Nebraska Football: The 14 Most Important People in the Program Right Now

Patrick Runge@@patrickrungeCorrespondent IJune 7, 2011

Nebraska Football: The 14 Most Important People in the Program Right Now

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    In every organization, there are the key people, the VIP's, the people who get the prime parking spaces and their names on motivational awards at cheesy "inspirational" dinner meetings.

    Well, okay, the last one might be stretching things a bit. But in any football team, like any organization, what happens with certain individuals affects the success or failure of the entire team. Nebraska football is no different, so let's take a look at the 14 people on whom NU's success in 2011 will hinge.

No. 14: Brandon Kinnie

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    How many wide receivers does Nebraska have coming back with starting experience?

    One. Brandon Kinnie. That's it, that's the list.

    (Curenski Gillyelen technically counts, as he started two games in 2009 as a sophomore. But given the amount of faith the coaching staff appears to have in Gillyelen, I'm as likely to get a start at wideout for Nebraska as he is.)

    There is a great deal of talent and speed Nebraska brings at wideout, but it is all young and unproven. Kinnie will be the veteran of the corps, and it will be crucial for Nebraska's success for him to provide leadership and stability as the other receivers grow into their roles.

No. 13: Jared Crick

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    Jared Crick has borne the burden of being the "next Ndomukong Suh" all of last year and will carry that into 2011. That's not fair to Crick, if for nothing else than his name is way easier to spell than Suh's. But Crick will anchor Nebraska's defensive line going into the B1G Conference, and NU will need a stellar senior campaign from him to win consistently in 2011.

No. 12: Carl Pelini

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    As brother Bo takes on more of a CEO role in running the Cornhuskers, even more pressure will fall on the shoulders of Carl Pelini to get the Blackshirts ready for their new conference home. Moving out of the spread-crazy Big XII and into the smash-mouth B1G Conference will also test Pelini's ability to modify (or abandon) his hybrid-style peso defense. With a lot of youth (and Taylor Martinez) on offense, once again Nebraska will be leaning on Pelini's Blackshirts to keep Nebraska in games.

No. 11: Alfonzo Dennard

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    How many players in Nebraska's secondary with starting experience will be returning in 2011?

    One. Alfonzo Dennard. That's it, that's the list.

    (Actually, that's not true. Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne, and Ciante Evans all have starting experience coming back. But that would ruin my homage to Tony Kornheiser, so I conveniently avoided mentioning them.)

    Still, Dennard will clearly be the anchor and leader in Nebraska's secondary. It's tough to lose a first-round NFL draft pick in Prince Amukamura, and the burden will fall to Dennard to keep Nebraska's back four strong.

No. 10: Bubba Starling

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    The will-he-or-won't-he drama of Nebraska's summer does have the potential to seriously impact the Cornhuskers in 2010. Bubba Starling is a standout athlete recruited as a quarterback, and has the physical tools to compete for the starting job right away. The need at quarterback becomes even greater with Cody Green's transfer and Kody Spano's retirement. Nebraska has a quarterback depth problem, and Starling would help that depth tremendously.

    Starling is also likely to be a top-five pick in the Major League Baseball draft, and will have the opportunity to make millions by turning down football to play baseball for a living. Starling would be a great addition, but the likelihood of his stepping foot on the field in Memorial Stadium for a game is so low that the Nebraska coaching staff has to be making "without Bubba" plans.

    Photo originally located here.

No. 9: Gene Smith

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    Gene Smith is the athletic director for THE Ohio State University. You may have heard that Ohio State has a job opening in the football department. You may also have heard that Bo Pelini played for Ohio State and grew up in Ohio.

    Assuming Smith survives the Jim Tressel scandal and attendant NCAA investigation, he will be handing Ohio State's search for a new head Buckeye. If he turns his sights on Pelini, Nebraska could be faced with an even larger distraction in 2011 than the current speculation already will be.,

    Photo originally located here.

No. 8: Tom Osborne

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    If Gene Smith (see slide No. 9) decides to go after Bo Pelini as Ohio State's new head football coach, it will be up to Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne to fight for Pelini's services in Lincoln. Pelini is definitely Osborne's guy, but it's hard to know what magic Osborne will be able to conjure to keep Pelini on the sidelines in Memorial Stadium. The Nebraska sidelines, of course.

    If Ohio State comes calling, they will have money and the call of home on their side. But remember that Osborne was a huge part of shepherding Nebraska through the Longhorn-infested waters of conference expansion and into the B1G Conference. He's up to the task of hanging on to Pelini, if push comes to shove.

