College Football 2011: Big Ten Legends Division Preview, Nebraska Cornhuskers

Robby DonohoContributor IIJune 7, 2011

LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 16: The Nebraska Cornuskers run through a gauntlet of fans as they take the field against the Texas Longhorns at Memorial Stadium on October 16, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Texas Defeated Nebraska 20-13. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Part VI and our last team to preview in the 2011 Big Ten Legends Division welcomes a new power to the Big Ten (Twelve) conference for a new year.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers have arguably one of the greatest histories in all of college football. It's only fitting that Nebraska is in the Legends division of the Big Ten, seeing as they've had countless legends walk the hallowed grounds at Memorial Stadium.

Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier, Tommie Frazier, Eric Crouch, Ndamukong Suh, Lawrence Phil...(just kidding); that's quite a list of some of the best to play the game. Throw in one of the greatest coaches of all-time in Tom Osbourne and there's no doubting the history and lineage that Nebraska adds to the Big Ten conference.

The 2011 Huskers will look to build off a team that made its mark in Nebraska history by scoring the most points in a Nebraska season since 2000. That in itself makes the Children of the Corn extremely excited for this upcoming campaign.


Looking Back: 2010

Last year's Cornhuskers were, you could say, 'adept' at running the football. Wait, let me rephrase that: they were a juggernaut at rushing the football. Finishing the season ranked ninth in the country, only behind rushing-concentrated teams Georgia Tech, Air Force, Nevada, Navy, Northern Illinois, Army, and those two teams that made it to the National Championship should add up to a dominant offense that can throw and catch, right? Wrong.

The Huskers struggled mightily through the air, failing to eclipse the 200-yard mark in any of its last six contests. Yes, in those games Nebraska ran the ball effectively; teams such as Texas A&M and Washington finally figured out how to slow down the juggernaut of an offense that really struggled once Taylor Martinez injured his leg and entered a two-QB rotation with Cody Green.

There's no reason to worry about having two QB's next season, as Cody Green has bolted from Lincoln, thus leaving the Huskers depleted at the signal caller position. But we'll cover that in the offensive outlook.

The defense, on the other hand, got back to the Blackshirts of old, holding teams to under 18 points per game last season and giving up over 21 only 3 times. Finally, Bo Pelini is changing Nebraska into the smash-mouth defense that we all used to know and love.

While the defense did exceed its expectations, the Huskers ranked dead last in the Big XII in tackles for loss and 8th in the conference in turnover margin. With the move to the Big Ten, the Blackshirts will need to force more turnovers and get in the backfield more often to foster the powerful defense that will be needed in the stomping grounds of a new conference.

Oh, there's no reason to believe that won't be the case next season.


What Lies Ahead: 2011

Returning Starters: Five Offense, Seven Defense, Zero Specialists (Henery & Paul Depart)

In 2011, the Huskers will have to replace a lengthy list of talent that led them to their second straight 10-win season. But this year, the expectations are even higher with the move to the Big Ten.

The new season will be welcomed by a daunting conference schedule, which means the Huskers will need to get things straightened away quickly in the non-conference slate against legitimate upset-candidates Washington and Wyoming.

The losses on offense will be put at ease with the healthy return of Taylor Martinez, but that doesn't make up for the facts that Roy Helu is missing from the backfield, big play receiver Niles Paul has moved on, and reliable over-the-middle receiver Mike McNeill has graduated.

Along with the fact that Nebraska is returning the least amount of experience on the offensive line in the conference, there is concern regarding this unit that put up over 30 points per game last season.

Did I mention that the offense has a new coordinator and QB coach, a new running backs coach, a new receivers coach, and a newly added offensive line coach? Okay, panic may be setting in to some Husker fans as they read this, but there's no reason to worry.

The offense is in good hands, and if the defense can pick up where it left off last season, Nebraska should be right on track towards competing for a Big Ten title.


Offensive Outlook

Like I mentioned, the offense is going to be a brand new unit next season, all the way down to the coaching staff.

Heck, even offensive line coach Barney Cotton thinks the same: "We're flipping the whole thing over on its side and starting over." Noted Mr. Cotton, thank you.

We begin under center, where Taylor Martinez is back after a breakout 2010 campaign. The freshman was so good that he nearly rushed and passed for 1,000 yards last season. His QB rating was acceptable, but his completion percentage of 58.7% will have to improve next season (and especially next season).

With the new-look offense comes a new-look depth chart behind Martinez. Zac Lee has graduated, Cody Green decided to leave in May, and big-time freshman recruit Bubba Starling was recently chosen sixth in the MLB Draft. So if Starling does bolt for the Majors (and he has said numerous times he plans on enrolling in July), then that leaves the Huskers reeling for help behind the super soph.

