August 10, 2011

Top 120 countdown
No. 9 Nebraska
Coach: Bo Pelini (30-12 in three seasons) | Staff
Last season: 10-4, 6-2 (T-1st in Big 12 North; lost to Oklahoma in Big 12 championship game, lost to Washington in Holiday Bowl)
Returning starters (At least seven starts last year): Offense (5): C Mike Caputo, WR Brandon Kinnie, QB Taylor Martinez, TE Kyler Reed, T Jeremiah Sirles. Defense (6): SS Austin Cassidy, T Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard, E Cameron Meredith, T Baker Steinkuhler. Special teams (0): None.


OVERVIEW: Shawn Watson and his West Coast attack are out, and running backs coach Tim Beck was promoted to coordinator. He never has called plays but was passing game coordinator at Kansas in 2007, when the Jayhawks averaged 43 points and won the Orange Bowl. His offense holds the key to the season. Beck will install a simplified scheme that will incorporate elements of the spread and also use "big" sets, with two tight ends and a fullback. The zone-read will remain, as could the "Wildcat" formation.

THE LINGERING QUESTION: Is the offense good enough to win the Big Ten? Questions abound. The line must develop, QB Taylor Martinez needs to mature and become a better passer and some wide receivers must step up to stretch defenses.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The offense achieves run-pass balance that confounds foes and keeps defenses off-balance and while the defense dominates up front in leading Nebraska to the Big Ten title in its debut season.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: QB Taylor Martinez fails to develop as a leader and a passer, causing the offense to founder under the weight of a brutal schedule. A one-dimensional Nebraska offense is stymied, putting too much pressure on a championship-caliber defense to carry the team. The Huskers lose three or four times.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: New coordinator Tim Beck must pump up a passing attack that ranked last in the Big 12 and 113th in the nation (150.6 ypg) in 2010.
BACKFIELD: QB Taylor Martinez was brilliant early as a redshirt freshman in 2010. He had a four-touchdown, 241-yard rushing effort at Kansas State. But after suffering an ankle injury against Missouri on Oct. 30, he wasn't the same. Martinez ran for just 79 yards and tossed one touchdown pass and four picks the rest of the season. Nebraska needs a healthy Martinez. The Huskers scored just one touchdown in the last six quarters of the season and lost three of their last four games. Quarterback depth was depleted when Cody Green opted to transfer to Tulsa ; the backup likely will be redshirt freshman Brion Carnes, who is from the same high school - Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee - as former Huskers great Tommie Frazier. Even with RB Roy Helu (1,245 yards) gone, Nebraska still has a good option at tailback in Rex Burkhead, who ran for 951 yards in 2010. The versatile Burkhead also will line up at receiver and take snaps from the "Wildcat." Depth is unproven, but incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah are heralded.

RECEIVERS: WR Brandon Kinnie is back after pacing the team with 44 catches. The staff needs some wide receivers to emerge as complementary targets. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell could surprise. There are two good tight ends in Kyler Reed, who made a team-high eight touchdown catches in 2010, and Ben Cotton. In fact, Reed may be the top tight end in the Big Ten.

LINE: The jury is out on this group, as there will be three new starters - both guards and a tackle. The unit will be built around C Mike Caputo and T Jeremiah Sirles. Massive T Marcel Jones was limited for most of 2010 by back issues but presumably is healthy, while T Jermarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick bolsters the two-deep. Sophomores Brent Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez are expected to start, with junior Brandon Thompson in the mix as well. Last season, Rodriguez became the first true freshman offensive lineman to play in a season-opener since 1999, when eventual All-American Toniu Fonoti did so.


OVERVIEW: This is a championship-caliber defense that will feature a rugged front seven. That will buffer a secondary that still is developing. Count on this again being an aggressive unit, with some complex blitz schemes executed by coordinator Carl Pelini. Since the start of 2009, just 12 of the Huskers' 28 foes have scored 17 points.

LINE: This has the makings to be the best line in the Big Ten with players such as Ts Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler. Crick paced the squad with 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. E Cameron Meredith is a force off the edge. Former LB Eric Martin could be a breakout player after a strong spring.

LINEBACKERS: Lavonte David leads the way after setting a school single-season record with 152 tackles in 2010 after arriving from a JC. He also notched 15 tackles for loss and six sacks. And he'll be surrounded by talent. Will Compton is back after his 2010 was shortened by a foot injury. Sean Fisher returns after a broken leg forced him to miss last season.

SECONDARY: Nebraska often used sets that included five or six defensive backs when facing pass-happy spread teams in the Big 12. That may change in the more traditional Big Ten, where physical running attacks are more common. Star CB Prince Amukamara is gone from a unit that limited foes to a 48.7 completion percentage, but staffers like their options. The new star will be CB Alfonzo Dennard. Ciante Evans figures to play a big role opposite Dennard. Austin Cassidy and Courtney Osborne must play steadily at safety. This unit will benefit from what figures to be a strong pass rush.


