivers coach. He worked wonders with Bell and Enunwa. Westerkamp, too, shows promise and stands as the most likely of the prospects to take on a major role in the Nebraska passing game.

If Monte Harrison turns down pro baseball and makes it to practice in August as a freshman, he might jump into the lineup quickly and bolster what looks like an already strong group of receivers. For now, though, the Huskers go to work without him.

Six weeks from now, expect to find a solid second option behind Bell.
Two weeks and one day from the start of spring practice at Nebraska, it’s time to identify the top spot in our countdown of players to watch during March and April workouts.

To review, we’ve examined a young running back, a pair of veteran defenders who could help solidify a pair of units and a newcomer on the defensive line.

Did you think we’d forget the most important position on the field? Atop the list, of course, is a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong Jr. could be pushed this spring by a few young signal-callers.
Sophomore QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Why to watch: Why not? Armstrong is the clear leader to earn the spot as Nebraska’s starting QB in 2014 after he started eight games in place of injured incumbent Taylor Martinez last season. There was plenty to like about Armstrong, notably his 7-1 record (with help from senior Ron Kellogg III) and poise in tight spots. Armstrong shined at Michigan in handing the Wolverines their first home loss under Brady Hoke and again in the Gator Bowl over Georgia.

What to watch: Nebraska likely won’t endanger its quarterbacks in the spring with risky play calls in scrimmages. The objective for Armstrong and top challenger Johnny Stanton, a redshirt freshman, is to demonstrate command of the offense. With his experience alone, Armstrong enters a step ahead, though don’t underestimate Stanton, who, like Armstrong, showed great leadership and a knack for winning as a high-school quarterback. Armstrong has earned the confidence of offensive leaders like Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell, an important factor. He's a natural in the option run game, but Armstrong can improve his decision-making as a passer.

What to expect: Look for a spirited competition between Armstrong and Stanton, with freshman Zack Darlington and walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe in the background. Armstrong, for a player of any age -- let alone a first-year contributor -- displayed impressive maturity last year in a highly scrutinized spot. All eyes followed his every move, and that will only intensify as he moves forward, starting next month. Armstrong is cold-blooded in his approach to the game; pressure does not bother him. If he progresses at an expected rate, Armstrong should finish the spring in even better shape than he starts it.

Countdown of Nebraska players to watch in spring practice:
No. 5: RB Terrell Newby
No. 4: S Charles Jackson
No. 3: DE Joe Keels
No. 2: LB Zaire Anderson
Countdown season continues as we near the end of our examination this week of the top players to watch in spring practice for Nebraska.

We’ve looked already at a young running back and two defenders in line to break through in 2014. Next on our list, at No. 2, another defensive player:

Senior linebacker Zaire Anderson

[+] EnlargeZaire Anderson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesZaire Anderson announced his presence with two of Nebraska's seven sacks of Michigan's Devin Gardner.
Why to watch: Anderson, in some ways, already enjoyed his breakout moment at Nebraska. It happened last season at Michigan as he collected two of the Huskers’ seven sacks. From there, his progress continued, mirroring the improvement of Nebraska’s defense as a whole. Notably, he played well against Iowa and finished the season with 52 tackles. But like the linebackers as a whole, a sense exists that Anderson has much more to offer.

What to watch: His athleticism ranks high, but Anderson’s strong play so far has come in spurts -- like the Michigan game and his 10-tackle showing off the bench last September against South Dakota State. Nebraska coaches want to see Anderson play with consistency from week to week. If he does, the former junior-college All-American may rate as the No. 1 wild card on this defensive unit. His emergence would open the possibility for many options that involve a sudden surplus of linebackers.

What to expect: Anderson ought to treat this year like it’s a gift. He arrived in Lincoln with two years of eligibility and played in three games in 2012 before a knee injury allowed him to take a medical redshirt. As a result, he’s got a chance to play his senior year in the spotlight and gain notice unlike anything that last season offered amid an inexperienced unit. That alone should motivate Anderson, not to mention the promise of a much-improved defense, in particular the linebackers. Look for him to play with an edge this spring.

