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Nebraska's set up for success in 2015. Can Mike Riley capitalize?

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A program with high standards has a decent chance to meet some of them in the first year of a new era.

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Careful what you wish for ...

When a coach raises the bar for a program but then stops raising it, fans get impatient. And impatience can bring iffy decision-making.

-- 2015 Minnesota preview

But even though Nebraska has experienced the phenomenon of dumping a good coach because he's not great -- Frank Solich went 58-19 and got dumped after going 9-3; he was replaced by Bill Callahan, who went 27-22 -- one gets the impression Pelini isn't going to last much longer without a breakthrough season.

-- 2014 Nebraska preview

If they want to fire me, go ahead. I believe in what I have done and I don't apologize for anything I have done.

-- Bo Pelini

It was obvious how this marriage was going to end. It was only a question of when.

Warts and all, Bo Pelini won at a consistent level. Since ranking eighth in F/+ in 2009, Pelini engineered a finish between 20th and 30th in four of five seasons. Following a blip in 2013 -- the Huskers still went 9-4, as was customary, but ranked just 55th -- Pelini's charges rebounded to 30th, playing better than that for three-quarters of the year but suffering significant blips in big games.

The improvement didn't fend off what was certain. Nebraska fired Pelini, forgoing nine wins a year for the dream of more. It was a frustrating end for an obviously good coach, but it was a fresh start we knew would come.

But if Pelini's firing wasn't a surprise, Nebraska's replacement certainly was.

In Mike Riley, Nebraska elected to bring in a guy who a) is the opposite of Pelini in demeanor and b) only won more than nine games once in 14 years at Oregon State. The minuses (he won only 29 games in the last five years) and pluses (he won 70 games in 10 years at Oregon State ... just think of what he could do at a bigger program) of his hire were evident, and honestly, that makes it difficult to know what to expect. His friendly grandpa carriage means he will earn a level of goodwill that Pelini never did, and perhaps that means that on-the-field bar won't be as high.

Then again, Solich was a super-nice guy. He got dumped after averaging 9.7 wins. So forget that part.

We can debate whether Nebraska sets the bar too high, but we know that the 61-year-old Riley will get at least a few years to prove himself. He has crafted one of the most unique résumés in college football -- he won two Grey Cups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, went 14-34 in the NFL, and won 93 games for a power-conference underdog -- and this will likely be his final entry. He inherits a roster that is fun but flawed.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 30
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug Florida Atlantic 100 55-7 W 94% 36.2 100%
6-Sep McNeese State N/A 31-24 W 63% 8.0 98%
13-Sep at Fresno State 102 55-19 W 94% 36.4 100%
20-Sep Miami 31 41-31 W 70% 12.1 65%
27-Sep Illinois 78 45-14 W 86% 25.3 100%
4-Oct at Michigan State 11 22-27 L 27% -14.5 0%
18-Oct at Northwestern 71 38-17 W 90% 29.7 100%
25-Oct Rutgers 81 42-24 W 91% 31.4 100%
1-Nov Purdue 84 35-14 W 86% 25.0 100%
15-Nov at Wisconsin 25 24-59 L 9% -31.0 0%
22-Nov Minnesota 37 24-28 L 35% -9.1 15%
28-Nov at Iowa 63 37-34 W 79% 19.2 93%
27-Dec vs. USC 16 42-45 L 60% 5.7 44%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 35.4 28 25.1 46
Points Per Game 37.8 13 26.4 61

2. Three duds

Inevitable or not, Pelini's firing took place when it did because of three bad performances. Nebraska played at a top-20 level during the rest of the regular season, but when the Huskers slid, they slid a lot.

  • Average Percentile Performance (3 regular-season losses): 24% (~top 100)
  • Average Percentile Performance (9 regular-season wins): 84% (~top 20)

It was not always this stark, but this was a defining characteristic of the Pelini era. In 2014, the Huskers didn't just lose to Wisconsin, they watched as Melvin Gordon set a single-game rushing record. In 2013, they didn't just lose to UCLA and Iowa at home, they lost by a combined 41. In 2012, they lost to Ohio State and Wisconsin by a combined 64. In 2011, they lost to Wisconsin and Michigan by a combined 59.

