So much has been made of the shoes filled by Mike Riley this offseason at Nebraska that perhaps the significance has been minimized of the other 16 new feet on the coaching staff.
We’re focused this week, though, on the most difficult shoes to fill on the field around the Big Ten. At Nebraska, a small but significant departing class helped direct the Huskers to no fewer than nine victories in every year of their careers. Two players stand out as most difficult to replace.
B1G SHOES TO FILL: Ameer Abdullah, IB
Why: Abdullah did everything but line up on defense in his four years at Nebraska. Even when injured, he ranked among the Huskers’ most important pieces. And Abdullah rarely missed time, leaving Lincoln as the first back in Nebraska history to produce three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He topped 1,600 yards on the ground as a senior despite a knee injury that limited him in November. His impact as a leader extended to all aspects of the game.
The skinny: One I-back cannot replace Abdullah. In fact, four probably cannot. He will be missed, but the Huskers have talent aplenty at the position. Cross is a leader in the mold of Abdullah and has rushed for 1,155 yards and 22 touchdowns in three seasons. But he’s limited outside the tackles. Newby can help there. Taylor might offer the best mix of power and speed. And Wilbon appears to fit well in Riley’s scheme.
B1G SHOES TO FILL: Randy Gregory, DE
Why: Gregory was a force off the edge – and from other spots, demanding the attention of blockers and impacting offensive plans with his presence. A fearsome pass rusher, he collected 17.5 sacks and 34 quarterback hurries in two years. As a junior in 2014, Gregory fought regular double teams and created plenty of opportunities for others on the front four at Nebraska.
The skinny: Junior Greg McMullen returns to start after playing opposite Gregory last season. Gangwish filled in for Gregory and has taken the majority of reps with the No. 1 defense this spring. The Huskers figure to find their best pair of ends, regardless of the side on which they played most last season. So Keels, a junior-college transfer who saw limited time a year ago, and Natter may factor in replacing Gregory. Akinmoladun, who came to Nebraska as a tight end, looks good on defense this spring.