Countdown of Nebraska players to watch in spring practice:
No. 5: RB Terrell Newby
No. 4: S Charles Jackson
No. 3: DE Joe Keels

Our Big 12 Mount Rushmore

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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LeBron James controversially put, of all things, Mount Rushmore in the news last week by suggesting he would be etched in stone one day among the four best in NBA history.

The James story set off a firestorm of other sports-related Rushmores. NFL Rushmores. IndyCar Rushmores. One site even put together its Mount Rushmore of Pro Bass Fishermen.

Not to be outdone, Brandon and I have put together a Mount Rushmore of Big 12 football players.

For those who slept through social studies, the actual Mount Rushmore includes the likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The four were chosen not only because they were famous presidents. They were chosen because they were transformational figures in American history.

Washington won the Revolutionary War. Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln freed the slaves. Roosevelt changed American diplomacy.

In keeping with the spirit of the real Mount Rushmore, our Big 12 Rushmore wasn’t just about picking the four best players. It was about picking transformational figures whose impact was far-reaching. And it's just from the Big 12 era (1996-present).

Without further ado, the Big 12 football Mount Rushmore:

Texas QB Vince Young

[+] EnlargeVince Young
Scott Clarke/Getty ImagesVince Young led Texas to its first national championship in 35 years.
Before 2005, Texas was a great program. But it was not an elite one. It had been 35 years since the Longhorns had won a national championship. By contrast, Oklahoma had captured four national titles during that span. Even though coach Mack Brown had turned the Texas program around, the Sooners were still beating in the Longhorns’ heads on the field.

That all changed in 2005, thanks to one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history. Young put the Longhorns on his back, and took them all the way to Pasadena, Calif. The Longhorns destroyed everyone, including the Sooners, with Ohio State being the only regular-season opponent to play Texas within 10 points.

Young was even more spectacular in the national title game against USC. The mighty Trojans had no answer for Young, who threw for 267 yards and rushed for 200. And in the closing seconds on fourth down, he dashed past the pylon for the game-winning touchdown.

Young didn’t win the Heisman Trophy (he should have), but he became the first FBS quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same season. He also finally lifted Texas over the hump, taking the Longhorns from great to elite.

Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson

Just this month, Oklahoma signed one of the best running backs in the country in California native Joe Mixon. Who is Mixon’s idol? Peterson. Who knows how many recruits the Sooners were able to sign the last decade because of Peterson. The number is substantial.

Peterson arrived in 2004 as the Sooners’ most ballyhooed recruit since Marcus Dupree. Texas wanted Peterson badly. And Peterson actually watched the 2003 Red River Rivalry from the Texas sidelines. But even though Peterson dreamed of playing for the Longhorns growing up, he wanted to win more. Peterson’s signing with Oklahoma added insult to injury to its cross-river rival.

After getting to campus, Peterson put together one of the best freshman seasons ever. He rushed for 1,925 yards, leading the Sooners to the national title game. He also finished second in the Heisman voting, even though there was still a stigma against voting for freshmen.

The next two years of Peterson’s career were marred by injuries (even though he still finished with 4,041 career rushing yards). When healthy, he was the single-most dominant force in Big 12 history.

Baylor QB Robert Griffin III

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Sarah Glenn/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy and put Baylor back on the map.
Along with his coach Art Briles, Griffin changed the way people thought about Baylor football. He also changed the way Baylor football thought about itself. Before Griffin followed Briles to Waco in 2008, Baylor football was the laughingstock of the Big 12.

The Bears had not enjoyed a single winning season since before the inception of the league, and had lost 85 of 96 Big 12 games. The facilities were a mess and attendance was so poor, the school rolled a tarp over Floyd Casey Stadium's south end zone bleachers.

