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Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

nebraska-cornhuskersThe Nebraska Cornhuskers are the new kid on the block in the Big Ten in 2011, and the timing couldn’t be much better. Their 4th-year head coach has the Huskers turned around after they hit bottom in 2007, and they hear opportunity knocking in their new conference home.

A year ago, I profiled the Nebraska program as they headed into their last year in the Big 12, including the obligatory crystal ball-gazing about Bo Pelini as possible successor to Jim Tressel at Ohio State. It is of course an understatement that there has been a lot of water under the bridge since that was written, but the article is still useful as a recent history lesson on the Husker program and the ongoing comeback being engineered by Pelini.

Until last fall, Bo Pelini was getting a reputation as a fast finisher. His 2009 team won their last five regular season games before dropping the 13-12 heartbreaker to Texas in the Big 12 championship game. Last year’s team started out 9-1 and was ranked as high as 5th, right before an October 16th loss to Texas, but faded down the stretch.

They worked their way back into the Top 10, but then dropped three of their last four games...including 3-point losses to Texas A&M, and to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship. A disheartened Husker squad then pretty much failed to show up for the Holiday Bowl, where they dropped a 19-7 decision in a rematch with Washington, a team they had beaten by five touchdowns in September.

Despite the disappointing finish to 2010, and the daunting prospect of playing their inaugural season in a new conference, the Cornhuskers are among the preseason favorites in the Legends Division of the Big Ten, and the first USA Today poll has them ranked 11th in the country. Are they for real? Can they find in the Big Ten the conference championship that eluded them for their last decade in the Big 12?

I wanted to find out what they’re thinkin’ in Lincoln.

Talkin’ Huskers

I spoke with Nebraska writer Dirk Chatelain for that article last August, and this week I caught up again with Dirk, who covers Nebraska football for the Omaha World-Herald, and contributes to the OWH Huskers blog Big Red Today, at Here is how that conversation went...

Nebraskafootball7rDW: Dirk, we spoke a year ago in August as the Cornhuskers were gearing up for their final season in the Big12, and all the anticipation and excitement then was about the Texas game and trying to go out of the conference in a blaze of glory. Safe to say that didn’t happen, although Nebraska had a Top 10 team for most of the year....but I wanted to hear you compare that with what the preseason feeling is this year as they prepare to play in the Big Ten for the first time.

DC: Well, it’s really interesting, because last year was all about leaving old friends, and trying to go out with a bang, and there were a lot of political things going on...with Texas and other Big 12 schools...and Nebraska’s motivation was really to sort of slam the door on everybody. And it sort of worked out....but it really didn’t work out. Nebraska won a lot of the games it was supposed to, but it lost the games that really mattered. It lost to Texas and it lost to Oklahoma.

So it was a disappointment. This year, from a sheer anticipation standpoint, it’s probably even greater. It’s an introduction to a whole new era. The quality of the football team is probably comparable to last year. If you put the two teams on a field against each other, I’m not sure which one wins, but it’s just a different vibe this year...because every single week, Nebraska is going to see a new face. It’s sort of like playing 12 non-conference games.

The anticipation level is just so high....especially with going to Wisconsin for the first time...and playing at night for the Big Ten opener...and then the next week having Ohio State in to Lincoln. Going to Penn State....going to Michigan...having Iowa on Thanksgiving weekend. Every single week feels like a big football game. I think it’s even a bigger deal than last year...

And the stakes are pretty high again. I mean, Nebraska has not won a conference championship of any kind since 1999, and people are getting a little antsy around here. Last year Bo Pelini lost a big opportunity, and this year the door is sort of the Big Ten... for Nebraska to seize that trophy. So it’s there for the taking...they just have to execute a little better.

DW: A lot of the talk has been that there may have to be an adjustment period for Nebraska, because of the fact that every road venue will be completely new to them....that it might be too much to ask for them to win the conference in the first year. It also occurs to me that next year (2012) will really be the same thing they have to play another whole different set of conference teams on the road in another full slate of completely foreign venues. In other words, the adjustment period may be longer than just this year.

