Nebraska Cornhuskers: 10 Biggest Questions for the 2011 College Football Season
In the wake of the recent Ohio State scandal, many college football analysts have begun tabbing the Nebraska Cornhuskers as favorites to win the B1G in 2011.
A tumultuous Buckeyes' offseason, which resulted in the resignation of legendary head coach Jim Tressel and the early departure of embattled star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, has presented a unique opportunity for the Huskers and other B1G teams to take the conference by storm.
In head coach Bo Pelini's fourth year, Nebraska looks like one of the teams most likely to do that.
However, if the Huskers want to bring the trophy to Lincoln, a lot of things will have to go their way this coming season.
Nebraska will have to effectively answer the following 10 questions this fall—or miss out on a championship yet again.
Will the Young Backs Take the Load off of Rex Burkhead?
The Cornhuskers reeled in a fantastic recruiting class for 2011 that included supremely talented running backs Aaron Green, Braylon Heard and Ameer Abdullah.
Good thing too, because other than Rex Burkhead, Nebraska's current runners are as unproven as they come.
Since nobody behind Burkhead stood out in spring practice, the Huskers will more than likely rely upon three true freshmen to back up the stud junior who rushed for 951 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010.
Although none of them have any college experience, Green, Heard and Abdullah were all highly recruited out of high school and look to have the skills to share the backup load. While I personally believe Green and Heard will take most of the carries, it could easily be any combination of the three.
They'll have to prove it on the field, however, and if they cannot, Burkhead will have to receive the vast majority of the carries—which means greater risk of both injury and decreased effectiveness for the All-B1G candidate.
If defenses are able to zero in on Burkhead, the offense could be in trouble.
Will the Husker Receivers Drop the Ball?
Nebraska will get a sudden infusion of speed on the offensive side of the ball in 2011, and there will be no shortage of that specifically at the receiver position.
Redshirts Kenny Bell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste and true freshman Jamal Turner join Kyler Reed (a pass-catching tight end), Brandon Kinnie and Quincy Enunwa, among others.
But while there seems to be a lot of talent in this bunch, Kinnie and Reed are the only proven pass-catchers the Huskers have.
2010 was a nightmarish season for the receivers as a whole, with dropped balls and inconsistency playing a big part in the inadequacies that plagued the passing game. However, the two most reliable receiving weapons of last season happen to be returning, which eases a little bit of the pressure.
The development of a reliable passing game will be crucial to Nebraska's success next season, and while the quarterbacks have plenty to work on in that department, the receivers must do their part as well. Kinnie and Reed will be asked to lead the way.
If they cannot be consistently effective in hanging on to passes and blocking, it won't matter how much speed they have to burn.
Can the Offensive Line Be Consistently Good?
Occasionally in 2010, Nebraska's offensive line was dominant.
But more often than not, the line left much to be desired. While it was rarely flat-out awful, it was disappointing overall.
Plagued by inconsistency, and as Bo Pelini calls them, "bone-head penalties," the 2010 line never lived up to what it was billed to be.
To help remedy the problems, Pelini hired former intern John Garrison to aid offensive line coach Barney Cotton. The line returns a lot of talent and looks to have the potential for great things in 2011.
For that to happen, however, the coaches will have to figure out how to avoid costly penalties that killed drives last season. Depth will also have to be developed so as to keep the starters fresh.
If Nebraska's line underachieves again, the 2011 season could be a long and disappointing one.
Will a Kicker Emerge To Replace Alex Henery?
Alex Henery graduated from Nebraska in 2010 as the most accurate kicker in NCAA history and consequently the most decorated kicker in Nebraska history.
If those aren't big proverbial cleats to fill, I don't know which ones are.
The Huskers added scholarship kicker Mauro Bondi to come in and compete with Brett Maher and Jonathan Damkroger for all three kicking positions. While Maher had a decent spring, Damkroger was relatively unimpressive.
Nebraska had the luxury of the nation's best kicker in 2010 and will have to live without him this season. Unfortunately, some of the Cornhuskers' games should be decided by three or fewer points, and if a consistent kicker is not developed, the Huskers could be on the losing end of those games.
On top of that, Henery's punting skills were invaluable in field position battles, and if a punter with equal skill cannot emerge, the Huskers may not even have the the advantage of field position.
Will Lack of Quarterback Depth Hinder the Offense?