So, who else is there? Well there's no one with actual playing-experience; I can tell you that. Brion Carnes would be the likely back-up with his dual-threat capabilities and higher ceiling, but former walk-on Ron Kellogg is not too far behind in competing for the back-up role.

The rushing attack will look to experienced junior rusher Rex Burkhead to start for the departed Roy Helu. Burkhead is your prototypical nose-to-the-ground rusher for Nebraska, but he can be sent out into the flats where he's an effective receiver as well.

Behind the junior is a unit with scarce experience, but one that will show promise. Curenski Gilleylen is a converted receiver who could make an impact in the backfield this upcoming season, Austin Jones has experience at least rushing for a TD in his career, Ty Kildow played well in the spring game, and everyone wants to see if Aaron Green can have an impact in his first year in Lincoln.

Green is an excellent blend of speed and power, to go along with his fantastic strength for being a recent high school graduate. Don't be surprised if the freshman competes for playing time immediately.

The receiving corps will miss the services of Paul and McNeill, but Martinez will be happy to see senior Brandon Kinnie back for his final season at Nebraska. The Kansas City native caught 44 balls for nearly 500 yards and five TD's last season.

Behind the senior at receiver there isn't much, but the spring game showed us that freshman Jamal Turner may be the future dual-threat guy Bo Pelini and Tim Beck are looking for. Turner will still take reps at QB, but he'll make the biggest impact this upcoming season at receiver—a position he broke out in along with special teams in the spring game that saw the freshman catch four passes for 93 yards and a score.

Besides Turner and Kinnie, the Huskers could look to freshman Kenny Bell and junior Khiry Cooper to provide depth behind the two starters. Cooper, interestingly enough, was selected in the fifth round of the MLB draft back in 2008, so maybe he can persuade Starling to stay and play football and baseball (he cold also mention that Nebraska just hired Darin Erstad to coach the Husker baseball team, which isn't a bad plug).

Tight end brings back plenty of experience, and the Huskers know how important the use of the tight end is in the offense. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed will immediately be impact players on the field as blockers and receivers, while sophomore Robert Barry looked sharp in the spring game.

The offensive line is the area of biggest concern for the offense going into 2011. Keith Williams, Ricky Henry, and D.J. Jones leave big holes to fill on the line of buffet busters. It's also interesting, as noted earlier, that Nebraska has the least-experienced line returning for 2011 in the Big Ten, with just 40 combined starts. That's also tied for 99th in the nation.

While that may scare some Huskers fans, let me remind you that Minnesota had the nation's fourth most experienced offensive line in 2010. Look where that got them.

Returning to the issue at hand, the 3 open holes that need to be filled at both guard positions and the other tackle position are open competition at this point. Juniors Andrew Rodriguez and Brent Qvale are likely starters at guard, while the lone tackle spot will be between Jermarcus Hardrick and Marcel Jones. Hardrick should be the pick there with Jones giving another big body for depth. There's also an outside possibility that one of the guard positions could be filled by a true freshman.

The 2011 recruiting class loaded up on big-time offensive linemen, which means Ryan Klachko, Tyler Moore, Ryne Reeves, and Zach Sterup could all compete for time on the line. While that isn't outside the realm of possibility, look to the Huskers to favor experience when moving to the Big Ten this upcoming season.

There are multiple questions to answer on the offense, but there's plenty of reason to think this unit can be just as good as last season with new coordinator Tim Beck taking over. While the Huskers aren't necessarily throwing out the old playbook and writing a new one, it will still be a clean slate to start from as far as scoring points is concerned.


Defensive Outlook

Defense wins championships, and defense will lead Nebraska to a stellar season this year thanks to a bevy of talent returning in the Blackshirts. Heck, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini is saying that this could be the "best defense during his time at Nebraska". Better than having Suh and Amukamara? Okay Carl. But when you look at it more and more, Mr. Pelini may have a point.

Last season's defense excelled in a lot of areas, but still left questions unanswered. Scoring defense and total defense-wise, the Huskers were one of the best in the country. Rushing defense is an area that needed to be addressed, and getting to the QB and the backfield also had to be covered as well.

Those areas are expected to improve with the All-American candidates Nebraska has at all 3 levels of the Blackshirt D.

The front four will be greatly strengthened with the return of senior Jared Crick, who was second in the Big XII in sacks, fifth in the conference in tackles for loss, and third on the team in total tackles.

The front four also welcomes back Crick's partner in crime Baker Steinkuhler at tackle, and potential All-Big Ten end Cameron Meredith. The other end position is open with Pierre Allen departing, and you'll see Josh Williams as the next in line to take over the speed rusher position. Converted LB Eric Martin will also press for time up front.

