March 24, 2010

Nebraska sets its sights on a title run

A lot of positive talk is emanating from Nebraska.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini is leading the refrain. After all, it was Pelini who said that in 2010 the Huskers could be "five times better" than last season's team, which posted 10 wins.

That would seem implausible, and not just because 50 victories is mathematically impossible. Spring drills in Lincoln largely will be spent trying to bolster the offensive line, fill defensive voids left by Ndamukong Suh and the safeties, developing receivers and improving at quarterback.

Though replacing Suh won't be easy, most of those tasks can be accomplished. Still, five times better than '09? That's unlikely.

But the Huskers can be good enough to challenge for the Big 12 championship - and maybe even the national title.

Here's a look at the Huskers as they get ready for spring drills.

NEBRASKA AT-A-GLANCE
Nebraska running back Roy Helu rushed
for 1,147 yards last season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bo Pelini
Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-2 in the Big 12. Beat Arizona 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl.
Spring dates: March 24-April 17.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum six starts)
Offense (9): RB Roy Helu, G Ricky Henry, T Marcel Jones, QB Zac Lee, WR Mike McNeill (moving to WR), WR Niles Paul, T Mike Smith, G Keith Williams, TE Dreu Young.
Defense (8): E Pierre Allen, CB Prince Amukamara, LB Will Compton, T Jared Crick, CB Alfonzo Denard, LB Sean Fisher, CB Dejon Gomes, CB Eric Hagg.
Special teams (1): K/P Alex Henery.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The Huskers are especially loaded at cornerback, where Amukamara and Denard have NFL ability. Hagg got nine starting assignments in the nickel package and Gomes had six in the dime. Anthony West and Anthony Blue are former starters and give the Huskers uncommon depth at corner. The situation at running back is reminiscent of the "old days." Helu is coming off a 1,147-yard season, while sophomore Rex Burkhead contributed 349 yards in his debut season. Sophomore Dontrayevous Robinson and incoming four-star prospect Braylon Heard bolster the backfield. The defensive line remains solid even without Suh. And with Henery kicking and Paul returning kicks, the special teams should indeed be special.

HELP IS NEEDED

Nebraska's passing game ranked 11th in the Big 12 and 101st in the nation last season. The Huskers need to upgrade on both ends. Lee played hurt most of last season, and it showed. He'll likely sit out spring practice, which gives sophomore Cody Green and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez a chance for more work. Paul has dazzling speed, but he tends to disappear at times. He had two or fewer catches in 10 games last season, yet his 40 receptions more than doubled the production of any other wide receiver on the roster. McNeill, who is 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, is moving to wide receiver. Better play is needed at offensive tackle, too.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

QB Cody Green: With Lee possibly sidelined all spring, Green figures to get most of the work with the first-team offense. Green has great athletic ability, but he needs to refine his passing skills. Here's his chance.

OT Jermarcus Hardrick: Hardrick was the No. 13 junior college prospect in the country, and he enrolled in January. He is expected to bolster Nebraska's offensive line immediately. Though the Huskers have four returning starters on the offensive line, the group wasn't as dominant as coaches wanted, so Hardrick will be given every opportunity to win the starting job.

DT Baker Steinkuhler: A former five-star recruit, Steinkuhler is expected to have a breakout season as a third-year sophomore. Last season he posted 17 tackles in a backup role. This spring, he should take over a starting role in the wake of Suh's departure. He won't be as good as Suh, but he should be good enough to ensure that the Huskers' defensive line remains strong.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

OTs Marcel Jones and Mike Smith: Both are returning starters at tackle, but one of them seems likely to lose his spot atop the depth chart. Tackle play was sporadic last season, and Hardrick is expected to take a spot in the starting lineup. That leaves Smith and Jones vying for the other one.

THE BUZZ

Not since 2001, when Nebraska faced Miami for the national championship, has a season been more anticipated in Lincoln. The schedule sets up right for the Huskers to make a national championship run. That's if - a big 'if' - the Huskers can improve in certain areas. The quarterback situation will be the main topic of conversation throughout the state this spring. But issues in the offensive line and filling some holes on defense have to be addressed, too. Should the Huskers bolster those areas, they should be major players in the national championship race.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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