Nebraska may be the newest member of the Big Ten, but that doesn't mean the Husker's don't have a thing or two to teach the rest of us about being devoted fans. I sent some questions to the guys from SBN's Nebraska blog, Corn Nation, last week, and this is what I got back. It is, as you would expect, excellent.
Last year was of course Nebraska's first in the Big Ten. While the Huskers scored some big wins -- a comeback against OSU in October and a dismantling of MSU a few weeks later -- there was also a good deal of disappointment. Nebraska lost big to both Michigan and Wisconsin, while getting upset by Northwestern -- much to the joy of Iowa fans, who have been dealing with that monkey on their back for years. What do you think of Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten? Did you think the Huskers would have an easier time in year one, or was the New Kid on the Block thing too much of a burden week in and week out?
Mike: Playing unfamiliar opponents eleven out of twelve games certainly didn't help. But Nebraska had too many issues in the secondary last season (see Wisconsin and that long toss to Martavous Odoms, for example) to really have been a serious challenger in the west division.
David McGee: I don't think anyone expected to have an easy go of it. On the whole, I think most Nebraska fans are still very happy to be where they are. It was wild to see Nebraska playing Ohio State and go to Ann Arbor (I made the trip up there for that game and had a great time, despite the outcome of the game) and Happy Valley. I think most Nebraska fans expected their team to perform better but some the defensive breakdown didn't allow for them to have the season most expected them to have. The conference affiliation really wouldn't have made that much difference.
Jon J: It's a funny thing about offseasons. You don't have anything real to go on, so sometimes you just sit around and start making stuff up. The closer it gets to the real season, the more you start to believe the positive stuff. The season starts, and your team is going to win the division, the conference, and then hell, why not the whole bunch of bananas.
I didn't think Nebraska would have an easy time because I've been around Big Ten football for years (I've lived in Minnesota since 1987... you're supposed to take it for granted that Minnesota has a college football team and is, in fact, in the Big Ten), so I knew about how Northwestern wins games they shouldn't and how every team has a underdog nemesis that ruins their season on a regular basis.
Having said that, I didn't expect the blowouts at Wisconsin and Michigan because, well, Nebraska is supposed to have a good defense that doesn't allow that to happen.
As far as our first year, overall it was fun. It was a great introduction to a new conference, and y'all mostly welcomed us with open arms. I'm glad the honeymoon period is coming to an end and we can start becoming one of the gang, which basically means I look forward to my school ruining your season and making you hate us for it.
Nebraska is about as traditional an option school as you'll find in college football. I actually hated option football for years as a kid because I identified it so strongly with Nebraska (who I hated because of that whole 1997 split title thing). Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost, Eric Crouch...Taylor Martinez? Do you think Martinez can eventually break onto the same plane as those other guys? He certainly has the skill set as a runner, and while his passing leaves a lot to be desired, a certain dread locked quarterback from another conference school has shown that a primarily run based quarterback can thrive when the rushing offense is rolling. What is stopping Martinez from becoming the next great Nebraska quarterback. Is it himself or simply circumstance. In two and a half years what do Nebraska fans say about him?
Mike: Martinez isn't an option guy in terms of the traditional option pitch. It's in the offense, but it's not really his game. He can be a wizard in the zone read, though. He's rock solid in faking the handoff. What has held Martinez back is turnovers during his first year and a half as the starting quarterback. I say "year and a half" because he really did a much better job of protecting the ball after the Wisconsin game. Many fans look at Martinez's ugly fundamentals and some of the rumors that came out during his redshirt freshman year and are ready to throw in the towel. If he can get his completion percentage closer to 65% and look a little more poised, he still could convert a few critics and become that next great Nebraska quarterback. Heck, some Husker fans hate Eric Crouch and he won a Heisman.
