Nebraska Cornhuskers Football: 10 Biggest Questions for the 2011 Season
Depending on who you talk to and where their allegiances lie, you will hear two very different stories about how the Nebraska Cornhuskers will fare in the Big Ten in 2011. Some of the more optimistic Husker fans believe their team could run the table while fans of other Big Ten teams believe Nebraska is in for a rude awakening in their new conference.
The truth, as it usually does, probably falls somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. While Nebraska should be considered a threat to win the Big Ten, they do have significant questions that need to be answered in order to do so.
Here is a look at the ten biggest questions the Huskers will have to deal with in order to bring home some hardware this fall.
10. How Will Nebraska Adjust to Life in the Big Ten?
Some people believe that Nebraska will have a difficult time adjusting to the style of play in the Big Ten, but I disagree. Particularly on defense, Bo Pelini can find out a way to counteract just about any style of attack.
The most difficult part about life in the Big Ten will be having to game plan for a new team every single week. Nebraska won't be able to fall back on just knowing what their conference opponents like to do from past experiences with them.
Perhaps this extra preparation time in the film room will take away from time on the practice field. There are only so many hours in a week and the Huskers will have to use more of them than ever before on figuring out their opponents' tendencies in order to come up with a plan on how to stop them.
If the Big Red are going to be successful in their first season in the Big Ten, they will have to be fast learners and they will need to find a balance between preparation and practice.
9. Can Rex Burkhead Carry the Load as the Feature Back?
This isn't an indictment of Rex Burkhead so much as it is an appreciation of what Roy Helu did for the Huskers over the past few years. Helu has provided a stable presence to a Nebraska offense that has been in an almost constant flux.
Burkhead is an incredibly talented running back and I believe he will have a breakout season in his first year as the main guy in the backfield.
He rushed for almost 1,000 yards last year despite splitting carries with Helu.
The truth is though, Rex Burkhead is still unproven as the featured back in an offense and, until the season gets under way, there is no way to know for sure whether or not he can handle the weight of the role he is assuming.
8. Will Bo Pelini Be Able to Control His Temper?
Bo Pelini is a passionate head coach and after the Bill Callahan fiasco, I believe strongly that Pelini's fire is part of the reason Nebraska loves him. The problem is, that same fire is perhaps the entire reason that officials are not so fond of the Huskers' coach.
I know that there have been rumors that the fix was in on at least one Big 12 game last year. I'm not here to argue whether or not that is true. My point is simply that Coach Pelini's penchant for losing his temper did not do him any favors when trying to get his point across to the officials.
The bottom line is that referees are human beings, and I don't know anyone who enjoys getting yelled at so violently that they end up covered in spit. I'm not even saying that the zebras didn't deserve some of the abuse Pelini was dishing out, but the coach has to learn to pick his battles in order to help his team out in the long run.
If Coach Pelini wants to get off on a better foot with Big Ten officials than he did with Big 12 ones, he is going to have to do a better job of holding his tongue.
7. Can Tim Beck Find Some Sort of Identity on Offense?
For the last two seasons, the Nebraska Cornhuskers have had a championship caliber defense and a mediocre offense. Because of this, Shawn Watson was let go as offensive coordinator and Tim Beck was promoted to call the plays.
Part of the problem with the Huskers' offense is that they have had no real sense of who they were on that side of the ball. Over the past couple years Nebraska has at times looked like a power rushing team, a spread option team, a zone read team, and more often than not, they looked like a team that wasn't quite sure who they were at all.
What separates good coaches from great coaches is their ability to tailor their systems to fit the strengths of the athletes they have. I believe this is where the Husker offensive coaches have failed in the past and where they must improve this season in order to reach their potential.
6. Can Nebraska Take the Next Step in Restoring Their Program to Glory?
The Huskers' football program has come a long way since Bo Pelini has taken over as head coach, but to be honest, Nebraska is in the about the same spot it was in when Frank Solich was fired.
As the Big Red continued its march back to national prominence, it felt as though they hit a bit of a snag last season. The commonly held belief was that last year would be the season Nebraska won the conference title and returned to a BCS bowl game. Obviously that did not happen and it left Husker Nation with some concerns.
If Nebraska really is on its way back to being a national powerhouse, then they need to take that next step in doing so. Sure, a 10 win season is nice, but success in college football is measure almost exclusively by appearances in BCS bowls.
The Huskers need to make the BCS in order to show they are still heading in the right direction toward restoring the order in Lincoln. Whether or not they can do that this year is the multi-million dollar question.
