Big Ten Football Predictions 2011: Nebraska Cornhuskers, Part 1
Nebraska. Tom Osborne's Nebraska. In the Big Ten.
Do you hear that? If you listen closely enough, you can hear Woody and Bo rolling and shaking and screaming and flailing in their graves.
One close associate of mine, who grew up outside of Des Moines, Iowa, commented that the inclusion of Nebraska in the Big Ten has shattered everything she grew up believing. By the way, she still hasn't entirely accepted Penn State as a Big Ten institution.
As for me, I didn't grow up "believing" anything about college football. I grew up in the New York City area, and my only interest in football was of the pro variety. In effect, I am not a traditionalist by birth, and their questionable academics aside, I think Nebraska is an ideal addition to the Big Ten as far as football and geography are concerned.
After all, no matter what their schemes and formations, they are a run-first team. In fact, last season, they had the seventh-most rushes in the country, exactly 50 more than Wisconsin. Moreover, the award given to the best college football center is named for a Nebraska football player.
They are also famous for their staunch defense, a squad known as the Blackshirts.
Furthermore, as a former Big 12 North team, they are no stranger to playing in wintry conditions. The average November temperature in Lincoln is a balmy 38.8, which makes it the fifth-coldest climate within the Big Ten footprint (Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Michigan teams are the coldest), and thus, the fifth-coldest climate in FBS football.
In short, a run-first, lunch pail offense; a tough, disciplined defense and a team that does not think 50 degrees is cold. Traditions be damned, that is Big Ten football.
***With the 11 other Big Ten teams, the conference rankings were based on Big Ten numbers. This is impossible with Nebraska. In effect, it is based on Big 12 rankings, as conference rankings such as this are only telling when taken in context with a given team's opponents.***
2010 scoring offense: 30.9 PPG (seventh in the conference), total offense: 398.1 YPG (seventh), rushing YPC: 5.47 (first), passing efficiency: 133.64 (sixth)/
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 6.6.
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Fourth (2006).
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Eighth (2007 and 2009).
Returning Starters: QB Taylor Martinez, FB Tyler Legate, WR Brandon Kinnie, TE Kyler Reed, TE Ben Cotton, OT Jeremiah Sirles, OT Marcel Jones, C Mike Caputo.
Open Positions: TB, WR, OL.
Last season, as previously mentioned, Nebraska was extremely run-heavy. This was often good, but it had two glaring flaws. Firstly, one of the runners in question, quarterback Taylor Martinez, was constantly banged up. This is the byproduct of having a running back's work load without a running back's anatomy.
The second problem was the inability of the offense to adjust to defenses that limited what they could do in the running game. The Texas, Texas A&M and Washington bowl games were prime examples.
The Huskers averaged 2.93 YPC on 122 carries in those games. With the running game out of the picture and a passing game that opponents didn't respect, the Huskers scored 26 total points in those games.
This year, head coach Bo Pelini has a new offensive coordinator in Tim Beck. Pelini had retained his former coordinator, Shawn Watson, from the previous staff at the urging of Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne. However, it was evident that Pelini, whose background is with the defense, was never happy with his O.
It's difficult to say exactly what Nebraska's offense will bring to the table this year. In fact, it's almost impossible to find specific descriptions of what will be different with this year's Huskers' O.
After touring all of the Big Ten teams' camps, the Big Ten Network crew had nothing to say about the subject. I would interpret that as bad news, as the Big Ten Network has something positive to say about every team. They are, after all, selling a product. But who knows?
Beck nebulously said, "I want our players to understand our offense and to run our offense. I don't want them to run plays."
Even Pelini himself has given the press nothing but vagaries such as, “Trust me. We are putting together a scheme that is going to be able to take advantage of what other people are trying to do to us. We’re going to be able to attack them.”
The general consensus is that the offense will, at base, be the same as it was under Watson. It will begin with spread formations and a strong running game that features both the running backs and a dual-threat quarterback.
The tweaks will include a bit more passing and more multiple looks, particularly featuring I-formations.
Nonetheless, according to The Sporting News, "the differences will come more in execution...than in scheme."