DM: Taylor Martinez, barring injury, will end his career as the most prolific offensive player in the history of Nebraska football. Unless he gets to the national title game and/or wins a Heisman trophy in the next two years (both things which are unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility) he'll never be considered on the level of Frazier, Frost or Crouch. He's got all the talent in the world but at schools like Nebraska and Michigan, legends aren't measured in yards gained, they're measured in championships and hardware.
Part of what's holding him back is the talent around him. He doesn't have an offensive line chalk full of All-Americans. His running backs won't go on to be the all-time leading rusher in Green Bay Packers history. As much as we all love Burkhead, he's not that type of talent, he's not that type of runner. Martinez has all the talent in the world, but he doesn't have the supporting cast those guys did. I also don't think he's the born leader that Frazier and Frost were. I don't think Martinez commands the huddle like those guys did, he doesn't demand the best from his teammates. Frazier did that from the time he took over for Mickey Joseph in 1992. That doesn't mean he can't more as the next couple of years unfold, but I haven't seen much of it the past two years. If he can do that, the sky's the limit.
Jon J: Two of the guys you mention won national titles and the other one won a Heisman. Man, that's some hellishly high bar you're setting to be successful.
I'll go a step further than DM, and say that Martinez has yet to have an above-average offensive line. Homer up all you want, but the offensive lines of recent years are merely shadows of what used to be, and I'm not talking about the national championship teams of the 90s, I'm talking about the offensive lines from around 1970-2000. More on this later.
As it stands, Martinez has some solid help in returning HB Rex Burkhead, who really impressed me in 2011 and could be the toughest back in the conference. Martinez also has Kenny Bell to throw to. Those are the names most casual Big Ten fans know. What other skill position players are dangerous, and what young guys do you expect to step up in 2012?
Mike: We'd sure like it to be Jamal Turner. He was the MVP of the 2011 Spring Game, and we've seen flashes of what he can do, but hasn't been consistent enough to warrant regular playing time. Another name is tight end Kyler Reed; he was injured most of last season, but when he was healthy as a sophomore, he was a game breaker.
DM: A couple of guys I'm keeping an eye on:
Kyler Reed, TE: Has the potential to be an all American TE, but has been under utilized and played hurt much of last season. The B1G didn't get to see the player Nebraska fans saw in 2010. He's got nearly WR speed and great hands, a nightmare matchup for the poor LB who will have to cover him. If he's healthy, he should be in line for a huge year.
Jamal Turner, WR: Blazing speed, joystick elusiveness. Had some focus issues last year but was the leading receiver on the team heading into conference play and basically disappeared after that. If he keeps his head in the game, he's got the potential to be a game changer.
Jordan Westerkamp, WR: Incoming freshman who carries some high expectations as one of the more highly regarded WR recruits Nebraska has brought in since God only knows when. Probably will fill more of a possession role for Nebraska next year, but if he can be steady in that role, he'll set himself up for a really nice career in Lincoln.
Mike Marrow, FB: There's been talk of the return of the FB to the Nebraska offense. This kid started out at Bama, transferred to Eastern Michigan but eventually and made his way to Nebraska before playing a down for the Eagles. He's supposed to be a big bruising back that has gone AWOL from the NU offense for quite some time. If he can fill that, he and Abdullah could be two of the more important players on the team in keeping Burkhead fresh all the way to the end of the season.
Jon J: Has anyone said Jamal Turner yet? Yes? Well, how about Ameer Abdullah? No? I say Ameer Abdullah becomes one of the best returners in the nation because I can say that and no one can refute me as I am all-knowing just like Phil Steele. You want facts, you say? Okay, how ‘bout as a true freshman the guy sets the school single game record for kickoff return yardage in his second game. That doesn't suck, eh?
What do you expect from Nebraska's offensive line this year? It seemed like Michigan had an easy time getting into the backfield, and that holds true for all of Nebraska's losses. The Huskers were 47th nationally in sacks allowed despite not being a pass heavy team. Was the problem youth, discomfort in the pocket by Martinez, or just a disappointing season from the line? Will it get better in 2012?
