Defensively, Nebraska is headed into inarguably its greatest rebuilding season of the Bo Pelini era. The 2012 defense that was shaky at times and superb at others loses eight starters, including its top-five tacklers.
For every question on defense, however, third-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck seems to have an answer on offense.
Most obviously there is the return of senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, the nation’s ninth-best quarterback according to Bleacher Report. Martinez spent considerably more time as Dr. Jekyll and less as Mr. Hyde in 2012, passing for 2,871 yards and rushing for 1,019. He also scored 33 total touchdowns (23 passing and 10 rushing) and had seven interception-free games.
With regards to his tendency to give the ball to the wrong team, Martinez has continued to progress through spring football with the message from Beck that Nebraska has no shortage of playmakers and that “T-Magic,” as it were, is no longer at a premium.
“Don't take so many chances,” Beck has said repeatedly. “It's okay to punt if we have to. Don't play outside of the system. You don't have to be Superman” (h/t Sam McKewon of Omaha.com)
In total, the Big Red Machine rushed for 3,547 yards in 2012 and the players that accounted for 2,524 of them—71.1 percent—will return this season. While his talent may not truly be replaced in Lincoln for quite some time, Rex Burkhead’s contribution from a year ago should be made up for with Imani Cross’ expanding role in the offense—which has been a focus of Beck’s as spring football has progressed.
“I feel like I know what I'm going to get out of Ameer,” Beck said. “I want to see what I can get out of Imani.”
Additionally, three of the five offensive linemen that paved the way for 253.4 rushing yards per game in 2012 will return in 2013 including 2012 First-Team All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long.
The passing game looks just as hopeful. Nebraska returns its three leading receivers from a year ago, with an unlikely hero emerging during spring ball.
With 2012 Second-Team All-Big Ten receiver Kenny Bell receiving extra attention from John Papuchis’ defensive secondary—as he will all season long—Jamal Turner has become a favorite target of Martinez and a reason for Beck to breathe easier.
Starting just four games in 2012 and playing the last half of the season with a partially torn meniscus, Turner still hauled in 32 passes for 417 yards. The junior from Arlington, Texas who was once criticized for having poor hands—he was recruited to play quarterback—is having his best spring yet with the program and will likely be a player that opposing defensive coordinators have to game-plan for in 2013.
With 50 catches for 863 yards and eight touchdowns, Bell was a defensive nightmare in 2012 even without a definitive second receiver. The emergence of Turner in the spring coupled with the extremely physical Quincy Enunwa will leave Martinez with plenty of options and no need to force ill-advised passes.
Along with a favorable personnel situation, Beck has amped up conditioning this offseason and plans—at least in the early going of the season—to give more reps to Nebraska’s young receivers that are not yet household names. This is a continuation of Beck’s philosophy that a fast-tempo offense will be difficult to match up with in the traditionally methodical B1G Conference.
Speed kills was a popular notion in college football long before Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks became its poster children. The Huskers snapped the ball every 18 seconds a year ago and as a result, led the B1G in total offense with 460.8 yards per game in addition to scoring at least 28 points in 12 out of 14 contests.
The already prolific Huskers will be faster, better conditioned and deeper in 2013. If all goes according to plan, Beck plans to ride that no-huddle offense all the way back to Lucas Oil Stadium for the B1G Championship Game.