Mike Riley

Oregon State football coach Mike Riley smiles at an official during the Beavers' game against Utah in Corvallis earlier this season.

Your eyes dart from player to player, coach to coach, as you watch a Nebraska football practice. You want to see everything. You want to study everything. But because the action is fast, and because there is so much to process, you lock in on only the most important elements.

New Nebraska coach Mike Riley is preparing to lead the Huskers through 15 spring practices. Day One is Saturday. Riley's eyes looked both tired and excited — if that's possible — during a meeting Friday with Journal Star reporters.

His eyes will be busy this spring. So will ours, darting toward the players, coaches, position groups and storylines that are most relevant. Here are eight storylines that spring to mind immediately:

1. Which players will have the biggest presence? Who are the lead dogs? The playmakers? The offseason discussion has been mostly about Riley, his new staff and the 2015 recruiting class. The returning players were almost an afterthought. Until now.

The lead dog? The easy answer is returning quarterback Tommy Armstrong. He's a Grade-A athlete with a powerful voice — literally and figuratively. But he once again has to win his job. De'Mornay Pierson-El is electrifying with the ball in his hands, but is only a sophomore. Is senior tackle Alex Lewis the bell cow on offense? Good luck finding an obvious answer other than Armstrong.

Meanwhile, junior defensive tackle Maliek Collins is perhaps the team's best player, period. He's a likely first-round NFL Draft pick after this season, says former NU defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. Collins is a quiet force. Junior safety Nate Gerry, the leading returning tackler, is more apt to speak up. He could help his team by assuming a strong leadership role.

2. We know plenty about Armstrong. Riley has spoken highly of the 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior. But can anybody overtake Armstrong?

Based on what I've seen and heard, junior Ryker Fyfe of Grand Island will have the best chance. He has a quick release and decent arm strength. His accuracy is excellent. He can play either under center or in the shotgun. He's a good overall athlete. He has a certain calm and confidence that appeal to coaches and teammates.

Perhaps a change in system will benefit sophomore Johnny Stanton, who seemed overwhelmed at times in Tim Beck's offense. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush is loaded with potential.

3. Talk about a bell cow. Talk about presence. Ameer Abdullah became one of the five greatest running backs in school history during the past three seasons. Now, the job's open.

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If Adam Taylor has returned to full speed, look for him to win it. The 6-2, 210-pound redshirt freshman was coming on strong in August before suffering a broken bone in his leg that sidelined him the entire season. He's arguably the team's most complete back because of his strength as an inside runner, coupled with his ability to run outside zone plays.

Senior Imani Cross and junior Terrell Newby also will be in the thick of competition. Don't sleep on redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon or even incoming freshman Devine Ozigbo, although the rugged Big Ten Conference is a formidable training ground for rookies.

4. Josh Banderas, the junior linebacker from Lincoln Southwest, has endured an up-and-down two seasons and strongly considered transferring. He clearly could benefit from the staff change while helping lead a linebacker corps that is alarmingly short on depth.

The 6-2, 235-pound Banderas recorded 14 tackles in the Holiday Bowl, his 10th career start. But Nebraska needs him to become a consistent playmaker. Same goes for fellow junior Michael Rose-Ivey and senior David Santos, who are working their way back from knee injuries.

The Huskers may count on true freshman Dedrick Young to play meaningful snaps. And don't be surprised if sophomore walk-on Chris Weber of Elkhorn pops into the picture.

5. The loss of elite pass-rusher Randy Gregory looms large. There wasn't an opponent last season that didn't turn its pass protection toward Gregory, which made life easier for teammates. Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish are solid ends. But they don't require special attention from offenses. And proven depth at DE is an issue.

6. Which true freshmen, other than Young, could see immediate playing time? It's guesswork, but I think defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson could be in the conversation. Receiver Stanley Morgan intrigues me. Riley likes to incorporate tight ends. Is Matt Snyder ready? Is DaiShon Neal of Omaha read to contribute as a pass-rusher?

7. Exactly what will Riley's "pro-style" offense look like with a dual-threat quarterback at the controls? How much of a quarterback-running game will Riley incorporate?

8. Riley himself. His easygoing, gentlemanly nature off the field is appealing. But he'll bring the heat at times on the field. There's simply no way he's reached the highest levels of his profession by forever hanging back. I want to see and hear how he gets his point across. Same goes for his staff.

The coaches will learn a lot about the players. There's a lot to absorb quickly. We'll do our best as well.

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


Husker columnist

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

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