Mike: The Michigan game was the worst performance of 2011 for Nebraska's offensive line. But the line hasn't become the strength that Nebraska wants/needs it to be so far, and fans have been quite vocal in calling for a change on the line. There are signs that there may be some talent on the line, but you really need more than a few signs.
Jon: Last year's offensive line was a pretty young set of guys, not counting veteran center Mike Caputo. Tackle Tyler Moore became the first true freshman in the history of Husker football to start his first game. Junior tackle Jeremiah Sirles should be back to full speed after being slowed by injuries last season. Guards Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi were both walk-ons that earned their way to full-time starters (Long earned All Big Ten Honorable Mention).
Multi-year starting center Mike Caputo must be replaced along with both regular starters at tackle, but in terms of overall depth and bodies capable of playing, Nebraska is in a better position than it's been in a while. Bottom line - it'll get better because we have more high-caliber bodies than we've had in the past five years.
One area that was unquestionably a disappointment for Nebraska in 2011 was the defense. While the Huskers were able to hold Iowa and Michigan State to under ten points, everyone else in the conference scored at least two touchdowns. Both scoring defense and total defense were better than average nationally but ranked 7th among Big Ten teams. The injury to Jared Crick was a factor, but that couldn't be the whole explanation. What happened to the Blackshirt defense and why should be believe there will be a bounceback in 2012?
Mike: I put a lot in the loss of Prince Amukamara and secondary coach Marvin Sanders. Amukamara was playing for the Giants last season, and it was a revolving door trying to find someone - ANYONE - who could be a steady cornerback. It didn't help that it seemed that Corey Raymond, who replaced Sanders, never seemed to mesh with Pelini, the rest of the staff, and his players. Pelini also attributed having to prepare for eleven new opponents last season. They just didn't have the history with these opponents to really identify trends, so they played a lot more base defense then they usually did in previous seasons. Except against Michigan State, where they were able to identify trends and make Sparty pay.
Jon: I realize we're taking the chicken shit path in blaming the last guy to leave the organization, but I'll take it step further than Mike and say that Corey Raymond didn't belong at Nebraska. It was a wasted year for our secondary players. We spent part of the last season being convinced that the Huskers had to change their physical style of play, and that Raymond was the dude that was going to bring in a new era, a new method of playing pass coverage and what we got was a bunch of players who were barely physical at all (except Daimion Stafford - he was physical all the time).
Jared Crick's injury wasn't the only one. Nebraska started the year with good depth at defensive line. Then Crick was lost. Then Thaddeus Randle got hurt. Then Chase Rome. Then we're wondering who the hell was going to play in a couple games. It wasn't the greatest year in terms of luck in that regard.
Losing Crick last year hurt, but this year Nebraska has to fill the roles of Alfonzo Dennard and Lavonte David -- two of the best individual defenders on the roster. Who does Nebraska have waiting in the wings to take over and pick up the production of these two multi-year starters? Who is the next star of the Blackshirt defense?
Mike: I'll throw out junior college transfer Mohammed Seisay at cornerback. I think he'll slide into Dennard's spot and Nebraska won't miss a beat. David, on the other hand, will be almost impossible to replace. Someone will take those snaps, but we haven't seen anybody show any signs they'll put up similar numbers.
DM: The answer to this question will define the season. There is a lot of raw talent on that side of the ball, it's just whether or not it will manifest itself on the field. Will Compton quietly built a very good season in the middle of that linebacking corps. He's the heir apparent to David's role. We'll see if he can handle it. Nebraska fans are somewhat pinning their hopes that Mo Seisay and Zaire Anderson will step right in and fill some of those gaps. That's a lot to ask of two kids who have never played at the Big Ten level. Seisay did spend a year at Memphis, so Husker fans are hoping that will shorten his learning curve.