But the team does appear to be loaded. They have brought in a lot of speed and talent, especially on offense it seems, with kids like RB Aaron Green, WR Jamal Turner and Bubba Starling. Even having lost players like Roy Helu and Niles Paul, I’m not sensing a lot of concern about the skill position talent on offense.

TaylorMartinez4rDC: Talent is not the issue. There’s a lot of talent on this football team. The problem is...the last two years specifically...Nebraska has had one of the nation’s best defenses, and the offense has completely shot the team in the foot. Those two conference championships...those two Big 12 championship games were absolutely there for the taking, and Nebraska’s offense could not score. They could not score when it mattered. So there’s a lot of pressure this year on sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, (pictured) who had a very, very rocky road last year. One week he would look like the second coming of Eric Crouch, and the next week he’d look like he shouldn’t be the starting quarterback.

So talent is not the issue. It’s a matter of bringing it all together...and the guy who’s going to be in charge of that is a new offensive coordinator...a guy named Tim Beck, who is a Youngstown guy, like the Pelini brothers. Now, Tim Beck has not been an offensive coordinator for quite some time, but he’s got a background from Kansas football, where they ran a no-huddle spread. So you’ll probably see some of that. I think he’ll try to incorporate some of that no-huddle spread into what they’re doing with the downhill running game. We’re not sure yet what the offense is going to look like, but it’s probably going to be different than last year.

The key for Nebraska is to get production from that offense. They haven’t gotten it the last two years, and if they don’t get it this year, there’s no way they’ll win the Big Ten championship.

DW: How important a factor was Martinez’ injury situation last year? I think he got hurt around the Iowa State game and I understand it affected him to some degree the rest of the season...about the last five or six games.

DC: It was a factor, but I think around the country it has been made too much of a factor. Martinez played about six games before he got hurt, and in two of those games, he struggled miserably...he got benched. In the Kansas State game (week 5) Martinez rushed for about 200 yards, and everybody kind of points to that game as what they remember Taylor Martinez by, but he got benched against Texas, and he got benched against South Dakota State, so there was some inconsistency before he got hurt. Once he got injured, it took away some of his speed, and after that he became a very, very mediocre quarterback.

DW: He was not ever considered a great passer in the first place...a great runner, but passing the ball was never thought to be his strength, right?

DC: That’s fact, as late as late 2009...his redshirt year...the coaches were still trying to figure out what position to put him at. They were considering wide receiver and quarterback, and then in fall camp last year, he really kind of wowed everybody, and stole the job from an incumbent, Zach Lee, who ended up on the bench. So he took over that job, and it looked like a very wise decision at first, but as the season progressed, he looked overwhelmed at times.

He looked like it was too much to handle from a leadership standpoint...from a mental standpoint, and also from a passing standpoint. So the question now is how much ground has Taylor made up in these last six to nine months, how much has he progressed. Because if it’s the same Taylor Martinez we saw last fall, Nebraska is going to have some good weeks, and they’re going to have some bad weeks, and that adds up to about an 8-4 season.

DW: The team made it back into the top ten last year, coming all the way back from the “bottoming out” year of 2007 (the last year before Pelini got the job), They spent most of last season in the top ten, and they’re starting out this season ranked there in some of the preseason polls. Do you think Nebraska is a legitimate Top 10 team?

Nebraska-cheerleaders-croppedDC: You know, I think the line is so fine between a top 5 team and a top 15 team. Nebraska finished the season last year about #20 or #22 in the poll. If they beat Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game...and that was a coin-flip game...if they win that game, and then go to the Fiesta Bowl and beat Connecticut...they finish ranked about #4 or #5 , and probably start this season in the top five.

You’ve got to win close’ve got to execute when it matters, and you’ve got to be disciplined, and you’ve got to play with poise...and Nebraska has just been a little bit off the last couple of years. They’re getting to that point where they’re kind of getting to the top of the hill, and then they’re going back down. At some point they’ve got to seal it...and whether it’s this year or not probably depends on how they do the little things, especially offensively. So I think they’re probably starting out in the polls at about the right spot. #11 is probably right. I think Wisconsin is better...Ohio’s really hard to tell...but I think Nebraska probably deserves to be between #8 and #12.

