Bo Pelini arrived for Monday’s news conference on the week of the Nebraska football team’s season-opener in a red sports coat that would have made Bob Devaney proud. About the only thing missing, in fact, was Devaney’s signature red fedora.
“I like the look,” Pelini said.
He had worn the coat in honor of Nebraska’s 125th football season, said Pelini, and “I wanted to pay my respects to Coach Devaney and Coach (Tom) Osborne.”
Though Nebraska’s rich tradition pre-dates the two Hall of Fame coaches, the 36 seasons they coached back-to-back, they established the standard by which Pelini is measured. That standard includes 21 conference titles and five national championships.
Pelini’s teams have won neither, which is why there has been some dissatisfaction despite his 58-24 record in six seasons, a total that includes one bowl victory as interim coach following the firing of Frank Solich after the 2003 season.
In case you’ve forgotten, Solich had a 58-19 record in six seasons, with one conference title, and three of his teams finished with a top-10 national ranking.
The point is, following Devaney and Osborne isn’t easy (no great insight there) as Pelini’s record illustrates. Each of his teams has won at least nine games. Three have won 10. And all have played in bowl games, though none a BCS bowl.
And with the NCAA instituting a national championship playoff this season, even traditional BCS bowl appearances won’t mean what they once did.
The Huskers first must win a Big Ten title, and to do that they must win the expanded conference’s West Division, which includes Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue.
Though Pelini’s seventh team entered the season with a No. 22 ranking in the Associated Press poll and was regarded, at best, a divisional darkhorse, Nebraska fans were optimistic because of a favorable schedule, though the toughest Big Ten games are all on the road, and a defense built around junior end Randy Gregory and an offense featuring senior I-back Ameer Abdullah.
Pelini’s signature is defense, of course, and this one should be solid, with young players getting experience during a rocky start last season. “We’re still a work in progress,” Pelini said at the end of fall camp. “But I think we’re significantly ahead of where we were a year ago.
“We’re not even in the same ballpark. That gives me a level of comfort. You can just talk to guys at a different level than we could a year ago. Last year we were just hoping to get lined up right.”
Gregory is probably a case in point. He led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks, nine of them in conference play and the 10th in the Capital One Bowl victory against Georgia – an effort that tempered a lopsided, regular-season-ending, home loss against Iowa and made for a slightly more relaxed off-season.
Gregory and sophomore tackle Vincent Valentine are the only returning starters up front. Valentine began the season as a starter but gave way to Aaron Curry five games in and didn’t start again until an injury created an opportunity. Curry has since transferred to TCU because of the competition at tackle.
Maliek Collins, who started the bowl game as a true freshman, is the other tackle alongside Valentine, and sophomore Greg McMullen is the other end.
“I think the light turned on for those two during spring practice,” said Pelini. “There were some good things last year, but also a lot of things they needed to get better at. If you put on the film and look at how they were last year, they’re not even close (to now).
“And I can really say the same thing about Vincent Valentine.”
The linebackers are experienced, with David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Josh Banderas all having started, Banderas four times as a true freshmen. Add senior Trevor Roach, who missed last season because of injury, and redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby, and there’s depth, although Michael Rose, who was tied for third with Gregory in tackles last season, has been lost for the season with a knee injury, suffered early in fall camp.
Junior defensive back Charles Jackson, who figured to be the starting nickel, also suffered a season-ending knee injury early in fall camp, leaving new secondary coach Charlton Warren with a little less flexibility. Seniors Corey Cooper, a safety, and Josh Mitchell, a corner, are among the team’s five co-captains, a reflection of the respect they’ve earned from teammates.
Sophomore Nate Gerry, who started three games at linebacker as a true freshman, is back at the position for which he was recruited, safety. LeRoy Alexander, another sophomore, would have fit in there, too, but he has been suspended for the season.
Even without Rose, Jackson and Alexander, the defense is impressive, beginning with the front four. “Luckily we don’t play against our defense because we would have a tough time,” said Abdullah, an offensive co-captain along with wide receiver Kenny Bell and guard Jake Cotton.
“Maliek Collins and ‘Big V’ (Valentine), they give us a tough time (in practice). Obviously, Randy (Gregory) is Randy. Greg McMullen is a strong guy on the edge as well. Those guys are much more physical, much more active up front.”
The defense “as a whole has taken a huge step forward,” Abdullah said. “They have that swagger and confidence about themselves. They’re more confident in their abilities. They understand they’ve had a year of experience and now it’s time to put it on film.”
