With Big Ten media days just around the corner, there are a couple of massive storylines that will receive the bulk of the attention, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers won't have much part in that.
But while Nebraska has had a relatively quiet offseason compared to programs like Penn State and Ohio State, the Huskers will likely field plenty of questions surrounding the offense during their short time in the spotlight.
Head coach Bo Pelini decided to move in a different direction with the offense after 2010 and promoted Tim Beck to offensive coordinator. Beck abandoned former coordinator Shawn Watson's hybrid West Coast style and implemented a more conceptually based offense for 2011.
Nebraska's offense looked dominant at times, inept at other times and inconsistent all of the time during the season—in reality, its only consistent force was Rex Burkhead at running back.
Much of the offense's struggles—which have been lingering since the departure of quarterback Joe Ganz in 2009—can be attributed to a combination of factors, including a rookie offensive coordinator, a depth chart littered with freshmen and sophomores, and a schedule replete with unfamiliar opponents.
However, the pieces necessary for a much-improved attack seem to be in place, and the Huskers need only capitalize on their potential to field a significantly better offense in 2012.
Although the depth chart remains largely intact from '11 to '12, we will likely see offensive coordinator Tim Beck make some significant adjustments to the 2011 offense. Here is a breakdown of where those adjustments might be made.
The most apparent adjustment will likely be made in the passing game. In short, the Huskers would like to air it out more this year.
As good as Nebraska was at running the football last year, they could have been even more effective if they were able to force defenses to respect their ability to gain big chunks of yards through the air.
While quarterback Taylor Martinez had his share of long completions, the intermediate passing game was pretty ineffective and allowed defenses to stack the box against Burkhead. The 5'11," 210-pound senior-to-be still managed to average a healthy 4.8 yards per carry, so imagine the kind of damage he could do with a dangerous passing game to back him up.
The good news is it seems as though the Huskers are on a mission to develop that dangerous passing game this offseason. Martinez has reportedly been working tirelessly to improve his footwork and mechanics, which in theory should help his accuracy.
If all the hard works pays off for No. 3, he will have no shortage of weapons to throw to.
Kenny Bell emerged as Martinez's favorite weapon in 2011 despite being only a redshirt freshman, and the speedster has nowhere to go but up. The uber-talented Jamal Turner is only scratching the surface of his potential, and while junior-to-be Quincy Enunwa is known more for his crushing blocks, he showed that he can be a reliable downfield receiver as well.
Tim Marlowe will be looking to have a memorable senior season, and talented youngsters Taariq Allen and Jordan Westerkamp will also be in the fold.
Oh yeah, and then there are those two guys at tight end. Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton might be the most impressive—and underutilized—tandem in the nation. If the passing game improves at all this year, expect both of their numbers to make a sizable jump.
To put it bluntly, the potential for this group is enormous, and Beck would be crazy not to put an emphasis on getting these players the ball more often during 2012.
It seems like a no-brainer to utilize Rex Burkhead as much as possible in 2012, but as much as Husker fans would like to believe it, he's not invincible. This fact alone should force Beck to consider getting the younger running backs more touches.
Burkhead had 284 carries through 13 games in 2011, which if expanded over a 16-game NFL season would be a whopping 350 carries!
While Rex clearly proved himself capable of carrying the load as a workhorse back, his production might be optimized by giving him a break more often than in 2012. This will also allow Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard (assuming he stays at running back) to gain some more valuable experience.
It's hard to imagine where all these carries will be coming from if Beck decides to air it out more often, but a few things should factor into that.
First, a faster pace (which I'll talk about later on) should mean more plays per game, and therefore more carries.
Second, I think there's a good chance that Martinez, who had 188 carries in 2011, will be running less this year per coaches' orders in order to keep him healthy and optimize his performance (if he is able to choose wisely when to run, of course) as well.
Third, there should be two backs behind Burkhead getting the majority of the back-up carries, as opposed to three in 2011. Unless Mike Marrow earns more than just a fullback/short yardage role and Imani Cross is ready to contribute immediately, Abdullah and Heard will have one less player to split carries with after the departure of Aaron Green.
Regardless of how all that pans out, there should be a heavier emphasis on sharing the load in the backfield one way or another.
The Cornhuskers talked a little bit about implementing a hurry-up offense last season, but while they rarely huddled, they didn't seem to actually "hurry up" very often.
With a full offseason to solidify the system, however, it's likely that Beck will put a little more emphasis on getting up to the ball quickly and trying to catch the defense off balance and tire them out.
Who will be Rex Burkhead's primary back-up?
With that year of experience, the Huskers may be much more prepared to run it that way, which could be a big advantage. Not only would it keep the defense scrambling, but it would also potentially allow for more plays to be run.
Of course, there could be drawbacks to that as well. If Nebraska isn't disciplined in their operation of the hurry-up, they could end up killing themselves with penalties, much like they have been for the previous couple of seasons.
Nebraska's O-line remains intact for the most part, but one significant missing piece is center Mike Caputo. The spot will likely be filled by Cole Pensick or Justin Jackson, but neither one will have near the amount of experience that Caputo had.
On top of that, both Pensick and Jackson are undersized like Caputo was; and when defenses put a hefty nose tackle directly over center, it proved to be a problem for the offense.
If defenses pick up on that again this year, it's possible Beck will figure out a way to counter that by adjusting the blocking scheme based on where the nose tackle lines up. This, of course, is merely speculation, but it would make sense based on the trouble it gave them last season.
Luckily, the Huskers are deep at all four tackle and guard spots and should be able to give the new center plenty of help.
As I stated before, this offense has all the pieces in place to make a big jump from last season; and if some of these adjustments are made, it should help Nebraska capitalize on their ample talent.
However, we haven't seen a consistently effective Cornhusker offense since 2008, and fans are aching to get back to that.
If Martinez makes another jump, the receivers eliminate drops, the running game remains dominant with the help of a revitalized passing game, and costly penalties are kept to a minimum, then Nebraska's offense will be a breath of fresh air.
That's a lot of ifs, but based on last year's lack of experience across the board, they should inevitably improve to some extent.