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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Nebraska football players dispersed late last week for spring break — meaning 11 days without practices — which gives scribes ample time to overthink things.

Here's a thought: The Huskers possess the requisite talent and wherewithal to win the Big Ten West Division. It would be difficult to convince me otherwise, last season's 6-7 record (3-5 Big Ten) notwithstanding.

Yeah, a big turnaround could be in the offing.

Consider a macro viewpoint: Nebraska has the potential — emphasize potential — to be strong on offense, defense and special teams. Roster balance has improved.

Let's also establish that Nebraska's offensive line has size and talent, but plenty of question marks; senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong still takes a few too many chances in the passing game for my liking; and a consistent pass rush off the edge of the defensive line may be a season away.

Can a team win a division crown if it fails to consistently disrupt passers?

Before we proceed, a disclaimer: Three of Nebraska's first six practices were open for media to watch. Full-scale scrimmaging has been minimal to this point.

As you watch, you're mindful that Nebraska's opponents have imperfections of their own — yes, even Ohio State, which will have three new starters on both lines. Iowa, the defending Big Ten West champion, is short on explosive play-makers at receiver (as usual), and has questions on its offensive line. But the Hawkeyes return quarterback C.J. Beathard, cornerback Desmond King and perhaps star pass rusher Drew Ott, who might receive a medical redshirt.

Bottom line, Iowa should be regarded as the favorite to repeat as division champion.

Nebraska, though, should be in the hunt. No excuses. No blaming the previous coaching staff. No blaming transitions to new systems. No blaming bad luck. You make your luck in this world, and the Huskers have enough pieces -- including star power at receiver and tight end -- to successfully navigate a schedule that is rugged in spots but manageable overall. 

A 6-3 conference record should be a worst-case scenario. OK, maybe 5-4. Let's keep it at that, for now, mainly because of Nebraska's issues in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

As for the offensive line, the left side looks promising with sophomores Nick Gates (tackle) and Jerald Foster (guard). Bet on those two as starters. I like senior Dylan Utter at center because his confidence, passion and knowledge of the system offset his physical limitations.

No fewer than three players are in the hunt at right guard (keep an eye on senior Corey Whitaker), while junior David Knevel, all 6-foot-9, 315 pounds of him, shows signs of being ready to hold down the right tackle spot.

He is confident and mature, and much stronger physically than when he arrived on campus from Brantford, Ontario.

"I was a wet noodle when I first got here," he said last week.

He feels a sense of urgency, as he should.

"He's got a chance, and it's his turn," said offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, noting the emphasis for the line so far this spring has been on fundamentals — foot patterns, striking properly, establishing muscle memory, et al.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seems optimistic about the offense in general, although his even-keeled nature can make him difficult to read. Come fall, Langsdorf will largely be judged on how well he manages Armstrong's development.

"I think Tommy is looking more efficient," Langsdorf said. "He's taking care of the ball better."

Which isn't necessarily saying much, considering Armstrong's 16 interceptions last season, and 36 in his career.

As was the case last season, Armstrong is listed at 6-1, 220 pounds. But he looks leaner. He's elite athletically. His impressive arm strength still gets your attention, as does his propensity to throw into traffic. Yes, still. I like it when Langsdorf calls for bootleg action,  because it means Armstrong has to read only half the field.

Meanwhile, Patrick O'Brien has been throwing the ball "very well," Langsdorf said, and head coach Mike Riley also has praised the true freshman. Yes, the rookie shows promise. At 6-4, 230 pounds, he has presence and decent arm strength. He moves well for a big kid. But let's not go overboard. Although I'm not exactly Norv Turner, I think O'Brien has a long way to go before he's ready for prime time.

I wonder if the same may be true for young defensive ends Alex Davis (6-5, 255) and Sedrick King (6-4, 255). The edge-rushers are under the proverbial microscope. They've become impressive physical specimens. Perhaps their time will come. But how soon? We'll see if they can legitimately push Freedom Akinmoladun, who regressed last season after a midseason injury, said defensive coordinator Mark Banker.

New NU defensive line coach John Parrella will help matters. He seems to have hit the ground running. By the way, the D-line's interior should be excellent.

The energy in practice is good-to-excellent, depending on the day. Riley has a steadying manner. He makes time for visitors and — get this — thanks media for coming. Forever upbeat. And why not? Especially now. It's spring. Plus, it's not as if he has Wisconsin's 2016 schedule to dampen his mood. The Badgers' schedule, coupled with their uncertainty at quarterback, effectively precludes them from winning the divisional race.

Nebraska has its own issues, but clearly enough potential for a big rebound season. Believe it. And don't overthink it.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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