Nebraska’s maiden voyage in the Big Ten has to be considered a success on many fronts. The Cornhuskers finished 9-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten. But along the way, Nebraska found out it needs to get bigger and more physical on defense to better deal with Big Ten offenses. And the Husker offense must improve its passing game to give the attack better balance.
Even with improvements in those areas, however, Nebraska still may struggle to win a competitive Legends Division that includes favorites Michigan and Michigan State. Still, there is lots to look forward to. With that, I present 10 reasons for Nebraska fans to be excited about 2012.
1. An improved Taylor Martinez? It seems like he has been on campus for a decade. Alas, he’s only a junior. In the offseason, Martinez worked with a private coach to improve his footwork, among other things. The goal is to become a better passer. He completed 56.3 percent of his passes last season for 2,089 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight picks. Martinez also ran for 874 yard and nine scores. If he indeed is more accurate and composed, it will make the offense much more effective.
2. Rex Burkhead. This is the quintessential hard worker who has a dedication and work ethic that is second to none. The senior finished third in the Big Ten in rushing last season, averaging 104.4 yards per game after running 284 times for 1,357 yards. But often times, he was asked to do too much. (Remember the 38-carry game vs. Iowa?) Burkhead may be even better if he isn’t overused. But he won’t complain either way.
3. Deep receiving corps. What was an inexperienced corps is now a deep and proven collection of wideouts that could be among the best in the Big Ten. The only key loss was Brandon Kinnie. Kenny Bell is back after leading the team with 32 catches for 461 yards as a freshman. Also back are junior Quincy Enunwa and sophomore Jamal Turner. Throw in senior tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and the Huskers’ cup runneth over.
4. O-line. Like the receiving corps, this group was largely unproven entering 2011. Now, it’s a strength. The center spot still needs to be firmed up, but the staff loves tackles Jeremiah Sirles, Andrew Rodriguez and Tyler Moore along with guards Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi. This could be one of the league’s top fronts.
5. Brett Maher. There probably isn’t a better combination kicker/punter in college football, as he was named the Big Ten’s top kicker and punter in 2011. Maher hit 19-of-23 field-goal attempts with all but one of the misses coming from 50 yards or longer last season. And Maher averaged 44.5 yards per punt.
6. Motivation. There is a sense of urgency for the program as it enters its fifth season under Bo Pelini. The Cornhuskers have won nine, 10, 10 and nine games in the first four seasons under Pelini. But Big Red Nation wants more. It wants the program’s first conference title since winning the 1999 Big 12 title. This is where motivation and preparation could intersect in a big season—or at least that’s the hope.
7. Secondary. This group has a chance to be the strongest unit on a defense that has a lot to prove after ranking seventh in the Big Ten (350.7 ypg). Senior safety Daimion Stafford may be the top player on the unit, while the corner duo of junior Andrew Green and JC transfer Mohammed Seisay could be formidable.
8. D-line. Yes, Jared Crick will be missed. But three starters are back up front led by the end duo of Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah. Tackle Baker Steinkuhler is an anchor inside. And Bo Pelini made a great hire in luring Rick Kaczenski from Iowa to coach this unit. He is outstanding. Now, big plays are needed, as the Huskers ranked ninth in the Big Ten in sacks last season and last in tackles for loss.
9. Year Two under Tim Beck. Last season, he was in his first year as offensive coordinator. It took time to implement his systems, his scheme, his style. And Beck had to do all of that with a quarterback who still was growing and with inexperience at receiver and on the line. Look for the offense to benefit from those 2011 growing pains.
10. Schedule. This is built for a fast start. Yes, the trip to UCLA for the second game may be tough, but the Bruins are in transition under a first-year coach in Jim Mora, Jr. The other non-league games are at home vs. very beatable foes in Southern Miss, Arkansas State and Idaho State. Nebraska will need that quick start—and accompanying confidence—as it opens Big Ten play vs. Wisconsin and at Ohio State.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.
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