In Pelini's last four seasons, he lost 15 games, but 11 were by double digits, and seven were by at least 20 points. He went 1-3 vs. Wisconsin, lost his last two against Minnesota, and his last two against Michigan State. And while his 2014 team bounced back after a tenuous 2013, it rarely played well against good competition.

  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ top 40): 40% (record: 1-4)
  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. No. 41-plus): 85% (record: 8-0)

One gets the impression that the magnitude of the losses were as important as the losses themselves. I understand that, even if I stick to my "Be careful what you wish for" attitude.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.94 24 IsoPPP+ 116.4 34
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.6% 41 Succ. Rt. + 117.2 20
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.6 19 Def. FP+ 106.0 13
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.4 66 Redzone S&P+ 119.1 19
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.4 ACTUAL 25 +1.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 33 31 24 34
RUSHING 19 23 19 29
PASSING 82 41 50 36
Standard Downs 39 24 48
Passing Downs 16 28 14
Q1 Rk 23 1st Down Rk 33
Q2 Rk 50 2nd Down Rk 23
Q3 Rk 25 3rd Down Rk 69
Q4 Rk 34

3. A Danny Langsdorf offense

Combining carries and pass targets, Ameer Abdullah had nearly 23 intended touches per game and accounted for nearly 2,000 total yards. Abdullah and Kenny Bell combined to account for 35 percent of NU's targets and 1,059 receiving yards. Losing these two would have changed the identity of the offense even if Pelini hadn't been fired; perhaps this wasn't the worst time for change in the coaching booth.

I enjoyed writing about new coordinator Danny Langsdorf's Oregon State offenses through the years. From last year's OSU preview:

Langsdorf had helped craft what can be called (as a compliment) a "little-league offense," as in everybody touches the ball. Langsdorf and Riley (the play-caller) spread the ball around and gave playmakers opportunities.

In 2013, that meant giving 44 carries to receivers Brandin Cooks and Victor Bolden and targeting running backs Storm Woods and Terron Woods with 104 passes. Andy Staples wrote a lovely piece about Nick Saban and the "not Xs and Os, but Jimmies and Joes" principle; well, Oregon State's offense was the personification. Figure out what your guys can do, then get them the ball in ways that allow them to do it.

Langsdorf served as Riley's coordinator at Oregon State from 2005-13 before taking a job with the New York Giants last fall. He went to creative lengths to get the ball into his playmakers' hands, and while there were blips, the results were solid. In the eight seasons between 2006 and 2013, Oregon State's offense ranked between 16th and 31st in Off. S&P+ six times; there were a couple of stumbles (77th in 2007, 65th in 2011), but there was always a rebound.

Though the names atop Nebraska's skill hierarchy change, one assumes Riley and Langsdorf will find plenty of athletes deserving of the football.

  • Running back Terrell Newby is a former blue-chipper who had a nice spring; he and big Amani Cross have hinted at between-the-tackles efficiency, and Newby did catch eight of 11 targets last season.
  • As a No. 2 or No. 3 wideout, Jordan Westerkamp has averaged at least 11 yards per target in back-to-back seasons.
  • De'Mornay Pierson-El's otherworldly punt return skills scream for a few bubble screens and jet sweeps.
  • Jamal Turner is a spring legend who gets one last chance to produce after missing almost all of 2014 with an Achilles injury.
  • Four other former four-stars (running backs Mikale Wilbon and Adam Taylor, receivers Alonzo Moore and Stanley Morgan) have opportunities to carve out a niche.

There are weapons. We'll see if incumbent quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (or someone who can overtake him) is able to direct as Riley and Langsdorf require.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6'1, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9003 184 345 2695 22 12 53.3% 20 5.5% 7.1
Ryker Fyfe 6'2, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) NR 4 10 40 1 0 40.0% 1 9.1% 3.2
Johnny Stanton 6'2, 230 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8946 1 1 6 0 0 100.0% 0 0.0% 6.0
AJ Bush 6'3, 220 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8044
Zach Darlington 6'2, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8737

