2015 Husker Preview – Unanswered Questions

4 Sep

In taking an in-depth look at what to expect for the 2015 season, we’ve covered some reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be pessimistic.  Between them, you’d think we have a pretty good gauge on how things will go this fall.

But yet, lingering questions remain.

Some of these may be evident by the end of the BYU game, while others may not be known until January.  Here are some lingering questions, along with my best guess on how they’ll be answered:

Does Mike Riley fully understand what he’s gotten himself into?  This is a question that I’ve thought about many times this off-season.  As you and I know, Nebraska is a unique place* and our singular focus and passion for the football team can catch outsiders by surprise.  For an example, consider the two previous head coaches.  I’m guessing each of them had a moment when they thought “Holy crap, what have I done?”.

*Some say there’s no place like it.

I thought about this during his introductory press conference (broadcast live on multiple TV and radio stations across the state).  Or when 60,000 people showed up for a scrimmage in April.  Or last month at Fan Day when the line for his autograph stretched over 100 yards and he was mobbed by fans as he tried to leave the field.

For his part, Riley has said all the right things in every interview.  He truly appears to appreciate our particular brand of football fervor and seems genuinely appreciative and excited to be a part of it.  There’s a part of me that thinks he “Gets It”.

But there is a part of me that knows Mike Riley has never come out of the tunnel on Football Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska with 90,000 fans in red going crazy.  When he does, will he say “Holy crap” or “Here we go”?

Will Tommy Armstrong be Joe Dailey 2.0?  For those who have repressed memories of  2004, here is the short version:  Joe Dailey was a good quarterback recruited to play in an option based offense.  When Frank Solich was replaced by Bill Callahan, they tried to make Dailey into Rich Gannon.  Dailey looked amazing in the Spring Game, and showed some flashes during the 2004 season.  But mostly, Dailey looked a square peg being pounded into a round hole, and his numbers (17 TD, 19 INT, 49% completion) reflected that.  More importantly, Callahan and company navigated Dailey and the Huskers to a 5-6 record, losing multiple games by trying to win them through the air (see also: Iowa State, 2004).

Despite Riley’s reputation for running “pro style”, pass heavy offenses, I don’t see Armstrong being asked to throw it 40+ times a game or Riley and Langsdorf trying to implement their system completely in Year 1.  Instead, they understand that Nebraska is a “win now” job and Riley has said he wants Armstrong running plays he feels confident that he can execute.  That said, keep an eye on the passes that Armstrong struggles with – are they being removed from the playbook or will Langsdorf keep calling them?

Is completion percentage the stat to track if you want to gauge Armstrong’s success?  Nope, forget completion percentage.  While Armstrong will certainly need to improve upon his 53% completion rate from 2014, that stat can be misleading.  With the combination of another year of experience, an actual quarterback coach, and an increased use of screen passes and short throws to backs and tight ends, a jump in completion percentage is all but guaranteed.

Instead, the stat to watch is touchdown to interception ratio.  To me, TD:INT speaks to Armstrong’s accuracy as a passer, as well as the offense’s success.  Is Armstrong leading the team on scoring drives or is he making bad decisions and forcing throws?  In 2014, Armstrong had a TD:INT ratio of 1.83 (22 TDs to 12 INTs).  That ranked him 56th in the nation (tied with Rutgers QB Gary Nova).  In the Big Ten, Armstrong and Nova were tied for fourth – which really says how poor the quarterbacking in the B1G was last year (four quarterbacks, including three from the West, had more interceptions than touchdowns).

Where should Armstrong end up?  Well for comparison, check out the numbers put up by some other QBs last season:

  • Marcus Mariota:  10.5
  • Cody Kessler:  7.8
  • Brett Hundley:  4.4
  • J.T. Barrett:  3.4 (led the Big 10)
  • Jake Rudock:  3.2
  • Connor Cook:  3.0
  • Dak Prescott:  2.5
  • Brad Kaaya:  2.2
  • Sean Mannion:  1.9
  • Christian Hackenberg:  0.8
  • Trevor Siemian:  0.6 (last of the 12 B1G QBs with enough attempts to qualify)

With the first year in a new offense, I think 2.0 – 2.5 is a good target.  If Armstrong can get above 3.0, Nebraska probably wins the West and Danny Langsdorf earns every penny of his salary.

Who will be the breakout players on offense and defense?  There are lots of young guys getting their first big taste of playing time.  And there are existing guys who may blossom with new schemes and coaching (think Ndamukong Suh after Bo and Carl Pelini came to town).

On offense, I think of guys like Nick Gates, freshmen phenoms Stanley Morgan and Mikale Wilbon, or former walk-ons Lane Hovey and Trey Foster.  However, I’m going with tight end Cethan Carter.  He has the physical traits of the new breed tight ends playing on Sundays and has shown that he can get open.  Unlike Beck who thought the tight end was antiquated, Riley and Langsdorf seem willing to make them viable weapons in the offense.  I know there have been some questions about Carter’s work ethic in camp, along with his suspension for the BYU game, but I’m hoping that serves as a wake-up call.

Defensively, there are a bunch of options.  I like the raw talent of Josh Kalu and Kieron Willams.  I’ve heard great things about Luke Gifford and Dedrick Young.  I’m planning on waving the Jack Gangwish flag at every opportunity.  But I’m going with Josh Banderas.  You can see the athletic ability dripping off of him, and even in the graduate level calculus of Bo Pelini’s defense, you could see the potential.  I’m thinking that in a “high school” defense that encourages him to make plays, Bando could be all conference.

