Light! Can’t you see the light ahead? That long tunnel of darkness can stretch only so far before it begets Big Ten Media Days in Chicago (July 28-29), which begets the first day of football practice in Lincoln (likely Aug. 4), which begets the Monday (Aug. 25) you walk into the office and realize, "Hey, it’s flipping game week!" — which begets the last Saturday in August, when the darkness finally hides as it should and makes that backyard project something that can be put off until tomorrow because, football.
Now begins the four Sundays in July marching toward those ladder steps that will take us into the 2014 college football season.
With each of those Sundays, the Journal Star will run a "14 in '14" feature - ranking 14 important things that concern the Huskers or the 14-team Big Ten.
Because not every ranking system has to be a Top 10 or 20 or 25. If 14 worked for Jerry Tagge and Barron Miles, it'll work here.
We begin with the 14 players Nebraska can least afford to lose in 2014. Indispensable Huskers. Understand, this ranking is not based solely on who is Nebraska’s best. Depth at each player’s position factors into the list. While analyzing each player’s skill-set, you’re also asking, “Who comes in for him if something happens? How would the team function if said player weren't there?”
You’ll notice this list puts a premium on linemen — both offensive and defensive. Seven of our 14 are the men who do the grunt work.
Of course, dissenting opinions are not only welcome but expected.
Starting at No. 14 …
14 — Vincent Valentine: Showing off dominant traits in flashes a year ago (i.e., his four solo tackles against Iowa), now it's about consistency and being in shape to be more than just a 30- to 35-downs-a-game player. Valentine said last spring his focus was to "learn to be more level-headed and know that I can play on this level and dominate, because I show it at times on film." It was a spring that appeared to treat Valentine well. Standing 6-foot-3, his weight was down to 315-320 pounds and he talked about maybe even going slightly lower. He'd be higher on this list if not for the depth on the interior of the D-line. Besides him, there's Maliek Collins, Aaron Curry, Kevin Maurice and Kevin Williams. The line looks good on paper. But as we've seen in recent seasons, it's a position where the next man better always be ready.
13 — Zach Sterup: He's been in the program for three years. He's added 50 pounds during that time. Now a formidable 6-8 and 315 pounds, Sterup's big chance as a Husker is now. The junior appears the leading candidate to start at right tackle heading to fall camp, though no one on that side holds the key to his position just yet. Given that the right side is probably considered the bigger question mark on the O-line, it'd be great if Sterup can become a mean machine. Adding to Sterup's importance is the fact you also don't know quite who NU has behind him. Matt Finnin could challenge for the job, but he saw few snaps last season. Redshirt freshman David Knevel is another talented tackle to keep in mind, though he's still molding his game. Highly regarded incoming recruit Nick Gates also shouldn't be disregarded, though it'd be asking much for a kid just out of high school to step in and play big snaps. Considering all that, it comes back to Sterup: He's big this year. And we're not just talking about his size.
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12 — Maliek Collins: The sophomore defensive lineman was in many ways the name last spring. Bo Pelini said Collins does things that remind him of former LSU stud Glenn Dorsey. Ameer Abdullah predicted Collins will be an All-American before his career is over. The fact Collins had worked his way into the starting lineup by the bowl game as a true freshman (even Ndamukong Suh redshirted as a true freshman) speaks loudly about his abilities. The fact that he's a 300-pound guy who's also versatile enough to line up as an end and make offensive tackles look bad, well, that speaks even louder. Pelini wouldn't just drop the Dorsey comparison in the spring if he didn't think Collins has all the tools to be special. Collins has said he knows he has to keep working to carry on the tradition former Husker D-linemen created. "I just want to keep working to meet those guys' standards,” he said. “Because, if you don't meet those guys' standards, you feel like you let those guys down."
11 — Corey Cooper: If you're simply talking best Huskers on this team, we'd put Cooper, a safety, in the top four. Heck, he made our rankings of the top 25 players in the Big Ten. He's only lower on this list because of the promise of sophomores LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry, who showed a whole lot of chemistry working in concert this spring while Cooper was out with a turf toe injury. That said, Nebraska will welcome Cooper back to the field this fall. Here is a guy who had 91 tackles in 2013. And, as a senior, he should now know the defense like his phone number, which means so much in a system that only functions at a high level with reliable safety play. The other thing to really like about Cooper: His words carry weight. He's not one of those guys who talks all the time. But when he does, people listen.
10 — Josh Mitchell: Gone are Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. But whenever the topic of cornerback play came up around Pelini during the spring, he responded with confidence about the position. Besides Mitchell, there’s Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell in a good battle on the other side. Daniel Davie is on the mend from injury and newcomers Trai Mosley and Chris Jones could work their way into the competition in a hurry. So maybe there’s good reason for Pelini’s good vibes. Even so, the senior Mitchell is the only cornerback with significant experience. And as good as Jean-Baptiste became, you could argue Mitchell was as good or better as a cover corner last year. Add to it that Mitchell is perhaps the biggest chatterbox on the Husker defense. He gets in people’s faces. Not the kind of guy you want to be without.
