clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How ready is Nebraska's rebuild? BYU will put it to an immediate test.

New, comments

The remodeling Cornhuskers definitely do not get into ease into Mike Riley's first schedule.

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Week 1 opponents Nebraska and BYU (September 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) are pretty comparable programs at this point.

Both rely on casting a wide net in recruiting, as neither is in a state that produces a ton of elite talent. In the last five recruiting classes BYU signed 38 percent of its players from Utah, while only 10 percent of Nebraska signees were from the Cornhusker State.

Both programs are looking to be national brands. BYU is trying to be an independent contender, playing a 2015 schedule that includes Boise State, UCLA, Michigan and Missouri. The Huskers are trying to rebuild a brand diminished by a 15-year conference championship drought.

BYU is theoretically on an upward trajectory, whereas Nebraska's new head man Mike Riley is trying to rebuild a decrepit structure without accidentally pulling out a support column. While the Cougars return star QB Taysom Hill in a system built to feature his talents, the Cornhuskers intend to totally overhaul the system.

Rebuilding the power-I against the BYU D

The Huskers were famous under Tom Osborne for being a power-I/option running team. Under Pelini, they mimicked this to an extent but with a more Oregon-flavored outside zone/spread option approach. Now with Riley, Nebraska is looking to get back to a more smashmouth style, but might not have the OL for it.

Riley's foundational run scheme is inside or "tight" zone. He wants to power the ball down main street behind a wall of big bodies. Once the defense packs numbers in the box, he'll punish it with sweeps, screens and a vertical passing attack. Active ingredients include big, powerful linemen who can control defenders, a true tight end and a cast of athletes to operate in the space the defense allows.

Riley's last line at Oregon State started the following group against Oregon in the season finale:

Left tackle Sean Harlow 6'4, 295
Left guard Roman Sapolu 6'4, 312
Center Josh Mitchell 6'3, 288
Right guard Gavin Andrews 6'6, 340
Right tackle Dustin Stanton 6'5, 270

Although it was a young group with two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and two juniors, it was a large group. An important key to an inside zone-based scheme is guards who can cover up defensive tackles and either move them off the ball or turn their shoulders to open a crease for the running back. Big and heavy is the way to go in the middle, where OSU averaged 313 pounds.

The OL Riley inherits in Lincoln will look like this on Saturday, assuming no line suspensions:

Left tackle Alex Lewis 6'6, 290
Left guard Dylan Utter 6'1, 285
Center Ryne Reeves 6'3, 300
Right guard Chongo Kondolo 6'4, 300
Right tackle Nick Gates 6'5, 290

That's a group built to secure the edge for outside zone. It has big tackles, while the guards are smaller guys who need to get out and block in space. This group isn't going to thrive when asked to tangle with defensive tackles in a broom closet.

The next ingredient needed is speed. Beggars can't be choosers, but the Beavers never seemed too fussed about their skill players lacking size. Athletes like 5'6, 200-pound back Jacquizz Rodgers and 5'10, 189-pound receiver Brandin Cooks did extraordinary things in Riley's system.

In the run game, Riley and OC Danny Langsdorf would use speed on sweeps and constraint plays to keep edge defenders honest. Those defenders couldn't fill interior gaps against the inside zone play:

In Lincoln, there is a number of solid options. First there's Tommy Armstrong Jr., although this is somewhat awkward, as Riley's offense prefers to feature an arm rather than a running QB. Then there's sophomore receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El, a 5'9, 185-pound speed demon who should be rejoicing over the changes to the offense, once he's back from injury.

The Husker staff is going to have to tinker to feature plays such as the pin-and-pull in order to get the most of this offensive line. They'll also rely on Armstrong to be a constraint on the edge and with his arm, in order to keep the Cougar defense from mauling them in front of a home crowd.

This BYU defense is the worst kind to try implementing a smashmouth identity against. The Cougars have a host of squatty DLs with years in the system, backed by veteran inside linebackers in Harvey Langi and Manoa Pikula. BYU will squash any insufficiently trained inside running games.

What's more, the Cougars will not hesitate to drop safeties down near the action to swallow up constraint plays on the perimeter. That means daring Armstrong to make them pay by throwing outside. With Kenny Bell gone and Pierson-El hurt, the Huskers have fewer options for punishing the aggressive Cougars.

Beating the Cougar D usually requires precision passing or a superior run-blocking front, neither of which Riley has had time to build. Creativity and flexibility will have to be the name of the game.

Earning the blackshirts against the veer

The Cougars have assembled a fascinating team around Hill, with their preferred formation likely a three-receiver, two-back set.

BYU Base O

From this, the Cougars can run all manner of option schemes to get Hill on the perimeter, either with a fullback leading the way or a back or receiver serving as a pitch/pass option.

Their three starting receivers are likely to be the 6'6 Mitch Mathews, 6'5 Terenn Houk and 6'0 Devon Blackmon. That should make them difficult to manage on jump balls or third downs, if and when Hill throws with good placement. These lanky receivers make BYU's perimeter options that much more troublesome, with their length and blocking ability against defensive backs.

Against this, the Husker defense is going to be rebuilt in emulation of the Pat Narduzzi Spartans. Perhaps the main difference from the Pelini defense will be Nebraska linebackers now looking to spill the ball outside to the safeties rather than turning it inside.

With defensive tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins returning and backed by linebackers Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas, the interior of the "Blackshirt" defense looks formidable. They may lack in pass rush, but that's not likely to matter in the first week. Controlling BYU on passing downs is largely a matter of keeping Hill in the pocket.

The bigger challenge is adjusting to the complete mental shift that is a new defense. However simplified it may be from Pelini's, the Cougars are going to hit the Huskers with veer-option plays they don't see often and offer one of college football's fastest paces.

Unless NU's defensive tackles can dominate -- which the BYU emphasis on perimeter option makes unlikely -- the game is going to come down to the play of safeties Nate Gerry, Aaron Williams and Byerson Cockrell.

Last seen chasing Melvin Gordon in the open field, Gerry needs to be a cleanup hitter, either when NU drops him down in the box or asks him to erase mistakes in a deep zone. Gerry had 88 tackles and five interceptions a year ago and is probably Nebraska's best hope at limiting big plays from Hill.

BYU is not a team anyone relishes facing, especially early in the year and when Hill is fresh. The Cougars' 3-4 defense is very multiple and physical, while their offense loves to pound opponents with pace, confusion and angled blocking. If Riley can take down the Cougars while instilling a new vision, it'll be a sign the Huskers have found a real keeper.


Get all kinds of college football stories, rumors, game coverage, and Jim Harbaugh oddity in your inbox every day.