5. Will the Huskers Have Enough Depth at Quarterback?
With the transfer of Cody Green and the decision of Bubba Starling to play professional baseball, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are left with only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
Taylor Martinez, the projected starter barring any drastic changes, and Brion Carnes are the only signal-callers Nebraska has left (not including walk-ons). Jamal Turner came in as a quarterback but was moved to wide receiver almost immediately.
Normally, two quarterbacks is about all a team needs to get through the season, however, considering how much Husker quarterbacks run the football, you have to think that having three would make the coaching staff feel much more comfortable.
Remember, Nebraska used three quarterbacks to get through last season. If that is the case again this year, then at some point the Huskers will have a walk-on taking snaps and that is never a good sign.
4. Can the Huskers Avoid Coming out Flat for Games?
On a few occasions over the last couple seasons, Nebraska has simply not come out of the tunnel ready to play. It has happened against Iowa State, Texas Tech, South Dakota State, Texas, and Washington (the bowl game) in the last two years. They lost all of those games except the one against South Dakota State.
This is one of the major obstacles that stands between the Huskers and being an elite program. The top tier of teams in college football has a letdown game at most once a season and usually less than that. They beat the teams they are supposed to beat and the games they lose are almost always to worthy foes.
At Nebraska, the let-down game has become enough of a regular occurrence that many Husker fans have started to try and predict which game or games the team would come out flat for this year. I don't know who the blame for this should fall on, but I do know that if Nebraska wants to be taken seriously on a national level, this has to change.
If the Huskers can cure their tendency to sleep-walk through a couple games each year then they should be in business; if not it will be another season in which the team could have and maybe should have done better.
3. How Much Will the Loss of Alex Henery Hurt the Huskers?
Let's be honest, you could make a pretty convincing argument that Alex Henery was the best offensive player on the team during his time at Nebraska. Yes, that is partially an insult to the Huskers' offense, but it is also a testament to how good Henery was.
Alex Henery is one of the best kickers in NCAA history. I don't think there has ever been a fan base that was less nervous during crucial field goals attempts than Husker fans when Henery was lining up a kick. The guy was just automatic and considering how much the offense has struggled in recent years, his ability to put points on the board became even that much more valuable.
Brett Maher and Mauro Bondi will somehow split up the jobs of punting, place-kicking, and kickoffs between them. At this point it appears as though Maher will punt and Bondi will place-kick but the competition is officially still open for all of the jobs.
No matter who ends up trying to fill Alex Henery's famous shoes, their success or failure will have a large impact on how well Nebraska does this season. If the offense improves at all it will take some of the pressure off of the new guys and that may be the best thing Nebraska can do to help offset the loss of Henery.
2. Can Nebraska Find More Ways to Get Kyler Reed the Football?
One of Nebraska's most promising and untapped offensive resources is tight end Kyler Reed. Despite only having 22 receptions last season, Reed is so highly thought of that he was named to the Mackey Award watch list as one of the nation's best tight ends.
Reed showed last season that he had the ability to make big plays as he averaged 18 yards per catch and turned eight of his 22 receptions into touchdowns. I'm not a football coach, but that sounds like a guy who needs to get his hands on the football more frequently.
The word out of Husker practice (according to the Omaha World-Herald) is that offensive coordinator Tim Beck is working on Kyler Reed's versatility, probably so that they can move him around the field in an attempt to get him significantly more touches than he got last season.
A tight end can be a quarterbacks best friend and considering the Huskers ranked 113th nationally in passing yards per game, Nebraska needs to use Kyler Reed as much as they possibly can.
1. Can Taylor Martinez Become More Effective as a Passer?
Taylor Martinez is a great runner and I don't think anyone would argue with that. However, part of the problem last season was his inability to keep defenses honest with his arm. Martinez was essentially a one-dimensional player who for various reasons became easier to stop as the season wore on.
I understand that Taylor Martinez's effectiveness dramatically dropped off after he got injured but there was reason for concern before that as well. Martinez was healthy for both the South Dakota State and Texas games, yet the offense combined for only 30 points in those two games.
Furthermore, as a running quarterback, Martinez has to find a way to be effective while he is banged up. Anyone who ever played football will tell you that you aren't 100% healthy for the majority of the season. The best way for a run-first quarterback to remain effective while banged up is to keep defenses honest with the passing game so they cannot load up against the run.
The good news is, Martinez showed an ability to do this in the Oklahoma State game (even though they had an awful pass defense) and since he was only a freshman, there is hope that this part of his game will develop.
The bad news is, if Taylor Martinez hasn't made significant strides as a passer, Nebraska will probably continue to have the same issues on offense that they have had the past couple of seasons.