No. 7: Nebraska
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 27, 2011
The Big Red revival continues, but with a slight change in characters. So long, Iowa State. The Cyclones will now be played by Minnesota, which is a slight improvement. The role of Kansas will be played by Northwestern; again, a substantial improvement. Michigan State will play Kansas State, but the Spartans will never, ever match the sort of antipathy the Cornhuskers shared with the Wildcats — ever, ever. Farwell, Missouri, and best of luck; Nebraska never meant those mean things it said, and I’m sure those feeling are reciprocated. Michigan will be the new Tigers, and while that’s a not an improvement today it stands to reason that Michigan will one day return to the nation’s elite. The annual date with Colorado will become a heartland affair with nearby Iowa, and if recent chatter is any indication, the Hawkeyes will bring a bit more — how should I put this — interest to the rivalry. The role of Oklahoma remains undecided; Oklahoma wasn’t even Nebraska’s Oklahoma over the last decade, to be honest. Please consult your program and mark these important changes. And yes, things will never be the same again.
Big Ten, Legends
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
at Penn St..
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 25
Last year’s prediction
Even without Suh, Nebraska has a top-tier cornerback duo — secondary in general, in fact — which will keep the pass rush running at full tilt. Don’t underestimate the importance of another season in this system, even if Pelini and his staff are tweaking the scheme somewhat in 2010. All told, I’m extremely high on the Cornhuskers. If Lee earns the starting nod, the sky is the limit — I could very easily see Nebraska playing for a national championship. I hate to harp on it, but in my opinion, Pelini would be doing this team a disservice by going with untested athleticism under center rather than a steady, healthy senior. Again, if I knew that Nebraska was going with Lee, not Martinez, I’d have the Huskers higher than fifth.
In a nutshell Certain games came easy for Nebraska, such as a Thursday night shellacking of Kansas State or an early win at Washington. Most games, however, were like pulling teeth: fans booed the offense, bemoaning then-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s perceived lack of imagination; became irate at the first sign that the officials — or even the entire Big 12 — were against them; and like Nebraska’s head coach, screamed and gnashed their teeth when things didn’t go according to plan. It was just another year for Nebraska’s loyal following, even if the team retained a more calm, cool and collected viewpoint on the proceedings. The defense remained one of the best in the country, thanks to the nation’s top secondary — ask Washington’s Jake Locker about this secondary. The offense had phases of incompetence, but when fully healthy was vastly improved over 2009. One problem: the offense, most notably at quarterback, wasn’t healthy for the last two months of the year. Hence a late slide, which Nebraska must use for motivation heading into 2011.
High point A 31-17 win over then-No. 6 Missouri on Oct. 30. That victory followed a 51-41 win at Oklahoma State, giving Nebraska its finest two-week span in the better part of a decade.
Low point Three losses, each of the painful variety. Nebraska had no business losing at home to Texas, and struggled with penalties in a 9-6 loss at Texas A&M. The Cornhuskers also held a 17-0 lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game but tossed it away with a sloppy second half. Then came the worst showing of the season: after bombing Washington during the regular season, the Cornhuskers were sloppy, sluggish and downright incompetent in a Holiday Bowl defeat.
Tidbit The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in every season since 1962 but six: 1967-68, 2002, 2004-5 and 2007. Just as a comparison, let’s hold the rest of college football’s historical elite to the same standard. Alabama has 19 such seasons, if you include 1993, over that same span; Georgia has 22; L.S.U. 19; Michigan 27; Notre Dame 21; Ohio State 30, if we count last fall; Oklahoma 26; Penn State 30; U.S.C. 23, if you include 2005; Tennessee 23; and Texas 28. Over the past 48 years, Nebraska’s five former Big 12 North division brethren (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri) combined to win at least nine games in a season a grand total of 29 times out of 245 potential years, with all but eight of those seasons coming from Colorado and Kansas State.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Alex Payne, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Navy preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Nebraska Cornhuskers. Take it away, Alex Payne:
Two questions will determine Nebraska’s success. First, and most important, is whether the Defense can adjust from finesse spread to blunt smash mouth football. If the defensive transition is flawless, nine wins is the baseline to what Nebraska should achieve. Second, if Tim Beck can make the most of incredible speed, Nebraska will be substantially more competitive in big games. If both of these crucial transitions happen, Nebraska is a legitimate national title contender. However, I foresee a staunch defense with an above-average offense that flashes, but doesn’t quite click. Prediction: 10-2, with a losing performance in the B1G championship.
