Nebraska Cornhuskers: Randy Gregory

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is done. It’s time to work on the little things, which, for Nebraska, equate to the big things.

Coach Bo Pelini left the Huskers with a message after Nebraska completed 15 practices over the past five weeks.

“The challenge I laid out to this football team is to move forward,” Pelini said. “If we don’t keep thinking about football, if we don’t attack it and we don’t keep continuing to work at it, to spend some time away from the facility, put themselves in position to keep learning and build, if we forget about football until August and just worry about the conditioning part of it, it won’t happen for this football team.”

Pelini’s words are as clear as a slap in the face. It’s not good enough to remain in good shape during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini is looking for team leaders to be serious about offseason workouts.
College players once went above and beyond by staying committed to a training regimen in the summer. Today, that’s only half the quest, especially at Nebraska, where mental aspects of the game have appeared, in recent years, to largely prevent a breakthrough back into the nation’s elite.

The Huskers struggled again last season in some areas of special teams. Turnovers were costly, too, as Nebraska finished minus-10 in its four losses. It was minus-11 for the season, 117th out of 126 nationally and one of two teams -- Cincinnati was the other -- to place among the bottom 57 while winning more than eight games.

“Everything’s out there,” Pelini said, “as far as I’m concerned, for this football team to achieve, but it won’t happen by chance. It won’t happen if we’re half in. We’ve got to have a group of guys who are absolutely all in to get done what we want to get done. I think they understand that.”

Pelini delivered his message with notable eloquence. The seventh-year coach, no doubt, has devoted considerable thought to this subject.

He’s looking for leaders within the team to repeat his words in May, June and July.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” senior receiver Kenny Bell said. “We did it this entire winter. The hard work doesn’t stop.”

Offensively, Bell and classmate I-back Ameer Abdullah at I-back, alongside senior linemen Jake Cotton and Mark Pelini, have formed a strong voice. They’re joined by sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in keeping Pelini’s message on the minds of the Huskers.

Armstrong, in particular, said he wants to continue to drill the importance of ball security through the offseason.

“I take all responsibility for it,” he said.

Armstrong said he believes the turnover problems were responsible for every Nebraska loss last year – a debatable assertion that, nonetheless, marks a step in the quarterback’s development as a leader.

“We can win all of our games if we take care of the football,” Armstrong said.

Teammates share similar confidence in the ability of Armstrong to lead.

“When you see it day in and day out, a guy putting your team in right positions, you have confidence,” junior I-back Imani Cross said. “That’s something we have in Tommy.”

Defensively, leadership remains more uncertain. Senior defensive backs Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper are entrenched. Among the front seven, the Huskers look to junior Randy Gregory and veteran linebackers David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach.

The defenders hear the same message.

“I think everyone has to come together,” Anderson said, “and be committed to the team being able to make strides every day.”

It’s no easy task, Pelini said. Even this spring, he said, the Nebraska coaches saw various levels of commitment.

“There are some guys taking advantage of their opportunity and some who haven’t,” Pelini said.

“There are some guys who probably haven’t put the necessary time in. Bottom line, when that happens and I put on the film day after day and I see repeat errors, you send a message to us as coaches that it’s not important enough to you – either that or you don’t show the ability to be able to execute our football.”

The majority of the Huskers moved forward this spring, he said. The coach walked away from spring practice with a good feeling about his team and an understanding of areas in which Nebraska must improve.

There’s a plan in place, he said.

“Now it’s going to be time to go into the next phase and move this football team forward,” Pelini said. “This has just begun.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Red-White game began in truly unique fashion on Saturday as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini exited the locker room for the Cornhuskers’ traditional Tunnel Walk cuddling a cat.

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

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

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

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

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

Spring game preview: Nebraska

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

When: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up front, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have taken hold of the top spots in the interior and may give Nebraska its most talented pair of tackles in five years. Collins also shifts to the outside, where the Huskers are thin and have begun to look to linebacker Marcus Newby as an intriguing option to rush the passer.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini shared some insight on Wednesday into the adjusted format of the Huskers’ Red-White game, set for Saturday at Memorial Stadium, but fans and media apparently won’t get a rundown of the scoring system until shortly before kickoff.

