Nebraska Cornhuskers: Tim Beck

What to watch: Nebraska-Fresno State

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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What to watch in Week 3 for Nebraska as it hits the road for the first time, playing Fresno State on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET:
  • The start: It’s an overused talking point to suggest the beginning of a game rates as important; of course, it does. But in this instance, the first half of the first quarter figures to provide more insight than usual, considering the psyche of both teams. Fresno State is something of a wounded animal after consecutive blowout losses on the road against USC and Utah. The Bulldogs are not accustomed to such failure and have won 13 straight games at home, the second-longest active streak among FBS teams. But prolific quarterback Derek Carr is gone, replaced by Brandon Connette and Brian Burrell. Fresno ranks 107th nationally in total offense and 109th in scoring. The home field might make a huge difference. We should know early. Meanwhile, what is the Nebraska mindset after winning in the final minute against McNeese State? The Huskers could respond with excellent focus -- a common trait of Bo Pelini teams in road games -- or with a shaky level of confidence, potentially worsened by any mistake early against the Bulldogs. Pay attention to the first two drives for both teams.
  • The health: Hit hard in preseason practice by injuries, the Huskers haven’t fared much better in the opening two games. First, junior Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate at defensive end, went down with a knee injury during the opening series against Florida Atlantic that required minor surgery. Then senior wide receiver and captain Kenny Bell suffered a groin injury early in the win against McNeese State. To complicate the situation at receiver, Nebraska lost Jamal Turner for the reason with a torn Achilles tendon and has yet to gain the services Sam Burtch and Brandon Reilly, who are not traveling to California. Gregory and Bell are expected back. They are two of Nebraska’s best athletes. Their presence transforms the look of this team. If healthy, Gregory and Bell figure to inject life into the Huskers' pass rush and passing game -- both of which went dormant in the second half under adverse conditions last week.
  • Offensive distribution: Nebraska operated with such efficiency in Week 1, accumulating a Big Ten modern day-record 784 yards, that it was sure to experience some decline last week. Still, the difference was stunning. Chief among the reasons for the Huskers’ failure to generate offense after halftime against McNeese State was the inexplicable absence of Ameer Abdullah. The senior I-back went missing for most of the final 30 minutes until his remarkable 58-yard touchdown catch that provided the game-winning points with 20 seconds to play. In the aftermath, Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck harped on the need to more involve Abdullah, who rushed for 232 yards in the opener and just 54 in Week 2. The Huskers are ripe for a game plan that overcompensates, and you can bet Fresno will be ready for Abdullah. Nebraska has plenty of weapons on offense, especially if Bell is good to go. Receivers Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore, tight end Cethan Carter and running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby need to be involved. Abdullah is good, but he is not built to be a one-man show, despite his late heroics last week.

Huskers lose back Adam Taylor to injury

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor's injury capped a brutal opening week of practice in Lincoln as Nebraska lost three potential defensive starters for the entire season. Junior nickel back Charles Jackson went down first. Pelini then announced the suspension of sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, and sophomore middle linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey sustained a knee injury.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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RIP, Princess Lacey.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska returned to spring practice on Monday after a 10-day break with a workout that pleased coach Bo Pelini.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has yet to release an update on junior offensive lineman Ryne Reeves, who experienced pain in his neck and was removed from the practice field by stretcher on Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINCOLN, Neb. -- With youth aplenty at quarterback and along the offensive line for Nebraska, coordinator Tim Beck understandably simplified some aspects of his system this spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor’s combination of talents intrigues Armstrong.

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

Also from Nebraska’s practice on Monday:

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

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

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

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

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


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Jamal Turner said he watched Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy-winning fellow Texan, during the past two seasons, and the Nebraska receiver wondered if he had missed his chance.

[+] EnlargeJamal Turner
AP Photo/Nati HarnikA receiver for his three seasons at Nebraska, Jamal Turner has moved back to his high school position of quarterback this spring.
Turner listened as his coaches talked of using him to throw passes on trick plays. Then he sat by, struggling with injuries, as opportunities went to teammates.

