Under ordinary circumstances a preview of Mike Riley’s second season as the Nebraska football team’s coach would begin with the carryover optimism of a 37-29 victory against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl.
The Huskers rushed for 326 yards in the game, which they played only because there weren’t sufficient teams with at least six victories to fill all the NCAA-sanctioned bowls. It was an old-school offensive performance: run the ball and complement that with efficient passing.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. completed 12-of-19 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. And he was sacked only once.
Ah, echoes of the now-fading good-old days of national relevance.
The circumstances of this season aren’t ordinary, however. They are somber, following the death of senior punter Sam Foltz 11 days before the first practice of fall camp. Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler died in an automobile accident in Wisconsin.
“I still think about it quite often,” senior Ryker Fyfe, Armstrong’s back-up, said a week into fall camp. “But I know from being friends with him (Foltz) my whole life, he wants you to move on and compete every day. That’s the kind of kid he was, so that’s kind of what I try to do, you know, move on.”
It’s not easy for Fyfe, who was Foltz’s friend and teammate growing up in Grand Island. Foltz went to school in Grand Island, where his mom Jill taught, from the fourth grade on. But he was a farm kid from Greeley, some 50 miles away, a farm kid and proud of it.
Foltz loved what he did, according to Riley. And everyone could see that.
“He brought a lot of joy to practice. He’s been around here long enough that he’s impacted virtually every guy that way,” said Riley. “Sometimes there’s that isolation, and I’ve said it before, of the loneliness of the long-distance runner when you’re a specialist.
“But this guy was every guy’s guy here, in the weight room, in the running and conditioning; he could actually do it with most any of them. He was that person.”
Foltz was an exceptional athlete, as well as a person for whom delaying a season’s preview this far in, and probably more, is deserved.
As for Riley’s second season, Husker fans would seem to view the UCLA victory as a blueprint for the team’s offense, and with it success. A downhill running game will be an emphasis. “Obviously the run’s a big emphasis,” Langsdorf said. “But the screen game’s gotta improve. We’ve got to have better (pass) protection, complete more passes, and throw less interceptions.”
Nebraska ranked 117th nationally in turnover margin, in part because of 21 interceptions, including 16 thrown by Armstrong, who passed for 22 touchdowns and 3,030 yards, the third-most for a season in Husker history. Better decision-making is the key to passing.
Armstrong also can run the ball, and the plan is to use him in “option-type plays,” said Riley. “But not necessarily the old option, where you give it to the dive man or pitch it. It could be run-pass option and a little versatility that way.”
What the coaches learned last season is “how best to use him,” Riley said of Armstrong. “I don’t know that we’ll run more with him, but we’ll be thoughtful about it. He certainly is a weapon that way. It’s a great complement to what we can do offensively.”
Armstrong has three running backs on whom he can rely: senior Terrell Newby, the team’s leading rusher last season, and sophomores Devine Ozigbo and Mikael Wilbon. Riley also intends to incorporate a fullback in the mix, though a replacement must be found for Andy Janovich, a former walk-on who is now a rookie with the Denver Broncos.
The Huskers also have plenty of wide receivers. “This group in depth is as good as I’ve been around,” said Riley, who includes tight end Cethan Carter among the receiving threats.
Seniors Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore lead the way. Westerkamp and Reilly combined to catch 105 passes for 1,672 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
Nebraska has never had a 1,000-yard receiver – not counting 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers who reached that total before the NCAA included bowl games in official statistics. Westerkamp has shown the ability, and “I’d love to be the first 1,000-yard receiver,” he said.
“But I’m more focused on the team, the team success, and I want us to do whatever we can to win. If that’s me having 1,000 yards, then so be it. But if not, then, again, so be it. I just want our team to win no matter what we do, running the ball, passing the ball.”
In addition to Westerkamp, Reilly and Moore, sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr. has experience, and the return of junior playmaker De’Mornay Pierson-El, after playing in only five games in 2015 because of injury, bolsters the group – along with some talented youngsters.
Offensive success starts up front, where only two starters return, and not at the positions at which they started last season. Senior Dylan Utter has moved from guard to center and sophomore Nick Gates is playing left tackle instead of right tackle.
Still, “I think we have a physical group,” Langsdorf said. “I think that shows up in the line. I think that will help our run game. We’ve got some tough guys up-front.”
The biggest question mark defensively is up-front, with the departure of four experienced players, including three starters and the other with starting experience, who could have returned but didn’t. Ends Freedom Akinmoladun and Ross Dzuris and tackles Kevin Maurice and Mick Stoltenberg are the only experienced players. The others in the mix are redshirt freshmen.
Despite the departures, “I’m going to look at it half full,” said Riley. “I’m really excited about the guys we have coming back.”
First-year defensive line coach John Parrella, a former Husker defensive lineman who played for Riley with the San Diego Chargers, “will bring them along,” Riley said.
Nebraska, unranked in the preseason polls, is five-deep in experience at linebacker, with Josh Banderas, Dedrick Young, Michael Rose-Ivy, Chris Weber and Marcus Newby. Two-year starting safety Nate Gerry, Josh Kalu and Kieron Williams are joined by talented young players in the secondary.
It all depends on those up-front. “Look, you can’t have a great defense without a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback and stop the run,” said Parrella.
Evidence is in the numbers. The Huskers managed only 24 sacks last season, to rank 79th nationally, and they ranked 121st in passing yards allowed.
Junior Drew Brown was second-team All-Big Ten as the place-kicker and was involved in the same kicking camp as Foltz – the Big Ten’s best punter – when the tragedy occurred.
In addition to honoring Foltz with a scholarship in his name, the Huskers will wear “SF27” decals on their helmets this season. Moving on hasn’t been easy.
The start of fall camp was both good and bad, according to Brown. “It’s a good thing because it gets your mind off it, but at the same time, it’s a bad thing because you’re reminded constantly that he’s not here,” Brown said. “I’m here to play football, and I’m here to kick; it’s what I have to do.
“It’s what he would want me to do.”