For Bo Pelini and his staff, Nebraska football has begun the long road back from mediocrity that former head coach Bill Callahan had sunk the program into.
The Huskers will rely heavily upon players like All-American Ndamukong Suh and safeties Larry Asante and Rickey Thenarse to make big plays against some dynamic high-scoring offenses in the Big 12. And the continued growth of Pierre Allen and Baker Steinkuhler, along with the return of medical redshirt Barry Turner, should result in a defensive front that should make the Huskers a top-20 defense in 2009.
But for as much hype as has surrounded Bo and brother Carl's efforts to bring the team's defense back to dominance, the Blackshirt defense is only one half of the winning equation for the Huskers in 2009.
This season, more than any of the other Shawn Watson led offenses of recent past, the team will rely more heavily on the running game to control the clock and win football games. Here are some of the reasons why a renewed emphasis on the ground game make sense for the Huskers in 2009:
- New quarterback Zac Lee... The Huskers will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2009 in Lee. He has a great and accurate arm, but he has only two career passes to his credit. Look for Watson and Pelini to temper back Lee's confident and aggressive style with an emphasis on the running game, at least early on in the season. This will allow him to continue to mature in his decision-making before the Huskers completely turn him loose.
- Veteran-led offensive line... The offensive line remains mostly intact from 2008. It's a veteran group led by senior center Jacob Hickman that helped the Huskers rank third in rushing offense in the conference last season, averaging 180 yards per game.
- Junior running backs Roy Helu Jr and Quentin Castille... Outside of Oklahoma, no other team in the league boasts a tandem of better runners than Helu and Castille. Helu averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season and he is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Castille had a breakout game against a tough Clemson defense in last season's Gator Bowl, gaining 125 yards on 18 carries. His tough running style and surprising versatility for a man that weighs 235 pounds compliments Helu well. Don't be surprised if one or both of these backs run for 100 yards or more in several games this season.
- Unproven starters at wide receiver... Gone are the highly productive Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. A group of seniors: Menelik Holt, Chris Brooks, and Wes Cammack will be asked to compliment junior Niles Paul and sophomore Curenski Gilleylen in the Huskers passing game. There is quite a bit of promise in this group, but there are no real gamebreakers. As Lee matures, and as opposing defenses begin to sell out to stop the run, playmakers will begin to emerge out of this group.
- Junior tight ends Mike McNeill and Dreu Young... This is almost certainly the deepest and most talented position on the Huskers roster. McNeill, who is one of the 30 tight ends on this year's Mackey Award watch list, broke the Husker record last season for catches by a tight end (32). He should only improve on this total and his 442 yards and six touchdowns of a season ago. Young, who has become an accomplished blocker, can also stretch the defense with his speed and caught nine balls for 140 yards last season. Throw in talented redshirt freshman Ben Cotton, son of offensive line coach Barney Cotton, and the Huskers boast a group who not only blocks the run well, but could be the most effective unit in the country in the play-action passing game.
Aside from a September 19th visit to Blacksburg to play an always tough Virginia Tech run defense, and a November 7th home date against the Sooners, the Huskers schedule sets up nicely to take advantage of a strong running game in 2009.
Paired with an improved veteran Blackshirt defense, and barring any injuries to key players, the Huskers should find themselves making a trip to Arlington, TX in December to play Texas or Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game.