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Ameer Abdullah RB
263 1618 19 6.2 6.7 41.1% 4 2
Tommy Armstrong Jr. QB 6'1, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9003 125 803 6 6.4 6.1 47.2% 10 5
Imani Cross RB 6'1, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9066 75 384 5 5.1 4.8 37.3% 1 1
Terrell Newby RB 5'10, 200 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9404 67 297 5 4.4 3.2 38.8% 2 2
Jordan Nelson RB 5'7, 180 Jr. NR NR 13 74 0 5.7 3.6 46.2% 0 0
Ryker Fyfe QB 6'2, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) NR 6 52 0 8.7 5.0 66.7% 0 0
De'Mornay Pierson-El WR 5'9, 185 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8460 5 10 0 2.0 1.1 40.0% 4 2
Graham Nabity RB 6'0, 210 Jr. NR NR
Adam Taylor RB 6'2, 210 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9058
Mikale Wilbon RB 5'8, 190 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8822
Devine Ozigbo RB 5'11, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8560







4. A different role for the run game

Armstrong proved himself a typical dual-threat quarterback last year, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

He completed 53 percent of his passes with a sack rate over 5 percent and an interception rate over 3 percent, but he also rushed for more than 800 yards (not including sacks) and proved adept at getting the ball over the heads of defenders who were distracted by the run. He averaged nearly 15 yards per completion, and while Bell (54 percent catch rate, 16.8 yards per catch) was a big reason, Jordan Westerkamp was, too.

Riley's Oregon State offense required quite a bit of short passing -- in four years as a starter, Beaver quarterback Sean Mannion averaged 11.5 yards per completion, but with a completion rate nearly 65 percent -- and we'll see if Armstrong can pull that off. And we'll see how much the run can help him.

Assuming quicker receivers like Pierson-El [Update: He'll likely miss a few games due to a foot injury] and Turner play a role in the horizontal game, either via handoffs or extended handoffs (quick passes), that could stretch defenses enough to punish them with zone reads and between-the-tackles running by Newby and Cross. They haven't suggested they could become home run hitters like Abdullah, but that isn't necessarily their role. They will be asked to soften defenses up in the middle until they get burned on the outside. It isn't guaranteed to work, but it could.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Kenny Bell WR
87 47 790 54.0% 25.6% 51.7% 9.1 201 9.4 111.2
Jordan Westerkamp WR 6'0, 195 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9060 67 44 747 65.7% 19.7% 58.2% 11.1 217 11.2 105.2
De'Mornay Pierson-El WR 5'9, 185 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8460 36 23 321 63.9% 10.6% 52.8% 8.9 43 8.7 45.2
Ameer Abdullah RB
32 22 269 68.8% 9.4% 37.5% 8.4 6 6.6 37.9
Alonzo Moore WR 6'2, 195 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8856 30 10 136 33.3% 8.8% 46.7% 4.5 -6 4.0 19.1
Jamal Turner (2013) WR 6'1, 190 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9658 19 13 102 68.4% 5.3% 47.4% 5.4 -51 5.3 12.3
Taariq Allen WR 6'3, 200 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8291 17 8 73 47.1% 5.0% 47.1% 4.3 -30 3.7 10.3
Brandon Reilly WR 6'1, 195 Jr. NR NR 15 6 83 40.0% 4.4% 53.3% 5.5 2 5.7 11.7
Terrell Newby RB 5'10, 200 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9404 11 8 45 72.7% 3.2% 45.5% 4.1 -50 4.1 6.3
Cethan Carter TE 6'4, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8572 10 6 98 60.0% 2.9% 70.0% 9.8 24 10.9 13.8
Sam Cotton TE 6'4, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8181 9 3 41 33.3% 2.6% 55.6% 4.6 -2 4.4 5.8
Lane Hovey WR 6'4, 205 Jr. NR NR 8 5 69 62.5% 2.4% 75.0% 8.6 8 8.4 9.7
Trey Foster TE 6'0, 245 Jr. NR NR 3 1 6 33.3% 0.9% 33.3% 2.0 -8 1.3 0.8
Luke McNitt TE 6'2, 240 Jr. NR NR
Lavan Alston (injured) WR 6'0, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8832
Stanley Morgan WR 6'0, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8765
Matt Snyder TE 6'5, 245 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8523








Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 119.8 3.29 3.79 42.0% 68.5% 16.5% 103.0 6.1% 5.7%
Rank 11 24 21 31 58 28 63 91 38
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Jake Cotton LG 24
Mike Moudy RG
15
Alex Lewis LT 6'6, 290 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8243 13
Mark Pelini C
13
Zach Sterup OL 6'8, 320 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8771 10
Givens Price RT 6'4, 310 Sr. NR 0.8382 3
Dylan Utter LG 6'1, 285 Jr. NR NR 1
Ryne Reeves OL 6'3, 300 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8988 1
Chongo Kondolo RG 6'4, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8167 0
Matt Finnin RT 6'7, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8000 0
Paul Thurston C 6'5, 295 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9357 0
David Knevel LT 6'9, 310 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8767 0
Zach Hannon C 6'5, 305 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8625 0
Tanner Farmer OL 6'4, 310 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9021
Nick Gates OL 6'5, 290 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8929
Jerald Foster OL 6'3, 310 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8708
Jalin Barnett OL 6'4, 310 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9207
Christian Gaylord OL 6'6, 275 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8882
Michael Decker OL 6'4, 285 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544

5. A surprisingly good line rebuilds again

I was pretty concerned about NU's line heading into last season; it had performed at a top-50 level but had to replace five players with 125 career starts and entered 2014 with just 15, mostly from guard Jake Cotton.

But while the sack rates ended up iffy, the run stats were great. Granted, you can pin some of the sack issues on Armstrong and some of the run-blocking success on Abdullah, but the line played at the same level despite losing so many starters.

This year, the Huskers try to avoid a double-dipping issue. A year after losing five experienced starters, Nebraska loses three more. Senior tackle Alex Lewis is a keeper, and there are still plenty of juniors and seniors, but when you have to dip into the well twice in two years, depth issues rear their heads. I bet NU avoids serious deficiencies, but it's a red flag.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.90 94 IsoPPP+ 104.3 56
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.9% 32 Succ. Rt. + 105.9 43
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 36.1 1 Off. FP+ 109.0 8
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.5 82 Redzone S&P+ 91.0 99
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.7 ACTUAL 23.0 -0.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 53 49 42 56
RUSHING 80 88 81 93
PASSING 33 18 13 25
Standard Downs 49 59 52
Passing Downs 52 28 72
Q1 Rk 32 1st Down Rk 29
Q2 Rk 62 2nd Down Rk 83
Q3 Rk 85 3rd Down Rk 41
Q4 Rk 9

6. A Mark Banker defense

Riley is a loyal guy. In Langsdorf and Mark Banker, he found two coordinators he liked and stuck with them through occasional shaky years. Banker's philosophy is like Langsdorf's on offense -- figure out what your athletes can do, and craft an identity around that -- and like Langsdorf, there have been hits and misses. Oregon State ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 25 in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012 and 65th or worse in 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2014.

Banker's 2014 Oregon State defense was perilously thin, wore down over the course of a half (58th and seventh in the first and third quarters, and 103rd and 110th in the second and fourth) and struggled to stop the run.

The Beavers created decent havoc numbers, but despite a solid pass defense, run deficiencies led to big plays.

Meanwhile, last year's Nebraska defense created decent havoc numbers, but despite a solid pass defense, run deficiencies led to big plays.

This is familiar territory for Banker, if nothing else.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 93.2 3.18 3.26 37.0% 56.1% 17.2% 84.1 5.0% 4.6%
Rank 93 98 65 41 11 98 93 52 113
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Randy Gregory DE
11 38.5 5.5% 8.5 7.0 1 3 1 0
Greg McMullen DE 6'3, 280 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9068 13 33.5 4.8% 7.0 4.0 0 4 0 0
Vincent Valentine DT 6'3, 320 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8744 13 32.5 4.7% 6.5 3.0 0 2 1 0
Maliek Collins DT 6'2, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8661 13 31.0 4.5% 10.5 4.5 0 0 0 0
Jack Gangwish DE 6'2, 265 Sr. NR NR 12 13.0 1.9% 3.0 0.5 0 1 1 0
Kevin Williams DT 6'2, 275 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8631 10 12.0 1.7% 6.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Kevin Maurice DT 6'3, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8286 10 5.0 0.7% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Logan Rath DT 6'4, 280 Jr. NR NR 2 2.5 0.4% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Joe Keels DE 6'3, 265 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8790
Ross Dzuris DE 6'3, 250 Jr. NR NR
A.J. Natter DE 6'5, 250 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8903
Peyton Newell DL 6'3, 270 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8882
Freedom Akinmoladun DE 6'4, 255 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8575
Mick Stoltenberg DT 6'5, 265 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8296
Sedrick King DE 6'4, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8224
Carlos Davis DT 6'2, 265 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8891
Khalil Davis DT 6'2, 265 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8730
Daishon Neal DE 6'7, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8588