The Cornhuskers will scrimmage, but instead of breaking into two teams, they’ll pit the No. 1 offense against the top defense, the No. 2 offense and the No. 2 defense, and so forth. The offensive and defensive units will be awarded points for good plays.

“I’ve never done this format before,” the seventh-year Nebraska coach said, “but I think it makes a lot of sense, obviously, for where we are as a football team right now.

“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to function and really be able to protect certain guys that we want to protect. Trying to field two teams wouldn’t happen right now. We don’t want to put kids in position to get hurt.”

A breakdown of the scoring system will be posted on scoreboards in the stadium and perhaps distributed to fans on a flyer, Pelini said.

Nearly 50,000 tickets have been sold. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT.

Pelini said the Huskers would run approximately 100 plays in the scrimmage, which will be telecast by the Big Ten Network on tape delay. Don’t expect to see anything too innovative.

“We’re not going to put that on display for everybody to see,” he said, “so it’ll be a little more basic than what we’ve done (in practice), really, on both sides of the football.”

I-back Ameer Abdullah, the nation's top returning rusher, and defensive end Randy Gregory, another first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2013, likely won’t see much action.

The Huskers won’t hit quarterbacks in the pocket. If they run free, they can be tackled. Cut blocking by offensive linemen is also out.

Pelini said he was pleased with the Huskers’ work on Wednesday in their final practice of the spring before the celebrated finale on Saturday.

“I thought the last two days were really good practices for us,” he said. “I thought it went back and forth a lot. I thought the competition was good.

“We went into this spring planning to lay a foundation for the fall. I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve identified a lot of guys. I think we’ve identified areas that we need to grow. I think we’ve identified areas where I feel like we’re pretty strong. We learned a lot. We, as the coaches, learned a lot about our football team.”

Also from Wednesday:
  • Defensive tackle Aaron Curry, who suffered a neck sprain on Monday in practice, will not participate on Saturday. Linebacker Marcus Newby hurt his back on Wednesday, though Pelini said he expected Newby to return for the final workout of the spring.
  • Nebraska gained notice nationally a year ago in the Red-White game by involving 7-year-old brain-cancer patient Jack Hoffman in the festivities. Dressed in full uniform, Jack scored on a 69-yard run in the second half. In July, he won an ESPY award for best moment. Asked if the Huskers had any unorthodox plans for Saturday, Pelini offered a tease. “We have a couple things that we’re going to throw out there and have a little fun,” he said. “But we don’t want to lose sight of why we’re there -- to get better as a football team and execute. At the same time, we want to make sure it’s fun for the fans.”
  • Two years ago, the spring game at Nebraska was canceled because of severe weather. The Saturday forecast calls for a high temperature near 80 degrees and a chance of thunderstorms. If problems surface, Pelini joked that he would just place a call to Tom Osborne, the legendary former Nebraska coach and athletic director. “He can part the skies,” Pelini said, “and we should be good to go.”
The head coaches from the new Big Ten West Division, along with a player from each team, addressed reporters today on a teleconference. The East Division coaches and players will follow Thursday.

To the notebook:

WISCONSIN
  • Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
  • Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
  • RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
NORTHWESTERN
  • The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
  • WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
  • Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
NEBRASKA
  • RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
  • Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
  • Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
  • The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
PURDUE
  • RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
  • Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
  • The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
ILLINOIS
  • Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
  • Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
MINNESOTA
  • Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
  • Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
  • The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
IOWA
  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
  • Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Let’s face it, the Nebraska defense played at an average level in 2013.

Early in the season, the Huskers were below average. Remember the 38 consecutive points scored by UCLA and the 465 yards surrendered to South Dakota State? Later, Nebraska rated better than the norm, winning away from home against Michigan, Penn State and Georgia largely on the back of the Blackshirts.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory expects the Nebraska defense to reach new heights this fall.
But in 12 of 15 key defensive categories, Nebraska ranked no higher than third in the Big Ten and no lower than ninth.

So yes, as a whole, the group was average.

All-league defensive end Randy Gregory and his teammates want a new label for 2014.

Dominant or suffocating -- either is fine. How about being the strength of coach Bo Pelini’s seventh team?