“This is my time,” the senior said Monday after the Huskers’ second practice of the spring.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck informed Turner not long after the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl victory of the decision to try him as a quarterback, the position at which he starred in high school.

Though Turner struggled on Monday, he’s in it to win the position.

If he can’t outplay returning eight-game starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, Turner said he would return to receiver.

“And if they need any depth at the quarterback position,” he said, “they always have me.”

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior caught 60 passes in the past three seasons, but he’s failed to meet the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival in Lincoln as a heralded prospect in the spring of 2011. Rated as the No. 6 athlete nationally out of high school, he played QB for a short time in his first spring at Nebraska.

The move back to his old position has not been easy.

“You just have so much stuff going through your head,” Turner said. “I can read blitzes and I can read coverages. It’s when there’s so much on your plate.

“I need to get what we’re doing first."

Basic plays have given him trouble.

"I should be getting these things down," he said. "I should know these things.”

It's time to watch more film, Turner said. He’s studied plenty since January, learning concepts and the significant changes to terminology in the structure of Nebraska’s offense.

Armstrong welcomes the competition.

“It’s tough for him right now because of the simple fact that he’s playing (receiver) and he’s playing quarterback,” Armstrong said. “I give him props, because that’s hard.”

Turner is confident, he said, that he’ll make strides this spring.

“I have to remember I’m in charge of the offense,” he said, “and what I say, everyone’s going to do, so I have to make sure it’s right.”

The Huskers return to practice Wednesday.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
5:00
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Time for my second mailbag of the week already. Just can't get enough of your emails. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Maybe you'll get lucky and win a fabulous prize* by becoming our 100,000th follower.

(*-offer not valid)

Grant from San Francisco writes: Jeremy Gallon's performance against Indiana is really going to be your top individual performance of the season? In your own explanation you say, "The list takes into account the difficulty of opponent and stakes of the game..." How then does Jeremy Gallon's performance against a NON-DIVISIONAL OPPONENT with the WORST defense in the league even come close to the top of the list? Were his stats impressive in the game? Yes. But the top individual performance this year, based on the criteria listed above? Not even close. The only thing that could top Connor Cook's B1GCG performance (No. 2 on your list) is his Rose Bowl performance. How does an impressive receiving performance against Indiana even compare to propelling MSU to a Rose Bowl victory against perennial national championship contender Stanford?

Brian Bennett: Yes, I took into account the stakes of the game and the opponent. But, as I went on to say in the opening of all those posts, I tried to identify "record-breaking, honor-winning, jaw-dropping games" by Big Ten players. Hey, I love what Connor Cook did in both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl (though, as I wrote, players were limited to one appearance only on the list). And Indiana's defense was awful. But ... come on. Gallon had the second-most receiving yards in an FBS game ever. He shattered the Big Ten receiving yards record. I don't care if you're playing against air -- 369 receiving yards is an insane performance, and it was entirely deserving of the No. 1 spot.


Cody from Omaha writes: Explain to me how a team like the Huskers, who had not only the league's leading rusher, but the league leader in sacks as well as many other good skill position players, doesn't crack the individual performance top 10? You would think somewhere along the way of leading the league in those categories they would of put up a top-10 individual for a game. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: When I first sat down to make the list of top individual performances, I came up with about 20 of them. It was an incredibly difficult process to pare it down to 10, even with the caveat that players were limited to only one entry.

I really figured I would include Ameer Abdullah in there somewhere, but as I begin to narrow things down, it became clear to me that Abdullah's best trait in 2013 was his incredible consistency. He had one game of more than 165 yards rushing, and that was against Illinois' terrible defense. His 225-yard, two-touchdown performance there was impressive, but not as great as Carlos Hyde's destruction of the Illini. Abdullah's second-best rushing day came in a double-digit loss at Minnesota, and his third-best came against Penn State in a game in which he didn't score a touchdown. While I love Abdullah's game as much as anyone and remember many incredible moments, such as his fourth-down catch vs. Northwestern, I just didn't see a top-10 overall performance there.

I also considered Randy Gregory for his showing against Michigan, but ultimately it fell just outside the top 10. No offense to the Huskers; it was just an exclusive list that also didn't include many other standout performances throughout the league.