Tidbit (Big Ten edition) New teams, new stadiums, new players, new coaches, new rivalries. It’s all topsy-turvy for Nebraska, which knew what it would get with Missouri, Colorado and company but forges new relationships with the Big Ten in 2011. How have the Cornhuskers fared against the rest of the new conference? Here’s a historical look, with a recent glance at the results:
Illinois 6-2-1, not since 1986
Indiana 7-9-3, not since 1978
Iowa 26-12-3, 2-0 from 1999-2000
Michigan 2-3-1, won 2005 Alamo Bowl
Michigan State 5-0, won 2003 Alamo Bowl
Minnesota 20-29-2, not since 1990
Northwestern 3-1, won 2000 Alamo Bowl
Ohio State 0-2, losses in 1955-56
Penn State 6-7, 1-1 from 2002-3
Purdue 0-1, lost in 1958
Wisconsin 3-2, not since 1974
Former players in the N.F.L.
41 DE Pierre Allen (Seattle), CB Prince Amukamara (New York Gianst), S Larry Asante (Tampa Bay), CB Zack Bowman (Chicago), LB Stewart Bradley (Arizona), WR Chris Brooks (Indianapolis), K Josh Brown (St. Louis), S Josh Bullocks (Oakland), DE Adam Carriker (Washington), LB Phillip Dillard (New York Giants), LB Cody Glenn (Indianapolis), S Eric Hagg (Cleveland), RB Roy Helu (Washington), K Alex Henery (Philadelphia), OG Ricky Henry (Chicago), OG Russ Hochstein (Denver), OG Richie Incognito (Miami), RB Brandon Jackson (Cleveland), OT D.J. Jones (Miami), LB Chris Kelsay (Buffalo), P Sam Koch (Baltimore), K Adi Kunalic (Carolina), TE Mike McNeill (Indianapolis), OT Lydon Murtha (Miami), OG Carl Nicks (New Orleans), LB Steve Octavien (Cleveland), WR Niles Paul (Washington), TE Zach Potter (Jacksonville), C Dominic Raiola (Detroit), LB Barrett Ruud (Tennessee), LB Scott Shanle (New Orleans), OG Matt Slauson (New York Jets), DT Ndamukong Suh (Detroit), S Rickey Thenarse (Seattle), DE Barry Turner (Detroit), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Detroit), CB Fabian Washington (New Orleans), CB Anthony West (San Francisco), LB Demorrio Williams (Kansas City), OG Keith Williams (Pittsburgh).
Arbitrary top five list
2011 draft picks by the Washington Redskins
1. WR Leonard Hankerson (3rd round, 79th overall).
2. RB Roy Helu (4th round, 108th overall).
3. LB Ryan Kerrigan (1st round, 16th overall).
4. S Dejon Gomes (5th round, 146th overall).
5. WR Niles Paul (5th round, 155th overall).
Bo Pelini (Ohio State ’90), 30-12 after three full seasons in Lincoln. Pelini was 1-0 when he took over as the Nebraska head coach, having replaced Frank Solich for Nebraska’s 17-3 Alamo Bowl victory in 2003. That game concluded a one-year stint in Lincoln for Pelini, who was hired earlier in the year as the Huskers’ defensive coordinator after nine seasons coaching in the N.F.L., most recently with the Green Bay Packers. Pelini also coached with the 49ers (1994-96) and the Patriots (1997-98) — both times alongside former U.S.C. coach Pete Carroll — before taking on a job with the Packers, coaching the linebackers, from 2000-2. Pelini might not have had the same impact on the Nebraska defense in 2008 as he had as the defensive coordinator in 2003, when he helped the Huskers finally rebound from its devastating finish to the 2001 season: late-season losses to Colorado, 62-36, and to Miami, 37-14. His defense ranked second in the F.B.S. in scoring defense and 11th in total defense that fall, and made Pelini the fan’s choice to replace Solich. Pelini’s effect on Nebraska’s defense in his second go-round has been equally impressive: the 2009 group was the most well-coached defense in the country, and last year’s group again ranked among the best in the nation. Spurned by the former athletic director Steve Pederson in his search for Solich’s replacement, Pelini spent the 2004 season as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma before taking the same position at L.S.U., where he spent three seasons (2005-7). Louisiana State’s defense finished among the top five in the F.B.S. in each of his three years at the helm; in 2007, the national title-winning Tigers finished third in the nation in total defense (288.8 yards a game) and takeaways (36). Now entering his fourth season as the full-time coach, Pelini still has some aspects of the assignment to work on, most notably his temper — he’s more Bob Devaney than Tom Osborne, to put it mildly — and the team’s recruiting, though the latter has recently picked up. Still, it’s hard to imagine Nebraska doing a better job in finding Bill Callahan’s replacement.