“Definitely,” Gregory said. “Let’s be physical. We can dominate. If we play our game, we can play with anybody.”

The defensive performance and growth this spring appear to substantiate Gregory’s claim. This Nebraska defense looks stronger, deeper and more physical than any of the past few seasons.

Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska in 2009 and as coordinator in 2003 stand out as the best of the post-championship era in Lincoln. Both units ranked among the top two nationally in scoring and passing yardage allowed. They both featured a play-making All-American among the front seven. And both units surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. They were the only Nebraska defenses of the past 12 seasons to reach the threshold that was commonly crossed in the 1990s, when the Huskers contended for five national titles, winning three.

“I think we can be a top-10 defense,” linebacker Zaire Anderson said. “If we keep working and making progress, we can be a great defense.”

Why such optimism? Well, first of all, it’s spring; positive energy abounds in April. But such talk did not flow from Nebraska camp a year ago as the Huskers attempted to replace several key pieces.

“They learned a lot last year,” linebacker Trevor Roach said.

Through the growing pains emerged a mix of experience and athleticism from front to back. Much like its dynamic mixture at I-back on the offensive side, the Huskers did not necessarily concoct the diversity of this defensive lineup.

It just kind of happened, with Gregory, an All-America candidate in his second season at Nebraska, anchoring a front four that has turned the heads of many observers this spring. At linebacker, seniors Anderson and Roach and junior David Santos have grown into the elders, but youth still rules.

In the secondary, where the Huskers need it most, cornerback Josh Mitchell is the vocal leader of the entire defense. And perhaps more than anywhere else on the field, the maturity of young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry -- in the absence of injured veteran Corey Cooper -- has rated as a key surprise.

At all three levels, positive storylines have emerged this spring.

The evidence of defensive chemistry was on display Wednesday in Nebraska’s 10th practice of the spring.

Late in the workout in a sequence between the top offense and the Blackshirts, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Anderson and Gregory pressured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. on three consecutive plays, the last of which resulted in a Gerry interception that had the whole defense abuzz.

“As much as I’ve seen, I know we’ve got a lot of upside right now,” said cornerback Jonathan Rose, who is competing with newcomer Byerson Cockrell for a top job opposite Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s like a whole 'nother defense coming out this year.”

Gregory said he liked what he saw, too, on Wednesday, but the junior warned that a few practices in the spring can mark only the beginning.

Even early in the season last fall, the defense possessed plenty of talent, he said. It just wasn't making plays.

“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.

“It all starts, really, in the film room.”

Gregory notices more teammates studying film. They’re “taking it upon themselves to put in the work,” he said.

The Huskers could use a highly rated defense to help ease pressure on the offense, which will work with a reconstructed line and an inexperienced group at quarterback. Behind third-year sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games as a substitute for the injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, no quarterback has handled a collegiate snap.

"We have faith in our offense, certainly,” Roach said, “because we have a ton of weapons. But we have to focus on us. We have to worry about what we’re doing. I get the vibe that we have the potential to do great things.”

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
5:00
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Coming at ya from Happy Valley. Dropping in on James Franklin and the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

To the inbox ...

Ken from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam! I loved the "dictator for the day" thread. I just have one suggestion ... since everyone was worried about some teams getting five home games and other teams getting four in a nine-game schedule, and with two bye weeks now due to extending games beyond Thanksgiving, how about every team has one of their conference games played internationally each year, following a bye week? This would: increase international exposure for the B1G, be a cool perk when it came to recruiting -- "your son will get to visit four or five foreign countries during their years at our university" -- and leave everyone with an even 4-4-1 split on conference game locations and make for some cool travel options for the fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Ken, a couple things here. The double-bye thankfully won't be an annual occurrence in college football. It takes place only when Aug. 30 or Aug. 31 falls on a Saturday, as was the case last year and again this fall. Also, Big Ten schools don't want to part with home games, especially for an international site that, while appealing to some, prevents many others from attending. It also disrupts the players' schedule. I like the way you're thinking because exposure is the name of the game, and occasional international events like Penn State's opener this fall make sense. But not every year.