Pat from Iowa writes: How is Kevonte Martin-Manley NOT on your top 10 individual performances for returning two punts for touchdowns against Western Michigan? That is an incredible stat, even if it is against a poor opponent! Shame on you!

Brian Bennett: Let's save the shame when we're talking about accomplishments vs. Western Michigan, which finished 1-11. Those two punt returns by Martin-Manley were great, but they came against one of the weakest opponents in the FBS, and he also had just one catch for six yards in that game. Moving on.


William from Hastings, Neb., writes: I was reading your article celebrating the diversity of the B1G, and I caught myself thinking "hmm... old news." Even before Nebraska's entry into the B1G, I always respected the ability of all member institutions to not only embrace diversity, but in many cases, also be the pioneers in that respect. Granted, not always so much in football, but certainly in a lot of other sports, and the B1G really went unquestioned when it came to academic opportunities. Was I just completely off base on that perception, or does the B1G, like any other corporate entity, just need to ensure that even the work of the trailblazers be shared?

Brian Bennett: William, I think you're right that the Big Ten, for the most part, has a rich history of embracing diversity, at least in comparison to some other leagues throughout the country. Several schools were pioneers in integration, Ohio State's Gene Smith is one of the most influential African-American athletic directors and, as Jim Delany suggested, hiring minorities in basketball hasn't been an issue. Still, football is the Big Ten's premier sport, and the fact that the league did not have a single African-American football head coach for a decade was notable. Other factors such as coaching stability at several schools played a factor. The league has made progress on that front with its most recent hires, although the number of minority head coaches across the nation is still too low.


Lance S. from Greensboro, N.C., writes: While I'm happy to see more diversity among B1G football coaches, why does no one give Wisconsin credit for having a Hispanic as head football coach and/or athletic director for the past 34 years? Because Coach [Barry] Alvarez's family comes from Spain rather than Latin America, no one seems to recognize that he's a highly successful Hispanic-American. Probably good to be color-blind, but he does seem to fall through the cracks in these discussions.

Brian Bennett: A good point, Lance, and one I should have mentioned in the story. Hispanic and Latino Americans traditionally have been underrepresented in college sports.


Husker from Minneapolis writes: You wrote: "Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season." Huh? Clear No. 1? He was a Band-Aid last year and if he's going to be the "clear No. 1" he's going to have to improve exponentially from last year. In reality, it's an open competition where Tim Beck will have to pick from his 2012, 2013, and 2014 top dual-threat QB recruits. Armstrong has some game experience, but should by no means have much else above the competition.

Brian Bennett: Husker, I'll answer your "Huh?" with a "Huh?" of my own. How can you dispute that Armstrong entered the offseason as the No. 1 quarterback for Nebraska? He played in eight games last year and was 6-1 as a starter, including the bowl win over Georgia. Was he great last year? No, not even close. But as a redshirt freshman thrown into a difficult situation, he showed excellent poise. I know there's nothing fans love more than the promising backup quarterback, and maybe Johnny Stanton or Zack Darlington or A.J. Bush are future superstars. But the fact is that none of them has ever stepped foot on the field in a college game, so we have no idea. One of them conceivably could beat out Armstrong this spring or summer. Given Armstrong's huge experience edge, however, he's clearly the No. 1 guy for now.


Kamil Z. from Greenwich, Conn., writes: What's up, Brian? I just started coming here after the addition of Rutgers, and I love seeing RU mentioned on this awesome blog. My question to you is whether you plan on showing up to Rutgers for a game in the upcoming season? I believe you were there in 2009 for the opening vs. the Cincinnati Bearcats (you liked it, too, I think). Thanks.

Brian Bennett: I was there for that Labor Day opener in 2009, one of several enjoyable visits I've made to Rutgers. It's way too soon for us to know our game assignments for 2014, but I would be surprised if one of us is not at the Sept. 13 game vs. Penn State. That will be the Scarlet Knights' first-ever Big Ten game, there are not a lot of other big games that weekend and the atmosphere should be great. Save me a stool at Harvest Moon just in case.