But by the time Griffin left, the program had been transformed. He brought the school its first Heisman Trophy and just its second 10-win season.

Griffin’s effect can still be felt in the Big 12. His magical season spurred Baylor to secure the funding for an on-campus, $260-million stadium that will open this fall. The Bears have also been a force ever since, both on the field and on the recruiting trail. In the last three months, Baylor captured its first Big 12 title, then nailed down a top-25 recruiting class. Until Griffin came along, that would have been unthinkable in Waco. It’s now the standard.

Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh

There have been some great defensive players to come through the Big 12. None come close to matching Suh, who was one of the most menacing defensive tackles to ever play college football.

In 2009, Suh captured the Outland, Nagurski and Bednarik national awards as the nation’s most outstanding lineman and defensive player. He also became the first defensive Heisman finalist since Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997.

Spearheaded by Suh, Nebraska also fielded perhaps the greatest defense in Big 12 history. Despite playing in an era of high-flying offenses, the Huskers gave up just 10.4 points per game, the fewest any defense has allowed in Big 12 history.

Facing off against the Big 12’s best offense in the Big 12 championship, Suh and the Huskers imposed their will, and came a controversial call away from toppling the Longhorns. Texas went on to the national championship game, and Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy still finished one spot higher in the Heisman voting than Suh. But in that game, like every other one he played in that season, Suh was the best player on the field.
Moving to the midpoint in our five-day countdown of Nebraska players to watch in spring practice, we find the first newcomer to make the list.

He plays a position perhaps more in need of a boost than any other on the Nebraska depth chart. With no further ado:

Junior defensive end Joe Keels

Why to watch: For the junior college transfer's unknown factor. It’s natural for Nebraska fans to hope Keels can match the impact made last year by Randy Gregory, another juco transfer on the edge of the defensive line. Gregory quickly blossomed into an All-Big Ten performer. Keels, who played at Highland (Kan.) Community College last year after stints in Minnesota and North Dakota and a prep career in Kenosha, Wis., offers promise. He turned down Alabama, Missouri, Penn State, USC and picked the Huskers over Wisconsin.

What to watch: At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, Keels lacks little in physical readiness to step into the role of a contributor. But how will he handle other aspects of the change, starting with the attention to detail necessary to compete against an increased level of opponent? For some juco transfers, it’s no big deal; others face an adjustment equal to freshmen. Through the 15 practices of spring, Keels ought to offer a few hints about the time required to complete his transition.

What to expect: It’s hard to imagine, one year after Gregory’s arrival, that the Huskers found another player of his caliber. But Keels, 43rd in the ESPN JC 50 before his January enrollment in Lincoln, would fill a huge need even if he can push for a starting spot. Nebraska lost Jason Ankrah after 2013, and Avery Moss, a high-impact redshirt freshman last season, is suspended. That leaves untested sophomore Greg McMullen, redshirt freshman A.J. Natter and little room for injuries. Look for Keels to immediately jump into the mix.

Countdown of Nebraska players to watch in spring practice:
No. 5: Terrell Newby
No. 4: Charles Jackson
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.
This week, ESPN.com has counted down the Nebraska position groups with most room to improve. And at the top of the list, it's a group not here for its lack of talent; rather, the opposite. With high ceilings, though, come high expectations.

Read up on the defensive line:

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory is a star on Nebraska's defensive line, but he needs help.
Major losses: Defensive end Jason Anrkah started 31 games over his final three seasons and achieved much-sought consistency last season to help lead a young front four. Tackle Thad Randle has been a fixture up front since 2010, fighting through chronic knee injuries to play his best football as a senior. Also gone in 2014 -- and perhaps for good -- is Avery Moss, who showed great potential last fall to earn a spot on ESPN.com’s Big Ten all-freshman team. Moss was banned from campus in January for one year, a ruling related to his conviction on a public-indecency count following a 2012 incident.

