The football offseason is here, and hope for the following football season is once again brimming in Lincoln, Neb.
The Cornhusker football team has made significant strides under Bo Pelini, who will begin his fifth season as Nebraska's head coach next fall. However, the past two years have been mildly disappointing to Husker fans given the team's fast start in Pelini's first two seasons.
Let's take a look at five areas the Huskers must significantly improve in over the spring and summer to take the next step and become a championship team.
On the surface, Nebraska's penalty problems don't look terrible. The Huskers drew a total of 86 penalties in 13 games last season and averaged 52.9 penalty yards per game in 2011, ranking ninth in the Big Ten. However, those numbers don't tell the whole story. Though Nebraska did seem to improve from the 2010 to 2011 seasons, the drive-killing penalties continued to rear their ugly heads time after time.
Those back-breakers had a lot to do with more than one of Nebraska's losses this season, particularly the loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Huskers controlled the game for almost the whole first half, but drives continued to stall, due in large part to inopportune penalties that piled up.
The problem seems to be compounded for Nebraska since its offense is currently not built for second- or third-and-long situations, so this problem must continue to be heavily emphasized throughout the summer and fall.
Another huge problem for the Huskers in 2010, the turnover bug seemed to be much less prevalent in 2011 but still hurt the team in much the same way penalties did.
When strictly examining turnover ratios for the Big Ten in 2011, it's actually quite amazing that Nebraska did as well as it did. Turnover margin directly related to most teams' overall win-loss record, with Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State holding the top three spots and Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota holding the bottom three spots.
In fact, the only glaring outlier seems to be Nebraska, which finished comfortably inside the top half of the Big Ten but ranked just ninth in turnover margin.
Repeated turnovers in some of the worst possible situations were other huge factors in determining the winner of the Capital One Bowl, as well as all three other losses. If this problem is finally addressed properly, Nebraska can be a legitimate championship contender.
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez has received endless criticism from just about every Husker fan on the planet for his supposedly inept skills in the passing game, and while he does have a lot to improve upon, people must take under consideration the amount of passes the Huskers flat out dropped in 2011.
The Huskers have a plethora of talented pass-catchers returning, including Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Quincy Enunwa and Kyler Reed, but all four had struggles with drops at points in the season. Many of the drops came from senior Brandon Kinnie, who really struggled after breaking out in 2010, but it remains a problem that must be dramatically reduced.
The argument that Martinez's tendency to throw low bullets contributes to Nebraska's case of the dropsies does have some merit, and that is something the soon-to-be junior will need to work on. However, there were a lot of good passes that simply bounced off hands or went right through arms, and when it's all said and done, those passes have to be caught.
Perhaps the addition of sure-handed freshman Jordan Westerkamp will help.
Nebraska's defense took a big step back in 2011, which came as a big surprise given preseason comments by former defensive coordinator Carl Pelini.
One of the biggest reasons for the struggles was the lack of a potent pass rush.
The Blackshirts had their moments in opponents' backfields, but the vast majority of the time they seemed to be stonewalled by even the most pillowy-soft of offensive lines. The loss of stud defensive tackle Jared Crick clearly compounded the problems, but even while Crick was healthy the Huskers had trouble bursting through lines.
Not only did this lead to the Huskers finishing just ninth (which seems to be a trend) in the Big Ten in sacks (21), but it also led to quarterbacks having more time to pick apart Nebraska's crippled and inexperienced secondary.
The line, specifically the defensive ends, must get better at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Guys like Cameron Meredith, Eric Martin, Jason Ankrah and Joe Carter must work hard on their technique this offseason and become more aggressive.
Otherwise, a secondary that is now missing Alfonzo Dennard will struggle even more in 2012.
Throughout Bo Pelini's four-year head coaching career, one of the words he has used more often than anything is "execute." Despite Pelini's apparent emphasis on execution in general, the Huskers sometimes do anything but execute.
From week to week, Husker fans never know whether to expect the Huskers that pounded Michigan State at home and ground out a win at Penn State, or the Huskers that laid down at the feet of Wisconsin and Michigan and got stoned by a soft Northwestern team.
Additionally, there were times this season when the offensive line looked utterly dominant, and other times when it was utterly dominated. Taylor Martinez looked to be in total control one game and then seemed completely lost the next.
In fact, the lone constant throughout the season was senior-to-be Rex Burkhead, who was the definition of consistency in 2012. Even star linebacker Lavonte David had brief moments of inexplicable struggle.
Whatever the problem, this team must get more consistent in all phases of the game, or it will always be in danger of dropping a game it shouldn't and ultimately losing out on a championship.