Tidbit (coaching edition) It was evident that a coaching shakeup was in the works near the end of last season, but the changes extended to the defensive side of the ball, which was a bit of a surprise. The two new additions to the defensive staff are linebackers coach Ross Els, formerly of Ohio, while secondary coach Corey Raymond comes to Lincoln via a graduate assistant stint at L.S.U. — when Pelini was running the defense — and via a few months under Kevin Wilson at Indiana; hired last December, Raymond jilted the Hoosiers in February for a second chance to work under Pelini. The new offensive additions are former high school coach Ross Fisher as receivers coach and former Nebraska offensive lineman John Garrison, who will help Barney Cotton along the line while working with the tight ends. Now, the big change: former running backs coach Tim Beck, who helped call plays under Mark Mangino at Kansas, will be Nebraska’s new offensive coordinator. Goodbye, West Coast-spread hybrid. Hello, run-based spread, no hybrid.
Players to watch
When he was on, sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez was a Heisman contender. I’m talking September and much of October, all the way through Nebraska’s win over Missouri, when Martinez suffered the first of several lower-body injuries that derailed his freshman campaign. Through Oklahoma State — Nebraska was 6-1 at this point — Martinez had thrown for 1,046 yards, 9 touchdowns and 3 picks while adding 870 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. After the Holiday Bowl loss to Washington, Martinez had 1,631 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and 7 picks with 965 yards and 12 scores on the ground. So what happened?
Injuries, first and foremost, but a lack of confidence also played a role in his late-season slide. Martinez’s confidence was sapped by his inability to perform on the same level as he did through the first of the year; it was also sapped, in my opinion, by the coaching staff’s poor handling of their freshman starter. Well, Martinez needs to toughen up — mentally, then physically. Being the starting quarterback at Nebraska has always demanded a tough psyche, as recent starters like Eric Crouch, Jamaal Lord and Joe Dailey can attest, and Martinez needs to get to the point where he’s immune to the slings and arrows tossed in his direction.
If Martinez can take the physical pounding associated with being a quarterback in this spread-based attack, he can put up some rather lofty totals. Speed? He has that in spades, perhaps even more so than Michigan’s Denard Robinson, largely considered to be the nation’s fastest at the position. Martinez needs to improve in two meaningful areas: one, he needs to become better at the read play, doing a better job reading defenses on this key part of Nebraska’s offense; and two, he needs to hone his passing mechanics. Martinez will never be a prolific passer, but he showed what he’s capable of in last year’s win over Oklahoma State. If he can develop his confidence, become a better leader in the huddle and be more consistent as a passer, Martinez is a Heisman contender. If he fails to improve, Nebraska will turn the keys over to redshirt freshman Brion Carnes, who had a very strong spring.
It’s junior Rex Burkhead and a bunch of freshmen at running back. After serving behind Roy Helu for the last two years, Burkhead (951 yards and 7 scores) will take center stage for an offense that wants to pound away on the ground during Big Ten play. Injuries were an issue in 2009, when the then-freshman broke his foot, but Burkhead has proven himself to be a capable, consistent, sometimes big-play back with the strength and mentality to carry the offense. He and Martinez make a nice pair. The Cornhuskers moved wide receiver Curenski Gilleylen into the backfield in an effort to provide depth, and former walk-on Austin Jones is there in reserve. But the carries that don’t go to Burkhead may very well go to a batch of heralded freshmen, led by top recruit Aaron Green. He, Braylon Heard and Ameer Abdullah are in line for significant snaps.
Nebraska had five player post double-digit receptions in 2011: Burkhead, Brandon Kinnie, Niles Paul, Mike McNeill and Kyler Reed. Paul and McNeill have since gone, leaving Kinnie, a senior receiver, and Reed, a junior tight end, as the undisputed leaders in the passing game. Kinnie (44 catches for 494 yards) is the lone experienced hand on a receiver corps still looking for complimentary targets. Here’s a name to remember: true freshman Jamal Turner was recruited as a quarterback but quickly acclimated himself to receiver, and is a favorite to join Kinnie in the starting lineup. Another freshman, Kenny Bell, will factor into the mix. Nebraska also likes Quincy Enunwa, a big-bodied sophomore who played sparingly last fall but should be in the rotation in 2011. That’s probably your top four, though junior Tim Marlowe could branch off of his work on special teams to earn some snaps. Reed (22 for 395, team-best 8 scores) is one part of a very strong tight end combination; he’s the flash to junior Ben Cotton’s smash, taking advantage of the open field when the opposition squeezes up to play the run.