Brian from Baltimore writes: So far PSU and James Franklin are "walking the walk"' as far as dominating recruiting. How surprising is this? After this torrid pace of commitments slows down, how do you see Penn State faring overall for 2015 recruits?

Rittenberg: Brian, while the sheer number of early commits is noteworthy, Franklin's recruiting success certainly is not. He has been regarded as a nationally elite recruiter since his time as a Maryland assistant, and the enthusiasm he brings to Penn State -- and a region where he and several of his assistants already have familiarity -- translates on the trail. Franklin did really well with early commitments in Vanderbilt's 2013 class, as 16 players pledged before the season. If Penn State hangs onto all these recruits and continues to add solid pieces, Franklin will bring in a nationally elite class next February.


Brian from West Michigan writes: If the Northwestern unionizing efforts succeed, are they aware of the unintended consequences that are coming from their actions? For instance, now that they are considered "employees," their scholarship value (upwards of 50K/year depending on the school) is considered compensation and eligible to be taxed. You hear stories of kids being able to use athletics to get them a degree that otherwise they couldn't have afforded. How does a college kid who is now "making" $50K/year scrape up the cash to pay Uncle Sam?

Rittenberg: Brian, the tax question looms large in the debate, and there are different opinions on what the players would be required to pay. Kevin Trahan addresses it well here, quoting several tax experts who say the players will have to pay taxes on their scholarships. College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma, meanwhile, cites a provision in the tax code that states scholarships for "degree candidates" are not taxable. It doesn't sound like tax status will factor into the NLRB's final ruling on whether players are employees, but it's certainly a significant factor for the players as they pursue this route.


Jim from Virginia writes: A lot is made of "skill" positions (top three backfield, etc). Yet, when looking at the offensive and defensive lines, Nebraska seems to be able to make a case for turning a four-loss year last year -- when the offensive line got experience through injuries and the defensive line matured -- into maybe Bo Pelini's best campaign.

Rittenberg: Jim, I agree that Nebraska's ceiling this season largely depends on line play. Randy Gregory provides a major edge-rushing threat for the defensive line, and if Nebraska can stay healthy and generate more from the inside tackles, it should be pretty stout up front. There are more questions along the offensive line, which loses key players such as Spencer Long, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles. Alex Lewis is a key addition because he brings experience from Colorado. Lewis and Jake Cotton should anchor the left side of the Husker line. Nebraska must build depth and chemistry with the group the rest of the spring and through fall camp. It likely needs younger players such as Givens Price to blossom.


Keith from Kunming, China, writes: Hey Adam,You didn't like the Premier League model for B1G and MAC, but I do. You said it's not realistic to move between leagues, but it is if the B1G and the MAC have a contractual relationship, and the MAC is essentially absorbed into the B1G as a sort of junior league. B1G doesn't "own" MAC programs but it effectively subsidizes them. Michigan will continue to fill its stadium when relegated (oh! the joy in East Lansing!), which will be financially great for the MAC opponents. My only change to the model proposed is that relegation should happen every years, as in England. Why wouldn't this work?

Rittenberg: Keith, first off, thanks for reading from so far away. Although the Big Ten and the MAC have a strong relationship when it comes to scheduling, officiating and other areas, your proposal requires the Big Ten to shoulder a major financial and structural burden, while embarrassing its members in the process. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun for fans, but does the Big Ten want to be so closely tied with the MAC, which has schools with profiles that differ markedly from those in the Big Ten? Scheduling would be a huge headache because you wouldn't know where certain teams would be. Money would be a problem on several levels, from television audience to stadium size.
LINCOLN, Neb. – Spring is for competition. Preparation can largely wait until August. Now is the time to wage battles on the practice field.

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

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

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

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

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

In particular, tackles Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice and Aaron Curry matured in 2013 as the air turned cool in November.

[+] EnlargeVincent Valentine
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCornhuskers defensive tackle Vincent Valentine is working this spring to become a big-play defender.
Check out these numbers: The Huskers allowed 4.54 yards per rush through eight games; in the final five games, it dropped to 2.63, fifth nationally over that time. In the first eight games, opponents produced 55 rushes of 10 yards or more against Nebraska, though just 11 in the last five games. Through eight games, 25.8 percent of rushing plays against the Huskers went for first downs; it was 15.5 percent in the final five.

