Nebraska Football 2011: Ranking the Top 10 Cornhuskers

Kraig LundbergAnalyst IIIJanuary 20, 2011

Nebraska Football 2011: Ranking the Top 10 Cornhuskers

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 13: James Sims #29 of the Kansas Jayhawks leans for extra yards against the Nebraska Cornhusker defense during their game at Memorial Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska Defeated Kansas 20-3. (Photo by Eric F
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    With the most disappointing 10 win season in Nebraska history in the books, we now look forward to Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten.

    Packed with quality opponents such as Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, and so on, the Huskers will need all the help they can get. Here are the ten (actually eleven) Husker players I think will have the most impact on the 2011 Nebraska football squad.

    In these rankings, I took into account each player's individual ability, position, importance to the team, and level of leadership they will need to show in 2011. Those attributes make up each player's potential level of impact on the team.

    Based on the current states of the offense and the defense, this list leans toward the defensive side of the ball. The Blackshirts may be forced to carry the team yet again in '11.

    I welcome comments, constructive criticism and differing opinions.

    On with the rankings.

10. Eric Martin, ST

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 13: Eric Martin #46 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers celebrates a big hit during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Eric Martin is tenth on the list because of his importance to special teams, a facet of the game that is underrated.

    Martin's headhunter mentality and ability to track down quick, speedy ball-carriers is very valuable. Martin is always around the ball on kick-offs.  His bone-crunching tackles are exciting to watch and provide a spark to the team.

    He also starts on kick-off return, where he frequently makes thunderous blocks. He was wrongfully suspended by the Big 12 for an enormous, but legal, hit on an Oklahoma State player during Niles Paul's kick-off return for a touchdown.

    Martin was moved to DE in 2010, but his speed, size and athleticism allow him to play either LB or DE.  Regardless of position, Nebraska needs this special teams dynamo, especially with the graduation of Adi "touchback" Kunalic.

9. Ciante Evans, CB

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    LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 30: Defensive back Ciante Evans #17 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers breaks up a intended for wide receiver Wes Kemp #8 of the Missouri Tigers during second half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2010 in Lincoln, Neb
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    If you are a loyal Nebraska fan, chances are you already know that another CB is coming on this list.  So, why is Evans on the list as well?

    For one thing, some people overlook the importance of having a solid shutdown corner on both sides.  When a team can trust both its corners in one-on-one situations, it allows the defense to do so much more in terms of getting pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run.

    Second, Evans was a pleasant surprise when thrust into a starting role half-way through the Missouri game. When Alfonzo Dennard was forced out due to a concussion, Evans, a true freshman, stuck to his man and held his own while getting picked on by Blaine Gabbert.

    Third, Evans will most likely be the new starter across from Dennard, and he has some big shoes to fill:  those of Prince Amukamara, an All-American and likely top 10 draft pick.

    The importance of Evans' job is big and the task of taking over for Amukamara may be daunting, but Evans is good enough to do it.

8. Mike Caputo, C

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 26: Mike Caputo #58 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the rest of the Nebraska offensive line powered their way past the Colorado Buffaloes during their game at Memorial Stadium on November 26, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defe
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Mike Caputo is a bit undersized for a center, but he took over as the starter and performed quite well in the shadow of Jacob Hickman.

    Caputo is a strong, stout player and a consistent snapper, both under-center and shot-gun.

    The offensive line as a whole was inconsistent in 2010, but don't blame Caputo.  He'll be an important veteran player for the shaky Nebraska offense. With the departure of Keith Williams and Ricky Henry, Caputo is now the leader of Nebraska's O-line.

    He must maintain a good rapport with Taylor Martinez. The offensive problems will be legitimate enough without exchange troubles. Chances are the snaps will be fine.

7. Cameron Meredith, DE

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    LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 30: Defensive end Cameron Meredith #34 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers  tries to beat offensive linesman Elvis Fisher #72 of the Missouri Tigers during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2010 in Lincoln, N
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Is it just me, or does Cameron Meredith look like Nacho Libre with that moustache?

    With the departure of Pierre Allen, Meredith will be the team's top defensive end. It will be his job to take leadership of the position and help the younger guys develop.

    Meredith had a great year in 2010. He didn't have a huge season statistically, but he did record 64 tackles, 10 quarterback hurries, and 1.5 sacks. Bo and Carl Pelini got creative with Meredith in a few games (namely the Missouri game), standing him up as a linebacker/defensive end "roamer".

