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Team Report - NEBRASKA

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INSIDE SLANT

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini will tell you that his defense is still a work in progress. Those are common words coming from Pelini, especially in August.

Yet Pelini is pretty convincing when saying this 2014 unit is far and away more prepared for the season's first game that last season's young crew, which allowed 34 points, 602 yards and a whopping 35 first downs to Wyoming.

That, by the way, was a Wyoming team that won five games and fired its coach by season's end.

As for Nebraska's defense this August?

"I think we're significantly ahead of where we were a year ago. We're not even in the same ballpark," Pelini said. "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."

Talent, Pelini said, wasn't a problem. Youth and inexperience were. Now, Nebraska is deeper, even seemingly able to withstand the season losses of linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey (knee), defensive back Charles Jackson (knee) and safety LeRoy Alexander (suspension).

"I think our backups have come along. We're a lot deeper than we were," Pelini said. "Even on the front line, we didn't have necessary starters last year."

Now, the starting line of Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen is well-established, not to mention pretty formidable. For an idea of how much better this line is, consider that one of last year's part-time starters, Aaron Curry, decided to transfer after falling to No. 5 on the depth chart.

"We were trying to find out about a lot of these guys a year ago. And those guys played at a pretty high level through camp. We're starting to refine them now," Pelini said. "We had some experience in the secondary (last season), but that whole front seven was young. And it made it difficult.

"There were times where we could see that talent last year, but there were also times where we weren't very good."

Sophomore Josh Banderas has stepped up at MIKE linebacker, where Rose-Ivey was likely to start. Coaches are also expecting a big season from rising senior Zaire Anderson at WILL linebacker.

"Luckily we don't play against our defense, because we had a tough time ?" senior running back Ameer Abdullah said. "I feel like the defense as a whole has taken a huge step forward. They have that swagger and that confidence to them. ? They understand that they have a year of experience and now it's time to put it on film."

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--RB Ameer Abdullah needs just 23 rushing yards to become the eighth player in Nebraska history to rush for 3,000 yards in his career. By season's end, Abdullah could conceivably rise to No. 2 on Nebraska's all-time charts. He could also become the first player in Nebraska history to record a trio of 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

--DE Randy Gregory could have a big day against the right side of a Florida Atlantic offensive line that is regarded as weak link. Gregory enters his junior season after leading the Big Ten in sacks as a sophomore, and has put on needed weight.

--OT Alex Lewis is a Colorado transfer who will be making his first Nebraska start at left tackle. Given the rest of Nebraska's line is lacking in starting experience -- a combined 16 career starts -- the experience of Lewis will be key.

--CB Josh Mitchell is Nebraska's most experience cornerback, with 15 career starts, including six last season. His 5-foot-11 listing on the game day roster is probably generous, but Mitchell is a very strong coverage corner who's taken on an important leadership role.

SERIES HISTORY: Nebraska leads the series with Florida Atlantic 1-0. The Huskers won the teams' only previous meeting in 2009 in Lincoln, 49-3.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm looking forward to seeing what we'll put out there on the field. Time to talk is over. Let's find out where we are on Saturday." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on his team's improved defense.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Nebraska went the final seven games of the 2013 season without topping 200 rushing yards in a game, which is very un-Nebraska like. With senior RB Ameer Abdullah ascending on the school's career rushing charts and improved sophomore Terrell Newby behind him, look for Nebraska to end that streak against Florida Atlantic. However, offensive coordinator Tim Beck has also stressed the importance of Nebraska being closer to a 50-50 ratio on pass-run this season, so stay tuned.

Scouting the passing game: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong will start, and unlike last season, when Armstrong replaced injured Taylor Martinez and was involved in a playing rotation with senior Ron Kellogg III, will stay behind center, with walk-on Ryker Fyfe, the No. 2 quarterback playing only if needed. "We're going to play to win the football game," coach Bo Pelini said. "I'm not going to sit there and say we're going to use them for this play and play." Players say the receiving corps, led by senior Kenny Bell, is the deepest and most talented across the board they can remember.