In the end, I don't see it being one or two players that will make up for the loss of those three. It's going to more likely be a collective effort with everyone getting a little bit better and raise their game. Bo Pelini is known to be a defensive wizard. This year will put that to the test.
In the past this recruiting question has been pretty bland to other B1G bloggers, but with Nebraska there is some meat here. With the move from the Big XII to the Big Ten, the recruiting landscape for Nebraska has changed dramatically. It is not going to be harder to pull talent out of Texas -- a state where the Huskers have normally done well, and one that has enough talent to go around -- while the Midwest is much more in play. How have Bo Pelini and his staff adjusted to this thus far? Do you think Nebraska can still be a dominant program without mining Texas for players?
Mike: I'm not a recruiting guy, but I think there are multiple ways of looking at it. I don't believe the recruiting landscape has changed for Nebraska as much as the recruiting needs have changed. In the spread-happy Big XII, linebackers were not that big of a need. In the B1G, that's another issue entirely. Pelini likes to play nickel as his base defense, but he was more likely to play quarters (no linebackers) than three linebackers against Big XII opponents. So linebacker wasn't a big area of focus for recruiting until June 2010.
I also don't believe that Nebraska is going to stop looking towards Texas for players. They are looking east at Ohio and getting players there.
Jon: There are 1.8 million people in Nebraska, and the state is one of the least geographically interesting places in the nation. Lincoln is a great community, but the the state's lack of population and geography have always worked against it. Basically, Nebraska has had to recruit nationally for decades. That's never going to change.
The 2012 class includes a quarterback from Texas, a running back from Georgia, linemen from Colorado and California, a defensive tackle from Texas, a defensive end from Arizona, two linebackers from California and another from Utah, a JUCO defensive back from Arizona and an "athlete" from Louisiana.
Nebraska's history of national recruiting may ultimately give it an advantage over other Big Ten teams in that we're used to pulling in players from everywhere.
Through the 80s and 90s it was hard to find a program more successful than Nebraska, but despite a recent resurgence the Huskers haven't been able to get back to the top of the heap in the last decade. In the last ten years Nebraska has been to just one BCS bowl (less than Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Penn State, and Iowa) and hasn't finished the season ranked higher than 14th nationally. Is it becoming more of a question of If than When Nebraska can return to the national elite? Is the Big Ten ultimately good for Nebraska (out of the shadow of Texas) or bad (away from NU's heartland roots)? Does Bo Pelini get Nebraska back into the top-ten in the next four years?
Mike: Nebraska hasn't been to a BCS bowl game since 2001 and hasn't won a conference championship since 1999. That's not all Bo Pelini's fault, but Pelini is expected to change that. Nine or ten wins a season is a good mark, but Nebraska doesn't want to be merely good, but great. If Pelini can't get Nebraska back into the Top Ten in the next four years, there will be howls from some fans who won't be able to accept that. We're already hearing some of that, and it'll only grow if it continues.
Jon: Holy Shit! Does everyone from Michigan ask this many questions all at once?
Okay, fine. Explanations.
Nebraska will return to the national elite because the state demands it. Think of Alabama. They lingered around for a while trying to find the next Paul Bear Bryant. Now they have him. If Bo Pelini can't accomplish what Husker fans want, he'll be replaced by the next guy who potentially can. Lather, rinse, repeat until success, simple as that.
The Big Ten is good for Nebraska and it doesn't have a damned thing to do with Texas. And honestly, it may ultimately not have as much to do with football. Nebraska going to the Big Ten increased the academic prestige of the school much more than money or success could have ever done. Yes, I am an alum, and yes, academics matter a good deal to me (don't tell anyone else I said that or I may get my ass kicked by some farmer from Thedford).
Bo Pelini in the top ten in the next four years. Well, yes, because the B1G threw a hellish schedule at Nebraska for the first two years and it's going to get easier after that. So, there. We'll win a Big Ten championship within the next four years.
I'd like to thank the guys from Corn Nation for putting up with me and my ridiculous amount of questions.