7. This line was bad with Gregory

Randy Gregory entered 2014 as a projected top-10 draft pick, but he struggled with injury and double-teams, and his stats suffered, especially against the run. He was still a strong pass rusher (9.5 sacks in 2013, seven in 2014), but he made far fewer run stuffs (6.5 non-sack tackles for loss in 2013, 1.5 in 2014), and he just didn't get enough help. Nebraska's run defense, a weakness in 2013, remained so last fall. And now the pass rush must also be rebuilt with Gregory off to the NFL.

There are plenty of options. NU boasts nine junior and senior linemen and 10 former high-three- or four-star recruits, and in Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins, the Huskers have a couple of tackles who combine immense size with quickness. But the whole was still less than the sum of the parts last year. That's not guaranteed to change.

There's plenty of new blood at linebacker. Last year's two primary linebackers (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) are gone, and Michael Rose-Ivey returns after missing 2014. Anderson and Roach provided a little bit of desperately needed playmaking against the run, and Anderson broke up five passes. The line better improve because the linebackers might not.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Zaire Anderson LB
13 75.5 10.9% 10.5 2.0 0 5 3 0
Michael Rose-Ivey (2013) LB 5'11, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9010 12 51.5 7.3% 5.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Trevor Roach LB
12 47.5 6.8% 6.0 1.0 0 2 1 1
David Santos LB 6'0, 225 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8736 10 35.5 5.1% 1.5 0.0 1 0 0 0
Josh Banderas LB 6'2, 235 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9053 12 34.5 5.0% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Austin Williams LB
13 10.0 1.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Courtney Love LB
12 5.0 0.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Chris Weber LB 6'3, 220 So. NR NR 13 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Marcus Newby LB 6'1, 220 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8941 9 2.0 0.3% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Brad Simpson LB 6'0, 220 Jr. NR NR 10 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Luke Gifford LB 6'3, 215 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8460
Dedrick Young LB 6'1, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8609








Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Nate Gerry S 6'2, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8534 13 68.5 9.9% 4.5 0.5 5 4 2 1
Corey Cooper S
12 59.5 8.6% 2 0 1 1 2 0
Josh Mitchell CB
13 36.0 5.2% 2 2 1 13 0 1
Daniel Davie CB 6'1, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8532 13 33.0 4.7% 5 0 2 5 0 0
LeRoy Alexander (2013) S 6'0, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8071 13 31.0 4.4% 1 0 1 1 0 1
Joshua Kalu CB 6'1, 175 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8429 13 23.5 3.4% 1 0 1 3 2 1
Byerson Cockrell S 6'0, 185 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8370 13 23.5 3.4% 1 0 1 7 0 0
Jonathan Rose CB 6'1, 195 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9367 13 15.5 2.2% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Joey Felici CB
13 8.5 1.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kieron Williams S 6'0, 190 So. 2 stars (5.2) NR 13 6.5 0.9% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Chris Jones CB 6'0, 170 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8233 12 6.0 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Charles Jackson (2013) S 5'11, 180 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9605 13 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Boaz Joseph CB 6'1, 190 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8422
Trai Mosley DB 5'10, 170 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8282
Eric Lee Jr. DB 6'0, 180 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9414
Avery Anderson DB 6'0, 175 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8935
Aaron Williams DB 5'11, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8610








8. The secondary could succeed with help

Despite continued issues against the run, Nebraska's defense improved from mediocre (66th in Def. S&P+) to solid (46th) because the pass defense went from solid to very good. There were glitches -- Miami and USC combined to complete 51 of 81 for 680 yards, six touchdowns, and three picks -- but for the season, opponents completed 48.5 percent (second-lowest in FBS) with a 104.8 passer rating (fourth-lowest). And NU did this despite a pass rush that was lacking.

The loss of safety Corey Cooper and incredibly underrated corner Josh Mitchell could stem progress, but corner Daniel Davie does return, and Joshua Kalu had his moments as a freshman. Plus, safety LeRoy Alexander returns from suspension. [Update: Alexander is transferring.]

