Nebraska football fans, still basking in the afterglow of NU’s first bowl win since 2009, can now turn an unfiltered eye to the future. As the long offseason is truly upon us, it is time to consider what questions Nebraska must answer for next season to be more successful. After the drama and disappointment surrounding 2013, Nebraska fans would welcome an uptick in fortune and better results to celebrate.
For that to happen, here are five areas of concern Nebraska must address.
Tommy Armstrong put in a solid performance against Georgia in the Gator Bowl, rushing for 26 yards on 10 carries and going 6-of-14 for 163 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Additionally, his demeanor and ability to direct the offense, particularly from a redshirt freshman, was certainly impressive.
However, there is little doubt that this spring will be a battle for the starting quarterback position between Armstrong and Johnny Stanton. We saw what uncertainty at signal-caller can do to disrupt an entire program, as Nebraska wobbled for weeks while dealing with an injury to Taylor Martinez.
Both Armstrong and Stanton have great potential. But for Nebraska to succeed in 2014, it must have certainty and consistency at quarterback.
In terms of players returning, the offensive and defensive lines hold what might be the biggest question marks for Nebraska’s roster in 2014.
On offense, Nebraska will be graduating both starting tackles (Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles), a starting center (Cole Pensick) and one starting guard (Andrew Rodriguez). While the injuries this season have helped to build depth, Nebraska will be starting next season with an offensive line that has a lot of new faces, and it will need to build chemistry quickly for NU (who will be starting, at best, a sophomore quarterback) to succeed.
On defense, Nebraska loses a defensive tackle (Thad Randle) and a defensive end (Jason Ankrah) to graduation. While there were certainly areas to be excited about by younger players like Randy Gregory and Vincent Valentine, there will still be some plugging of holes on the defensive line due to graduation. That attrition is one reason why junior college signings like Terrell Clinkscales and Joe Keels will need to provide some instant impact.
Having potential is great, of course. But until you see potential translate into performance on the field, the area still has to be one of concern.
The other area where Nebraska has been hit hardest by graduation is in the secondary. Nebraska loses two critical defensive leaders in nickel back Ciante Evans and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Cast your mind back to the start of 2013, when Evans and Jean-Baptiste really carried an otherwise-struggling defensive unit, and you get an idea of how big their absence will be next year.
Next year will be a big test for Jonathan Rose, the Auburn transfer who likely has the inside track on one starting corner position. But finding out who will fill those roles for the Blackshirts next year will be one of the biggest questions that need answering.
Hey, how about that? Win on turnovers and win on special teams, and Nebraska can beat a team even from the vaunted SEC.
Against Georgia, Nebraska was plus-one in turnover margin and plus-seven in points scored off turnovers—and won the game by five. After seeing what happened against Michigan State and Iowa, football’s version of the Hippocratic oath should have been burned into the brains of Nebraska coaches and fans alike—first, do no harm.
As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, one swallow does not a summer make. Nebraska under Bo Pelini has struggled with consistently putting together a clean game, avoiding turnovers and penalties that give the opponent a head start.
In year seven of Pelini’s tenure, though, maybe the tide has turned and Nebraska can lessen the number of bullet holes in its collective cleats. Certainly, Nebraska fans hoping for greater glories in 2014 know that is what they will need to see.
After the Gator Bowl, Pelini looked genuinely happy and expressed his appreciation for the support he received from Nebraska’s administration. With the kind of pressure he faced during the season (most of which was self-inflicted), it was certainly refreshing to see a relaxed and happy Pelini hoisting a trophy.
But last year was a reminder that Pelini’s darker side, the one from early in his tenure in Lincoln that many thought he had outgrown, was still there. The Iowa game, both during and afterward, brought that darker side out of Pelini, and Nebraska’s performance struggled as a result of its return.
Adversity will come again to challenge Pelini and his charges next year. If Pelini is able to handle that adversity with maturity and grace (as he has before), Nebraska is far more likely to weather those storms successfully. So Nebraska fans hoping for great things in 2014 will certainly not want to see a return of “Coach Chickenbleep.”
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.