Experienced offense could put Nebraska on top of Big Ten West
Nebraska’s 5-7 record in 2015 was not indicative of the talent level in Lincoln. Six of the seven losses were by one possession, a staggering four of them by one or two points. Their opening week loss on an end-of-game Hail Mary pass to BYU and Week 3 overtime loss to the University of Miami set the tone for an extremely frustrating year for the Husker faithful.
Looking beyond the record, however, there were numerous positives to be taken from last season. Focusing on the offensive side of the ball, Nebraska had our top receiving and rushing grades in the conference, and had the third-highest pass blocking grade. Considering the Cornhuskers return seven starters on offense, Nebraska fans have reason to be very optimistic as we embark on the 2016 season as their team will be one of the most experienced and explosive in the conference on that side of the ball.
While the offense sees some attrition, the majority of Nebraska’s top players return this season. FB Andy Janovich is the unit’s biggest loss, as he was our fifth-highest graded FB in the country, second in the Big Ten to Wisconsin’s Derek Watt. Outside of him, backup RB Imani Cross (4.0 yards per carry last year) departs, as do four offensive linemen with at least 500 snaps last year. While the offensive line could see a dip in early production due to continuity issues, RG Zach Sterup is the only graduate off last year’s group to have a positive overall grade.
Returning from the offensive line for this season is RT Nick Gates, who is the highest-graded returning tackle in the Big Ten by a significant margin. His run block grade from 2015 is the seventh-highest in the country among returning right tackles, and in pass protection he yielded no sacks and just one hit. The Cornhuskers’ top RB also returns, as Terrell Newby contributed 767 yards rushing at 5.2 yards per carry, forcing 23 missed tackles.
QB Tommy Armstrong’s weekly overall grades look like he was auditioning with the Smothers brothers due to his boom-or-bust passing, but his running ability was a huge reason for the success of Nebraska’s ground game. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry rushing with 253 of his 542 yards coming after contact. In terms of his passing ability, he displayed the ability to distribute the ball on intermediate routes, but his poor deep ball accuracy (30-85 for 969 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions on throws at least 20 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage) and spotting decision-making prevented the offense from reaching its full potential. Learning to identify underneath and safety coverage will go a long way toward him improving in 2016, as 10 of his 16 interceptions last season were on throws to the middle of the field.
Familiarity and dependability with his skill position players will also help Armstrong elevate his passing game, and luckily for him this is easily Nebraska’s best and deepest unit. Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly are the two highest-graded returning receivers in the Big Ten, as the duo combined for 105 catches and 1672 receiving yards. While those totals don’t appear impressive by college standards, a deeper dive into our analytics show they finished third and fourth in the Big Ten (among returning WRs) in yards per route run, which is a measure of offensive production on a per snap basis. Penn State’s Chris Godwin was number two in that category, but the top spot? That belonged to Nebraska’s Alonzo Moore, who had the sixth-highest receiving grade in the conference despite just 358 total snaps.
Stanley Morgan Jr. also returns for 2016, and he also graded positively last year. The icing on the cake is TE Cethan Carter, who not only was a productive receiving threat (24 catches for 329 yards with five forced missed tackles), but the eighth-highest graded run blocking TE in the country last year returning for this season, second in the Big Ten to Iowa’s George Kittle. So much is traditionally made about the importance of continuity on the offensive line, but the same holds true with other positions. No team in the Big Ten returns more quality talent at the offensive skill positions than Nebraska, thus we should see a significant jump in production not only from a more confident Armstrong, but from the entire offense.
The defense is also in solid shape, as the Big Ten’s second-highest graded run defense from 2015 returns 12 positively graded defenders in the run game, and it boasts players at every level likely to make the All-Big-Ten team. The schedule is not kind to Nebraska this year, as key games against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa are all on the road. However, it does avoid Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, and considering the talent returning on both sides of the ball, the Cornhuskers are likely to be Iowa’s top challenger to the throne in the west division.