Over the last two years, Nebraska has held opponents to 20 passing touchdowns against 39 picks, which is amazing; allowed opponents to complete 48.2 percent of their attempts, which is also amazing; and allowed only 166.2 passing yards per game, which is, yes, amazing. Where does it start? Is it because the secondary has been chock-full of stoppers? Is it because the defensive line has ranked among the top three in the country? Is it because the front seven as a whole punches you in the mouth for 60 minutes? Try a combination of all three, which is why Nebraska continues to put forth as good a defense that can be found anywhere in the country. And that’s why Nebraska’s a national title contender, in short.
The defensive line chews up ball-carriers, foams at the mouth at the idea of getting to the quarterback, plugs up holes and begs for more. It’s a group paced by one of the best defensive players in the country in senior tackle Jared Crick (70 tackles, 17.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks), who continued playing at a very high level last fall despite the loss of Ndamukong Suh — some predicted he’d take a step back, but that wasn’t the case. Crick is the sort of defender any great unit demands: strong enough to hold up blockers against the run and quick enough to put pressure in the backfield, he’s the driving force behind all Nebraska does on the defensive side of the ball. Joining Crick in the middle of the line is junior Baker Steinkuhler (46 tackles, 4 for loss), an honorable mention all-Big 12 pick last fall. Depth comes from sophomore Thaddeus Randle and senior Terrence Moore (16 tackles, 3 for loss).
Nebraska brings back another good one in junior end Cameron Meredith (64 tackles) but is still looking for his running mate on the opposite side. In terms of a starter, I’d think the Cornhuskers would look towards junior Josh Williams or sophomore Jason Ankrah, two extremely talented reserves who added the requisite size for the position. But converted linebacker Eric Martin, a special teams menace, seems like a lineman who could make an impact on passing downs. And JUCO transfer Joseph Carter, who already looks the part, may take over once he learns the defense. As a whole, the line is loaded.
But there are a few questions to address along the back seven. There are two at linebacker: one, whether would-be starters Will Compton and Sean Fisher can stay healthy; and two, whether the Cornhuskers have adequate depth. Compton and Fisher have started in the past, but Fisher missed all of last season with a broken leg. Compton has battled injuries in each of the last two years, though he returned to action down the stretch in 2010. If both can remain active, Nebraska can put together a starting trio of Compton, Fisher and senior Lavonte David. The questions end when getting to David, as Nebraska — and the rest of the country — know what it’ll get from the former JUCO transfer. All he did during his first year on campus was set a new program record for tackles with 152, flying from sideline to sideline to make play after play, and if Pelini is to be believed, David is still getting a firm grasp on the system. David can do it all, as he showed last fall, but he need some help. If healthy, Compton and Fisher will lend a hand.
One all-American cornerback departs, another steps up. After serving in the shadows behind former teammate Prince Amukamara in 2010, senior Alfonzo Dennard (30 tackles, 4 picks) is ready to stand front-and-center in the Nebraska secondary. Like Amukamara before him, don’t be surprised if Dennard follows suit and lands all-America honors in his final season — and it was a bit of a surprise to see he returned, though Dennard could parlay a strong final campaign into a major paycheck. Sophomore Ciante Evans will get the nod on the opposite side after playing well over a short starting stint a year ago. The team’s nickel back should be junior Justin Blatchford, who’s made his impact on special teams thus far. Depth is there, what with Andrew Green and Anthony Blue lying in reserve.
