When fall camp began for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, plenty of storylines were there.
How would the Huskers replace Ndamukong Suh?
How well would Zac Lee perform in his senior performance? Would Lee even be the starting quarterback?
So many questions were put through the ringer during a manageable non-conference schedule.
With the Cornhuskers now sitting pretty at 4-0 and preparing for their last jaunt through a Big 12 schedule, several were answered and others rose as a result.
Nobody knew just who would be calling the plays as Nebraska kicked off its season versus Western Kentucky.
Zac Lee had the most experience out of the candidates, so many assumed he was a lock for the starting job.
Much to the surprise of Cornhuskers fans, a young freshman took the field and the rest is history.
Taylor Martinez has energized a potent offense and made most defenders grasp at air while attempting to bring him down.
Cody Green has seen some backup duty in meaningful situations and has improved from his first year at Nebraska. Unfortunately, through a number of bobbled footballs, most fans’ faith in Green has faltered for the time being.
Zac Lee has barely seen the field at all. This doesn’t seem to faze the senior as he is often seen on the sidelines congratulating fellow signal-callers.
For offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s scheme to work properly, Taylor Martinez has to be ready to play every snap. The position’s depth, much like Martinez, can’t afford to take too many hits.
Nebraska’s dominance over the years has always been predicated on the use and reliability of multiple running backs.
This appeared to be the case going into the season and predictions have been mostly accurate.
Roy Helu, Jr. and Rex Burkhead are still able to make defensive coordinators pull their hair out.
One back that has yet to live up to expectations is Dontrayevous Robinson. The bruising sophomore out of Euless, Texas has been looked to as the next “power” running back for the Cornhuskers.
Robinson’s early troubles securing the football in goal line situations and short-distance runs have put those ideas on hold for now.
The only reason that this unit doesn’t receive a straight “F” is due to the emergence of what looks to be one of Nebraska’s few sure-fire receivers.
Brandon Kinnie has stolen the spotlight from Niles Paul for the time being and the big-bodied junior has nowhere to go but up.
Kinnie leads all Nebraska receivers with 215 yards, though he has yet to score a touchdown.
Another capable receiver, Mike McNeill, has been shortchanged a bit due to Taylor Martinez’s rushing ability coupled with the potent attack of Nebraska’s ground game.
Niles Paul continues to amaze and baffle during a game making a stellar reception while dropping what appears to be an easy route. Some have questioned Paul’s abilities, but it’s clear that he has the physical tools to be a star.
If Paul can regain focus and help his quarterback by being more consistent in simply catching the ball before taking off, he should regain superstar status.
Nebraska fans have yet to see the tight ends in passing situations, but much like McNeill, these players have been utilized for Nebraska’s punishing ground attack.
While the Cornhuskers have shown the ability to punish with a ground game, a solid receiving corps needs to show up quickly.
If it were 2009, the loss of Nebraska offensive lineman Mike Smith would have been seen as disastrous for an already depleted lineup.
While the loss of Smith isn’t greeted with smiles, Nebraska has the depth to compensate for these losses.
Center Mike Caputo has silenced any criticism regarding his size and the interior appears to be strong.
The tackles, on the other hand, don’t present as clear of a picture.
Freshman Jeremiah Sirles has played well, but makes the occasional youthful mistake. Jermarcus “Yoshi” Hardrick plays with intensity, but appears ineffective when dealing with a speedy pass rush.
Penalties crop up in this unit far too often and have turned out to be drive-killers as witnessed in the Cornhuskers’ game versus South Dakota State.
This is a group coupled with experience, youth, and depth. They should improve as the season wears on and if penalties can be kept to a minimum, Nebraska fans should see some Big Eight conference-style maulings.
No one ever claimed that replacing a behemoth like Ndamukong Suh is easy, but the Cornhuskers are making a concerted effort.
Jared Crick still has excellent skills, but faces the double teams that Suh did. Sadly, Crick is not Ndamukong but to his credit, no one else is.
The Cornhuskers have been prone to give up yardage via a solid rushing attack. This was a group that was synched so tight in 2009, reaching anywhere close to the century mark for a running back was an accomplishment.
It appears that Pelini may be attempting to do with this bunch what they did with Suh, and that simply can’t be done.
While there were some struggles four games in, Nebraska does have a very talented line with the likes of Crick, Baker Steinkuhler, Cameron Meredith, and the like.
A little tweaking during this time off and Nebraska should be able to go right back to stuffing an opponent’s run game like a turkey come Thanksgiving.
When Sean Fisher and Will Compton went down early in the season, talented up-and-comer LaVonte David went from probable playing time to starting.
He’s responded in excellent fashion providing the Blackshirts with 44 TKL (18 solo), two TFL, one sack, three PBU, and five QBH. During last week’s South Dakota State outing, David recorded an astounding 19 tackles.
Taking the field with David have been Eric Martin and Alonzo Whaley.
Martin has been praised by coaches and fans as a physical specimen and has shown his quickness while becoming more familiar with his role in the defense.
Whaley is still working his way through the learning curve while replacing his good friend Will Compton. Occasional mistakes are still made, but he has shown improvement over the out-of-conference schedule.
Overall, this was an area of large concern due to the losses of Fisher and Compton, but David has become a sensation. He may very well have cemented his starting role for the remainder of the year.
Where to start?
Nebraska’s defensive backs were touted by preseason magazines and several analysts. Cornerback Prince Amukamara has been touted as a top pick in the next NFL draft.
Six total Cornhuskers have interceptions to their credit. P.J. Smith and DeJon Gomes tie with three a piece. Three touchdowns have been scored off these interceptions including two versus Idaho.
That feat marked the first time in the history of Nebraska football that two interceptions were returned for touchdowns in a single game.
Nebraska’s defensive backs have proven to be elite ball hawks capable of tearing a quarterback’s confidence apart.
Just ask Idaho’s Nathan Enderle or Washington’s Jake Locker if they’d like to try facing this group again.
The Blackshirts’ back four and “Peso” back are only going to improve, which spells doom for several teams in the Big 12 that rely on a spread offense.
Bo Pelini demands perfection. He strives for what no human being can possibly accomplish.
His team’s performance versus South Dakota State was infuriating to Nebraska’s blue-collar coach who prides himself on putting a quality football team on the field.
While certain areas of the team have struggled, such as the receivers or penalties across the board, Pelini won’t take these problems lying down.
His offensive coordinator has done a fantastic job in helping a freshman shine at quarterback. His defensive backfield is one of the best in the nation. He has a full cupboard of talent to work with.
It could always be better for Pelini. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Regardless, you can bet that a picture of the scoreboard reading 17-3 in favor of Nebraska over SDSU will be making the rounds as the season carries on.
After an out-of-conference schedule that set up well to expose weaknesses and define strengths, it will be interesting to see if Nebraska’s third-year coach can tighten the screws for the remainder of the Cornhuskers’ Big 12 Farewell Tour.
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