Abdullah has already earned a place among the best running backs in Nebraska history. He ranks eighth on the Huskers’ career-rushing list, 903 yards short of Ahman Green, who’s second, and 1,803 short of No. 1 Mike Rozier, the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner.
Abdullah, who rushed for 1,690 yards last season, could accomplish something no other Husker has, rushing for 1,000 yards three times. What would that mean to him?
“It’s probably like 49th on my list, I would say,” he said.
How about 1-through-48?
“Win is like 1-through-38, and then you’ve got championship 39-through-47,” he said.
Abdullah has carried the ball 507 times the last two seasons and caught 50 passes. He also returned four kickoffs last season, after being a regular kickoff and punt returner as a freshman and sophomore. He has touchdown returns doing both, 100 yards on a kickoff and 81 yards on a punt.
Despite his involvement on offense and need to stay healthy, he plans to contribute on special teams this season as well, “all of them,” he said.
Apparently that’s more than a wish. “He’s got a lot of different roles,” said Pelini. “As far as returning (kicks), we have a couple of different roles for him. There are different things we’ve been working on. He’s good at everything he does. He’s got great balance and great strength.
“And he competes. He wants to be out there, and we’re going to use him.”
How Abdullah does will depend on the offensive line, of course, where Cotton is the only returning starter. Alex Lewis, who lines up alongside Cotton at tackle on the left side, has starting experience but at Colorado, where he started 14 games over two seasons, including two at tight end, one a tackle and 11 at guard as a sophomore in 2012.
Lewis transferred after an off-the-field incident that led to his serving a jail sentence during this past summer. “He kind of had a tough road to get to where he is today, but last fall when he wasn’t with the team and going to school, he was still coming around with us,” Cotton said. “He’s fiery. He’s competitive, and there really wasn’t any learning period with us.
“It just kind of clicked right away last spring.”
Fiery and competitive describe Cotton as well. He and Lewis are “crazy folks,” said Abdullah. “They come off the ball hard. They love blocking the run. They love putting someone on their back. And I love running behind them. There’s a lot of energy on that side of the line.
“They dictate the momentum for us as an offense.”
Senior center Mark Pelini is the one to whom other linemen go if they have questions. He knows the system inside out. And the complete structure of the line will become apparent in the non-conference season, with several players in the mix, among them Mike Moudy, Zach Sterup, Ryne Reeves, Matt Finnin, Givens Price, David Knevel, Chongo Kondolo, Paul Thurston and Dylan Utter.
Whoever emerges, “we’re going to have great guys out on the field, guys who aren’t worried about me or worried about themselves. They’re just ready to go out there and attack,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s brother, Sam, and Cethan Carter are the top tight ends and just sophomores, and Bell heads up the wide receivers.
Bell, like Abdullah, is in position to break Husker career records. He has led the team in receptions for three seasons and needs 33 to surpass Nate Swift on the all-time list. Also, with 579 receiving yards, Bell will pass Johnny Rodgers on that all-time list.
The competition at wide receiver includes Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner, Sam Burtch, Taariq Allen, Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly, who along with Burtch have been put on scholarship.
Which brings us to the quarterback, sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr., who probably should be much higher in this story based on the amount of copy devoted to him and his competition with sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton during fall camp.
Armstrong got an opportunity last season when Taylor Martinez was sidelined by injury and responded with a 7-1 record as a starter. But he threw eight interceptions in addition to nine touchdown passes, and went through the growing pains of every young player.
“You have to experience some things, especially at that position, to progress and move along,” said Bo Pelini. “I think he had a lot better handle on the offense. I think he understands the offense. Is he perfect? No. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s perfect that plays that position.
“I know this, he’s a lot more prepared to be lined up on the center this year than he was at this point a year ago, or even at the end of last year.”
For now, at least, Armstrong is charged with leading Nebraska into season No. 125, with Memorial Stadium’s consecutive sellout streak at 334 following the opener against Florida Atlantic. Pelini was asked about the streak at that Monday news conference.
“How much thought do I give it? I mean, that’s not really my job,” he said. “My job’s to, hopefully, put the best product out on the field, and that will, hopefully, take care of itself.”
As Devaney often joked, when he arrived at Nebraska in 1962 he was assured the fans were behind him, “win or tie.” The dynamic is the same, though there can be no more ties.