Improvement among the interior linemen has continued this spring. The Huskers are off this week for spring break. Practice resumes on Monday, building to the April 12 Red-White game at Memorial Stadium.

“You’re just talking about a group across the board, end to end, who are way ahead of where they were, obviously, during the season last year,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I think they’re a lot more comfortable.”

The emergence, in particular, of Valentine, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound sophomore, and the 6-2, 300-pound Collins is evident in spring workouts.

And the presence of Maurice, who, like Collins, played last fall as a true freshman, plus juniors Curry and Kevin Williams eases concern about depth on the defensive line in 2014.

Yes, the Huskers are thin on the edge, with All-America candidate Randy Gregory in charge, but they ought to be stout in the middle.

Valentine progressed perhaps the most of any interior lineman last fall as a redshirt freshman out of Edwardsville, Ill. He collected eight tackles in the final two games of the regular season against Penn State and Iowa.

The strong finish boosted Valentine’s confidence, he said. This spring, he said, he’s working to develop into a big-play defender.

“There were a couple times I showed it out there on the field last year,” Valentine said.

He enjoys a healthy competition with the other linemen. Last week, they discussed in a meeting who would lead the Huskers in sacks next season. It seems Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition last season for collecting 10 sacks, should rank as a runaway favorite.

But Valentine won’t concede anything. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski encourages the competition, Valentine said.

“He wants us to have the mentality that we’re going to go out there and get the sack,” Valentine said.

Kaczenski, entering his third season at Nebraska after a five-year stint at Iowa, uses the success of former pupils to motivate the young Huskers.

According to Collins, Kaczenski constantly references his 2010 Iowa group in film study and in conversation. Adrian Clayborn earned All-America honors that season. Christian Ballard and Karl Klug also figured prominently in the Hawkeyes’ success up front.

“It’s just how they practiced and how they played,” Collins said.

Collins received praise from Pelini this spring. During the opening eight practice sessions, Nebraska shifted him along the line from tackle to end. The moves were made out of necessity as teammates missed practice time. Don’t expect Collins to play extensively at end in the fall, though if it’s required, Pelini said he wouldn’t hesitate.

“Maliek has great quickness and agility, change of direction for a big guy,” Pelini said. “And he’s got the power to go with it. He’s got all the tools.”

In some ways, Pelini said, Collins reminds him of a young Glenn Dorsey, whom the seventh-year Nebraska coached tutored at LSU. Dorsey, the 2007 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, also won the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, under Pelini.

“That’s high praise,” Pelini said, “but I think he’s got that kind of upside if he continues on his progress.”

Collins said he appreciates the compliment and that he’s aware of the gravity of Pelini’s words. Dorsey, a first-round NFL draft pick of the Chiefs in 2008, played in Kansas City for five seasons as Collins watched closely.

“That’s a dominant force, man,” Collins said. “It makes me want to keep working, to want to keep being coachable.”

Motivation runs high among the Nebraska defensive linemen, set to make an impact in 2014 that grabs attention regardless of happenings elsewhere on the field.
There are just a few weeks left in our ultimate Big Ten road trip. Hopefully, like Indiana Jones, we've chosen wisely to this point.

For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can pretend with this fantasy itinerary.

Week 12, what you got?

Nov. 15

Indiana at Rutgers
Iowa at Illinois
Michigan State at Maryland
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Ohio State at Minnesota

Open week: Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska at Wisconsin

No Big Ten road trip is complete without a trip to Mad City and Camp Randall Stadium. This is by far Wisconsin's biggest home game, and Badgers fans will be geared up for a contest that could decide the West Division champion. I'm hoping for a more competitive contest than the last Huskers-Badgers game at Camp Randall, when Russell Wilson and Montee Ball obliterated Big Red 48-17 in Nebraska's Big Ten debut in 2011. These teams played a much more exciting game in 2012 in Lincoln, as Nebraska rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to win 30-27.