Scouting the run defense: Nebraska's front four of Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen will be as dominant a defensive front as the Huskers have had since the days of Ndamukong Suh in 2008-09. Now, there are serious questions about depth, especially at defensive end, where walk-on Jack Gangwish is the top backup. Staying healthy up front will be pivotal to this defense's success.

Scouting the pass defense: Nebraska took some hits in fall camp with the losses of Charles Jackson (knee injury) and LeRoy Alexander (suspension) for the season, but the depth and talent in the secondary is still strong. Look for versatile junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell to contribute in a big way, likely starting at nickel back, with true freshmen Kieron Williams (safety) and Josh Kalu (cornerback) also playing immediately.

Scouting the special teams: Punter Sam Foltz returns after averaging 41.6 yards his first season as a starter, and he's working to improve his consistency, cutting out the shanks that plagued him at times last season. True freshman Drew Brown and junior Mauro Bondi remain in a neck-and-neck competition at starting kicker, and the familiar faces of Kenny Bell and Ameer Abdullah will highlight the return teams. There's some intrigue regarding Abdullah, who's voiced his desire to contribute on punt block. Bo Pelini wouldn't get into details, saying only that he's looked at Abdullah in a number of different roles.

DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):

--DE Randy Gregory (No. 2 defensive end, fourth overall) -- He's only a junior, but for a sign of how likely Gregory is to declare early for the NFL Draft, consider that he's taken out an insurance policy as a backup plan in case of injury.

--RB Ameer Abdullah (No. 7 running back, 64th overall) -- Pound-for-pound, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Abdullah is among the strongest players on Nebraska's team. He bench presses 380 pounds, squat lifts 580 pounds, and coaches and trainers regard him as a "fast-twitch guy," in that he's able to take his strength and power and deliver it in rapid blows.

--WR Kenny Bell (No. 27 wide receiver, 216th overall) -- Bell needs just 32 receptions to set the school record and 578 yards to surpass 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers atop Nebraska's career charts. Bell could also be instrumental again in kickoff returns, and maybe punt returns.

--S Corey Cooper (No. 11 strong safety, 281st overall) -- Cooper, who led Nebraska with 91 tackles last season, is a hard hitter who knows Nebraska's defense as well as anyone. What's more, he's got Bo Pelini's trust at perhaps the most critical position in Pelini's defense.

ROSTER REPORT:

--WR Sam Burtch, P Sam Foltz and WR Brandon Reilly are walk-ons who've recently been placed on scholarship, coach Bo Pelini announced. All are Nebraska natives.

--WR Brandon Reilly and RT tackle Zack Sterup are questionable for Saturday's season opener against Florida Atlantic, while FB Andy Janovich is probable.

--LS Gabe Miller is out indefinitely -- possibly the entire season -- with a back injury, meaning Nebraska will turn to either LB Nate Gerry or walk-on Josh Faulkenberry for long-snapping duties.

--LB Jaevon Walton, a 2014 signee from New Orleans, has yet to join the team for undisclosed reasons. Coach Bo Pelini said the staff has "worked through some things with Jaevon" and that there's "a good chance" Walton will join the team in January.

--DT Aaron Curry has left the team and is reportedly transferring to TCU. Why did Curry leave? "He didn't like the fact that he was the fifth tackle. There you go," NU coach Bo Pelini said. Curry, a Keller, Texas native, started eight games last season and had 26 tackles, including two sacks.

--OL DJ Foster was recruited a four-star offensive guard, but the true freshman began practicing at defensive tackle midway through fall camp. The 6-3, 310-pound Foster was already taking snaps with the No. 2 defense, alongside Kevin Maurice. Coach Bo Pelini said the position move is not permanent for Foster's career, but that he could provide depth this season.

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