9 — Alex Lewis: It only took until the second spring practice for the transfer from Colorado to work his way into reps with the No. 1 offensive unit. His one-on-one battles with Randy Gregory were must-see viewing. Lewis definitely has some nastiness to his game. According to defensive end Greg McMullen, that aggressiveness is “what we need on the O-line, especially with them being very young and their first time out there. I love to see it. It just makes us get better and we’re making them get better.” The Huskers can only hope to avoid the injuries that bogged down the O-line last year.
8 — Zaire Anderson: No linebacker had a better spring than Anderson, the senior who seems likely to take on more of an every-down role than he had last year when he was used more situationally. As confident as this defense seemed after spring practice, you still need some linebackers to take their game from good to great if the defense is going to be dominant. Pelini suggested as much after the Spring Game when he said, “We need a couple guys to really separate themselves from the competition.” Anderson, in his third year in the program, has the type of explosiveness that would be tough to replace.
7 — Jake Cotton: If you combine all of NU's offensive linemen, they've made a combined 16 starts. And Cotton accounts for 11 of them. Now, Cotton may not have been first-team All-Big Ten his junior year like Spencer Long. But, relatively speaking, losing Cotton for any significant snaps, like NU lost Long last year, would probably have a similar impact. In Cotton, you have a senior who appears in the best shape of his life and is seemingly poised to play the best football of his life. He’s a leader this line needs to stay healthy.
6 — Charles Jackson: We put Jackson this high given the importance of the nickel back position in the Husker defense. Given the chance to take the job and run with it this spring, Jackson appeared to make the most of it. It's not as if Nebraska is without other options at the position. Newcomer Byerson Cockrell, for instance, is the kind of player with the proper tools to play the position. But Jackson has been one player Husker fans have been waiting to emerge in an every-down role. “As talented a young man as there is on our football team,” Pelini has said of Jackson. “He can do things that not a lot of people can do.” Jackson still has to prove it. But there’s no question how he performs at nickel back is one of the big keys on whether this defense can take that elite step.
5 — Kenny Bell: The senior wide receiver needs 33 catches to eclipse Nate Swift as No. 1 on NU's receptions chart and 579 receiving yards to take the top spot from Johnny Rodgers. So, yeah, he’s sort of important to the offense. And when ESPN.com did a similar list naming its most indispensable player for each team in the Big Ten, Bell was the Husker offensive player chosen. It’s understandable, but we rank Bell a little lower based on the opinion NU has more talent at wide receiver behind Bell than some assume. Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Burtch, Jamal Turner, Brandon Reilly, Taariq Allen, Alonzo Moore. Those are some of the players who could step up if NU was in a tight spot. With all that said, there’s no denying how much Bell means to this team, not just as a receiver but as a kick returner, where he is very good.
4 — Tommy Armstrong: You can talk in circles about everything else, but it so often comes down to quarterback play, doesn’t it? Does the man at the helm make the right split-second decisions in the heat of competition? Armstrong still has plenty to improve on — notably his touchdown/interception ratio (9/8) and if he can bump up his completion percentage (51.9 percent). But, you know, the sophomore is 7-1 as a starter and veterans such as Kenny Bell and Ameer Abdullah are sold on him. Others, such as Ryker Fyfe and Johnny Stanton, will try to challenge him, but Armstrong heads into fall camp as the No. 1 guy. And, for now, no matter what you think the Spring Game showed, there is still a gap, which is why NU can hope the quarterback injury bug of 2013 does not reappear.
3 — Greg McMullen: It’s understood if your initial reaction is that this is too high for the sophomore defensive end, but there’s good reason we have him here. Because, you simply can’t be sure what Nebraska has right now if either McMullen or Randy Gregory leave the field. Other options include Joe Keels, A.J. Natter (if he's recovered from a spring injury), and perhaps incoming players such as Sedrick King, Deandre Wills and Peyton Newell. Also, sliding Collins out as an end or letting Marcus Newby rush the passer on third-down situations are in play. But when talking about every-down guys on this defense, the good health of a guy such as McMullen, who could benefit from all the attention Gregory gets, is quite critical.
2 — Ameer Abdullah: Sure, Nebraska has some depth at I-back, with Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor all intriguing possibilities. But there is only one Abdullah. As much potential as the others might have, none is ready to duplicate No. 8. He's the straw that stirs the drink on this team. No more words necessary to explain a guy who is 1,804 yards from catching Mike Rozier as No. 1 on NU's rushing yardage list.
1 — Randy Gregory: We've mentioned the depth questions at defensive end. Combine that with Gregory's freakish ability and that's why you find No. 44 at No. 1. He's still admittedly looking to add polish to his game — particularly his run defense — but the fact he had 10½ sacks last season and was first-team all-conference is amazing when you think about it. He stepped on campus a year ago just days before fall camp. Now he's being pegged as a first-round pick in 2015 NFL mock drafts. In other words, the kind of guy you want available at all times.