This year's matchup should be a good one, and there are plenty of intriguing subplots. It features the Big Ten's top two running backs in Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, two good friends who spurned the NFL draft for another year in college. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has higher hopes for his defense, which returns a star in Randy Gregory and some promising pieces elsewhere. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has to fill quite a few gaps on defense after losing Chris Borland, Beau Allen and others. Both teams also have some uncertainty at quarterback right now.

The West Division looks wide open, and while Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota could be in the mix, many peg Wisconsin and Nebraska as the frontrunners entering the fall. This is another easy call. I'll book my table at Quivey's Grove right now.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Wisconsin

Two weeks in a row in the same town as Rittenberg? That's trouble. I was searching for an alternative and thought about checking out Big Ten newbie Maryland, but that would be my third Michigan State game in four weeks. While I'd like to see Indiana at some point, the Rutgers game doesn't interest me, and I broke the Scarlet Knights seal two weeks earlier. I'm pretty sure I'm going to see Iowa (spoiler alert!) at least once in the last two weeks, and I've hit Ohio State a couple of times.

So Nebraska-Wisconsin it is, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's a better-than-average chance this decides the West Division, and I'm pretty sure the Huskers won't give up 70 points again, as they did in the last meeting in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. I hear the siren call of State Street Brats.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
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.

LINCOLN, Neb. – Randy Gregory doesn’t like to talk about his goals -- or his weight.

Rest assured, Nebraska’s All-Big Ten defensive end thinks plenty about both, drawing motivation from the bid to add size and improve upon a breakout sophomore season to fuel his efforts this spring.

[+] Enlargenebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsRandy Gregory is looking for more production, and more weight, as he builds on an all-Big Ten season in 2013.
Gregory collected 10» sacks and 19 tackles for losses last fall in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. He’s likely to gain preseason All-America recognition.

For now, Gregory is concerned only with bettering himself.

“You always have something you can work on,” he said Wednesday after the third of 15 Cornhuskers practices this spring.

Coach Bo Pelini said Gregory has a chance to be a “great player” in Lincoln. Last season, though, the coach said Gregory was so raw he “didn’t even know what he didn’t know.”

“He’s a lot better football player these first three days than he was a year ago,” Pelini said. “I think he’s more comfortable than he was a year ago. He’s more technically sound. He’s getting bigger. He’s getting stronger.

“He’s got a lot ahead of him and a long way to go to reach what he can be.”

At 6-foot-6, Gregory dipped to about 230 pounds at the end of last season. He said he wants to play next season at close to 250. He’s added weight since January, but he declined to give a number.

“It’s going up,” he said. “The coaches are pleased with what I’m doing.”

Gregory is a picky eater, he said. He avoids pasta and gets full quickly. Even as he works to add weight in the offseason, he said, he’s not getting enough calories.

But he remains confident he’ll hit his goals -- on the scale and on the field.

“The goal is to be on the field as much as possible,” Gregory said, “so if I’ve got to put on weight to do that, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

Other news and notes from Nebraska’s practice on Wednesday:
  • Safety Harvey Jackson and defensive linemen Tobi Okuyemi and Jay Guy will not return to the team, Pelini said, after graduating prior to next season.
  • Junior cornerback Jonathan Rose, playing with the top defense opposite Josh Mitchell, was held out of practice on Wednesday because of a class issue, Pelini said. Redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph saw increased time in Rose's place. “I thought Boaz did a good job. Believe me, he’s got a long way, but I think he’ll learn a lot from the reps that he got.”
  • Jamal Turner, after working at quarterback in the first two practices of spring, took reps on Wednesday only at receiver, the position he’s played for the past three seasons. Turner struggled at QB on Monday, but Pelini said the senior remains an option at both positions. “He’s worked at quarterback before,” Pelini said. “He’s a receiver that we could have a package for if we choose to.”
  • Sophomore receiver Jordan Westerkamp sat out as protocol after banging his head on the turf on Monday.
  • Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, a junior, has shared time with freshman David Knevel as the first-team left tackle. The 6-6, 290-pound Lewis started 12 games with the Buffaloes in 2012. He was not with the Huskers in the fall because of legal issues but has made his presence felt quickly this week. “He’s picked things up pretty good,” Pelini said. “He plays with a good motor. He has experience, which obviously helps. He likes to compete, which is a good thing.” On Wednesday, as Nebraska donned full pads for the first time this spring, Lewis and Gregory got especially competitive in drills. Gregory described their matchup as a “battle” and spoke highly of Lewis. “He’s got the body for it. He’s built for the position. He can move.”
We've reached October in our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip. Keep in mind this is basically pure fantasy because of budget limitations (but if you guys want to contribute to a Kickstarter to get us out to the biggest games every week, well, we wouldn't be opposed).

