HuskerOnline - Notes: Collins declares for NFL, while Valentine still uncertain
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Notes: Collins declares for NFL, while Valentine still uncertain

Maliek Collins officially declared for the NFL Draft following NU's win in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Maliek Collins officially declared for the NFL Draft following NU's win in the Foster Farms Bowl.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Speculation had been swirling since before the season even started that this might be Maliek Collins’ final year as a Nebraska Cornhusker.

In the wake of his team’s 37-29 victory over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday night, the junior defensive tackle confirmed what many had already suspected and officially announced his decision to declare for the 2016 NFL Draft.

“This is my final season at Nebraska,” Collins said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to go to the NFL. I talked to my teammates and Coach (Mike) Riley, and it’s the best decision for me.”

Collins revealed a few weeks ago that he would request an evaluation from the NFL advisory board to get a sense of what his stock would be if he were to forego his senior season. The results were obviously good enough for him to make the jump to the next level, and Riley said he couldn’t be happier to see his star defensive tackle take the next step in his football career.

“It’s a personal decision,” Riley said. “I’ll give you advice if you want it, but it is personal and whatever way you go we’ll back you. This was a wise move based on what he knows. I’d really like to coach him another year, but we’ll look forward to watching him at the next level.”

With Collins on the way out, the attention now shifts to the status of fellow junior defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, who also requested an evaluation for a potential jump to the NFL.

Valentine said he hasn’t made a decision yet on his future, but would have one “probably in the next couple weeks” before the Jan. 18 deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft.

“We’re just still trying to figure everything out, trying to get all the information I can before I make a decision,” Valentine said. “I’m going to give it about a week or two and then figure it out then.”

Valentine added that Collins’ decision could have an impact on whether or not he stays for his senior season, but it would mostly come down to what he feels is the right move for him and his family.

“Maybe a small portion, but not anything that would determine whether I leave or not,” Valentine said. “I’m making it on my own, making sure I make the right decision for myself personally and not just jumping into it because he’s leaving.”

Kevin Williams' future in doubt?

Nebraska will already be without one returning starter at defensive tackle in Collins, and potentially two if Valentine decides to move on.

It turns out the position could get even thinner than most had thought depending on the status of Kevin Williams.

When it was learned Williams had been granted a sixth year of eligibility for 2016 after missing two seasons due to injuries, Williams was figured to be a key piece in the Huskers’ interior defensive line next year.

However, Williams told after the bowl game that he’s not sure what his plans are for coming back for another season.

“I’m debating,” Williams said. “We’ll see. I’ll talk to my family a little bit and weigh out some options. We’ll see what’s going on. We’ll just see here in the next couple weeks.”

Williams only played sparingly in the bowl game and did not register a statistic in the win. Regardless of what his future holds, Williams said he was extremely proud of what Collins and Valentine have accomplished in their careers.

“I brought them up, you know?” Williams said. “I recruited them. They came in here when I got hurt and came up and started doing their thing. It’s pretty cool to see them come up and do good for themselves.

"I’m proud of them. I’m really proud of them, man. I look at them as little brothers, and we’ll always have each other’s back. I wish them the absolute best of luck in whatever they do.”

Armstrong bounces back to win Outstanding Offensive Player

Tommy Armstrong’s previous game ended with him throwing four costly interceptions in a Senior Day loss to Iowa to close out the regular season. On Saturday, he was named the Outstanding Offensive Player of the Foster Farms Bowl.

The junior didn’t have to do much, but when called upon to make plays with his arm and his feet, Armstrong came up with clutch play after clutch play. He finished the night 12-of-19 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown while also rushing seven times for 76 yards and another score.

Armstrong credited the production of Nebraska’s running game for the bulk of his success, saying it forced UCLA’s defense to load up the box and thus created favorable match-ups for the receivers outside.

“We always said we have to win the one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “We have to give our guys an opportunity to make plays. (UCLA) crowded the box and our guys took advantage and converted crucial first downs. That’s what kept us on the field.”

Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Armstrong responded the right way immediately after the Iowa loss, placing the blame on his shoulders and then backing it up with a positive attitude and strong performance during the team’s bowl preparations.