This area is undergoing a major overhaul. Star K/P Alex Henery must be replaced. He nailed 18-of-19 field-goal attempts and averaged 43.2 yards per punt last season. Top return man Niles Paul also is gone. Junior Brett Maher is the favorite to take over kicking and punting duties, but true freshman Mauro Bondi also could figure in the mix. There are plenty of options in the return game, including Tim Marlowe and Kinnie on kickoffs and Burkhead on punts. The coverage units need to be shored up.

Average national ranking past five years: 22nd
Buzz: A big question many had about Nebraska's move to the Big Ten was how it would affect the Huskers' recruiting in the state of Texas. Nebraska has made the Lone Star State a huge priority in recent years and many fans were worried about losing the "in" they had with a move to a Midwest-based conference. While it's too soon to truly know if it will make a difference, the Huskers' staff seems to have taken an approach to limit recruiting in Texas for the class of 2012. Could the coaches be preemptively planning for possible fallout in Texas? - BRIAN PERRONI


Nebraska needs help at receiver, which could be the cue for true freshman Jamal Turner to shine. He enrolled early and took part in spring drills, switching from quarterback to wide receiver during the spring. Turner is an explosive athlete who could be a game-changer.


Many feel this is the most daunting schedule in the Big Ten. Nebraska gets no breaks in its cross-division foes, playing Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State. Even September non-conference visits from Fresno State and Washington could be perilous. The last three games look like make-or break-affairs: at Penn State, at Michigan, vs. Iowa.


Nebraska is poised to make a splash in its Big Ten debut. But issues loom. The revamped coaching staff must develop chemistry, the passing game needs to be goosed, the offensive line solidified and the secondary rebuilt. The Huskers also need to play smarter. Last season, Nebraska led the Big 12 in fumbles lost (16) and committed the most penalties (109). QB Taylor Martinez also is on the spot. He must mature, learn a new scheme, become a vocal leader and stay healthy. There were reports in the offseason that he contemplated transferring. Is he all in? If the Huskers get settled, they should win the Legends Division - and could even win the Big Ten.

QB Taylor Martinez (6-1/205, Soph.)
Brion Carnes (6-1/200, R-Fr.)
RB Rex Burkhead (5-11/210, Jr.)
Aaron Green (5-11/190, Fr.)
FB Tyler Legate (5-10/235, Sr.)
C.J. Zimmerer (6-0/235, Soph.)
WR Kenny Bell (6-1/180, R-Fr.)
Jamal Turner (6-1/180, Fr.)
WR Brandon Kinnie (6-3/225, Sr.)
Quincy Enunwa (6-2/215, Soph.)
TE Kyler Reed (6-3/230, Jr.)
Ben Cotton (6-6/255, Jr.)
LT Jeremiah Sirles (6-6/320, Soph.)
Jermarcus Hardrick (6-7/325,Sr.)
LG Andrew Rodriguez (6-6/325, Soph.)
Brandon Thompson (6-6/300, Jr.)
C Mike Caputo (6-1/275, Sr.)
Cole Pensick (6-2/275, Soph.)
RG Jake Cotton (6-6/295, R-Fr.)
Brandon Thompson (6-6/300, Jr.)
RT Brett Qvale (6-7/320, Soph.)
Tyler Moore (6-6/290, Fr.)
P Brett Maher (6-0/185, Jr.)
KR Jamal Turner (6-1/180, Fr.)
E Cameron Meredith (6-4/260, Jr.)
Jason Ankrah (6-4/265, Soph.)
T Jared Crick (6-6/285, Sr.)
Thaddeus Randle (6-1/300, Soph.)
T Baker Steinkuhler (6-6/290, Jr.)
Terrence Moore (6-3/290, Sr.)
E Eric Martin (6-2/260, Jr.)
Josh Williams (6-4/260, Jr.)
OLB Lavonte David (6-1/220, Sr.)
Mathew May (6-1/215, Sr.)
MLB Will Compton (6-2/230, Jr.)
Alonzo Whaley (6-1/235, Jr.)
OLB Sean Fisher (6-6/235, Jr.)
Graham Stoddard (6-2/235, Jr.)
CB Alfonzo Dennard (5-10/205, Sr.)
Andrew Green (6-0/190, Soph.)
CB Ciante Evans (5-11/185, Soph.)
Antonio Bell (6-2/200, Jr.)
FS Austin Cassidy (6-1/210, Sr.)
P.J. Smith (6-2/215, Jr.)
SS Courtney Osborne (6-3/200, Jr.)
Damion Stafford (6-1/210, Jr.)
K Mauro Bondi (6-0/190, Fr.)
PR Jamal Turner (6-1/180, Fr.)

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for He can be reached at, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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