Top returnees: Randy Gregory was Nebraska’s best defender as a sophomore. The defensive end finished his first year at Nebraska with 10 sacks, 18 quarterback hurries, 19 tackles for loss and 66 stops overall to earn first-team all-conference honors. At 6-foot-6, he dropped weight throughout the season, but his effectiveness never waned. Tackle Vincent Valentine stood out as a true freshman among a young group of returning interior players that includes Aaron Curry, Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice.

Key question: Who fills the large hole left by Moss at the end position opposite Gregory?

Numbers to know: Since 2010, when Ndamukong Suh was chosen second overall in the NFL draft, just one Nebraska defensive linemen has been picked. The Huskers’ young linemen progressed a great deal last season, but they’ve seemingly only scratched the surface. After Oct. 1, Nebraska ranked 13th nationally and third in the Big Ten in allowing 3.36 yards per rush -- an impressive accomplishment after they surrendered 4.85 per rush through the first four games to rank 99th and 11th.

The outlook: Gregory is an All-America candidate. Valentine, at 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, looks ready to grow into a great run stopper and anchor in the middle.

Others will fill the remaining spots, but whom? The Huskers hope to get some answers in the spring. In addition to Curry, Collins and Maurice, veterans Jay Guy, Tobi Okuyemi and Kevin Williams are back at tackle.

End Greg McMullen is largely untested but a candidate to fill Moss’ spot, as are redshirt freshman A.J. Natter and junior-college transfer Joe Keels, already on campus.

The Huskers will assess true freshmen Sedrick King, DeAndre Wills and Peyton Newell in August.

Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:

No. 5: Secondary
No. 4: Quarterbacks
No. 3: Linebackers
No. 2: Tight ends

Check back next week for our countdown of Nebraska players to watch in spring practice.
Spring practice at Nebraska starts in 3 weeks, and our first of four countdowns has reached the halfway point.

We’re listing the position groups with most room to improve. At No. 3 is a unit flush with youth -- the linebackers:

Major losses: Jared Afalava didn’t make the offseason roster after a troubled freshman year in which he played in just four games. He started two and showed promise but was out before the Gator Bowl. Also gone are a few walk-ons, notably Colby Starkebaum, who played in every game and contributed six tackles.

[+] EnlargeMichael Rose, Josh Ferguson
John S. Peterson/Icon SMILed by Michael Rose, Nebraska returns a deep and and promising group of linebackers.
Top returnees: Just about everyone, led by rising sophomore Michael Rose, who emerged in midseason to start seven games and rank third on the team with 66 tackles. Junior David Santos overcame early setbacks to record 87 tackles. Senior Zaire Anderson also showed great promise in five starts and ranks as a candidate to break out in 2014. Sophomores Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry, after starting as true freshmen, will enter their second seasons with a better understanding of their jobs and important experience.

Numbers to know: After a poor start last fall in wins over Wyoming and South Dakota State and a loss to UCLA, the Huskers -- in large part because of their improved play at linebacker -- responded with solid defensive stats in Big Ten play. Nebraska allowed 329.4 yards per game after Oct. 1 (11th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten), 4.6 yards per play (seventh and second) and limited opponents to a 30.5 percent conversion rate on third down (sixth and second).

Key question: Might Nebraska, with its sudden depth at linebacker and lack of it at defensive end, take a cue from Wisconsin and employ a look -- at least occasionally -- that features four linebackers instead of the its typical three?

The outlook: It’s bright. Despite the promising numbers from the final two-thirds of the season, there is plenty of room to grow -- as you’d expect from a group with just one senior among its top seven players.

Rose, the Huskers’ most high-profile recruit two years ago, possesses the kind of intangibles desired in a defensive quarterback. Santos, Anderson, Gerry and Banderas all ought to show growth as soon as next month in spring practice.