The biggest key was whether Armstrong would translate that to his play on game day, and based on the newest addition to his trophy case, he most certainly did.

“I love that he just kept competing and working,” Langsdorf said. “I think he put a lot of the Iowa loss on his shoulders, which is good as a leader. That’s important. But it’s also important to keep preparing and play better, and I thought he did that tonight. I thought he made some really good decisions, threw the ball accurately. I thought he was really efficient, and that’s how we have to play. We have to be smart with the ball.”

Thurston steps up to vill void at center

Nebraska rarely rotated its starting offensive line all year long, but early on in the final game of the 2015 season, NU was forced to make a major change right in the heart of the unit.

Senior center Ryne Reeves went down in the second quarter and did not return to the game, and afterwards he was seen on crutches with a protective boot on his foot. Reeves said he had fractured his fibula.

That left the Huskers turning to Paul Thurston, who hadn’t played a meaningful snap since last season’s Holiday Bowl loss to USC. It so happened that the junior from Arvada, Colo., was more than up for the challenge.

Thurston helped Nebraska’s offensive line pave the way for a season-high 326 rushing yards and physically manhandled UCLA’s defense all night long. With Reeves’ career coming to an end, Saturday night may have officially marked the beginning of Thurston’s claim to the title of starting center in 2016.

“I love that Paul came in and played like he did,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “That was scary. We’ve been playing with Ryne all year, and he’s been a great leader on the line, a great leader on offense. Kind of a quiet guy, but really one that we count on and rely on.

"Then he goes down early and I’m thinking, ‘Oh man.’ But then Paul comes in and he directs traffic and held his own in there. It was really good to see him go in there and play like he did.”

Quick hits

***Tonight’s Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA marked the 52nd bowl game in school history. The 52 bowl games ranks third in the nation. The Huskers are 26-26 in bowl games after tonight’s victory. The 26 bowl victories are the seventh most in NCAA history.

***Riley improved to 7-2 all-time in bowl games with tonight’s victory. Riley entered the game tied for fifth in the FBS ranks with a .750 career bowl winning percentage and was one of 11 active FBS coaches with six or more bowl victories entering the bowl season.

***Nebraska trailed 21-7 before scoring 30 straight points en route to tonight’s victory. The 14-point deficit was the largest deficit Nebraska has overcome in a bowl victory. The previous largest deficits were comebacks from 11 points down against Michigan in the 2005 Alamo Bowl (32-28 victory) and vs. Clemson in the 2009 Gator Bowl (26-21 victory).

***Nebraska posted a season-high 326 rushing yards in tonight’s game, bettering the previous high of 258 yards against South Alabama. The rushing total is the highest for Nebraska since rushing for 458 yards against Illinois in 2014. Tonight’s game marked the fourth time this season Nebraska rushed for more than 200 yards (South Alabama, Southern Miss, Minnesota).

***In the third quarter alone, Nebraska rushed for 151 yards, while holding UCLA to minus-5 rushing yards in the quarter.

***Armstrong passed for 174 yards in tonight’s game, pushing his season passing total to 3,030 yards. Armstrong’s passing total marks just the third 3,000-yard passing season in Nebraska history.

***Armstrong accounted for 250 yards of total offense. With his 250 yards, Armstrong increased his career total offense total to 7,998, moving him ahead of Eric Crouch (7,915 yards) into second place on the NU career total offense list.

***Freshman I-back Devine Ozigbo rushed for a season-high 87 yards on 21 carries. His previous season high was 70 yards on seven carries at Illinois.

***Senior I-back Imani Cross scored on a one-yard TD run in the first quarter. The touchdown run was the 28th touchdown run of Cross’ career and his sixth of the 2015 season. Cross finished the game with 15 carries for 55 yards and completes his Nebraska career with 1,599 rushing yards to rank 35th on the Nebraska career rushing list.

***Nebraska junior receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught two passes for 44 yards. With his 44 receiving yards, Westerkamp increased his season receiving yardage total to 918 yards to rank third on the NU single season list. Westerkamp increased his season receptions total to 65 to finish second on the NU single-season receptions list, trailing only Marlon Lucky’s 75 catches in 2007.

***Westerkamp has now caught a pass in 26 straight games, which is the fourth-longest streak at Nebraska.