Year two of the Mike Riley era begins and questions abound about where this team is heading. That will happen after a rare losing season in Lincoln, Neb. It will also happen when the offense sputtered so often and plenty of holes are left on the roster.
Riley went in to the offseason having seen an offense that actually worked in the Foster Farms Bowl victory and finding a way to mesh his ideas with his personnel on a better level.
Did that happen? The 2016 season will tell, but so will the ability to fill in the holes that are missing from graduation and a lack of production in 2015.
Let’s take a look at what Riley’s second Huskers offense will look like.
There is no question about Tommy Armstrong’s status as the starter at quarterback anymore. After two offseason’s of wondering if he would hold on as the starter, Armstrong’s leadership and style have finally meshed well with head coach Mike Riley.
While the system isn’t going to be what Riley ultimately wants, Armstrong unquestionably gives the Huskers the best chance to win. He proved that in the Foster Farms Bowl, showcasing a tough running style to go along with efficiency as a passer.
This offseason also showed Armstrong was finally becoming a competent and consistent passer. He also appears to be on much more of the same page with Riley and his offensive philosophy. The merging of the two as one mind on the field is important if the Huskers want to become real contenders for the B1G West division title.
Outside of Armstrong, progress was also made with a younger group of passers, but most importantly was the progress of senior Ryker Fyfe. He looks to be a clone of what Armstrong can bring to the table, and that means no need to modify the offense should anything happen to the starter.
One of the perceived reasons Nebraska was such a good fit in the Big Ten was its tradition at running back. It was a tradition that carried through the first few years of B1G membership, but the Huskers fell on hard times last season.
Veteran Imani Cross got the first crack and just didn’t have enough to be a factor for this team, while Terrell Newby added some spark and eventually topped the rushing list with 765 yards. However, this team was led in rushing touchdowns by quarterback Tommy Armstrong, and that’s not where this team wants to be.
Newby did an admirable job in 2015, but has to show more sizzle to really get this offense going. Look for him to pair up with 225-pound Devine Ozigbo, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry in limited action last season.
Don’t sleep on redshirt sophomore Mikael Wilbon either, as he could be the future at the position. At least this trio has some intrigue, pop and muscle behind it. Look for a much improved season out of the running back position for the Huskers.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
If there’s one position group that shouldn’t be a worry for Rile and the Nebraska offense, it will be wide receiver. Not only will star senior Jordan Westerkamp be back, but so will intriguing junior De’Mornay Pierson-El who suffered two horrific injuries that saw him make just a handful of appearances for Riley’s team last season.
Having both back and healthy only adds to a group that also features the likes of seniors Brandon Riley (40 receptions, 754 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Alonzo Moore (24 receptions, 395 yards, 6 TDs). There’s also rising sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr., who played a very helpful depth role with Pierson-El out most of last season.
The depth doesn’t stop there though, as Cethan Carter became a big time weapon for the Huskers at tight end last season. He finished fourth on the team with 24 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns.
As long as this group isn’t ravaged by injury, look for the passing game to take a huge leap.
The final part of the Huskers offseason plans for B1G West division domination are finding a healthy, deep and talented offensive line to help Armstrong feel more comfortable in the passing game and to open more holes in the run game.
It will be easier said that done, but spring ball was a good start towards making some noise on the ground at least. Mammoth right tackle David Knevel may be inexperienced, but is also talented enough to possibly be the best overall linemen in the group. That’s a helpful start, but so is finding the answer at center, which seems to have come from Dylan Utter. His switch from guard to center looked smooth in the spring and should be refined by the time the season opener against Fresno State rolls around.
Also helping to build confidence is the steady hand that is a healthy Nick Gates at left tackle. His return to 100 percent could be a game-changer and a much-needed help to a young and inexperienced group behind all the starters. Filling out the starting rotation is likely redshirt freshmen Tanner Farmer at right guard and Jerald Foster at left guard (sliding in for Utter).
Behind this group are a whole lot of fresh faces with not much in the way of game experience, meaning health will be a key to keeping things together offensively in 2016. Still, don’t be surprised to see names like Jalin Barnett and Michael Decker get reps along the way regardless of injuries or not.
Our Projected Starters:
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Sr.
WR: Alonzo Moore, Sr.
WR: Stanley Morgan Jr., So
LT: Nick Gates, So.
LG: Jerald Foster, RS Fr.
C: Dylan Utter, Sr.
RG: Tanner Farmer, RS Fr.
RT: David Knevel, RS Fr.
TE: Cethan Carter, Sr.
QB: Tommy Armstrong, Sr.
RB: Terrell Newby, Sr.