Just as exciting as the returning starters’ potential, the Huskers get to unveil redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby. Newcomer Jaevon Walton may find a role, too, because of his playmaking ability and readiness to contribute to special teams. The possible inclusion of three athletic freshmen presents intriguing possibilities for a position group that looks set to rank among the Huskers’ best beyond 2014.

Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:

Nebraska aims to reload secondary

February, 10, 2014
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The countdown to spring football practice is on.

Over the next four weeks, in advance of Nebraska's March 8 open to spring practice, ESPN.com will address important offseason topics for the Huskers.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesSafety Corey Cooper led the Cornhuskers in tackles in 2013.
This week, we'll identify the position groups with most room to improve. Up first, the secondary:

Major losses: Ciante Evans, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Andrew Green, each of whom ranked among the top four Cornhuskers in pass coverage last season.

Top returnees: Rising seniors Josh Mitchell, a cornerback, safeties Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson, sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander and junior Charles Jackson, a versatile defender who could fit in several spots.

Numbers to know: Nebraska extended its historically strong performance under coach Bo Pelini in limiting completion percentage of its opponents. Last season, foes connected on 54.1 percent -- a notable slip from the Huskers' nation-leading 47.1 percent in 2012, but good enough to rank 19th nationally and third in the Big Ten. The Huskers allowed 214.6 yards per game through the air, fourth in the league and 33rd nationally. They also ranked ninth in the Big Ten by surrendering 7.2 yards per pass attempt.

Key question: How will the defensive backs adjust to another new position coach, with Charlton Warren as the fourth assistant to lead this group on the past five years?

The outlook: There's plenty of room for growth. And good news for the Huskers, the need for improvement in the secondary is outweighed by the potential to make it happen. Nebraska needs a big final season from Mitchell, who set the stage for it with an interception and a fumble recovery in the Huskers' Gator Bowl win over Georgia. And the Huskers need a safety to step up in the spot alongside Cooper, who led Nebraska in tackles as a junior.

Junior Daniel Davie and redshirt freshmen Boaz Joseph, Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton will get a shot to emerge, though the top candidate to make a huge leap is junior Jonathan Rose -- who played a small role in 2013 after transferring from Auburn.

The Huskers are deep enough here, barring a string of injuries, to avoid the need for much help from freshmen. But if anyone among the group that includes Luke Gifford, Chris Jones, Trai Mosley and Josh Kalu shows the readiness to break the two-deep, the door is always open.
We’re into the final four of the Big Ten postseason player countdown, which measures only performance during the 2013 season. Next on the list is a player who produced a monster season at one of the Big Ten’s historically significant positions.

No. 4: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Previous ranking: No. 13

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikWe dare you to find a Big Ten running back more important to his team than Ameer Abdullah was to Nebraska. Go ahead ... we'll wait.
Making the case for Abdullah: He was the most important running back to his team in the Big Ten.

Go ahead, try to make another argument for someone else. It won’t stand up to Abdullah’s value last season in Lincoln.

The Huskers played all but one conference game without quarterback Taylor Martinez and offensive guard Spencer Long, Nos. 3 and 12, respectively, in the Big Ten preseason player rankings.

Abdullah was the constant. He topped 100 yards in 11 games, missing by two yards in a loss to UCLA and 15 yards in Iowa’s victory over Nebraska.

See what happened when he didn’t produce big?

Usually, though, he came through for the Huskers. Abdullah churned for 123 against Michigan State’s top-rated defense -- the first back since to go over 100 yards on the Spartans since he and Martinez did it in 2012. Abdullah gained 122 in the Gator Bowl against Georgia, 165 against Minnesota, 225 against Illinois and 147 in a win at Penn State.

Often, he wasn’t just the Huskers’ best offensive option; Abdullah was their only option.

His signature play came not on a run but a reception, as he gained 16 yards -- most of it after the catch, with defenders all around -- on a fourth-and-15 toss from Ron Kellogg III to extend Nebraska’s last-minute, game-winning drive against Northwestern.