As with the rest of the defense, experience is not an issue. The two-deep could feature as many as three seniors and three juniors, but there might be roles for younger players like Boaz Joseph, or incoming four-stars Eric Lee Jr. and Avery Anderson, if they thrive in fall camp. And if the run defense improves, the pass defense should hold its own.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Sam Foltz 6'1, 200 Jr. 63 42.2 5 20 26 73.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Drew Brown 5'11, 180 So. 47 60.0 14 1 29.8%
Mauro Bondi 6'0, 210 Sr. 34 63.9 15 0 44.1%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Drew Brown 5'11, 180 So. 59-59 12-14 85.7% 2-7 28.6%
Mauro Bondi 6'0, 210 Sr. 1-1 0-0 1-1 100.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Ameer Abdullah KR 14 28.0 0
De'Mornay Pierson-El KR 5'9, 175 So. 10 14.7 0
De'Mornay Pierson-El PR 5'9, 175 So. 34 17.5 3
Kieron Williams PR 6'0, 185 So. 2 14.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 6
Field Goal Efficiency 92
Punt Return Efficiency 1
Kick Return Efficiency 16
Punt Efficiency 70
Kickoff Efficiency 95
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 5

9. Maybe the best special teams weapon in the country

Special teams was long a Pelini strength; Nebraska ranked between sixth and 18th in special teams efficiency six times in seven years, and just about all of the reasons for their 2014 surge are back.

Drew Brown was a steady place-kicker as a freshman (though he was a bit lacking in kickoff distance and on longer field goals), and Sam Foltz's punts are high and long. Ameer Abdullah was an awesome returner, but it's hard to mourn his departure if it means more opportunities for De'Mornay Pierson-El.

We all enjoy good players no matter the position, but we also have our types, the positions or players who get us particularly jazzed up. For some of us, it's a burly running back. For others, it's a killer defensive tackle or a ball-hawking safety. One of my favorite archetypes is the show-stopping return man. From Notre Dame's Rocket Ismail on punts to Colorado's Ben Kelly at the turn of the century, I enjoy great return men a little bit more. (Second place: the long-legged gazelle receivers.)

That means Pierson-El is one of my favorite players at the moment. He's still learning at the receiver position, and as with Kelly and others, there's never any guarantee that a great return guy will thrive on offense or defense. But despite woeful run defense and iffy punt and kick coverage, Nebraska was one of the best field position teams in the country, and Pierson-El was a major reason.

He had a 25-yard return against McNeese State, an 86-yarder against Fresno State, a 62-yarder against Michigan State, a 42-yarder against Purdue, and a game-turning 80-yarder in the fourth quarter against Iowa. He is electric. His Twitter handle is @DontPunt_15, but ... please punt to him! Do it for me.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep BYU 45
12-Sep South Alabama 98
19-Sep at Miami 28
26-Sep Southern Miss 108
3-Oct at Illinois 63
10-Oct Wisconsin 25
17-Oct at Minnesota 42
24-Oct Northwestern 62
31-Oct at Purdue 74
7-Nov Michigan State 9
14-Nov at Rutgers 79
27-Nov Iowa 57
Five-Year F/+ Rk 22.1% (26)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 30 / 23
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 0.4
2014 TO Luck/Game -0.9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (6, 6)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 9.1 (-0.1)

10. An opportunity

The Big Ten is a strangely clustered conference. Ohio State is the clear No. 1, and I think Michigan State will still be a clear No. 2, but any of five teams (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan, Minnesota) could jump to No. 3, and there's barely any separation among the other seven.

Opportunity awaits each team in that No. 3-8 tier, and Nebraska gets Wisconsin and Michigan State at home. Plus, only one of four conference road opponents is projected higher than 63rd. If Langsdorf and Riley are able to press the right buttons on offense, and if the run defense can be mediocre for the first time in three years, Nebraska's got a shot at a really nice season. [Update: Riley said that five to-be-named players will be suspended for the Huskers' opener against BYU.]

Like everybody else in the Huskers' tier, the range of outcomes is wide, but the light road slate makes theirs less questionable than others', and if they beat Wisconsin, they could be in excellent shape of winning the Big Ten West.

Riley is a lovely representative of a university, and he's done all the right things since taking the job. He's undeniably brought happiness, but he still has to win.