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here's our menu of selections for Week 6:

North Texas at Indiana
Nebraska at Michigan State
Michigan at Rutgers
Ohio State at Maryland
Purdue at Illinois
Wisconsin at Northwestern

Open date: Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Well, this one's a no-brainer. While it might be fun to watch Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers play host to the two most storied names in league history, you just can't beat Huskers-Spartans for competitive and entertainment purposes. They are the only two teams to ever represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game, and now they'll be playing a cross-division, East-West matchup that could have a huge impact on who gets to Indianapolis this December.

This has been a pretty good series in the last three years, with Nebraska unexpectedly dominating the Spartans at home in 2011, the Huskers pulling off a miracle comeback in East Lansing in 2012 and Michigan State exacting revenge in Lincoln last year in a wild, turnover-filled game. I'd pay money just to watch Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun on the same field. Then you've got Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford at tailback, two of the more interesting young quarterbacks in the league in Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong Jr. and what could be two of the conference's best defenses, if Nebraska's young talent continues to develop.

I didn't have to think twice about this one. Adam, should I save a spot for you at Crunchy's, or will you be checking out one of those titanic tilts in Bloomington or Champaign?

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Crunchy's? Yes, please. And before that, we can stop by The Peanut Barrel, where sources tell me colleague Jesse Palmer once ordered the rod-ay-o burger and was rightly panned. I considered staying home for Wisconsin-Northwestern, especially because my son turns 1 a few days later, but I'll be back in plenty of time for a birthday he certainly won't remember.

Although this game loses a bit of luster because it's no longer within the Legends Division (tear), the teams and the storylines make up for it. I've never seen a Michigan State-Nebraska contest and don't want to miss a key game for both squads. You've got two potential All-America candidates at defensive end in Calhoun and Gregory. Abdullah faces a new-look defensive front seven, but one that should still be pretty solid despite departures at both defensive tackle and linebacker. Nebraska has given Michigan State's defense some trouble in recent years, and the Huskers will feature a dual-threat quarterback, whether it's Armstrong, Johnny Stanton or wide receiver Jamal Turner, who has been taking snaps at QB this spring. Cook and the Big Ten's most improved receiver corps take aim at a Nebraska secondary trying to reload after losing two all-conference cornerbacks (Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans).

The game could be a preview of the Big Ten championship, and I've yet to see Michigan State play in this series. There's something about Nebraska that brings us together, Bennett. Meet you in Sparta.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State, Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Just three weeks into our ultimate Big Ten road trip, I've logged visits to Ireland, Oregon and Texas, while Adam has seen three potentially historic games. What does Week 4 hold?

For those just joining us, we're picking one game featuring a Big Ten team to attend throughout the 2014 season. There's no travel budget or nagging editors. We can go where we want to see who we want. Our choices are based on matchup quality, how often we've seen certain teams play, location and other factors.

Here are our options for Week 4:

Sept. 20

Texas State at Illinois
Indiana at Missouri
Iowa at Pitt
Maryland at Syracuse
Utah at Michigan
Eastern Michigan at Michigan State
San Jose State at Minnesota
Miami at Nebraska
Western Illinois at Northwestern
UMass at Penn State
Southern Illinois at Purdue
Rutgers at Navy
Bowling Green at Wisconsin

Open week: Ohio State

Brian Bennett's pick: Miami at Nebraska

Week 4 doesn't the most appetizing slate of games, so the choice here becomes a pretty easy one. While the stakes in this showdown between the Hurricanes and Cornhuskers aren't quite what they were in 1983 or 2001 (or '88, '91 or '94, for that matter), this could still be an important nonconference game for both teams.