His 1,690 yards led the Big Ten and ranked fourth all time on the single-season charts Nebraska, the best year by a runner in Lincoln since 1997. And back then, Ahman Green posted big numbers behind a national-title caliber offensive line.

Abdullah operated behind a makeshift group after the loss of Long on Oct. 12. Still, the 5-foot-9 junior averaged better than six yards per carry and remained durable, rushing 19 times or more in each of Nebraska’s final nine games.

He’s coming back for his senior year in 2014, so Big Ten defensive players get a final crack at the Alabama native. Wish them luck.

The countdown
The loss of Avery Moss for the 2014 football season -- and possibly for good -- rates as a significant setback for Nebraska.

Moss has been banned from Nebraska campus for one year, he confirmed to the Omaha World-Herald, as a result of a 2012 incident in which he was charged with exposing himself to a campus convenience store worker. He pleaded no contest on Monday to one count of public indecency.

According to the newspaper report, Moss could appeal in December. If denied, he would face a four-year campus ban, which would eliminate his opportunity to play again at Nebraska.

As it stands, the chances appear less likely that he’ll continue his career in Lincoln. Moss would have to not only win the December appeal but also spend a year in limbo, delaying his football progress during a time in which he could spend in practice with another FBS program or play at a lower level.

Moss, as a redshirt freshman, displayed ability that would eventually make him a nice NFL prospect -- the caliber of talent that’s been in short supply on the Huskers’ defensive line since the 2009 departure of Ndamukong Suh.

Moss collected 36 tackles last season, including eight behind the line of scrimmage with 4.5 sacks.

The pairing of Moss with returning junior Randy Gregory, an All-Big Ten selection in his first year at Nebraska last fall, would have given the Huskers an experienced pair of ends next season on par with any duo at the school in the past decade.

With remade groups on the offensive line and in the secondary and a new full-time starter at quarterback, the front seven on defense must still serve as one of Nebraska’s top position groups.

So where do the Huskers turn without Moss?

Spring practice looms large for inexperienced, young ends Greg McMullen and A.J. Natter. The careers of upperclassmen Donovan Vestal and Walker Ashburn were cut short last year because of injuries. Beyond that, walk-ons dot the roster.

Gregory was a boon last season out of junior college. Maybe Joe Keels, the No. 4 juco defensive end prospect, can make a similar impact. And more than a week remains until signing day for Nebraska to win over another prospect to help at the position.

The Huskers have decent depth at the interior line spots and lots of manpower at linebacker. Might Nebraska tinker in the spring with an alignment similar to the 3-4 look that worked well for Wisconsin last season? If so, it would mark a departure from the norm for coach Bo Pelini.

Regardless, the loss of Moss looms large.

Offseason to-do list: Nebraska

January, 23, 2014
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In the three weeks since Nebraska beat Georgia to extend its streak of nine-win seasons, the Huskers have replaced secondary coach Terry Joseph with Charlton Warren, who is already making himself known on the recruiting trail, and retained I-back Ameer Abdullah for his senior season. That's not a bad start to the offseason, but there’s more to do.

We continue our Big Ten offseason to-do lists with Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTurnovers have been a big issue for the Huskers under Bo Pelini.
1. Fix the turnovers. Enough is enough, we know. You don’t want to hear how the Huskers must address their issue with turnovers before taking the next step as a program. But it’s that important so we’ll keep talking about it. Nebraska extended an ugly trend under coach Bo Pelini last season, finishing 117th nationally in turnover margin at minus-11. In games after the nonconference season, the Huskers were dead last at minus-15; no other team was worse than minus-12. And those numbers include the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl in which Nebraska finished plus-1. Without its two forced turnovers against the Bulldogs, the Huskers would not have won. It’s a good launching point into an offseason in which all of the Huskers -- offensive, defensive and special teams players -- ought to work regularly to make this area a strength next season.

