Nebraska Cornhuskers: Trevor Roach

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. -- 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.”

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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.

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