This weekend there are multiple spring football games in the Big Ten, but only one features a new era beginning. Of course, we’re talking about the Mike Riley era for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
After sitting through a brutally boring and eyebrow raisingly bad Michigan spring game last weekend, will the oldest of the new head coaches (in age and in time on the job) fare any better?
Unlike Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, Riley inherits a team with a lot more answers than questions. In fact, the Huskers could well win the Big Ten West division title in 2015. Still, there are questions about transition and a few different ideas that will be brought to the Huskers table this season.
With a 2 p.m. ET date on BTN, let’s find out what things one should be focusing in on come Saturday afternoon.
Pass Rush, Pass Rush and More Pass Rush
Randy Gregory is gone, and so are his 17.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in just two years at Nebraska. He also had seven of the team’s 29 sacks just last season. That’s a lot of production to replace, and it isn’t exactly as if the Huskers had a lot of other options off the edge.
Instead, the pressure may have to come from arguably the best tackle tandem in the Big Ten in Greg Valentine and Maliek Collins. If the group can get a few more sacks and transition a bit from clogging up the middle to attacking, it could bode well for the Huskers in 2015.
Still, off the edge is where things usually come from in a 4-3 defensive pass rush. That’s where youth and inexperience will meet the spring game and make things really interesting. Names like A.J. Natter, Joe Keels, Peyton Newell and Freedom Akinmoladun all have a lot to offer athletically. Let’s see if they can put it together in a game that somewhat matters, in front of a sold out Memorial Stadium too.
Tommy Armstrong, the Pocket Passer
Mike Riley has a bit of a reputation as a “quarterback guru,” and that could be a really big thing for now junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. The bad news is that with a transition to a much more “pro-style” offense, Armstrong will need to be a much more effective and productive passer from the pocket. That wasn’t exactly his strength before, completing just 53 percent of his passes last season.
So, come the spring game it will be very important to see how the transition to a more pass-orientated quarterback is going for Armstrong. The good part is he’s got all the work-ethic to give it a real go, and add in the fact that Riley knows how to use the strengths of his best player to his advantage and you can bet they’ll find a way to meld philosophy and practicality together.
However, Armstrong isn’t the only one to watch come Saturday afternoon. There’s 6-4 redshirt freshman A.J. Bush who has been exploding on the scene with a new coaching staff in town. So much so that the sources we talk to believe he is a real challenger to the perceived notion that Armstrong will be “the guy” in 2015.
If one struggles and the other flourishes on Saturday, there could be a real battle at hand come the fall.
What’s the Offensive Line Looking Like
Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin — those are the three schools most think of when talking offensive linemen in the Big Ten (throw Iowa in the mix too). The 2015 season is going to be a test, as three starters from last season are gone.
Having a solid piece at left tackle is a good starting point for any offensive line, and Nebraska has that in Alex Lewis. Outside of that the pieces have been in flux for the Huskers offensive line this spring, either due to competition or due to injuries keeping guys out of practice.
So, while Saturday can give us all a glimpse of what the young offensive linemen look like, it may be awhile before the true starting offensive line emerges.
If the play is weak on Saturday though, it could be some trouble going forward as well. That’s the important part…can this group become a cohesive unit no matter who is in there?