Who takes a step back?  The flip side of talented underclassmen and a coaching change is that sometimes guys who were contributors last year are lost in the depth chart this year.  On offense, I reluctantly look to Imani Cross.  There are too many guys splitting too many carries for Cross to show what he could do as an every down back.  I like Cross a lot and think he could be a great every down back in the right system – I just don’t think Nebraska is going to run that system.

On defense, I’m leaning towards Charles Jackson.  A year ago in fall camp, he was being hyped as physical freak and a star in waiting. Now after being hurt all last year and a coaching change, he is somewhat without a defined position or role.

Of all of the questions, I’m hoping I’m wrong about this one.

Is Mike Cavanaugh’s plan to only play a starting five on the offensive line a smart idea?  In interviews, I have seen Coach Cav say that he prefers to name a starting five who get the vast majority of snaps.  Players have said that if you’re on the starting five, you may not see the field.  The idea is that by having the same five guys out there series after series, game after game, the line will play more as a cohesive unit than a revolving door of linemen (which, by the way, is an amusing mental image).

I understand the concept, but I wonder if there isn’t value in bringing in a “swing” player once or twice a quarter to give a guy a rest, provide some extra coaching, or allow them to kick start a rushing game that may struggle at times.  It’s often said that Nebraska has more fans interested in the intricacies of offensive line play than any other fan base.  If that’s true, consider this something else to keep an eye on.

How many touches will the fullback get?  Speaking of things that are unique to the Nebraska fan base, there is the obsession that some of us have with getting the fullbacks involved in the offense.  I’m definitely a member of the Fullback Cult (give me a couple of minutes and I probably could name every starting fullback for the last 20 years), but my fullback fanaticism is multiplied by the senior season of Andy Janovich, from my hometown (Gretna, NE).  To the best of my knowledge, nobody from my alma mater has scored a touchdown for Nebraska.  Heck, I think Janovich’s career yardage total (35) is 35 yards more than all of the other Gretna Dragons combined.  So yeah, I’m invested in this one.

The good news is I think Janovich could see the ball once or twice a game, if not more.  If he gets into the end zone, the guy losing his mind in North stadium will probably be me.

Will the “tap out” rate be lower than it was in years past?  I’m not referring to MMA here.  Instead, I’m talking about how players signal that they need to come off the field by tapping their helmet.  In the past few years, there were several players a game who would tap out.  Some were injured, and some just needed a breather on the sideline before coming back in.

I respect players for knowing when they are not able to give 100% – I’d rather have a back up get beat for a touchdown than a starter who is gassed.  But in a perfect world, the player would be in good enough shape to not need a blow during an eight-play drive.  I never bought into blaming former Strength & Conditioning coach James Dobson for knee injuries, but players tapping out because they’re tired definitely goes on his tab.  The reviews on new S&C coach Mark Philipp have been very positive.  I’m hopeful that translates to the field.  We should find out during an unseasonably warm September Saturday afternoon.

What is the statute of limitations for comparisons between Bo Pelini and Mike Riley?  You know it is going to happen.  A lot.  Somebody talking or writing about Nebraska will make some type of comparison between how things are under Riley and how they were under Bo.  The odds are good that most will – innocently or otherwise – imply that Bo’s way was wrong.

But when should these compare and contrast sessions cease and desist?  When the ball is kicked off on Saturday?  At the end of the season?  When conference play starts?  At some point in the last nine months?  Never?

We all know Riley will appear in a lot of comparisons to Pelini this year.  The one word overview of each coach (fiery versus nice) makes for an easy target – especially for national media who are not around the program every day. As for the local guys and gals, I’d like to see everybody get start the season with four* Coaching Comparison cards where you can analyze how “Riley is doing X different from how Bo did it” without upsetting the masses.

*Technically, everybody started with five Coaching Comparison cards, but everybody used one when the Blackshirts came out before a game was played.

Use them all on the BYU game or horde them for the next four seasons.  The choice is yours, but when they’re gone you’re done using Pelini to illustrate a point about how Riley is running his program.

I’ll try to abide by this too, so feel free to call me out when I use up my cards.

How should we gauge success / progress?  This is the million dollar question for the season.  The simple answers you’ll hear are “meet or exceed Bo’s 9-4 record” or “avoid blowouts”.  But I’m not sure that tells the whole story.

Admittedly, this is a loaded question as “success” tends to refer to wins and losses while “progress” deals more with how the program has changed with Mike Riley at the helm.  Those are not necessarily the same thing.

As far as wins and losses go, yes, I think that the season will be declared a success if the 2015 Huskers win nine (or more) games.  It doesn’t matter if you consider nine wins to be the standard, a minimum expectation, or irrelevant.  When a national pundit does a two sentence summary on if Nebraska is trending up or down, the number of wins will be something they look closely at.  Without getting into the whole nine win debate, it will be likely be tough to make an argument that an 8-5 season under Riley was better than any of Bo’s 9-4 seasons.

As for “progress”, it is tougher to set trackable metrics around that.  Is “avoiding blowouts” not losing a game by 20+ points?  Is it having a higher ranked recruiting class?  Moving the team GPA and arrest numbers in the appropriate directions?

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