Nebraska Cornhuskers: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Huskers lose back Adam Taylor to injury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His progress ended abruptly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was supposed to the year. It came to a cruel end in the first week of practice. And the most inexperienced area of the Nebraska defense just grew a little more green.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Maryland and Rutgers officially joined the Big Ten on Tuesday. That prompted celebrations in Piscataway, New Jersey, and College Park, Maryland, but more of a collective shoulder shrug elsewhere. One school's fan base seems particularly unhappy about the latest additions: Nebraska. So today's Take Two topic is this: Does Nebraska have a right to be unhappy about Maryland and Rutgers coming on board?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

You can sum up the displeasure of Huskers fans by simply pointing to Big Red's conference home schedule in 2014: Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue and Minnesota. This is not the Big Ten that Nebraska backers thought they were joining back in 2011. They thought that leaving the Big 12 for Jim Delany's league meant plenty of games against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Instead, they're in a division without any of those teams, and none of those three come to Lincoln before 2017 (when the Buckeyes visit Memorial Stadium). Was it really worth leaving the Big 12 for this?

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsDoes Nebraska have a right to be unhappy about Maryland and Rutgers coming on board?
Of course, as Don Draper might say, "That's what the money is for." Then again, Nebraska doesn't receive a full share of the Big Ten's overflowing coffers until 2017, and the school couldn't have been happy to learn that Maryland would get a front-loaded deal that included much more cash right away for the Terps' strapped athletic department.

The Maryland and Rutgers move was aimed at opening up new territory for the Big Ten, to serve recruiting, future population growth and alumni along the East Coast. But as the westernmost school in the league, Nebraska stands to benefit far less from this expansion than other conference members. The Huskers haven't traditionally recruited a lot of players from the East Coast, and the school's alumni base isn't as large there as it is for other Big Ten teams.

Still, don't forget that the Big 12 was basically crumbling when Nebraska left. The Huskers will become far more financially secure in the Big Ten than they would have in the Big 12, especially when the league's huge new TV deal comes rolling in. Nebraska has been a good fit culturally in the Big Ten.

Yet I don't blame Cornhuskers supporters for being at least a little upset, especially given the scheduling distribution. The Big Ten's future parity scheduling should help a little, and hopefully a robust rivalry with Wisconsin will develop in the West Division, along with a growing interest in the Iowa series. Nebraska should enjoy what looks like a slightly easier path to the Big Ten title game every year (assuming the West Division remains less top heavy than the East), and the occasional Eastern exposure could help expand the school's brand and recruiting reach.

The Huskers actually need to win a Big Ten title in football before deciding the rest of the league is beneath them, after all. And if all else fails, Nebraska fans, remember this: at least you no longer have to mess with Texas.

Take 2: Mitch Sherman

Interesting, Brian, that you mention Texas, which still draws the ire of Nebraskans more than a lackluster slate of Big Ten home games ever could.

And the only thing as frustrating to Husker fans than Texas' hold on Nebraska from 2002 to 2010 -- six wins in six games for burnt orange -- is the Longhorns' 16-11 league record since the Huskers left for the Big Ten. Yes, Nebraska fans salivated over the sight of Texas as it hovered near .500 in Big 12 play in 2011 and 2012; they wanted nothing more than to kick UT while it was down.

In some convoluted way, perhaps, they blame the Big Ten for robbing the Huskers of that chance. Now, the entry of Maryland and Rutgers has taken from Nebraska the chance to kick Michigan while it's down -- something the Huskers, their fan base and their Ohio State-bred coach enjoyed in 2012 and 2013.

It's not that simple, though. If Ohio State or Iowa want to get nostalgic and hold a grudge against the Big Ten newbies for disrupting their fall festival, go for it. But Nebraska has no room to groan.

The Huskers landed in this league, way back in 2011, as an agent of change. The Big Ten secured Nebraska's financial future. Three years later, you might say the Huskers sold their soul to Delany. Sure, they're making lots of money and poised to make even more.

The football team continues to win nine games annually, but when is an October meeting with Rutgers or Maryland going to feel natural?

Look at a map. It's Nebraska, not the newcomers, that is most geographically isolated in the Big Ten. Delany planned all along that the addition of Nebraska marked only the start to his new era of change.

Did he sell the Huskers and their fans false hope, with the promise of every-other-season trips to the Big House and the renewal of a once-bitter rivalry with Penn State? Not anymore than Rutgers or Maryland wrecked it all.

This is an age of change in college athletics. More is coming, even if conference expansion has halted. Programs and their fan bases can't cling to the past. They can't cling to the present, either.

