Summer Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Coming off its maiden season in the Big 10, 16th-ranked Nebraska has the pieces to make a run at the Big 10 title in 2012—if the team’s stars match the hype.
The Cornhuskers return 16 starters from last year’s 9-4 team, and the burden is on two of them—quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead—to lead the way.
Burkhead is coming off a first team All-Big 10 season in which he rushed for over 1300 yards and 15 touchdowns. The senior bruiser is a preseason second team All-America, and defenses around the country must prepare their game plans around him.
Adding to the lethal Husker ground game is Martinez, who has rushed for over 800 yards and 21 touchdowns over the last two seasons. The junior gunslinger wasn’t dominant through the air however (13 touchdowns, 8 interceptions), and will need to be a more effective passer to take the pressure off the rush attack.
But the heavy talent at skill positions might not be enough for Bo Pelini’s Huskers in the loaded Big 10. The squad lost three starting offensive linemen from last year’s 9-4 team, and while Nebraska usually churns out tough linemen, questions linger about who will replace center Mike Caputo, a second team All-Big 10 selection who started every game for the Huskers for the last two years.
On the defensive side, Nebraska lost some stars, but Pelini’s focus on defense (he was the defensive coordinator at LSU before coming to Nebraska in 2008), could help balance out the lack of big names. John Papuchis takes over as defensive coordinator from Pelini’s older brother Carl, now the head coach at Florida Atlantic.
Losing first team all-Big 10 selections Lavonte David (now a linebacker with the Buccaneers) and Alfonzo Denard (cornerback with the Patriots) will be a tough blow, compounded with the loss of defensive end Jared Crick (Texans), who played just five games last year due to injury but was a second team All-American in 2010.
The formerly vaunted Nebraska D may be a far cry from a few years ago when it boasted top talents like Ndamukong Suh and Prince Amukmara, but if senior linebacker Will Compton and mammoth senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler can build on solid 2011 campaigns, Nebraska’s once feared D might have enough to contain Big 10 stars like Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball.
For the Huskers, the Northwestern game comes as somewhat of a breather in the midst of a lethal stretch. Before the trip to Evanston is a home game against 12th-ranked Wisconsin and a road battle at Ohio State. After Northwestern comes #8 Michigan and #13 Michigan State. The Wildcats bested the Huskers last season in Lincoln, but Nebraska can’t afford a loss in that one if they’re looking to reach the Big 10 title game out of the vaunted legends division.
Clearly, the Huskers have the weapons to put up monster rushing numbers, but with a tough season opener (Southern Miss, which went 12-2 last season) and the Big 10 schedule, Martinez must do it through the air and on the ground and lead in what will be his third season as the Husker’s starting quarterback.
The days of the menacing “Black Shirts” on Nebraska’s defense might be over, but the Huskers run at glory could just be starting if Burkhead and Martinez have the heart—and the legs—to churn out wins.