Nebraska's hoped-for success in its first season in the Big Ten didn't really materialize last fall. The defense wasn't physical enough, and as a result, the Huskers finished third in the Legends Division and lost at least four games for the eighth season in a row.
The Huskers, who haven't been to a BCS bowl since falling in the national title game after the 2001 season, again look like the third-best team in the Legends Division, behind Michigan and Michigan State.
The run defense was a big disappointment last fall. The Huskers allowed 158.5 rushing yards per game, which was eighth in the league and 64th nationally. The Huskers allowed 23 rushing TDs, fourth-most in the league, and in its three Big Ten losses, Nebraska was gashed for 12 rushing touchdowns and an average of 225.3 rushing yards per game.
Six full-time defensive starters are back, and their new coordinator is John Papuchis; he was promoted from defensive line coach to replace Carl Pelini, who took the coaching job at Florida Atlantic.
Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in Big Ten
Coach: Bo Pelini (5th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (7) – WR Kenny Bell, TB Rex Burkhead, TE Ben Cotton, WR Quincy Enunwa, G Spencer Long, QB Taylor Martinez, G Andrew Rodriguez. Defense (7) – E Jason Ankrah, LB Will Compton, CB Andrew Green, CB Ciante Evans E Cameron Meredith, SS Daimion Stafford, T Baker Steinkuhler. Special teams (1) – K/P Brett Maher.
Fast fact: Nebraska's four losses last season came by an average of 19.8 points, and that includes a three-point setback at home to Northwestern.
QB Taylor Martinez and TB Rex Burkhead are back, and that should be good news for all Huskers fans.
Martinez, a junior, again showed he is a solid runner, rushing for 874 yards and nine TDs. He has rushed for 1,839 yards and 21 TDs in his first two seasons. His passing, alas, remains a concern. He had just two 200-yard games last season and finished with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In addition, his completion percentage dropped from his redshirt freshman season (59.2 to 56.3). Coaches are hopeful that he will be more comfortable in the second season of coordinator Tim Beck's offense.
Life in the Big Ten seemed to agree with Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards and 15 TDs; he had seven 100-yard games and four contests with multiple touchdowns. He isn't a blazer, but he can turn the corner and also is adept between the tackles. There is solid depth at tailback, too.
While none of the receivers are going to contend for all-league honors, the position looks fine. Sophomore Kenny Bell should be the go-to guy, and coaches need to make sure Bell, who had 32 receptions last season to lead the team, catches 45-plus this fall. Quincy Enunwa is a competent No. 2 receiver, and TEs Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton have the talent to combine for 40 or so catches. Reed, especially, can be a weapon; he averaged 17.1 yards per catch last season, but had just 15 receptions.
The line lost three starters, but still should be good. There are five linemen with starting experience, and one of the returning starters could lose his job.
G Spencer Long, a former walk-on, received all-conference mention last season and again should vie for all-league honors. Seung Hoon Choi is a native of South Korea who attended high school in Lincoln, Neb.; he, too, is a former walk-on and seems likely to start at the other guard spot. Andrew Rodriguez, who started seven times at guard last season before being injured, appears to be a likely starter at tackle; he also could move back to guard. Others in the mix for the tackle spots are Jeremiah Sirles, who started in 2010 but was a reserve last season; sophomore Tyler Moore, who last fall became the first true freshman lineman in Nebraska history to start a season-opening game; and junior Brent Qvale, who also can play guard. Cole Pensick will start at center.
The mediocre defensive performance had to be an eye-opener for coach Bo Pelini, whose defense simply was run over at times.
There are three starters back in the line: Es Jason Ankrah and Cameron Meredith and T Baker Steinkuhler. But they combined for just 13.5 tackles for loss and must make more big plays this season. The new starter at tackle should be sophomore Chase Rome, but depth at the position is untested. Senior Eric Martin should be a key reserve at end.
The pass rush could use some revving up. The Huskers were ninth in the league in sacks, with just 21.
Pelini and Papuchis also have some work to do at linebacker. Star Lavonte David is gone, and outside of senior MLB Will Compton, there isn't much proven talent at the position. Seniors Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher and JC transfer Zaire Anderson will battle for the two outside spots. Anderson has good speed and was a playmaker in junior college. Depth is such that one or two true freshmen need to make their mark this fall.
The secondary should be OK, though the group will be looking to improve on their interception total (Nebraska had just 10) from last season. SS Daimion Stafford played well as a JC transfer and should vie for all-league honors this fall; he had 80 tackles and 10 pass breakups. CB Andrew Green (6-0/195) is a physical presence who had eight breakups last season. CB Ciante Evans also is a returning starter, but he seems likely to lose his job to JC transfer Mohammed Seisay, who played well as a true freshman at Memphis in 2010 before heading to a junior college. Seisay (6-2/200) is another physical corner who runs well. The new free safety should be senior P.J. Smith, who was a key reserve last fall. Sophomore Corey Cooper and senior Courtney Osborne are solid reserves at safety.
Brett Maher is one of the nation's best dual-threat kicker/punters. He averaged 44.5 yards per punt and dropped 25 of his 59 attempts inside the 20. He also was 19-of-23 on field goals, including 3-of-6 from beyond 50 yards. Maher also had 20 touchbacks on his 72 kickoffs.
Backup TB Ameer Abdullah is an excellent kick returner; he averaged 29.3 yards per return and took one back for a TD. Backup WR Jamal Turner should be the punt returner.
The coverage units were horrible last season, which is mystifying considering the number of good athletes on the roster. The Huskers allowed 24.0 yards per kickoff return, which ranked 104th nationally, and 11.9 yards per punt return, which ranked 105th.
Four of the first five games are at home, but the first month is still tough. The one road game in that stretch is against what should be much-improved UCLA. Southern Miss and Arkansas State (contenders in Conference USA and the Sun Belt, respectively) are two of the home games. And the final home game in that span is a huge showdown with Wisconsin – on homecoming. The Badgers thrashed the Huskers 48-17 last season.
Three of the next four are on the road; the home game is against Michigan and the road tests against Ohio State, Northwestern (which won in Lincoln last season) and Michigan State. And the regular season ends at Iowa.
The schedule is a tough one, and it's hard to see this team winning more than nine games. And that's if the defense becomes better against the run. For the offense to truly reach its potential, Martinez has to become a better passer.
Last season showed that while the Huskers generally were considered one of the most physical teams in the Big 12, they had a ways to go to carry that moniker in the Big Ten.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 24th nationally
The buzz: Pelini and his staff landed the Big Ten's third-best recruiting class, bolstered by the addition of three commitments on National Signing Day: four-star ATH Alonzo Moore and three-star DTs Vincent Valentine and Aaron Curry. The Huskers signed Seisay, the nation's No. 8 junior college transfer, in hopes he can contribute immediately in the secondary. Also look for WR Jordan Westerkamp to help early on special teams. He finished his career as the state of Illinois' leading prep receiver. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com
SS Daimion Stafford. The junior college transfer was inserted in the starting lineup a year ago and was considered one of the hardest hitters on the team. With a year of knowledge underneath his belt, Stafford is expected to break out and be one of the defensive leaders this season. The coaching staff has said Stafford has as much or even more ability than the recent NFL draft picks who played defensive back at Nebraska under Bo Pelini. – Sean Callahan, HuskerOnline.com
For more on Nebraska throughout the season, check out HuskerOnline.com
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