The opportunity exists to play Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State more often than the schedule dictates. Just win the West. One of them is likely to often await in the Big Ten championship game.

Maryland and Rutgers don't figure to soon disrupt any of those plans.
The brother of former Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is leaving the Huskers after one year.

Drake Martinez, a freshman safety who likely would have contributed in 2014 as a backup, plans to transfer this offseason, his father, Casey Martinez, confirmed on Saturday.

The elder Martinez said by text message that his son “lost quite a bit of weight and strength” recently after battling health issues that caused him to miss part of spring practice.

Drake Martinez has recovered, according to Casey Martinez, though “he was pretty adamant about getting a fresh start in a new school."

“Not much a parent can do at that point,” Casey Martinez wrote.

Drake Martinez, listed at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds by Nebraska, starred at Laguna Beach (Calif.) High School, earning MVP honors of the Orange Coast League as a senior in 2012.

He possessed speed similar to his brother, Taylor, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback from 2010 to 2013.

A foot injury limited Taylor Martinez to five starts in his senior year. Lingering problems caused him to fail a physical last month with the Philadelphia Eagles, who signed Martinez to a free-agent contract after the NFL draft.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- In 6 years at Nebraska, Bo Pelini has run a tight ship.

He holds his football players to a high standard. They perform well academically. The Huskers represent their program admirably in the community, creating more headlines for their acts of goodwill and outreach than for encounters with law enforcement.

[+] EnlargeJosh Banderas
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIJosh Banderas made a mistake, but is it one worth being outcast of the Nebraska program?
Most in this state can agree that Nebraska football, of late, has stayed largely above the fray that too often engulfs programs rife with distraction.

Nebraska football is a source of pride that extends beyond Memorial Stadium to the streets of Lincoln and Omaha and the rural communities that send their high school stars to play for Pelini and his coaches, with a scholarship or not.

The culture creates tremendous expectations and, as we’ve seen this week, an occasional lack of tolerance for mistakes -- more so off the field than on it.

Josh Banderas, the 19-year-old linebacker who started four games as a true freshman and the lone Nebraskan in the Huskers’ 2013 recruiting class, was stopped by Lincoln Police on Monday and charged Tuesday with felony theft for stealing seven bicycles from a rack on campus.

Banderas and Nebraska distance runner Lucas Keifer, a former high school classmate who drove the getaway truck, face preliminary court dates next month.

A reduction in charges -- even entry into a diversion program -- appears possible.

None of that erases the stupidity of their alleged actions. According to police, Banderas and Keifer, in broad daylight, used bolt cutters to remove the bikes. They were apprehended minutes after the crime occurred.

Since the news broke Tuesday, it’s been a hot topic around town. Generally, disbelief has trumped outrage.

Banderas told police, according to an affidavit, that he and Keifer planned to sell the bikes. Banderas told an officer that they took the bikes after noticing signs posted on the racks that the university would soon confiscate the property as abandoned.

He knew better. More than most in the football program, Banderas should understand the significance of his actions. He grew up in the shadow of Nebraska football; Banderas’ father, Tom, lettered as a tight end at the school from 1985 to 1987.

The Huskers, seeking a return to the football elite, have been riding an offseason hot streak in part because to Pelini’s public personality makeover.

Observers wondered if this incident might derail that momentum.

By my gauge, the temperature in the state is astonishing on the Banderas situation. While Pelini and the Nebraska administration have stayed quiet, fans and media are speaking out, many in in knee-jerk fashion. Some are ready for the Huskers to cut ties with Banderas for a full season, if not for good.

In January, defensive end Avery Moss was banned from campus for one year, stemming from a 2012 public-indecency charge. Offensive tackle Alex Lewis is set to serve a 45-day jail sentence this summer for a 2013 assault committed before he enrolled at Nebraska.

Lewis was not allowed to work out with the team last fall after his transfer from Colorado but has faced no additional discipline since joining the program in January.

Banderas’ actions, which pale in comparison, have more significantly raised the ire of Nebraskans. This is a slippery slope. Let’s remember that he is 19 and a productive citizen by all previous accounts.

Pelini has time to make a decision, time to monitor Banderas’ reaction, time to determine appropriate discipline.

The image of Nebraska football is important, perhaps more so now than ever. But Banderas, still with a promising future, ought not to be sacrificed for it.
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
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, 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’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
The countdown to spring football practice is on.

Over the next four weeks, in advance of Nebraska's March 8 open to spring practice, 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


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