14 Teams in 14 Days: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Oct 5, 2013; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Ameer Abdullah (8) breaks away for a touchdown against Illinois Fighting Illini defender V'Angelo Bentley (2) during the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. Photo: Image by Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Bo Pelini's tenure in Lincoln has been nothing if not consistent. The Huskers have won at least nine games and reached a bowl in all six of Pelini's seasons as Head Coach, with a 58-24 overall record. They've been good, but not great.
Following an embarrassing 38-17 loss to Iowa there was growing speculation that Pelini would be fired. It appeared as though even Pelini believed that speculation as well when he addressed the looming speculation saying "if they want to fire me, go ahead." However, things quickly turned around as the Huskers knocked off Georgia in the Gator Bowl. Shortly after, athletic director Shawn Eichorst not only didn't fire Pelini but rather gave him a contract extension, making him Nebraska's head coach through the 2018 season.
Taylor Martinez had his ups and downs while quarterbacking the Huskers but he was the starting quarterback for the better part of four years. A planter plate tear suffered in the fourth quarter of Nebraska's season-opening victory over Wyoming effectively ended his season. He would play in the next two games but wasn't 100% and would only make one more appearance in 2013. Martinez left Lincoln holding school career records for passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense.
Replacing Martinez, as he did for most of 2013, is Tommy Armstrong Jr. The Huskers went 7-1 in the games Armstrong started for the injured Martinez. He has a firm grasp of the offense and offensive coordinator Tim Beck says Armstrong has the "it" factor. At this stage in his career Armstrong is a far more effective runner than he is a passer. For a Huskers team that ranked next-to-last in the B1G Ten in passing last year, he'll certainly need to improve upon that.
Behind Armstrong is All-B1G Ten running back, Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah rushed for nearly 1,700 yards in 2013 (forth most in school history) and notched 100 or more yards in 11 of Nebraska's 13 games (tying a single-season school record).
In addition to Abdullah, the Huskers have Imani Cross and Terrell Newby, both figuring to get their share of work. Cross managed to score 10 touchdowns in 2013 despite only logging 85 carries. Adam Taylor is another option. Taylor is more of a between the tackles back and redshirted last season because of the depth at the position.
Despite their struggles passing the ball last season Kenny Bell still managed to earn All-B1G Ten honors. The senior has led the Huskers in receiving each of the past three seasons and led the B1G Ten in kickoff-return yards. To truly show how one-sided the Huskers passing attack has been, Bell has more receptions the past three season than the rest of the wide receivers on the roster combined. He'll likely leave Lincoln as the career leader in receptions and receiving yards.
The hope is that Jamal Turner finally puts everything together and becomes a game-breaker opposite Bell. Turner has the tools but has been marred by inconsistency. They also have Jordan Westerkamp, notable for hauling in the game-winning Hail Mary catch against Northwestern last year.
The offensive line has been largely rebuilt following the departures of senior tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, center Cole Pensick and guard Spencer Long. Left guard Jake Cotton returns and he's joined by Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, stepping in at left tackle. The right side of the line remains in question while center is expected to be filled by Mark Pelini (nephew of Bo).
Randy Gregory led the B1G Ten with 10.5 sacks last season and ranked in the top 10 nationally with 19 tackles for loss. He's back for his junior season and is the most experienced member of a young defensive line. Following his transfer from Arizona Western Community College, Gregory developed into the athlete many thought he would be when he was still in high school, receiving basketball scholarship offers before football came into play.
Joining Gregory up front are sophomores Vincent Valentine, Malick Collins and Greg McMullen. Valentine dropped weight in the offseason to increase his quickness and hopefully become a force as a pass-rusher.
Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach both missed all of 2013 with injuries. They both return this year and are the only seniors in the linebacking corps. David Santos led the team in tackles last year and while Pelini said he's competing for a job, logic would dictate he'll be one of the starters. Josh Banderas is penciled in at the final spot for now, but look out for Michael Rose. Rose was third on the team with 66 tackles last year, but 49 of them came in the final five games of the season.
In the secondary Nebraska is breaking in their fourth coach in the last five seasons. This year its Charlton Warren's turn. Ciante Evans had his best season a year ago, earning All-B1G Ten first team honors and set single-season school records for tackles for loss and sacks by a defensive back. Evans is gone to the NFL now and tasked with replacing him will be Charles Jackson.
Jackson's best fit may be at nickel back, so junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell has the chance to step in and replace Jackson on the outside. Leading the secondary will be senior cornerback and safety Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper.
|8/30||vs FLORIDA ATLANTIC|
|9/6||vs McNEESE STATE|
|9/13||@ Fresno State|
|9/20||vs MIAMI (FL)|
|10/4||@ Michigan State|
The schedule is more challenging than it was a season ago. Non-conference matchups at Fresno State and with Miami will be challenging but are very winnable. They avoid Ohio State again, but do have Michigan State on the schedule again. The big games though are the road trips to Madison and Iowa City. The B1G Ten West figures to be won by Wisconsin, Iowa or Nebraska. Winning those games is a must if its going to be the Huskers.
The Huskers are the biggest wild card in the B1G Ten west, if not the entire conference as a whole. They feature all-conference players and potential all-Americans in Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory. Its a very young team, especially on the defense and the defense has been a unit that's struggled mightily in recent years. Add to the mix inserting a young quarterback, even though he started eight games a season ago, and there's a lot of questions around this team.
The talent is there for a division championship if it all comes together.