Of course every position is important on the football field. Seniors graduate, the occasional underclassman goes to the draft, returning starters are expected to improve with the previous year of experience under their belts and injuries are either "came back from" or can be career ending. Every team has to deal with it and Bo Pelini has said that this years Nebraska Cornhusker team will be better than last years. So, lets look at some of the players who need to meet or exceed expectations for the team to build on that success.
The Center position is the only offensive position not returning the starter from the previous year. The departure of 3 year starter Jacob Hickman makes way for previous 2 year backup, junior, Mike Caputo to earn the starting nod. Some expectation have already been identified... ...Rimington Award Preseason Watch List, for instance. Caputo played some significant minutes last year during Hickman's injuries, so hopefully he will keep building on his body of work, which started as walking onto the team 3 years ago.
Roy Helu is entering his Senior year as the favorite to start for the 3rd season in a row. From a statistical point of view, he only needs a 1,000 yard season to break into the top 5 rushers in school history. From a team point of view, his shoulder needs to remain healthy all season to ensure the trio of him, Rex and Dontrayevous to be a major ground game force in the Big XII. The coaches all agree he is the biggest "big play guy" and if he goes down, the rotation will be between the pair of sophomores. Although they can hold their own, it would be nice to see the potential that the leader of the pack could produce.
Rickey Thenarse was last years starting Free Safety, until a season ending knee injury early in the season. He was granted a medical redshirt and is expected to compete for the starting position again this year. Everyone hopes he will be back to 100%, since last years Strong Safety and Free Safety who took over for Rickey, graduated in May.
Either Will Compton or Sean Fisher (see next slide) and perhaps Eric Martin has to fill the void left by Phillip Dillard. All 3 were freshmen last year and Dillard, who only started the second half of the season, after getting out of Pelini's dog house, made Second Team All Big XII with his sideline to sideline plays in a lot of dime formations.
Compton, a Phil Steele 2nd team all freshman team all american selection, will have expectations to meet.
When the Pelini brothers changed the base defense to the "Peso" it took the Outside Linebacker spot Sean Fisher played, completely away. The coaches have said that Sean has adapted to his new position very well, "so far has exceeded expectation..." Well, thats good, because as I mentioned in the previous slide, Phillip Dillard leaves some huge shoes to fill.
In case you don't remember how hyped Niles Paul was in 2006 when he committed to the Huskers... ...well, there was a good reason for it, and lots of it. He is the nephew of Ahman Green, a Parade All American, a very successful sprinter on his high school track team and made first team all state and all metro his senior year.
Playing sparingly as a freshman and starting 4 games as a sophomore at WR and every game at kick returner, he had a great junior year, last season. Paul caught 40 passes (20 ypr), averaged 27.9 yards per kick return, 10.7 yards per punt return and had a spectacular Bowl game with his longest carreer TD reception, longest kick return of the season, 237 all purpose yards and Offensive MVP honors.
Similar numbers are no doubt on everybody's mind for Paul's senior season.
Baker Steinkuhler played in the 4 man rotation at Defensive Tackle which included returning starter Jared Crick, Terrance Moore and Suh. With Ndamukong Suh playing for The Lions this year, it will be important for Baker, who is making the best push to start next to Crick, to make a big enough impact that he demands double teams from the opposing Offensive Lines. All eyes will be on Crick, who already demands double teams and made first team all Big XII last season. In order for the defensive line to have the impact it did last year, Baker will need to have all eyes on him also.
It was interesting, for many people, to hear Bo Pelini say that the most important player on the field last year was Eric Hagg, not Ndamukong Suh. He explained that the reason for this was that Eric plays the hybrid DB/LB position in the new Peso set. Well, if he was the most important defender last year, he sure better be this year, as Suh is not even there, and everyone remembers his impact.
The quarterback position is always talked about as being the most important on the field, no matter what team is being talked about. Nebraska QB, Zac Lee, is no exception. Last season Lee had his ups and downs, played much of the season injured and took more heat than anyone on the team for the offenses struggles. This summer, as he prepares for his senior season, he says his shoulder is 100%. Between that and the fact that this will be his second year starting (if he gets the nod) the potential is there for many great things to happen.