Top spring position battles: No. 4

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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We began our latest countdown on Monday with a look at the top position battles of spring practice.

Up next is the battle likely to get the most attention, though it’s not necessarily set to rank as the most intriguing fight of the spring. Hence, the No. 4 spot:

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. went 7-1 as a starting quarterback last season, but redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could give him a run this spring.
Quarterback

The contenders: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton

The storylines: Armstrong played in nine games as a redshirt freshman, starting eight. Nebraska won seven of those, including a trip to Michigan in which Armstrong led a late, game-winning touchdown drive, and the Gator Bowl over Georgia.

Case closed, right? He’s the guy? Not so fast. While Armstrong, whose positive mental attributes rate just as favorably as his athletic skills, shows great promise, don’t discount Stanton. Nebraska fans get their first real taste of the dual-threat Californian next month. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he's bigger than Armstrong, if not quite as athletic.

Both quarterbacks are proven winners. Stanton led his high school to a Division I bowl-game victory as a junior and was named co-MVP at the Elite 11 finals in July 2012. He earned comparisons to Tim Tebow for their similar quarterbacking styles, leadership qualities and winning pedigrees.

If Stanton shows Tebow-like traits, the race is on in Lincoln.

The outlook: Much of this boils down to a matter of choice. How do offensive coordinator Tim Beck and coach Bo Pelini want to shape the situation? Fifteen practices in the spring likely aren’t enough for Stanton to make his case as the Tebow of the Big Ten, nor are they enough for Armstrong to put so much distance between himself and all challengers that the starting position is decided by mid-April.

But if Nebraska coaches like what they see from Armstrong as the incumbent and want a clear-cut starter to take command in the summer -- when coaches are allowed no on-field contact with the players –- that can be arranged.

Armstrong accounted for 1,168 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, among the best seasons for a rookie QB at Nebraska. How much will it mean for 2014? This spring ought to tell us a lot.

Countdown of Nebraska position battles to watch spring practice:
No 5: Outside linebacker
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today we take a look at the rising salaries for assistants and whether a $1 million coordinator is on the horizon in the league.

In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.

That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.

In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAt incoming Big Ten program Rutgers, head coach Kyle Flood barely makes more than at least one Big Ten coordinator.
The Big Ten has yet to take the plunge and cross the $1 million mark for an assistant coach. But there's little doubt that the pay for top coordinators is on the rise, and so is the league's investment in them.

"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."

Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.

Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."

The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.

"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."

The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.

Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.

"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.

"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."

That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.

"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."

"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."

Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.

It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.

"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "

Offseason to-do list: Nebraska

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

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

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

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

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

More to-do lists:

Nebraska keys to victory in Gator Bowl

December, 31, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nebraska seeks a sixth consecutive nine-win season on Wednesday in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, facing No. 22 Georgia at noon ET on ESPN2.

Here are three keys to a Husker upset victory:

Run the football: Ameer Abdullah needs to get loose. The Huskers’ junior I-back is surely capable. He topped 100 yards in 10 games this season, including a stretch of eight straight that featured a 123-yard effort against Michigan State -- the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense against the run. Georgia is solid in rush defense, ranking fifth in the SEC and 42nd nationally. But Nebraska is healthier on the offensive line than for any game since mid-October. And with Tommy Armstrong Jr. back to full speed or close, the traditional option and zone-read running game re-enter the equation for offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

Stop the run: Notice a trend? Without starting quarterbacks Aaron Murray of Georgia and Taylor Martinez from Nebraska, the winner of this game will earn its keep in the trenches. Like Nebraska, the Bulldogs have a horse in the backfield in Todd Gurley, who averaged more than 6 yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns in nine games. Georgia rushed for 176 yards per game, while Nebraska allowed 161. Advantage UGA, right? Probably. Though the Huskers were much improved in nearly all aspects on the defensive side this season, they slammed the door on an opponent’s running attack only against Michigan over the final six games.

