|Defensive tackle Jared Crick :: ZUMAPRESS.com|
The Big Ten's newest team may also be its best, coming off consecutive Big 12 title game appearances. Though fourth-year coach Bo Pelini won't come right out and say it, this year's Huskers could be the most talented of his tenure. "I think we're going to be a better football team [than in 2010]," he says. "We have a chance to be a little deeper than we've ever been, but we've got to be more efficient."
Nebraska fans have come to count on Pelini's teams to produce suffocating defenses, and the 2011 Blackshirts should be no exception. With a stacked line led by veteran tackles Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler, record-breaking tackler Lavonte David at linebacker and shutdown cornerback Alfonzo Denard pacing the secondary, the Huskers are not lacking for talent; the only question is whether they're built to withstand the more physical offenses they'll see in their new conference. "It's the same game," insists David. "That's what football is, being physical."
Turnovers and inconsistency have plagued Nebraska's offense the past two seasons, bottoming out with an embarrassing 19-7 Holiday Bowl loss last December to 6-6 Washington. The Huskers' descent (they lost three of their last four games) mirrored that of freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez, who elicited Heisman buzz with his sensational early performances (he ran for 241 yards in a 48-13 rout of Kansas State on Oct. 7) before recurring ankle and toe injuries hampered him the second half of the year.After the season Pelini junked former coordinator Shawn Watson's West Coast offense and promoted running backs coach Tim Beck, one of the architects of the pass-happy attack that helped Kansas go 12-1 in 2007. Pelini remains secretive about the Huskers' new offense but says he wanted a simpler, "more user-friendly" playbook. There will still be plenty of running, with versatile I-back Rex Burkhead (951 yards in '10) taking on a featured role, but with Martinez still primarily in the shotgun. Now healthy, the quarterback is excited about Beck's up-tempo attack-for himself, and for Huskers fans. "It should be more fun to watch," he says.Otherwise, Pelini said the program made no major changes to adapt to its new league. "We're out to win a national championship," he said. "We feel we have a roster built for any conference.
Can Crick, Steinkuhler and the Blackshirts continue their dominant ways through a full slate of Big Ten games?
48.7 -- Completion percentage by oppposing passers against the Huskers in 2010, second lowest in the country.
Rex Burkhead, RB, Jr. -- Bo Pelini says this physical 5-11, 210-pound runner -- who rushed for 951 yards and seven TDs last year while sharing time with departed senior Roy Helu Jr. -- could be "as good a running back as there is in the Big Ten."Jared Crick, DT, Sr. -- A two-time All-Big 12 honoree and a second-team AP All-America last year, Crick surprised some NFL scouts by returning for his senior season. His 19 career sacks rank seventh in school history, and he could make a run at Trev Alberts's school record (29½).Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Sr. -- Overshadowed the past two seasons by NFL first-round draft pick Prince Amukamara, Dennard still earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2010 after snatching four interceptions. As Amukamara did, Dennard will likely contend for this season's Thorpe Award.Taylor Martinez, QB, So. -- The Corona, Calif., native rushed for a staggering 124.3 yards per game in his first seven starts before injuries slowed him. Nebraska figures to rely more on his arm, so his 59.2 percent completion rate should improve. Lavonte David, LB, Sr. -- David finished third in the FBS and set a Nebraska record with 152 tackles last season, including a staggering 17 against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
Jamal Turner, WR, Fr. -- Position switch is working out just fine for the former QB. Scout.com rated the quarterback from Arlington, Texas, as the seventh-best prospect at his position in the 2011 class, but coaches moved the 6-1, 180-pound speedster to receiver upon his arrival last January. In Nebraska's spring game Turner caught four passes for 93 yards and had kick and punt returns of 50-plus yards. Expect to see him on the field immediately.
Aaron Green, LB, Fr. -- A recruiting victory for the Huskers should pay dividends. Nebraska beat out Florida State for the coveted U.S. Army All-America, who rushed for 1,717 yards as a senior at San Antonio's Madison High. The 5-11 Green is more of a quick-burst runner than recent Huskers backs.This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.