    Pelini attempted to use a similar of defense against Missouri in 2008, but it worked much better this time around.

    Meredith has been good in run support, but he'll be counted on to create more of a pass rush in 2011 to take some pressure off the secondary. 

    If he lives up to his potential, we might have a DE leading the team in sacks after three years of defensive tackles holding that distinction.

6. Brandon Kinnie, WR

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    SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 18: Wide receiver Brandon Kinnie #84 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers rushes against Nate Fellner #29 of the Washington Huskies on September 18, 2010 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    After leading the team in receptions in 2010, Brandon Kinnie will be in an even bigger role in 2011 as the go-to guy.

    Kinnie recorded 44 receptions, 494 yards and five touchdowns in 2010. If Taylor Martinez can develop any type of passing game, look for all those numbers to increase.

    Kinnie was Nebraska's most consistent receiver, but dropped a few crucial passes (the one that comes to mind right off the bat was the sure touchdown against Texas that would've cut the lead to one score with plenty of time left on the clock).

    Nebraska will need him to step up and provide Martinez a consistently dangerous weapon on the outside.  Kinnie will also be expected to be one of the senior leaders of not just the receivers, but the whole team as well. 

    If he can be a leader and consistent go-to receiver, the offense will be a whole lot better off.

6a. Kyler Reed, TE

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 26: Kyler Reed #25 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers catches a touchdown over Jalil Brown #23 of the Colorado Buffaloes during the second half of their game at Memorial Stadium on November 26, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defeated
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Halfway through the making of this slide show, I realized I had left Nebraska's most potent aerial threat off the list.  This was not acceptable.

    Instead of making it a top 11, I decided to put both Kinnie and Reed at 6, as they will both be similarly important to the team.

    Nebraska's only remaining receiver with a legitimate amount of experience will be Kinnie, so Martinez will most likely target Reed nearly as much as he does Kinnie. Reed led the team with 8 touchdowns on just 22 catches and averaged over 18 yards per catch.

    One might suggest moving Reed to receiver to take advantage of his phenomenal combination of size and speed.  However, his ability to sneak behind defenders on seam routes might be best suited at the tight end position.

    Reed seemed to be catching on well as an all-around tight end towards the end of the year, so look for him to be more than just a deep threat in 2011, and look for his reception total to increase considerably.

5. Taylor Martinez, QB

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    SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 18: Quarterback Taylor Martinez #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers rushes for an 80 yard touchdown run in the third quarter against the Washington Huskies on September 18, 2010 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington. The Cornhuskers defea
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Although some of the above players are currently better at their respective positions than Martinez is at quarterback, "T-Magic" is fifth on this list because of the importance of the quarterback position.

    For Brandon Kinnie and Kyler Reed to have the big impacts they are capable of, Martinez will have to be able to accurately and consistently deliver them the ball.

    In 2010, Martinez burst onto the scene as a new commodity to college football.  He used his incredible speed to burn unsuspecting teams with the zone read.  He tore up Western Kentucky, Idaho, Washington, and Kansas State.  But towards the end of the year, Martinez did a nosedive.

    One reason for Martinez's struggles was injuries. He wasn't the same after the Missouri game, in which he suffered a sprained ankle.

    Another reason was the fact that defenses finally figured his one-dimensional game out.  When they shut down the zone read, he was at a loss. His young age had a lot to do with the struggles as well.

    Contrary to those who think Bubba Starling will come in and take the job from him, it's still Martinez's job to lose.  Nebraska can have a successful offense running the zone read. But what needs to happen is a lot of development on Martinez's part.

    Many times, Martinez made the wrong reads and it often led to big losses rather than a 2 or 3 yard gain.

    More importantly, Martinez must be able to move the ball through the air when the run is not working.  Keeping a defense honest is essential for any offense to work. If Martinez cannot improve his accuracy and decision making in the passing game, he will not start in 2011.

    Given his impressive running abilities, that would be a real shame.

    He showed potential as a passer against Oklahoma State.  But he must be able to move the ball against good defenses, and Oklahoma State does not qualify.

4. Rex Burkhead, RB

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 26: Rex Burkhead #22 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers runs past Michael Sipili #10 of the Colorado Buffaloes during the first half of their game at Memorial Stadium on November 26, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska.  (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Nebraska's most consistent and reliable weapon, Rex Burkhead will be asked to take a big load in the Huskers' first Big Ten season. Burkhead is more than capable.