No. 7: Rex Burkhead

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    Nebraska has a lot of questions at quarterback. Nebraska has a lot of youth and inexperience in backup roles at running back.

    And Nebraska has Rex Burkhead. Burkhead's stability and playmaking ability was the one constant in Nebraska's offensive evaporation at the end of 2010. As the new offense and the mercurial Taylor Martinez evolve in 2011, NU will rely on Burkhead's consistency to carry it through the growing pains.

No. 6: The Guy Who Replaces Alex Henery

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    Kickers never get respect. But make no mistake that ever since his heroic 57-yarder against Colorado, Alex Henery has been a bedrock of Nebraska's success. He was automatic from 50 yards and in for field goals, could stretch the field by scoring with long kicks, and gave the Blackshirts great field position with his pinpoint coffin-corner punts. The Skinny Assassin was a tremendous weapon and a vital part of the Cornhuskers, and his absence will be felt.

    Whether freshman Mauro Bondi, or scholarship kickers Jon Damkroger, Brett Maher, or Ethan Davis, someone (or a group of someones) will have to step up and full Henery's very important, shoes.

No. 5: Jamal Turner

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    Speed kills. You can't coach speed. There's plenty of cliches, but the bottom line is that game-changing speed makes the difference between a pedestrian offense and a dangerous one. Once Taylor Martinez was injured (or rendered ineffective), Nebraska's lack of speed in 2010 led to a lot of offensive woes. With true freshman Jamal Turner converting from quarterback to wide receiver, Nebraska gets more of that game-breaking speed on the field.

    Plus, NU gets some emergency quarterback depth to play with in a pinch,

    Photo originally located here.

No. 4: Tim Beck

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    Nebraska fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when offensive coordinator Shawn Watson left Lincoln for the greener pastures of Louisville, Kentucky, to be a quarterbacks coach.

    (Get it? Pastures? Louisville, famous for horse racing? See what I did there? You can't get this kind of quality just anywhere!)

    Bo Pelini replaced Watson from within, promoting Tim Beck from running backs coach to OC. Beck has promised to bring a simplified, flexible offense intended to take advantage of the skills on his roster.

    But Beck is still a rookie as a coordinator, and a lot of pressure rests on his shoulders to get NU's offense over the finish line and into the winner's circle.

    (See! Again with the horse racing metaphor! Didn't see that coming, did you?)

    Photo originally located here.

No. 3: Lavonte David

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    It's true that the Blackshirts have far fewer questions coming into 2011 than Nebraska's offense. But with the move to the B1G Conference, Nebraska will need to rely more on linebackers in traditional roles and less on the linebacker/safety hybrids of the Peso defense. Lavonte David led Nebraska with 152 (!) tackles, 15 of them for losses. Second in tackles for Nebraska in 2010 was Dejon Gomes. With 99.

    David will lead the Nebraska linebacker corps into the B1G Conference, and the success of the linebackers will be crucial in determining Nebraska's success or failure in 2011.

No. 2: Bo Pelini

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    I know it's hard to think of the head Husker as anything other than Numero Uno on the list of important people for Nebraska. And, of course, Bo Pelini will have a huge task on his hands guiding a very young Nebraska team through the waters of a new conference and a tough schedule. His decisions with regards to both scheme and personnel will be critical in determining how Nebraska fares in its inaugural B1G Conference campaign.

    But he will have one personnel decision to make before the season starts. The decision he made last year made, and broke, his 2010 campaign, and there's no reason to think 2011 will be any different. And that decision is about ...

No. 1: Taylor Martinez

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    Ah, T-Magic. What to make of the mystery that is Taylor Martinez. At the start of 2010, Martinez assumed his T-Magic superhero identity, shredding defenses, lighting up scoreboards, setting records, and getting himself into Heisman conversations.

    And then South Dakota State found some Kryptonite. Texas found a hunk, too. Missouri rolled Martinez's ankle, and the magic went away. 

    But Bo Pelini and Shawn Watson kept calling Martinez's number, banking that his truly special athletic talents would outweigh his poor throwing mechanics, bad decision making, and questionable play-calling on his behalf.

    If, as likely, Pelini puts Nebraska's eggs in Martinez's basket again in 2011, Husker Nation is in for the same type of ride as 2010. Nebraska's success or failure will ultimately depend on whether it's Martinez or T-Magic that takes the ball for NU.

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