Assuming Nebraska survives its trip to Fresno State, this looms as the biggest test before league play for Bo Pelini's team. That kind of challenge didn't end so well the last two years, as the Huskers lost to UCLA both on the road and at home. But while the Bruins were on the upswing, Miami still seems locked in a kind of purgatory, unable to escape mediocrity. Both programs are looking to recapture past glory, and win here wouldn't be a bad place to start on that climb.

The Canes, as always, will bring high-level athletes, so this should provide a nice early gauge of where Nebraska is. Pelini's defense has a chance to be really good, with a lot of players returning in the front seven, led by defensive end Randy Gregory. Will Tommy Armstrong Jr. have grasped control of the offense by this point, or will Johnny Stanton or someone else be at the controls? And in a big spot like this, you'd expect an all-out performance from Ameer Abdullah.

This matchup easily ranks as the most intriguing of Week 4, thanks to the brand names, the talent involved and, of course, the history. I'm sure Tom Osborne will be watching closely.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Miami at Nebraska

OK, Mr. World Traveler, looks like I'll be seeing you in Husker Country. The Big Ten slate is really bland in Week 4, and while I considered Iowa-Pitt, this is a fairly easy call. I haven't been to Lincoln since 2012, Nebraska is a fascinating team that should contend in the West Division, and looking at the Huskers' remaining home schedule -- Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue and Minnesota -- this is my best bet to visit one of the great settings in college football.

The game itself should be a lot of fun. Neither team carries the prestige it did in the 1990s, but both have talented players and high hopes for 2014. Pelini enters a pivotal season, and this is the type of game that could springboard his team before Big Ten play. Miami also is looking to take an important step under Al Golden and boasts some weapons, such as explosive running back Duke Johnson. The matchup between Johnson and Abdullah is a nice subplot.

Miami's offense could provide a good challenge for the Blackshirts, who will turn the corner if the linebackers hold up and several key parts are replaced in the secondary. The transition from Stephen Morris to a new quarterback, most likely Ryan Williams, could be good for the Canes. Nebraska should win this game, especially at home, but the Huskers have to play for four quarters, not a half, as they did against UCLA.

History has been my unofficial theme, and these two teams certainly have some, splitting 10 meetings. This marks their first regular-season contest since 1975 after matching up in four Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl (national championship) between 1983 and 2001.

Bottom line: It's been far too long since I've been to Lincoln. My arteries miss Misty's. Maybe I'll even get a Runza this time around. Meet you in the heartland, Bennett.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
The final countdown in advance of spring practice at Nebraska is underway. This week, ESPN.com is offering predictions for the March and April workouts.

We looked first at the Nebraska receivers. Now it’s on to the defensive side, where two newcomers from junior college join the Huskers for workouts that start on Saturday. They’re the subject of prediction No. 4.

Joe Keels or Byerson Cockrell will make an immediate impact.

Let’s look first at Cockrell, a safety who factored prominently on a defense that intercepted 30 passes at East Mississippi Community College last season. The Huskers would like Cockrell to bring a bit of that ball-hawking mentality to Lincoln.

Nebraska’s turnover problems were well documented a year ago, and it was more than just a propensity to lose the football that hurt the Huskers. Over the final six games of the regular season, Nebraska created just two takeaways.

The 6-foot, 180-pound Cockrell has a redshirt season available, but Nebraska recruited him to compete for a position. His chance comes right away, as the Huskers look to replace Andrew Green in the secondary. One safety spot, held by Corey Cooper, rates as a strength of the defense. The other is a question, with Harvey Jackson, LeRoy Alexander and perhaps Nathan Gerry -- who played linebacker last season -- as the primary contenders.

Cockrell can add his name to the mix in a hurry.

The path to a starting position looks clearer for Keels, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end who transferred from Highland Kan.) CC. His list of scholarship offers, which included Alabama and USC, was an impressive as any Nebraska signee last month.

His statistics as a sophomore were modest, but the Huskers expect Keels to challenge for the job opposite All-Big Ten junior Randy Gregory, who started straight out of junior college last year at this position.

Redshirt freshman A.J. Natter and sophomore Greg McMullen will compete with Keels in the spring.

Countdown of Nebraska spring practice predictions:

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