Nebraska football's summer offseason featured the talk of confidence, excitement and hunger you normally hear, especially for a program beginning the second season of a new coaching staff and offensive and defensive systems.
The 2015 season ended on a high note, with a thrashing of UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl, but Nebraska still finished 6-7, with the loses by a combined 31 points, and four coming on the game's final play. By comparison, Nebraska had five games it lost by at least 31 points under previous coach Bo Pelini.
But the grousing of losses and coaching transition and recruiting and everything that comes with a tradition power program came to a cold stop when harsh reality struck Nebraska's program in July.
Senior Sam Foltz, a native of Greeley, Nebraska, and last year's Big Ten Punter of the Year, died in a car accident in Wisconsin, where he was counseling a kicking camp. He was 22. Not only was Foltz a Nebraska native, he was among the most liked and respected players and teammates not only on this team, but in the history of the program.
"If you want to hear my personal advice on it," Nebraska coach Mike Riley, "what I think about Sam Foltz on the football part of it and what he brought to this team and university, if I could be as happy doing my job and as enthusiastic as Sam was and you guys saw him be, he loved it. He was proud of his craft. He worked at it like a pro. And he did it with a lot of fun and joy."
Nebraska players will wear special decals this season honoring Foltz, and the university athletic department is developing a scholarship in his name. Foltz's locker will remain reserved this season, as was his seat at Fan Day.
"There will be times where I'm going to be sitting there in the middle of the day and something will remind me of Sam," said junior kicker Drew Brown, who as close to Foltz as anyone on the team. "It's probably going to be a great memory, because we didn't have very many bad ones, and it's going to put a smile on my face. But at the same time, it's going to make me miss him even more. I just have to rely on those great memories."
Teammates want to honor Foltz with something Nebraska hasn't produced since 1999 -- a conference championship. The Huskers will have an experienced offense, sound special teams -- led by the return from injury of dazzling punt returner DeMornay Pierson-El -- and a defense that's intent on solving last season's big-play woes.
"You can deal with last week as a grieving period and then channel that into motivation," offensive lineman Dylan Utter said. "I know if Foltzy was still here for us to talk to today, there would be one goal for him, and it just goes to show who he was. He'd want us to win the Big Ten.
"A statue or whatever they might honor him with is cool and all, but I know the one thing he'd want us to do is win the Big Ten not only for him, but for ourselves as well."
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: As the Big Ten Conference enters its first season of a nine-game conference schedule, Nebraska has only three nonconference games. None is bigger than a Sept. 17 home game against Pac-10 power Oregon. The Huskers, who open with home games against Fresno State and Wyoming, could have a golden opportunity to begin 3-0 and make waves on the national scene before they close September with their Big Ten opener at Northwestern.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Nebraska has a veteran quarterback whom teammates admire, and he's throwing to one of the top receiving corps in the Big Ten, if not the nation, led by senior WR Jordan Westerkamp, a first team All-Big Ten selection last season. Senior TE Cethan Carter emerged as a force over the last half of last season, when he had multiple receptions in five of the final six games and also became the first tight end in Nebraska history to score a rushing touchdown. Senior RB Terrell Newby and sophomore RB Devine Ozigbo will battle for a starting job, and senior QB Tommy Armstrong is expected to be more of an option in the running game, too. Defensively, senior S Nate Gerry returns to a secondary that was woeful last season but enters 2016 with confidence, while the linebacker corps, a major question mark last season, is loaded with depth and experience, led by Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas, both of whom missed multiple games last season because of injury.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Kevin Williams graduated and transferred to Michigan State, and Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins entered the NFL Draft after their junior seasons, leaving Nebraska with major question marks on the interior of its defensive line. New defensive line coach John Parrella, a former Nebraska player and NFL veteran, is a key addition, but can Parrella prep some green, albeit talented players in a hurry? Twins Carlos and Khalil Davis and Alex Davis (no relation) are all redshirted freshmen expected to contribute, and senior Kevin Maurice will certainly see an increased role after starting only one career game. The other side of the line isn't without question, either, as Nebraska must replace three starters on the offensive line. Unsettledness in the trenches isn't ideal for Big Ten play, although coaches feel confident about the young talent.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think with veteran leadership we have coming back, with the fact that I think there was some confidence coming out of (the bowl game) and some excitement about what might be, it's allowed me to say I think this is a hungry team." -- Nebraska coach Mike Riley.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Mike Riley, second year at Nebraska, 6-7 record at Nebraska and 99-87 as a head coach
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Tommy Armstrong -- If Armstrong goes down, the season would take a drastic downhill slide. The Huskers can ill afford to lose their senior quarterback, as evidenced by a game he missed last season because of injury -- a defeat to lowly Purdue. Armstrong, without question, must cut down his interceptions. He had 16 last season, many the result of forcing throws that weren't there. A second year under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf's pro-style system will benefit Armstrong, but so will the coaches' pledge to play more to Armstrong's biggest strength -- his feet and ability to make a big play out of nothing.
BREAKOUT STAR: DT Kevin Maurice -- A senior, he's started only one career game, but with the early departures of three experienced defensive tackles, Maurice is suddenly one of the top names along the defensive line. Just when Maurice was beginning to flourish last season, he suffered an ankle injury in his first career start at Illinois, when he had a career-high eight tackles. He missed three games and was slow to recover, but the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Orlando native has shown the strength to hold up against the run as well as the quickness to be an effective pass rusher.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Lamar Jackson -- At the outset of fall camp, Mike Riley said coaches had targeted 5-foot-6 true freshmen who they felt could play immediately. While he didn't name names, Jackson, one of the nation's top 150 recruits according to various services, is likely on that list. The California product chose Nebraska over UCLA, USC, Oregon, Arizona State and Michigan, and could give a spark to a secondary in need of depth.
--Nebraska coaches, players and personnel mourned the loss of senior P Sam Foltz, who died in a July 23 car accident in Wisconsin, where he was attending a kicking camp. Freshmen Caleb Lightbourn and Isaac Armstrong are the top candidates to punt this season. Foltz was the Big Ten punter of the year in 2015.
--Freshman TE Jack Stoll is continuing through a healing process with a wrist injury and is not on the 105-man fall camp roster but will be in Lincoln and around the team for rehabilitation.
--Sophomore DB Nolan Graham suffered a knee injury in practice and still rehabilitating and isn't on the 105-man fall camp roster. Like Stoll, he will be in Lincoln for rehab only.
--Freshman LB Jacob Weinmaster, projected to be a major contributor on special teams, isn't in fall camp practices as he recovers from a back injury.