DW: Is there any feeling at Nebraska that they have been a Big Ten team playing in the Big 12? I mean, the perception is that the Big 12 has been a pass-happy offensive league that, outside of Nebraska under Pelini, doesn’t play much defense. That may be an exaggerated perception in Big Ten country, but is there a major shift in the football culture happening by coming to this conference, or does Nebraska, with it’s power offense and great defense, fit right in?

NebraskaCrick1rDC: It’s interesting...because Nebraska really, really struggled against the Big 12 offenses until Bo Pelini showed up, and he sort of single-handedly was responsible for shutting down Big 12 offenses, and kind of turning the tide. He showed the way...when he held Colt McCoy and Texas in the 2009 Big 12 championship game...with Ndamukong Suh...when Nebraska held those guys to 13 points, that was kind of a watershed moment in this part of the country...that okay, the spread offense is not the be-all end-all. So you’re right, that Nebraska has had more of a defensive identity.

What’s going to be interesting to me in the Big Ten is that, in the Big 12, almost everybody ran the same type of system. And Bo Pelini sort of master-minded stopping the spread offense, by putting six or seven defensive backs all over the field....they called them “hybrids”...because they were 205-210 lb. guys who could line up all over the field...some played linebacker, and some played safety, and they could all cover...and they could all tackle.

What’s going to be different going into the Big Ten is that you’re going to see different offensive styles every week. Northwestern hits you with a different offense than Wisconsin does. Ohio State will look different than Iowa. It will be interesting to see how Pelini adapts to that...when he has to change the look or the profile every single week. He didn’t have to do that in the Big 12. You figure out one spread offense, you’ve figured out all of them.

The question here is...Can Nebraska line up and stop Wisconsin? Coming from a league where all you have to do is defend four or five wide receivers, that’s the big question I have. I think Pelini will adapt fairly well, but there may be a couple stumbling blocks along the way. The good thing about that for Nebraska this year is that the strength of the defense is the defensive line.

Nebraska_Dennard1rLast year the strength of the defense was the secondary. I would argue that last year Nebraska had the best defensive secondary in the country...with Prince Amukamara, Alfonzo Dennard(pictured at right), Eric Hagg, and DeJon Gomes...those guys are all NFL players. The strength this year will be up front. There’s a lot of depth on that line...with Jared Crick, (#94 at right) an all-conference player, and an All-American in a lot of people’s opinion. They’re in pretty good shape to stop a downhill running game this year, more so than they were in 2010.

DW: I wanted to ask you about another guy who is showing up on some All-American teams preseason...and that’s linebacker Lavonte David. Seems like he didn’t leave a lot of tackles out there for anybody else on the defense. Is this guy as good a player as his numbers (152 tackles in 2010) say he is?

DC: Yeah...he is. David (#4 at right) is a guy who came in from a junior college, and you always wonder how those guys are going to adapt. He played last year at about 210, and he’ll probably play a little bigger than that this year...maybe 215 or 220. He’s not your prototypical 240 lb. Big Ten middle linebacker, but he has phenomenal instincts, and he’s a student of the game. I think he surprised the Pelinis with how good he was last year...The challenge for David this year will be to line up and take on some bigger linemen...and some strong downhill running backs. He’s going to see a little different style in the Big Ten. I think he’s pretty well prepared for that, but it’s definitely going to be different for him than chasing scatbacks sideline to sideline.

DW: Let’s talk about the offense a little bit. It looks like they’re replacing two or three offensive linemen this year, although I understand they have a former starter also coming back off an injury year.

