Nebraska Football: Coach Pelini's Biggest Challenges for Cornhuskers in 2014
Nebraska football fans know that head coach Bo Pelini will have a number of challenges coming in to 2014. Overall, of course, the biggest challenge will be figuring out how to lose fewer than four games next season. But what is standing between Nebraska and that goal? Here are five things that may be keeping Pelini up at nights this summer.
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Fix the Turnovers
In 2013, Nebraska was no. 119 nationally in turnover margin at minus-0.85 per game. That means, on average, Nebraska lost nearly one turnover more than its opponent every game.
We saw what that did to Nebraska’s chances at victory. Against Michigan State and Iowa, Nebraska was a combined minus-eight in turnover margin. That statistic alone was enough to cost Nebraska those games—and a likely shot at the Big Ten conference championship.
We’ve been here before, of course. In 2012, Nebraska was no. 108 nationally in turnover margin, while in 2011 Nebraska was “only” no. 67 nationally. But if Nebraska is going to get over the hump in Pelini’s seventh season, fixing the turnover issue has to be priority one.
Make It Tommy's Team
Coming in to 2013, we all thought that it would be Taylor Martinez’s swan song, a chance for him to cement his place in Nebraska’s record books and define his legacy. But injuries struck, pressing then-freshman Tommy Armstrong into service as Nebraska’s signal-caller.
It’s hard to argue with Armstrong’s record, going 7-1 as a starter. But Armstrong had help from senior Ron Kellogg, and his underlying statistics (51.9% completion, 9-8 touchdown/interception ratio) could be the cause of many sleepless nights pondering what 2014 will look like for Nebraska.
This year, Armstrong is the clear starter, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be designing Nebraska’s schemes to take advantage of Armstrong’s strengths. Between that and a full offseason of preparation, Pelini needs to make sure that Armstrong’s first full season in charge at quarterback gives him the best chance to succeed.
Set the Secondary
Josh Mitchell looks pretty well set as a returning starter at cornerback, and he should be one of the vocal leaders of the 2014 Blackshirts. If Corey Cooper comes back from injuries that kept him from full participation in spring practice, he should be locked in as a starting safety and a big contributor next season.
After that, though, the depth chart is up in the air. Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell will be fighting hard for the other starting corner position, while Nathan Gerry and LeRoy Alexander (among others) will be vying for the other starting safety position. Charles Jackson seems to have the inside position at nickel, replacing Ciante Evans, but fall camp could certainly change that as well.
Pelini will need to get a settled secondary as quickly as possible for Nebraska’s defense to continue the renaissance it enjoyed at the end of 2013.
Make Special Teams Special
Nebraska’s punt return game last year was, in a word, awful. In two words, it was really awful. In three words … well, you get the point. In 2013, Nebraska was no. 123 nationally in punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards per return. That’s only slightly better than what a team would average if the strategy on each punt return was to catch the punt and immediately fall forward.
So obviously punt returns need to improve. But after the Spring Game, a new concern has arisen about Nebraska’s special teams. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed, Nebraska’s placekicking game looked more than a little shaky. Last year Nebraska was sufficiently worried about scholarship kicker Mauro Bondi that transfer Pat Smith was brought in.
Smith won the job, but now he has moved on. And while we only saw the Spring Game, seeing Bondi go 1-3 on extra points did nothing to instill confidence in Nebraska’s field goal conversion chances next year.
Drew Brown, younger brother of Nebraska kicking legend Kris Brown, will be a true freshman next year, and it would not be at all surprising to see him win the placekicking job. That means in pressure situations (such as overtime at Penn State last year), Nebraska could be turning to a true freshman for a walk-off win—or to avoid a walk-off loss. That’s plenty of a challenge for Pelini to face next year.
Keep the Feel-Good Going
At the end of 2013, the Nebraska football program did not look like a happy place. After an ugly loss to Iowa, Pelini gave a defensive (and, quite honestly, shameful) press conference deflecting responsibility and all but daring Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him. Speculation ran rampant, and it looked for all the world that Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln was about to conclude.
Fast forward a few months, and look how things have changed. After getting a show of support, Pelini has become far more accessible, making fun of himself on Twitter and embracing his brilliant parody account @FauxPelini.
More substantively, he allowed the media to observe almost all of spring practice, something that would have been unthinkable in years past. And he won the Internet when he led the team onto the field at the Spring Game carrying his cat.
The change in Pelini’s public persona has been amazing in its speed. But there also hasn’t really been any pressure on Pelini since the Iowa loss. What’s going to happen the next time Nebraska drops a clunker on the field? Will the bad Pelini come out again, undoing all his public image rehab? Will the questions about Pelini’s temperament—and his tenure in Lincoln by extension—arise once again?
When the heat turns up in the midst of the 2014 season, whether Pelini is able to keep some of this feel-good vibe going may end up being his biggest challenge of all next year.
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