Every season, fans look for that big breakout, the next big star on the football field. Every year someone steps up and takes charge, like wide receiver Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed did last year. Or Jared Crick the year before. Or Ndamukong Suh in 2008. There will always be a breakout, and this year Nebraska had several.
As Nebraska had to adjust to life in the Big Ten, an injury-plagued line and wide receiving corps that had drop-itis, new players stepped in to lead the way for their team. For that we honor the top five breakout Huskers of 2011.
When Jared Crick went down with a Nebraska and career-ending injury, the defensive line had to adjust. When other linemen went down, Nebraska had to result to having a defensive line by committee. One of those players that received more playing time was Eric Martin.
Martin played both defensive end and linebacker this season, after serving also exclusively on special teams last season. He made the most of his playing time by recovering a fumble against Penn State and getting two sacks on Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins.
Though Martin is still listed as a backup to defensive end Jason Ankrah, there is a chance for him to lose weight and take his old spot at linebacker, where Nebraska desperately needs depth. Martin's breakout year will no doubt push him to try to accomplish great things in his senior season.
Spencer Long continued Nebraska's long tradition of walk-on linemen. Spencer emerged from fall camp with the starting job at guard and helped anchor the offensive line. Spencer was so impressive that he was named to the All-Big Ten second team for offensive guard. Considering that Spencer still has two more years of eligibility, he could be in for some great things.
Also deserving mention is fellow walk-on Seung Hoon Choi, who won the starting spot from Andrew Rodriguz about midway through the season, and has been having a great year after not seeing much playing time his first two years.
Ameer Abdullah entered 2011 as a true freshman competing for playing time amongst the other two freshman running backs. However, he won the returning job for Nebraska, and in the second game of the season, he showed why.
In the fourth quarter Abdullah returned a kickoff for 101 yards for a score. Ameer returned 24 kickoffs for 719 total yards, and 29 punts for 108 total yards.
In his duties as a running back, Ameer beat out Aaron Green and Braylon Heard for the No. 2 spot behind Rex Burkhead. Ameer got at least one carry in every game except Michigan State.
During this season, Ameer carried the ball 38 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns. He is a great playmaker that will definitely help ease the load for Burkhead next season.
Nebraska fans were worried when superstar kicker Alex Henrey gradutated. However Maher quickly eased their concerns. Maher was a perfect 16-of-16 from inside 50 yards and 3-6 from beyond 50 yards, which is really good. Maher also was perfect on extra points going 42-of-42.
Like Henrey, Maher also handled punting responsibilities for Nebraska. Maher punted 54 times for an average of 45 yards, with a long of 69 yards. Having a great punter allows teams to pin opponents and ease the pressure of the defense, truly an underrated position.
Maher was so good this year, that he was named the kicker and punter of the year for the Big Ten, as well as being named first team all Big Ten for both kicker and punter.
Red-shirt freshman Kenny Bell emerged as Nebraska's top passing target and deep threat. Bell caught 29 balls for 408 yards, with a high coming during the game against Iowa, where Bell caught five passes for 93 yards.
In just his first year on the field, Bell led all receivers receptions and yardage. If you think that's all he can do, think again. Against Minnesota, Kenny took a reverse from the 18-yard line and ran 82 yards for a score. Bell also returned six kickoffs for 152 yards.
Considering Bell is only a freshman, Nebraska can expect great things from him as he matures. Taylor Maritnez and the next Nebraska QB are lucky to have such a talented wide receiver they can throw to.