NebraskaDavid1DC: I think they’re in pretty good shape there. The offensive line has struggled the last couple years. Some people said last year that the problem wasn’t Martinez, but it was the offensive line...and there was some truth to that. They have a young crop of offensive linemen that people around here expect will be better. They’ll be a little bit deeper...there will be some freshmen and sophomores, who if nothing else will push the guys at the top of the depth chart. But for Nebraska to get back to being Nebraska, they’ve got to run the ball more consistently, and the last two years, they were not able to do it every single week. You’ll know Nebraska is Nebraska when they can run it when you know they’re going to run it. And they’re not quite to that point yet, so the offensive line is critical in getting the offense over the hump.

DW: The running backs...last year Helu and this year Burkhead...these guys are not big, every down, Big Ten backs, are they? The incoming freshman, Aaron he a bigger kid?

DC: No, Aaron Green is not. They have three freshmen coming in, and two of them are pretty small...Green is pretty small and Ameer Abdullah is pretty small. They have a kid coming in from Ohio...Braylon Heard, who I’ve heard a lot of good things about. I suspect he’ll come in and be Rex Burkhead’s backup. Helu is with the Redskins...he’s in the NFL. Helu was probably a 220-225 lb running back, so he was pretty thick. Burkhead’s smaller. He’s around 5’10”, 210...something like that. He’s just one of those kids who’s just tough as nails. You’d go to war with that kid. Nebraska’s going to need some help from some freshmen at the “I” back. It’s basically Burkhead, and three freshmen.

DW: I thought the kid (Heard) from Youngstown was going to be academically ineligible.

DC: He was...he sat out last year...but he got his grades in order...he passed...and he’s going to be on the roster...

DW: Okay, so he’s a redshirt freshman...I forgot about that.  What do you think about the other big name incoming recruits...I haven’t seen Jamal Turner, but everyone said he was lights out in the spring. As a former quarterback, now a receiver, I guess what I’m picturing is a Denard Robinson playing wide receiver. Is that a fair comparison?

DC: Yeah, I think that is a pretty fair comparison. I’ve seen a lot of that kid, and they’re putting a lot of expectations on him...but he’s an electric athlete. He’s a guy that when you’re recruiting him, you tell him....”you just come to campus...we’ll find a place for you.”  Jamal Turner came to campus as a quarterback...but almost immediately in spring ball...he enrolled early...he made the adjustment to receiver...and he was the most impressive receiver at the spring game...which is saying a lot for a kid who should have been going to his high school prom that weekend. He will definitely make an impact this year...if not so much receiving, then in the return game...on punt returns and kickoffs. He’s tough to tackle. I’m not sure he’s got the speed of Denard Robinson, but he sure has the same type of elusiveness...and Nebraska needs a guy like that. They need a gamebreaker.

DW: Do you expect to see Bubba Starling on the field this year?

DC:  No....No.  He was drafted 5th overall by the Kansas City Royals...and decision day is August 15th. I cannot imagine that Bubba Starling will turn down 7 to 10 million dollars, or whatever it is that the Royals offer him. He grew up and he lives about 30 miles outside of Kansas City, so you’ve got the hometown kid getting eight million dollars thrown at him. I think Nebraska’s chances of keeping Bubba Starling around are pretty minimal. It would be a real coup if Nebraska could do it. He’s a phenomenal athlete...he’s kind of got that Tebow toughness, but I can’t imagine being in his position, and turning down that kind of money.

DW: Are there any special preparations being made at Nebraska for October 8...Ohio State  coming to town for your first Big Ten home game? How crazy is it going to be in Lincoln, Nebraska that day?

DC: It will be crazy. I think maybe there’s a little bit of disappointment based on what’s been going on at Ohio State. Perhaps that game isn’t going to be quite as special as people thought at first...with Tressel and Pryor supposed to be here. It’s funny....I actually hear more talk about the Wisconsin game. That’s the Big Ten opener...first road game...going up to Camp Randall. There’s talk...that Barry Alvarez alluded to the other day... that there might be 30-40,000 Nebraska fans up there. I’m not sure if they’ll get into the stadium or not, but they’ll find a sports bar and watch.