But the secondary does lose a quartet of valuable contributors, with three of those losses taking place at safety. It not just replacing the production players like Eric Hagg and Dejon Gomes, most notably, brought to the table; it’s about finding such versatility, which is primarily what made both so important. The starters come September should be a pair of holdovers, senior Austin Cassidy (48 tackles) and Courtney Osborne (41 tackles, 5 for loss). The pair combined to start 11 games last fall, and that experience will come in handy. But Cassidy is going to have a hard time maintaining his starting role with JUCO transfer Daimion Stafford and redshirt freshman Corey Cooper breathing down his neck. Likewise for Osborne, who will be pushed by junior P.J. Smith, who also has starting experience.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Stop me if this sounds familiar: Nebraska’s offense, once again, may hinge on the play of an often underachieving offensive line. It’s become far too common, far too repetitious an occurrence, and Nebraska’s chances at altering its course up front has taken a fairly substantial hit this month with several concerning injuries. That’s created an unsettled logjam along the two-deep; the Cornhuskers have a starting lineup in mind but haven’t been able to get the five on the field at the same time, by and large. Instead, you’ve seen pretty consistent shuffling with the first-team group, perhaps delaying the offense’s ability to land a firm grasp on the new system. Injuries to tackles Jeremiah Sirles, Marcel Jones and Brent Qvale have given ballyhooed true freshman Tyler Moore a chance to earn first-team snaps at right tackle; Moore’s going to play, it seems. In a perfect world, however, the Cornhuskers would bookend the line with Sirles on the right side and former JUCO transfer Yoshi Hardrick on the left. Jones is in the mix, should he prove himself healthy, as is Qvale, who must do the same. But I have a feeling Moore is going to push his way into the lineup on the strong side, which could push Sirles back to the blind side — where he started every game last fall — and put him in competition with Hardrick. Things seem more settled inside, especially at center. Though wildly undersized, former walk-on Mike Caputo has honed his technique to the point where he’s an all-conference candidate heading into 2011. He’ll be flanked by sophomore left guard Andrew Rodriguez, which is not a surprise, and for now, redshirt freshman Jake Cotton, Barney Cotton’s son, which is a surprise. Things are unsettled, it’s safe to say, and no national title contender has more question marks to address up front. Here’s my guess for the lineup come the heart of Big Ten play, from left to right: Hardrick, Rodriguez, Caputo, Cotton, Moore.
Game(s) to watch
Every Saturday provides reason for intrigue. Minnesota? Not a good team, but the Golden Gophers are new, at least. Likewise with Northwestern, for example, though the Wildcats are going to surprise some people. The real meaningful games, in order of importance: Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State. Perhaps the morning festivities prior to the Penn State could feature an alumni game between both schools’ 1994 teams; likewise with Michigan, but from 1997. Are you ready for another Nebraska and Washington game? Yawn.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell The Big Ten’s not entirely prepared for what Nebraska brings to the table. The conference knows all about the Cornhuskers, mind you — the history, the prestige, the weight room, the titles — but it doesn’t know about this specific team, which is unlike any other you’ll find in the conference. What Nebraska has, unlike most of the Big Ten, is this tremendous balance of speed and power, especially the speed. Nebraska is quick, athletic and explosive, three adjectives rarely seen when discussing the Big Ten. Michigan can match Nebraska’s athleticism at quarterback and Wisconsin has similar weapons in the backfield; I don’t think any other team in the Big Ten has that complete package offensively — basically, the ability to crack a long score one any given play. Of course, much of this is pure supposition, based on my confidence that the offense will take to this new system, the run-based spread. I think we may see some early scuffles, but the Cornhuskers will be hitting their stride when it counts. And there are zero questions at all on defense: you can set your clock to Nebraska’s consistency on this side of the ball, in all facets and in every way possible. It’s the defense that will lift Nebraska to a Big Ten crown, in my opinion. But a national title? That depends on the offense, and Martinez in particular. He needs to get this team behind his starting status, on the field and off, as the offense won’t run at its full potential unless he takes the wheel. And the offensive line, once again, is a work in progress. Those are concerns, and they’re really the reasons why Nebraska’s not among the top five teams in the country. But I’m confident — perhaps dangerously confident — in this team’s ability to hit the ground running in the Big Ten. I’m thinking one, at most two regular season losses, but that’s all.
Dream season The Cornhuskers take to the Big Ten like a fish to the water, turning back the clock with the program’s first national title since 1997.
Nightmare season Quarterback concerns limit the entire offense, and while the defense is up to the challenge Nebraska drops three games in the regular season.
In case you were wondering
Where do Nebraska fans congregate? An overwhelming number of options. Independent message boards can be found at Husker Board, Husker Max and HuskerPedia. To catch up on Nebraska recruiting, check out Huskers Illustrated and Big Red Report. You can find additional coverage at CornNation.com and the Web sites of the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald. For an overview of everything to be found at each of these sites, check out Huskers Gameday.
Through 114 teams 362,798.
Who is No. 6? The person credited with founding the city housing tomorrow’s university was the subject of a 39-part television series in the late 1960s.
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Tags: Aaron Green, Alfonzo Dennard, Big Ten, Bo Pelini, Brandon Kinnie, Cameron Meredith, Daimion Stafford, Jared Crick, Kyler Reed, Lavonte David, Mike Caputo, Nebraska, Rex Burkhead, Taylor Martinez, Tyler Moore
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