LINCOLN, Neb. – Mike Riley’s first spring at Nebraska is over. It was a whirlwind for the coaches and players, who used the 15 practices to grow comfortable alongside each other.
The Huskers closed camp with the spring game on Saturday as a crowd of 76,881 showed to watch quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and the red team beat the white team 24-15.
The outcome of the game pales in comparison to the importance of the months ahead. Nebraska’s success in 2015 depends in part on the Huskers’ ability to build in the summer months on what they learned in March and April. When preseason practice opens in August, Riley and his coaching staff expect efficiency.
Here’s a recap on the spring:
Reasons for excitement
A refreshed feeling. The crowd could sense it on Saturday. The players felt it a few weeks ago. A new attitude persists around Memorial Stadium in the wake of Riley’s hire. The coach brings much-needed positivity after seven years of Bo Pelini, who often fostered an us-against-the-world mentality. Will the new vibe allow for better play or fewer mistakes? Time will tell, but it sure feels like an improvement in general mindset.
Experience at key spots.The Huskers, after nine wins and a three-point loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl last season, return their most battle-tested players at arguably the most important positions on the field – quarterback with Armstrong, left tackle with Alex Lewis and up the middle defensively with tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and safety Nate Gerry. Throw receivers De’Mornay Pierson-El, also a dangerous return threat, and Jordan Westerkamp, plus punter Sam Foltz, and Nebraska has a good base with which to start. The aforementioned players led the way in spring.
I-back Terrell Newby rushed for 53 yards on seven carries Saturday, showing a good burst on the opening possession before an ankle injury sidelined the junior. Newby looks faster and a bit stronger than he showed during the past two years as a backup to Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. Cross returns as a senior, but Newby appears set to lead the pack at running back. His pass protection is adequate, and he provides a legitimate threat as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Linebacker Josh Banderas led the Huskers with 10 tackles in the spring game. More than that, he found a defined role in coordinator Mark Banker’s defense. For the past two seasons, Banderas has battled for an identity, shifting positions at the second level of the defense. He often looked unsure of his assignments. That’s all changed in this scheme, which allows Banderas to attack from the middle and use his athleticism to impact the running and passing games.
Can the defense dominate? Realistically, Nebraska will need more time to gel on offense as it undergoes a major makeover from spread to pro style. And while the offensive coaches showed a willingness to adjust their system to the players’ skill sets, using some zone read in the spring game, it will remain a work in progress. Defensively, Nebraska was middle of the road in the Big Ten last year. Its talent is better than that, and Banker’s group likely needs to play like a top-four unit in the league to win road tests at Miami and Minnesota. Much depends on the development of young players such as end Freedom Akinmoladun, linebacker Dedrick Young, defensive backs Trai Mosley, Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu.
Who’s the backup QB? Armstrong, barring injury or another unforeseen issue, will start Sept. 5 against Brigham Young. But the race for No. 2 is intriguing. Sophomore Johnny Stanton and junior Ryker Fyfe opened the spring with the edge in experience, and some pegged Stanton – a former Elite 11 standout who was recruited by Riley at Oregon State – to challenge Armstrong. Didn’t happen. Stanton sat until the fourth quarter Saturday as redshirt freshmen A.J. Bush and Zack Darlington flashed solid skills. Bush, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, attracted the most notice throughout the spring with his size and athleticism. Darlington looked the best of the backups in the spring game, showing an accurate arm and impressive composure.