Play smart: Much easier said than done this year for the Huskers, who posted a minus-12 turnover margin and repeatedly committed errors in the punt-return game to lose valuable yards of field position. Often, Nebraska simply couldn’t get out of its own way. Had it simply broken even in turnovers and avoided most of the special teams mistakes, you’re likely looking at a 10-win team, even without Martinez for all but four games. That speaks to the manageable nature of the schedule this year. Georgia, despite four losses of its own, is arguably the most talented team the Huskers have seen. Nebraska probably must win the turnover battle and finish ahead in the kicking game, too.

Concern, optimism abound for Nebraska

December, 24, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. – The lows were low, and the highs, well, they were nice.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many observers of the past season in Nebraska football relish a November that featured road wins at Michigan and Penn State after a miraculous finish at Memorial Stadium to beat Northwestern.

Others dwell on the reality that 14 years have passed since the Huskers’ last conference title and 12 since Nebraska played in a BCS bowl game. More so than any time in the past decade, the feelings about Nebraska football range from hope to despair.

Here’s a sampling of both as we review 2013.

Three reasons for concern

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini knows a bowl win over an SEC power will cure a lot of ills in the Nebraska program.
Is this Groundhog Day? A sense exists that Nebraska is living the same season on repeat. Bo Pelini inserts new characters and varies the schedule, but the results look the same. Here are Nebraska’s final records since 2008: 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4 and 10-4. This year, with a win, the Huskers can reach 9-4. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, some Nebraska fans grow more frustrated with each cycle, particularly as the Huskers’ relevance on a national level diminishes. Alongside those records, here are Nebraska’s final rankings in the AP poll since 2009: 14th, 20th, 24th and 25th. This year, the Huskers are unranked before the bowl game. Notice a trend?

Fundamental errors. The problems that plague Nebraska often come back to basics -- ball security, discipline, tackling. This year, Nebraska sits minus-12 in turnover margin, better than only three teams nationally. Since 2008, the Huskers rank 109th at minus-32. And the timing of the turnovers couldn’t have been much worse this year. Nebraska lost the football five times in its own territory against Michigan State, handing 24 points to the Spartans. It was a similar story against Iowa. When the Huskers held on to the football, they couldn’t take it away. Generally, this team -- like others before it -- failed to get out of its own way.

Communication, or lack thereof. For all the sensationalism that accompanied the final weeks of the regular season, as media speculation turned rampant over Pelini’s job status, the problems began -- and could have ended -- within the athletic-department offices in the north wing of Memorial Stadium. The policy of first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst to withhold comment during the season would have worked just fine if Pelini knew where he stood. No one need a weekly assurance of the boss’ stance on matters in the program, but some kind of internal communication could have served to prevent matters from reaching the boiling point they hit on the day after Thanksgiving. Clearly, Pelini and Eichorst must find a better way to understand each other.

Three reasons for optimism

An infusion of young talent. Even the most Scrooge-like among those who follow the Huskers must admit they made important strides on defense this year. It happened primarily because of the maturing group of youngsters that arrived at Nebraska after a refocused recruiting effort took shape two years ago. That’s when the Huskers signed linebacker Michael Rose and defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Avery Moss. The trio of redshirt freshman teamed with newcomer Randy Gregory to help form an imposing front seven that ought to have its moments of dominance next year. More than anything, they’re built for the Big Ten. Nebraska has appeared, in its 2013 and under-construction 2014 class, to further capitalize on that enhanced recruiting vision.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Johnny Stanton. In place of injured senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, Armstrong made his share of mistakes this year, committing nine turnovers in seven starts. He also led a game-winning drive at the Big House to complete a 5-0 beginning to his career. He lost to Michigan State, then aggravated an ankle injury and sat for the final seven quarters of the regular season. But we saw enough to know Armstrong has got the moxie and a few other special qualities that could help push the Huskers over the hump. Stanton, who redshirted this fall, reputedly possesses many of the same traits. Their athletic strengths are different, but both QBs are proven winners and strong leaders. Ought to make for a fun spring.