DW: I was in Madison last year, and it’s a great venue for a college football game...too bad it was over by you’ll all enjoy it.  Dirk, I’ll wrap up by asking you if there are any surprises you can predict for the 2011 Cornhuskers...players that might not be well known yet, but that you expect big things out of for Nebraska this year. Give me one player on each side of the ball that you can say to Big Ten fans...”hey, watch out for this guy”

NebraskaReed1DC: The guy who I think will be a household name in the Big Ten by the end of the year is tight end Kyler Reed. He was a big-play threat last year from that position, and he will immediately be one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends. He’s just a phenomenal receiving threat who has developed into a multi-talented tight end. So he’s Nebraska’s big-play threat, and if Martinez can get him the ball, Kyler Reed (#25 at right) will have a very big year.

Defensively, I think you have to come back to defensive end. Nebraska is looking for a couple of speed rushers, and I think the guy you might want to keep your eye on is Eric Martin. A guy who has played linebacker the last couple years, but they used him in the spring game as a defensive a rusher. He might be a third down specialist, and make a difference for Nebraska defensively. He’s got an aggressive attitude, and Bo is trying to figure out a way to incorporate him into the defense. If he can do it effectively, you’ll know who Eric Martin is by the end of the year too.

DW: One quick aside, Dirk. I’m a Cleveland guy and a Browns fan. We’ve got Eric Hagg in camp here with the Browns, and I was wondering what you might be able to tell our readers about him.

DC: He’s a really interesting player. He is not going to wow you. I’m not surprised that he was drafted late, but if you ask a guy like Marvin Sanders, who was the defensive backs coach last year, he would say that Eric Hagg was the most valuable player on Nebraska’s defense. He’s a guy who can do a little bit of everything. He can cover, he can tackle, he can play multiple positions. I think it will be very interesting to see if the Browns can find a way to use his versatility, because that’s really the word that comes to mind when I think of Eric Hagg. I think he’ll make the roster. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t...and he might turn into a pretty good special teamer, and possibly a pretty good defensive back at some point.

DW: Dirk Chatelain from the Omaha World-Herald...thanks for taking some time with us. Maybe we’ll get back together after the first couple Big Ten games and talk again.


Loose Leaves

“Tressel to Coordinate OSU Special Teams” - No, it’s not a flashback. Luke Fickell made a couple of new assignments within the coaching staff this week, and one of them was to give running backs coach Dick Tressel responsibility for coordinating all the special teams. In the past, with Tressel’s brother running the show, several individual position coaches had responsibility for one specific unit of the special teams, with the head coach as de facto coordinator.

I took apart the OSU special teams history under Jim Tressel in exhaustive detail last summer, suggesting those units might be one of very few weaknesses of the 2010 team. Lucky guess. They'll have to get better in 2011 if the Buckeyes are to overcome the many new obstacles to their success. Having one assistant coach as the focal point for that activity is a step in the right direction.

In the second move, safeties coach Paul Haynes was promoted to Co-Defensive Coordinator (with Jim Heacock) assuming the role previously occupied by Fickell. Haynes, a Kent State grad, is in his third year at Ohio State, with previous stints at Michigan State, Louisville, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.


Several of the incoming freshmen Buckeyes showed up at their introductory media availability this week wearing wristbands with the initials “JT” in fluorescent orange, and several of them spoke in equally glowing terms of their respect and admiration for the deposed Ohio State coach.

As you can imagine, this PDA got lots of coverage (it was a media event, after all), and 24 hours hadn’t passed before the wristbands were confiscated from the players due to what OSU spokesman Jerry Emig called “a concern that maybe this isn't a thing that should have been done". Emig said that OSU officials weren’t sure if wearing the wristbands might constitute an NCAA violation of some sort. “"We don't know that yet, but that's what compliance is looking into", he said.

The wristbands were reportedly supplied to the players by someone on the football staff. If nothing else, that tells me that there is no program-wide “distancing” from all things Tressel of the type you might have expected in a scandal like this one. At least nothing that’s working. I find that oddly cheering.


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