Nebraska football fans have seen spring practice for 2014 be put into the books and are settling in for a long summer’s wait until fall practice begins and the college football season arrives. But before we leave spring practice altogether, it’s worth taking time to review where we stand and see who the winners and the losers are before fall camp begins.
Coming into the start of the season, it looked like David Knevel had the inside track to start at left tackle. Lewis was still resolving his legal troubles, and it appeared that Knevel would do enough to win the job.
But once Lewis got on campus and began competing directly, he shot up the depth chart. By the end of spring, the transfer from Colorado had wrapped up the starting position, giving defensive end Randy Gregory a run for his money in practice.
Knevel’s position is the opposite of Alex Lewis'. At 6'9" and 305 pounds, Knevel has the physical frame to be dominant as a tackle. After sitting out a redshirt year in 2013, Knevel looked ready to make the jump and compete for a starting job in an offensive line that had plenty of opportunities.
For every winner in the spring, there is a loser. Lewis’ winning of the starting left tackle position, at least at this stage, has come at Knevel’s expense.
Never mind his less-than-overwhelming performance in the spring game. Before spring practice began, most Nebraska fans expected a two-way battle between Armstrong and Johnny Stanton to win the starting quarterback position in 2014.
But very quickly during spring practice, it became apparent that Armstrong was going to win the starting quarterback position. His experience (including his 7-1 record as a starter), his charisma and the chemistry he has built with the rest of the team has helped propel him to his role as the heir apparent for Taylor Martinez.
Many Nebraska fans were hoping that Stanton would have a phenomenal spring and take the starting quarterback position away from Tommy Armstrong. But in retrospect, with Stanton learning offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s scheme for the first time after directing the scout team last year, asking him to come in and compete for the starting job in 2014 was a tall order.
Indeed, not only was Stanton not a serious competitor for the starting role, he is currently in a dogfight with sophomore Ryker Fyfe for the backup position. Perhaps it’s not fair to Stanton, but at least in comparison to where expectations were for many fans at the start of spring, that’s quite a fall.
I’m not sure that a coach has ever had a better offseason than Pelini—in terms of where he was at the start of it to where he is now. At the end of the Iowa game last year, Pelini’s shameful deflection of responsibility and his all but daring athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him led most to think that Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln had come to an end.
But Eichorst stood by Pelini, and between now and then Pelini’s public persona has undergone an extreme makeover. He’s reached out to his Twitter alter ego, @FauxPelini, embracing the parody of himself. He’s opened almost the entire spring practice to the media, something that would be unheard of in years past.
And he topped it all off by taking the field at the Spring Game carrying FauxPelini’s cat, pretty much breaking Twitter in the process.
Comparing Pelini’s perception now to the end of last season, it’s almost hard to recognize the same man. After spring, Pelini is clearly doing great. The true test will come when Nebraska loses a game next year.
In all honesty, adding Eichorst as a loser might be a bit of a stretch. If Pelini’s public relations rehab since the end of last year leads to increased success for Nebraska, Eichorst is going to look like a genius. Instead of firing Pelini, as many urged him to do and thought he would, if Eichorst’s retention of Pelini leads to a division title or perhaps a conference title, then Eichorst will get a lot of the credit for standing by Pelini.
And if Pelini melts down next year, making the decision to let him go will be simple, then Eichorst’s position isn’t really harmed either.
But it’s the status quo that’s scary for Eichorst. Each year of Pelini’s tenure, he has lost four games. What happens if that continues in 2014? What happens if we see the same old Nebraska—decent, but error-prone, and ultimately not good enough to compete at the highest levels?
If that happens, Eichorst is in a bit of a box. He can’t really fire Pelini after delivering functionally the same result as last year. But he also can’t really sit back and do nothing while the Nebraska football program idles in neutral, particularly with schools like Ohio State, Michigan State and now Penn State moving ahead.
Eichorst has taken a gamble on Pelini, and he could find himself in a very difficult situation if that gamble doesn’t pay off.
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