LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The anxiety Nebraska players felt a year ago has been replaced by an air of positivity as coach Mike Riley enters his second spring with the Cornhuskers.
“It’s like a whole new world,” receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “Having a full year under our belts with this new staff - it’s been a crazy ride so far. It’s been a good one and we’ve learned a lot, gone through a lot with this coaching staff. It was huge for us this winter, coming off that win against UCLA.”
The Huskers won three of their final four games, starting with an upset of Michigan State and ending with a bowl win over UCLA.
“To me, the new season kind of began with the completion of the bowl game, which was a positive for us for a lot of reasons,” Riley said. “There has been a good vibe in the weight room with our team, and I think we are getting a lot of good work.”
Nebraska will open spring practice Saturday with nine starters returning on offense and seven on defense from a team that finished 6-7.
“The transition is a big thing, and we stated that at the beginning of (2015),” Riley said. “It is hard on the players. They have new coaches. No one is around that really recruited them necessarily. We had the chance to learn about each other through adversity.”
The Huskers’ strong finish came after a 3-6 start that unsettled the fan base and had some questioning Riley’s hiring following the firing of Bo Pelini.
“We didn’t necessarily want that, but as we look back on it, what I am most proud of is the fact that everyone kept going. Everyone kind of went to work and … and no one lost their minds,” Riley said. “With all the adversity that we had in a transition year, it could have been a real catastrophe. We played our best ball in the last month and I like that. It says a lot about the players and a lot about the coaching staff, so it gives us a chance to be better and grow and build that thing that is most important in the world that we live in - and that is trust.”
Some things to know as the Huskers go into spring:
BACKUP QB: Either an injury or something really weird would have to happen for incumbent Tommy Armstrong Jr. to not start at quarterback against Fresno State on Sept. 3. The question is who’s next? Riley said Ryker Fyfe, Armstrong’s backup in 2015, would be the No. 2 to open spring. But all eyes will be on four-star recruit Patrick O’Brien, who enrolled in January and is the best long-term fit for Riley’s pro-style offense.
ON THE LINE: Nick Gates and Dylan Utter are the only returning starters on the offensive line, and they’ll be working at different positions. Gates is moving from right to left tackle and Utter slides over from guard to center. David Knevel is the front runner at right tackle. Corey Whitaker and Tanner Farmer will battle at right guard and Jerald Foster and Jalin Barnett at left guard.
WELL-STOCKED AT RB: Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo are the unquestioned top two backs. Mikale Wilbon is an impressive athlete who couldn’t get on the field last season, and he’ll be given a long look. So will Adam Taylor, who’s healthy after a long recovery from a leg injury. Freshman Tre Bryant could work his way into the rotation after he arrives in the fall and help make this an extremely deep position.
D-LINE: The only returning starter, Greg McMullen, will work more at tackle after splitting time at end and tackle last season. Freedom Akinmoladun is a potential impact player after moving over from tight end late in his redshirt year in 2014 and being slowed by a knee problem the second half of last season. Ross Dzuris started four Big Ten games at end and led the Huskers in tackles for loss. New position coach John Parrella needs to build depth across the line.
INJURY REPORT: Five players will miss the spring because of injuries - WR De’Mornay Pierson-El (knee), DB Aaron Williams (knee), DL Kevin Williams (wrist), S Antonio Reed (shoulder) and DL Mick Stoltenberg (knee). Riley said LB Luke Gifford, WR Lavan Alston and WR Brady Pelzer would be limited.
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