2. Solidify the QB spot. Tommy Armstrong Jr. started eight games as a redshirt freshman. He was brilliant at times against Michigan and Georgia and played well against lesser competition like Illinois and South Dakota State. Inconsistency was a concern, but Armstrong figures to improve in the coming months. After all, he was thrown into the mix with little warning after Taylor Martinez's toe injury forced the senior out in September. Armstrong has plenty of time to prepare the right way for next season. And that’s the point: Give him time. Nebraska can have a nice quarterback competition in the spring with Armstrong and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, and even walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe and true freshman and early enrollee Zack Darlington. But by mid-April, offensive coordinator Tim Beck would be best served to identify a leader and define his role before August. If it’s Stanton, go with it. But likely, the Huskers' offense will go as far as Armstrong can take it next fall.

3. Plug holes in the secondary. Spring practice will be big for the defensive backs. Not only do they get to work out the kinks with Warren, their new position coach, but those 15 practices in March and April must go a long way toward identifying replacements for departed cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Start with Josh Mitchell, who collected two turnovers in the Gator Bowl. Mitchell will be a senior and part of the Huskers’ core of leadership. Safety Corey Cooper gives them another solid piece in the secondary. Harvey Jackson and LeRoy Alexander showed flashes last season, but the Huskers need more bodies. From a promising group of inexperienced players like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, D.J. Singleton and Boaz Joseph, Nebraska will search for key contributors this spring.

More to-do lists:
Taylor Martinez missed all but one Big Ten game in his senior season because of a plantar plate tear of the second metatarsal phalangeal joint in his left foot, according to his father and foot doctor.

Basically, it’s a torn ligament in his toe.

Three weeks after his record-shattering career unceremoniously ended on the sideline at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., as his understudy, Tommy Armstrong Jr., flipped a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Huskers’ Gator Bowl win over Georgia, we know what really happened with Martinez last fall.

So why now?

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez's injury -- which caused debate, conspiracy theories and even a rushed comeback -- was finally explained and allows him to move on.
Because Martinez’s father felt the time was right. Casey Martinez revealed the details of Taylor’s much talked-about foot injury on Wednesday to clear the air. And to move forward.

The mystery that surrounded Martinez’s injury, from the days that followed Nebraska lost to UCLA on Sept. 14 through late October after his painful comeback attempt against Minnesota, bordered on silly.

Coach Bo Pelini rarely offered detail on the injury. When he did, even that was vague. His answers only led to more questions.

According to Casey Martinez, Nebraska never exactly diagnosed it. Surely, though, Pelini knew more than he said. It's normal for coaches at all levels of football to conceal information about injuries. They do it to protect their players’ health and privacy and to maintain a competitive edge.

In the case of Martinez, the secrecy just led to rumors and conspiracy theories. Was he being shoved aside? How badly was he hurt? Did Nebraska mismanage his injury?

In the end, Nebraska did nothing wrong; neither did Martinez. His father said he didn’t question the Huskers' handling of the situation, even the decision to play the QB at Minnesota when he needed more rest.

The important thing is this: Martinez is moving on. He’s feeling better and training at home in California. He’s set to make a splash on March 6 at Nebraska’s pro day.

He’s open to playing positions other than quarterback in the NFL, which should enhance his value.

Martinez endured a sad finish to an illustrious collegiate career. At least there are no more questions about how it ended.
Items of interest as Nebraska coaches hit the road on Thursday at the end of the month-long recruiting dead period:

• The Huskers plan to try something new next month on signing day: A party with boosters, cheerleaders, food, drinks, dueling pianos, coaches and current and former players.

Sounds pretty harmless.

According to an email invitation distributed to Nebraska donors, the First Annual Big Red #Boom National Signing Day Party is set for 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 5 at the Bob Devaney Sports Center. It is open only to donors (21 years of age and older) who contribute $50 or more in the 2013-14 year.

