I pulled together a virtual roundtable of three prominent writers who cover Nebraska to get their thoughts on the program as it works through spring drills and into 2012. Here are their thoughts, and I’ll do more of these as spring ball continues and I file my Football Fix posts.
Steven Sipple, Lincoln Journal Star columnist | See more at Huskerextra.com
“On offense, they need to upgrade the passing game because they are loaded on the perimeter at receiver. There are so many capable players there, Jamal Turner, Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, Tim Marlowe and Kyler Reed, a tight end who gives you a down-field threat. They have to get those guys the ball. I think they’ll work on that.
“The offensive line, you have to find a capable center to replace Mike Caputo. And you also are replacing two tackles. Those are critical spots. It has been so long since Nebraska has been good up front. That has to change before you start thinking of Nebraska as a consistent top-10 team. I go back to 1999 as the last time I think they were really good up front. When they went to the Rose Bowl in 2001, they were good up front, but it wasn’t great. That 1999 line was really powerful.
“On defense, we know about replacing the Big Three (Alfonzo Dennard; Lavonte David; Jared Crick). What I think and this is what (new defensive coordinator John) Papuchius says, they have to get their confidence and swagger back. That shows up in what I call swagger stats. They were 91st in the nation in turnovers gained, 112th in tackles for loss and 64th on third downs. Those are money stats there. And they are way down in those. Those are the most telling things about their decline. They were 37th nationally in total defense, which isn’t that bad. But when you throw in those numbers and look below the surface, they aren’t coming up with big plays.
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“On defense, you can’t easily identify the stars. The one guy is Daimion Stafford at safety. He may be the one guy you would say is preseason All-Big Ten-caliber. And I wouldn’t say he’s a lock. Other than him, I don’t think there’s a guy on there. Baker Steinkuhler is a senior starter, but he hasn’t had that kind of production. I’d be surprised if there weren’t four of five tackles better than him. (Linebacker) Will Compton? He’s good, but he wasn’t all that good last year even though he came on late.
Sean Callahan, HuskerOnline.com publisher | See more at HuskersOnline.com
“Taylor Martinez needs to continue to take steps forward in the passing game. They have so much talent at receiver, they have to find ways to get those guys more involved. They can’t expect Rex Burkhead to carry the ball 35, 36 times a game and be able to run well the next week. We saw that at times last year. The coaches say they want to be 50-50 pass-run. If they can be 60-40 pass-run, that would be a big change in direction.
“The center spot is a question without (Mike) Caputo. They really don’t know who the starter is. I like the guys they return. Spencer Long, Seung Hoon Choi and Andrew Rodriguez are three really good guards. Tyler Moore and Jeremiah Sirles are guys at tackle who have started. I think the depth is there. They just have to figure out what to do at center.
“I don’t know if it was too complicated at times on defense, but in order to be where people think Nebraska should be, they have to get their defense back to a Bo Pelini standard. We saw in 2009 and 2010 just how far a good defense can take a team that may not have a good offense. Now they have a pretty good offense. If they can get the defense back to where they want it to be, that will be key to making the next step.
“The linebacker and corner spots are the biggest questions. I like the d-line and safeties. The defense was built for the Big 12, so they were taking more hybrid guys and weren’t taking true linebackers. They are bringing in four linebackers this year and I imagine they will take another three of four in 2013. So they are slowly building the linebacker position. The talent is there at corner. They had Mohammed Seisay come in over the winter. He was one of the top junior-college transfers in the nation. Braylon Heard is a former running back who moved to corner in the spring. Great athlete. Charles Jackson is a top-100 (recruit) who will be here in the summer. Ciante Evans and Andrew Green are back after starting last year. But remember this about the secondary: They will be working with their third coach in three years.
Sam McKewon, Omaha World-Herald | See more at Omaha.com
“They need to diversify their passing game, getting better divarication on routes. They need to be able to throw the ball down field better and also throw screen passes better. They did it well at times, but on others they didn’t and got the ball knocked down.
“And they didn’t get the ball to Rex Burkhead in the right situations. In the running game, they have to work on the option. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says they will stay committed to the option. If you are gonna commit to it, you better run it right. You can’t lose three and five yards like they did vs. South Carolina and like they did vs. Michigan, too. That has to be a play that you use as a big-play variation and can’t be one that loses you three-five yards twice a game. Taylor has to work on it. He has to get better at it and operate it better. The running backs have to learn pitch relationship better. I think it’s a play that can really work, but you have to perfect it.
“They need talent on defense, and I don’t know if they have enough of it. They think they do. They have a lot of experience, guys who should know the defense inside-out. I don’t think they have a premier pass rusher. I don’t know if they have an elite cover corner like they did with Alfonzo Dennard. And I don’t know that they have a great linebacker who can get the ball behind the line of scrimmage like Lavonte David did. So, they are gonna have to scheme it up. I think Bo Pelini will take more of reins in coaching the secondary. He is working with the safeties, and I think he needs to. They didn’t play well in big spots last year against Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina.
“I think the new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski from Iowa is gonna be a plus. I think he’ll be the best defensive line coach they have had. He’s a good technique guy. (New defensive coordinator) John Papuchius is a big-picture guy who is better suited to be a coordinator. Like (former coordinator Carl Pelini) he is a scheme guy, big-picture guy and maybe not the best technique guy on the planet.
“Several interior defensive linemen aren’t healthy for the spring. If they get better, they could be good inside. But it will be hard to tell now because they probably won’t play much if at all in the spring game.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, and all of his work is at www.btn.com/tomdienhart. Send questions to his weekly mailbag, subscribe to his RSS feed, and check out his video Q&A.