    Splitting carries with Roy Helu Jr., Burkhead racked up 951 yards and 7 touchdowns on just 172 carries, an average of 5.5 yards per carry.

    With the graduation of Helu, who gained over 1200 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry,  Burkhead will be the top dog in the backfield. His back-up might end up being a true freshman, so his ability to be a leader will be crucial.

    Look for Burkhead to get well over 200 carries next season, and depending on how well the passing game does, he'll easily eclipse 1000 yards and 10 touchdowns. Either way, he'll be the featured player on Nebraska's offense.  He'll be the wildcat quarterback to boot.

    One thing the coaches need to do is look into getting Burkhead more involved in the passing game as well.  Burkhead has shown himself to have great hands, and at the beginning of the season, Martinez had some success getting the ball to Burkhead on wheel routes.

    No matter how they do it, the coaches need to get Sexy Rex the ball a lot more next season.  Burkhead is a special player. His on- and off-field performance may one day be the stuff of legend.

3. Jared Crick, DT

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    LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 13: Jared Crick #94 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers runs down D.J. Beshears #20 of the Kansas Jayhawks during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska.  (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty I
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Going into the 2010 season, Crick was an All-American candidate and Lombardi candidate.

    Although he slightly underachieved to begin the season, he really turned it on towards the end of the season and finished with an impressive 70 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.

    Crick was the main reason Nebraska got pressure on quarterbacks late in the season, and he should be riding a lot of momentum going into 2011.

    He'll be in his third year as a starter and will be primed for a big season. Regardless of who starts next to him, he will need to be one of the defensive leaders '11.  He may have to take on a more vocal role as well, something Nebraska seemed to lack in '10.

    The defensive line will need to improve against the run in the Big Ten, and that will start with Crick next season.

    Simply put, Nebraska will need Crick to be one of the best defensive tackles in the nation.

2. Alfonzo Dennard, CB

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    LINCOLN, NEBRASKA - SEPTEMBER 25: Nebraska Cornhuskers cornerback Alfonzo Dennard #15 celebrates with teammate  cornerback Prince Amukamara #21during second half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on September 25, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Overshadowed by All-American Prince Amukamara, the physical Dennard outperformed his counterpart at times in the 2010.

    Dennard is the total package when it comes to cornerbacks. A prototypical shutdown corner, Dennard is also a ball-hawk in zone coverage. A cornerback with his skill set and ability has the potential to improve a defense exponentially.

    Dennard's strength allows him to stuff receivers at the line and his incredible vertical makes up for his 5'10" height.  He recorded 4 spectacular interceptions and returned one of them for a touchdown.

    With the graduation of Amukamara, Dennard is the team's top cornerback, by far.  His production will likely decrease in 2011 because teams will shy away from his side of the field.

    If they don't shy away from Dennard, they'll learn the hard way that they should.

    Dennard has the potential to be even better than Amukamara.  He's already built to be an NFL starter, and he'll most likely be Nebraska's second Thorpe finalist in two years.

1. Lavonte David, LB

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    LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 30: Linebacker Lavonte David #4 tof the Nebraska Cornhuskers takes aim at quarterback Blaine Gabbert #11 of the Missouri Tigers during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebr
    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    It's likely that everyone new this name would be at #1 before even reading the first caption.

    That comes as no surprise considering David's school-record 152 tackles in 2010, a distinction previously held by Barrett Ruud, now a starting linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    David's emergence was one of the highlights of the year. Fresh out of Junior College, David was thrust into a starting role due to injuries with no experience and little knowledge of the defense.

    He responded as well as anybody could have ever dreamed.

    He proved to be Nebraska's best blitzer as well, adding six sacks to his impressive statistics.

    David made up for his lack of experience with blazing speed, and his 210 pound frame was much tougher than one would think. He can pack a punch, and he's one of the team's surest tacklers.

    David will lead a linebacker corps that will suddenly be the strength of the team in terms of experience, and he'll be called upon to carry the load at the position once again. One would also hope that he would become one of the team's vocal leaders as well.

    There's no doubting this kid.  He'll likely have another great year in 2011. An All-American/Butkus finalist type of season isn't out of the question.

    The Huskers will need that kind of year out of him if they want to contend for a Big Ten championship. 

    If anyone will deliver, it'll be Lavonte David.