Consistency. Say all you want about the stagnant nature of Nebraska under Pelini, but he has brought winning ways back to Lincoln. With a victory in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl over Georgia, Pelini would become the seventh coach of a BCS conference program ever to win nine games or more in each of his first six seasons -- and the first to do it after inheriting a team with a losing record. His staff has remained largely intact. The offensive system under coordinator Tim Beck has taken firm hold. With healthy players, it would likely flourish. Pelini is unwavering in his approach toward the game, on an off the field, and his players appreciate his straightforwardness. Now, with just a little more patience …

A look at the B1G assistant salaries

December, 12, 2013
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USA Today has released its annual database of assistant coach salaries throughout college football so let's see how the Big Ten aides stack up. Ten of the 12 Big Ten schools report coaches' salaries (Northwestern and Penn State do not).

Once again, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison leads Big Ten assistants in pay at $851,400, which ranks fourth nationally behind million-dollar coordinators Chad Morris of Clemson, Kirby Smart of Alabama and John Chavis of LSU.

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is the only other Big Ten assistant in the top 10 nationally in total pay ($709,300). Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000) is next, followed by Ohio State defensive coordinators Luke Fickell ($610,000) and Everett Withers ($585,000), Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908) and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman ($555,000).

On the whole, the Big Ten has fewer assistants making top-20 salaries than the SEC. There's also a decent drop-off in salary after Herman, as no others make more than $500,000 (Wisconsin coordinators Dave Aranda and Andy Ludwig both make $480,000).

Here are the highest-paid assistants for the 10 Big Ten squads reporting salary:

Michigan: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,400)
Nebraska: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000)
Ohio State: Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($610,000)
Michigan State: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908)
Wisconsin: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig ($480,000)
Purdue: Offensive coordinator John Shoop ($400,000)
Illinois: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and defensive coordinator Tim Banks ($400,000)
Indiana: Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell ($356,500)
Minnesota: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($346,800)
Iowa: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker ($325,500)

Claeys clearly is the best value in the league, as he served as Minnesota's acting head coach during Jerry Kill's health-related absence and remained as the main sideline coach even after Kill returned to duty. Iowa's Parker, along with OC Greg Davis ($325,000) also earned their keep and then some as the Hawkeyes flipped their record from 4-8 to 8-4.

Some Michigan fans will scoff at Borges' salary after the Wolverines offense struggled for much of Big Ten play. Fickell, Shoop and Banks also directed units that had forgettable seasons.

One thing to keep in mind when some of these assistants are mentioned for head-coaching jobs is the pay cuts they'd likely take to lead teams in smaller conferences.

In terms of total staff pay, Ohio State leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally at $3,474,504, trailing LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Auburn. Michigan comes in next at $3,072,000, which ranks 14th nationally.

Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in part because he had lost so many assistants in his final two years in Madison. Bielema's staff at Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in total staff pay ($3,233,000), while Gary Andersen's staff at Wisconsin ranks 28th ($2,495,000)

Here are the Big Ten teams sorted by total staff pay:

Ohio State: $3,474,504
Michigan: $3,072,000
Nebraska: $2,648,500
Wisconsin: $2,495,000
Michigan State: $2,410,483
Iowa: $2,367,500
Minnesota: $2,152,350
Indiana: $2,074,780
Illinois: $2,066,400
Purdue: $2,010,000

We can have an endless about debate whether college football coaches make too much money in general, but these numbers remain problematic for the Big Ten in my view. Only two teams are truly paying top dollar for their staffs, and some groups are undervalued.

Michigan State's staff obviously jumps out after the Spartans just won the Big Ten championship. MSU co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($280,800) and Jim Bollman ($262,000) are among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league, as several position coaches make more than them. Athletic director Mark Hollis said last week that raises are coming for head coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants.

Minnesota's staff also deserves a nice bump after handling such a tough situation this season. I also wonder whether Iowa's coordinators get a raise, especially considering what head coach Kirk Ferentz makes.

Purdue's Marcus Freeman and Jafar Williams are the Big Ten's lowest-paid assistants at $120,000. Only one SEC assistant, Kentucky's Derrick Ansley, makes less than $140,000.

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Kenny Bell caught a 9-yard touchdown pass in overtime and Nebraska rallied to beat Iowa 37-34.
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