There's plenty of depth behind the front four that will help as well, with tackle Thaddeus Randle and end Jason Ankrah providing a break behind the starters.

The linebacking corps has a middle, weak-side, and a possible hybrid nickel back/linebacker as well, which gives Nebraska plenty of room to be flexible in the back seven.

One guy that won't be going anywhere next season in the middle is senior Lavonte David, who could be the best linebacker that's back not only in the Big Ten, but possibly in the country. The Miami native tallied a ridiculous 152 tackles last season, which put him atop the Big XII, and his 15 tackles for loss was good for eighth in the conference.

The Huskers will look to him for experience and leadership in the middle, as the weak-side linebacker is expected to be held down by junior Will Compton. The hybrid nickel back position, or 'Peso' position as Nebraska calls, it was Eric Hagg's roaming area, but his role may be gradually reduced on next season's defense with Austin Cassidy being the likely candidate to take over at safety with DeJon Gomes graduating.

That leaves another linebacker spot open, which could make way for a strong-side linebacker starting spot. Sean Fischer and Alonzo Whaley will vie for that final starting spot.

The secondary welcomes back potential All-Big Ten corner Alfonzo Dennard for his final season as a Husker. Dennard was a welcome addition to the starting spot as he picked off four passes last season and tallied 30 tackles.

His services will be even more important with the departure of Prince Amukamara at the opposite corner position. With that spot an open battle, Antonio Bell and Ciante Evans will be in the running to start.

The safety positions are likely locked and loaded for next season, with Courtney Osborne back and senior Austin Cassidy, who roamed around to the nickel back position and safety for the latter part of the 2011 season. Both will give plenty of experience to a secondary that dominated opposing passing attacks last season.

One thing that Nebraska does have going for it is returning a physical, smash-mouth defense for next season. The Big XII turned into a pass-happy free-for-all over the course of the past few years. While Nebraska adjusted well to the changes, the defense this year is perfectly set to take on the run-orientated offenses of the Big Ten. That will make this defense eager to start the conference slate immediately.


Reason To Be Excited: Taylor Martinez

We saw last season there were times were no one could stop the Nebraska offense. Texas eventually did in the 6th game of the season, but injuries to Martinez derailed an offense that was, at its peak, one of the best in the country.

The passing offense ranking is a concern, but Martinez has had a full season to work back into the fold as the starter and a dual-threat quarterback. With his wicked speed and ability to read defenses, Martinez could have a year that compares with that of a certain Heisman-winning QB from 2001.

Reason To Worry: New conference, new teams

While this may be stretching a bit, the new conference could be a cause for concern for the Huskers. Moving to a brand new conference and facing teams they haven't seen before (the last Big Ten team Nebraska faced was Michigan in the 2005 Alamo Bowl) is a bit worrisome.

Every team in the conference will know the tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of their opponents for 2011. While Nebraska probably will too, the Big Ten is a different animal than the Big XII.

Although it is a point of concern, the script could also be flipped for Nebraska's opponents. The Big Ten hasn't seen the Huskers and the teams they'll face don't know what it's like to go to the Sea of Red and play the Huskers at one of the best stadiums in all of college football.

They can use those x-factors to their advantage, but the area still needs to be addressed when thinking about starting a new era in a new conference.


Overall Outlook: 2011

Best-Case Scenario: The offense picks up right where it left off in the first half of the 2010 season, with Martinez a proficient run-first QB and a capable passer. The offense plugs its new pieces into the receiving corps and offensive line, while the Blackshirt defense doesn't skip a beat.

Record: (11-1) Big Ten Champions (Again, this is the BEST case-scenario. My only predicted loss would be at Wisconsin in this case).

Worst-Case Scenario: Martinez and Beck have problems getting on the same page with the offense, while the O-Line is hampered by its inexperience. The defense is still a solid unit, but gets run down by the physical offenses in the Big Ten.

Record: (8-4)

The Huskers will be a favorite to make it to Indianapolis and is another team that should compete for a National Title if the pieces fall into place. The Huskers, though, will be welcomed to the conference with arguably the toughest schedule of all 12 teams in the Big Ten.

With road trips to Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern at home, there won't be too many weeks off for the Huskers.

Throw in the fact that Nebraska doesn't have Indiana or Purdue on the schedule, and the Huskers will have to be prepped and ready for the full force that the Big Ten brings down on Lincoln.

This team has the chance to be one of the better ones to break through in a while at Nebraska, and there's no question this team can compete for their first National Title since Osbourne was roaming the sidelines.

Big plans are in the works to make a big splash for the Huskers' first season in the Big Ten, and the conference is officially on notice.


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