Tickets cost $35 per person or $500 for a table.

Former Nebraska players are also on the docket. Recruits will be interviewed for the audience over the Internet. They will not be in attendance.

For more information, click here.

• With the departure of secondary coach Terry Joseph, Nebraska appears set to hire Air Force defensive coordinator Charlton Warren. Warren, an academy graduate and Atlanta native who has coached at the school for nine years, is the top choice of coach Bo Pelini, according to multiple reports.

He looks like a strong candidate, with ties to the talent-laden Southeast and a history of solid secondary play under his leadership.

I was told of the mutual interest on Monday at the AFCA convention in Indianapolis by a veteran Southeastern Conference assistant coach. The coach spoke highly of Warren and his ability to connect with players in addition to prospects in an important recruiting area for the Huskers.

Notably, he does not appear to possess any strong ties to Pelini or other members of the Nebraska staff, often a prerequisite in the coach’s hiring practice. If Pelini is reaching out of his comfort zone, good move.

Pelini may have also spoken in Indianapolis with former Nebraska safety Daniel Bullocks, who recently completed his third season on the defensive staff at Northern Iowa. Bullocks, wearing a suit amid the masses of polo-clad coaches, chatted on Monday with a few current and former Nebraska staffers during down time in public space at the Indiana Convention Center.

• Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah is scheduled to visit with the media on Thursday afternoon at Memorial Stadium about his decision to return for his senior season in 2014. Stay here for any news from the interview.
The past four months of Nebraska football were filled with noise -- much of it argumentative, more of it speculative and almost all of it intended to make a statement about the direction of Bo Pelini’s program.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry this season.
Even in the past week, as secondary coach Terry Joseph revealed his yet-to-be-finalized departure from Nebraska for a similar position at Texas A&M, speculation followed that Joseph was swayed by a lack of administrative support for Pelini and his coaches.

More noise.

Leave it to Ameer Abdullah, the 20-year-old I-back who talks primarily through his gaudy statistics and nearly unrivaled determination, to make the most resounding statement yet.

Abdullah announced Thursday that he’ll return for his senior season in 2014, with a chance to become the first ever in a Nebraska uniform to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for a third time.

We’ve heard plenty about the swirling negativity around Lincoln -- the fall from national prominence, lack of championships in the past decade-plus and hard-to-swallow losses.

Abdullah’s comments speak loudly to the positive aspects of the Nebraska program, far more so, in fact, than the conciliatory statements this fall of athletic director Shawn Eichorst in support of Pelini.

For if the ship was sinking in Lincoln, a golden bridge to the NFL existed for Abdullah to cross. His stock, after rushing for 1,690 yards as a junior, will likely never be higher. A running back’s life span is short. Another year of pounding, be it in the Big Ten West or the NFC East, brings Abdullah one year closer to the end of his career.

Yet he’s staying on board. It says something about him. It says something about Nebraska.

“It is truly an honor to play for this program,” Abdullah said near the beginning of his 392-word statement released through the school.

His comments showed pure class. Abdullah is the rare elite college athlete who appears genuinely humble and appreciative.

He spoke Thursday of his dream to play in the NFL. The youngest of nine children in a family of success stories, he chose the path that best keeps him on course to achieve his goals for a lifetime, not his dream for a short time.

It was difficult, for sure, turning down the NFL, especially after Abdullah watched over the past two seasons at Nebraska as injuries damaged the senior seasons of running mates Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez.

Pelini said in a statement that Abdullah handled this decision properly, as the coach expected.

“He stands for all the right things as a student-athlete,” the coach said.

Abdullah is Nebraska’s best player. He is the program’s hardest worker and locker-room leader. His presence in 2014, alongside a young quarterback and reshaped offensive line, provides an answer to many questions for these Huskers.

For a day and maybe longer into this offseason, Abdullah did what no one else could accomplish.

He quieted the noise.

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