And then there were two.
The Huskers have experienced some attrition at signal caller this offseason. The first to go was last year's backup, Cody Green. Then, incoming freshman Bubba Starling decided to try his hand at baseball instead of football.
That leaves returning starter, sophomore Taylor Martinez; redshirt freshman Brion Carnes and three walk-ons.
The Huskers' revised offense will play a significant role because of the lack of depth. As previously mentioned, Martinez spent much of last season banged up. This was due to his 6'1", 205-pound body taking on 162 carries.
Carnes is even smaller at 6'1" and 190 pounds. These players are not built like Tim Tebow or Vince Young. Consequently, if Beck has them run as much as Shawn Watson did, lack of depth may play a substantial role.
Martinez had an up-and-down 2010. Generally speaking, he played well against lousy defenses, played poorly against good defenses and also played poorly against a couple of not-so-good D's.
Specifically, Martinez had an efficiency rating of 110.08 against the top four defenses he played—Texas, Missouri, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. He also rushed for .44 YPC on 50 carries. They went 1-3 in those games.
While his overall efficiency rating of 138.78 and 5.96 YPC were good, especially for a redshirt freshman, Western Kentucky, Idaho, South Dakota State and 3-9 Kansas are not on Nebraska's schedule this season.
Meanwhile, Carnes was the seventh-ranked dual threat quarterback recruit in the country in 2010. According to Pelini, he is still inconsistent, but that is to be expected of a redshirt freshman.
In closing, it is difficult to know what to say about the Nebraska quarterback situation.
As a third-year sophomore and returning starter, this is the season one would expect Martinez to take his biggest step forward. If Martinez can stay healthy and play with some consistency, the Huskers could be set at signal caller. If not, this year's offense could be similar to last year's.
Either way, Martinez will be one of the most indispensable players in the Big Ten this year.
The top running back for the last three seasons, Roy Helu, has run out of eligibility. However, because Nebraska does (or did) so much rushing, they built up a wealth of experience at the I-back position.
Rex Burkhead is a junior who grabbed 172 carries last season. He gained 951 yards, 5.53 YPC and seven touchdowns. He is not a big-play running back. He is unlikely to outrun many secondaries. In fact, in 253 career carries, his longest run was 34 yards. His longest run last season was 33 yards.
The good thing is that his career average of 5.13 YPC is a realistic indication of his mean. In other words, Burkhead averages a true five YPC. He doesn't have one home run to go along with 20 pop-ups.
While there are questions as to whether Burkhead is ready to take on the load of the feature back, over the course of his career, he has proven that versatility and durability are not areas of concern.
And speaking of mysteries, the players likely to spell Burkhead are also mysteries, but they will probably be true freshmen.
In fact, despite working out four potential backups who were already on campus during spring practice, "most of the NU staff’s public dialogue...seemed to always include comments about...newcomers who could be joining the program in the fall," according to the Omaha World Herald.
The two most notable are Ameer Abdullah out of Alabama and Aaron Green out of Texas.
Abdullah was the 17th-ranked athlete in the country in 2011. At just under 180 pounds, he is a little small for a Big Ten back and could wind up in the defensive backfield before his career is over.
Green is the more promising running back and is a lock to play this season. He was the No. 8 running back recruit in the country in 2011, and his high school offense was similar to the one Nebraska ran last season. In effect, he shouldn't have trouble learning the ropes.
Finally, Braylon Heard is another freshman who could have a shot. He was supposed to join the 2010 class, but grades held him up. He has since met NCAA requirements and is eligible to play this fall.
Junior Collins Okafor and senior Austin Jones will fill out the depth chart.
The fullback will be senior Tyler Legate. Legate only has four offensive touches in his career, so he is not an offensive weapon in the typical sense. Nevertheless, he is a solid blocker and a strong team player.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Junior wide receiver Tim Marlowe has no idea who the top four receivers on Nebraska's depth chart are. And apparently, his position coach, Rich Fisher, doesn't either. In effect, I certainly couldn't say.