With the announcement of Cody Green's transfer and Kody Spano's retirement from football, Nebraska's quarterback depth is suddenly paper-thin.
Only two scholarship quarterbacks, Taylor Martinez and Brion Carnes, and one walk-on quarterback, Ron Kellogg, remain on the roster.
Although both Martinez and Carnes seem capable of handling the starting job at this point, if either one gets injured, there is suddenly a major problem.
On top of that, a scenario exists in which Jamal Turner would have to move back to quarterback if the lack of depth proves to be too much of a problem. Turner's skills would be sorely missed at receiver.
The Huskers need both Taylor Martinez and Brion Carnes to develop and stay healthy in 2011. Otherwise, the most important position in football will be Nebraska's weakest link.
Will Taylor Martinez Recapture T-Magic?
Taylor Martinez took the college football world by storm early in 2010.
An explosive runner, Martinez sliced and diced defenses up and down the field for over 900 yards in the first half of the season.
But after an ankle injury in the Missouri game, Martinez was never the same quarterback. Instead of taking off for a big run, Martinez skittishly danced around in the pocket until he got sacked play after play.
Nobody knows whether to blame it on a freshman wall or the injury, but what is known is that Martinez will have to get back to 100 percent to be an effective leader for Nebraska's offense.
On top of that, Martinez will have to prove he can hurt defenses through the air as well. After carving up the Oklahoma State Cowboys for over 300 yards and five touchdown passes, he was ineffective throwing the ball the rest of the year.
If Martinez can get his legs back to full speed and find a groove in the passing game, Nebraska's offense will be a force. If not, the job may very well go to Brion Carnes. And if the inexperienced Carnes can't handle the pressure, expect a long season.
Will the Offense Carry Its Own Weight?
New offensive coordinator Tim Beck has a big job this season—to make the Nebraska offense formidable.
In each of the last two seasons, the Husker offense looked to have the makings of a true force early on before fizzling out down the stretch.
Now that Shawn Watson is gone and Bo Pelini shares a common offensive vision with his new OC, the Huskers have a good opportunity to considerably improve. The talent is there, too.
But if the relatively unproven Beck and his offense cannot get the job done in the most important of situations, the defense will be left out to dry for yet another season. And as good as the Blackshirts are, they can't win games by themselves. No defense can.
If you don't believe me, look back to the 2009 Big XII Championship game.
Will the Defense Return to 2009 Form?
Nebraska fielded one of the best defenses in the history of Cornhusker football in 2009, led by legendary defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The '09 Blackshirts ranked first in the nation, giving up just 10.4 points per game.
While the Suh-less 2010 version was very formidable, it wasn't always up to par with Bo Pelini's standards. The Huskers dropped from first to ninth last season, giving up 17.4 points per game.
If Nebraska's offense has growing pains in 2011, which is very likely, the Blackshirts will once again be counted on to be the heart and soul of the team. They will have to perform even better than last year if they want to win the big games.
With All-American candidates Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard returning, that's very possible. But if the departed 2010 starters are not effectively replaced, the defense may not be of the elite brand.
That would not be good news for a team with championship aspirations.
Will the Team's on-Field Discipline Improve?
Since his first year as Nebraska's head coach, Bo Pelini has run a disciplined program off the field.
But the Cornhuskers have been far from disciplined on the field. Senseless penalties and costly turnovers have plagued the Huskers in both 2009 and 2010 despite 10-win seasons.
In fact, these problems have made the difference in a few close losses over the past couple of seasons.
The Huskers should be a very competitive team as long as Pelini is running the show, but as long as they continue committing a lot of penalties and turnovers, you can forget about the BCS.
Will the Coaching Staff Mesh?
Ever since the beginning of the 2009 season, Bo Pelini's vision clashed with that of former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and former wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore. Both were retained from the Bill Callahan staff at AD Tom Osborne's request.
Now that Watson and Gilmore are gone and Pelini has filled the positions with his preferred assistants, there are no more excuses.
While a few of the choices Pelini made for the staff were relatively unproven and unknown, the philosophy used by the head man was basically one of "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."
In other words, his group of unheralded assistants should be able to work together cohesively to field a football team that plays as one unit.
Pelini and his staff now share one vision. This should allow the coaching staff to mesh better, resulting in a more disciplined, better football team all around.
If the staff does not mesh well, however, Nebraska could be in for a long year in its inaugural B1G season.