By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
That’s good, because it’s unlikely fellow senior Tommy Armstrong Jr., a three-year starter, will be healthy enough to play when Nebraska (9-3) faces Tennessee (8-4) in Nashville.
Armstrong, sidelined by a hamstring injury, has run a little bit but not yet practiced since the Huskers’ season-ending loss at Iowa.
“We will continue to monitor it, but we are going forward as if Ryker is starting the game,” Riley said after Thursday’s practice. “Right now, the trainer is doubtful that (Armstrong) will make it 100 percent by the time we get to the game. What that means as to what he might be able to do in the game is still undetermined, but that says a lot.”
Armstrong, assuming he doesn’t play, isn’t the only senior starter who will be sidelined for the bowl game. Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp has been ruled out after suffering a knee injury in bowl practices, and Riley announced that safety Nathan Gerry has been ruled ineligible to play.
“We’re disappointed for us and for them,” Riley said. “They’ve had great careers here. They’ve impacted lots of things in their life here and had a great impact on the improvement of this year’s team. We definitely will miss them.”
Also, junior cornerback Boaz Joseph will be ineligible to play in the bowl game. Riley said neither Gerry nor Joseph broke team rules or are being disciplined for behavioral issues, and that it wasn’t a coach’s decision.
Meanwhile, Riley is encouraged by the backups for the aforementioned starters, namely Fyfe, a walk-on from Grand Island who’s nearly fully recovered from a wrist injury that sidelined him for the Iowa game.
Riley said Fyfe began taking snaps under center a couple of days ago and is feeling more comfortable every day.
Riley said Fyfe was “outstanding” in going against Nebraska’s top defense on Thursday, noting he’s making quick, confident decisions.
Fyfe made his second career start against Maryland and completed 23 of 37 passes for 220 yards and one touchdown. He also had a career-long 21-yard rush in the second quarter.
“He’s a good runner. I think people misjudge that a little bit. He’s a good runner,” Riley said. “But his forte, I think, is seeing it, making a quick decision and he’s got a great, quick release.
“The other thing you like to see is completions, accuracy. He’s putting the ball pretty much on the money. I thought he had a great day today.”
Meanwhile, sophomore Antonio Reed will replace Gerry at safety. You may recall that Reed last year replaced Gerry in the second half of the Foster Farms Bowl after Gerry was ejected for a controversial targeting penalty.
While Riley didn’t get official word on Gerry’s status until earlier this week, he had been preparing for the possibility for a while, therefore getting Reed more repetitions with the top defense.
“It’s a tough thing,” Riley said. “Nate’s been in that spot in the secondary for a long time, so that’s a tough one, but I am excited about Antonio Reed and his opportunity there, and when I look at this secondary together going forward in this game, and then all these guys will be back, we’ll all like that look. I’m excited for this group to play together.”
Riley said Nebraska will utilize many sub-defensive packages – nickel and dime looks – against a versatile Tennessee offense, led by quarterback Josh Dobbs.
“I think Antonio is a really good football player,” Riley said. “He was slowed down by injury early and he wasn’t in great in shape and I think he’s gotten to the point where he’s in the best shape of this season. I think he’s tough and he’s got as an awareness about playing and making plays as anybody, I think.”
Of the three senior losses, perhaps the least concern is at receiver, where while the Huskers will dearly miss Westerkamp, who finishes a decorated career, they’re not void of depth.
“The one blessing we have there is we have pretty good depth at receiver,” Riley said. “Brandon Reilly is smart and talented, and I think he’ll go in the slot and he’ll make some plays for us. That will be a good thing.”
As for Fyfe likely making only his third career start, senior tight end Sam Cotton has faith in his teammate.
“You know, Ryker’s been Ryker. Confidence for him has never been an issue,” Cotton said. “He’s always been … I mean, to be a backup for as long as he had, it takes a certain kind of character, so I have a lot of faith in him going into this bowl game.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.