Senior Brandon Kinnie is the one returning receiver with experience. Last season, he caught 44 passes for 494 yards and five touchdowns. He is a solid player, but he is not going to stretch the field. In fact, only two of his 59 career receptions have gone for over 30 yards.
Two other players that Fisher speaks highly of are Marlowe and sophomore Quincy Enunwa. There is one career catch between the two of them—Enunwa had a 10-yarder against Western Kentucky.
Another player of note is true freshman Jamal Turner. Turner had a highlight reel-worthy spring game. He had four catches for 93 yards, as well as some big returns. He enrolled early as a quarterback, but due to the at-the-time substantial depth at the position, he moved to receiver.
Despite the Cornhuskers quarterback issues, Turner has apparently been impressive enough to stay at receiver. Still, he is new to the position, and that could cause issues.
There are a number of underclassmen who fill out the depth chart, but as none of them has any experience to speak of, it is not worth specifying any of them.
The situation at tight end is much clearer.
Junior Kyler Reed is a likely all-conference candidate and is one of the better tight ends in the country. Last season, he had 22 receptions for 395 yards. He led the team with eight touchdowns and 17.95 YPC.
Apparently, Beck hopes to utilize Reed more than was done last season. As seems to be the company line, Beck is coy, but hints at moving Reed into the slot and maybe moving him around like an H-back.
Either way, opposing defenses will have to account for Reed.
Nebraska likes to use its tight ends, and the second tight end will probably be junior Ben Cotton. Last season, Cotton did more blocking than receiving, but he had three receptions for 34 yards. He was also molested by Texas A&M.
Beyond that, there will be opportunities for a number of inexperienced younger players.
In short, how run-heavy will the 2011 offense be?
Regardless, Kinnie and Reed are proven commodities, if limited commodities in Kinnie's case. Everybody else is questionable.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 7
This season, Nebraska returns the fewest offensive line starters in the Big Ten.
Part of the reason for that was because last season, Nebraska started the same five linemen all 14 games. Three of those linemen are gone.
Without a tangible depth chart, it is difficult to project this season's starting lineup, and that depth chart has yet to come out. That said, seniors Mike Caputo and Marcel Jones and sophomore Jeremiah Sirles all have starting experience.
Caputo will be the starting center, while Sirles will occupy left tackle. Jones started in 2009 but missed much of last season with a back injury. It is impossible to write him down as a starter as back injuries never really go away. If he does play, he will either start at right tackle, or he will back up Sirles and whoever does start at right tackle.
Sirles has the highest ceiling of the bunch. While he still has a way to go, the fact that he started as a redshirt freshman demonstrates how much raw potential he has. If he keeps progressing, he could be a first-round draft pick by the end of his junior year.
Caputo is a former walk-on who started every game at center in 2010. He is small, but technically proficient and is the leader of this young line.
Other players expected to compete for playing time include senior Jermarcus Hardrick, junior Brandon Thompson and sophomores Andrew Rodriguez and Brent Qvale.
Finally, according to Rivals, Nebraska had the second-best offensive line class in the country in 2011, and some of the freshmen might be able to contribute.
In my opinion, while it is fine to fill out a depth chart with freshmen linemen, offensive line is not a position that is conducive to early playing time. Moreover, out of all positions, recruiting rankings are least telling where it concerns O-linemen.
Health might be a key issue for the Husker line, as August 21 saw multiple Nebraska linemen on the sideline during practice. They were all expected to return before the season opener, but that is not something one wants to see near the end of fall camp, especially with young linemen.
In the words of Alex Groberman, "The offensive line is where the story can begin and end for any football team."
Long-time Nebraska fans know this better than any fanbase, as the Cornhusker offensive juggernauts of the 60s to the 90s were built on great linemen. In fact, between 1963 and 2000, NU had 28 different consensus All-American offensive linemen.
This year's line is walking on a razor's edge. There are some pieces in place to bring a great deal of success back to the offensive squad in Lincoln. However, they are young and they can't afford much ill health, especially given the lack of depth at quarterback.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 7
Coming later this week, a look at the Cornhuskers' defense and specialists.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan State Spartans.
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