Top 25 Team Previews
Top 25 Athlon Team Previews: Nebraska Cornhuskers
2009 Record: 10-4 (6-2 in Big 12)
Head Coach: Bo Pelini
Jared Crick :: Brad Schloss/Icon SMI
South Dakota State
at Kansas State
at Oklahoma State
at Iowa State
at Texas A&M
vs. Texas (Arlington)
Arizona (Holiday Bowl)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jared Crick, DT: The new leader of the defense will be charged with picking up the slack left by Ndamukong Suh.
Eric Hagg, DB: A hybrid player with size and speed, he's started 20 games the past two seasons.
Prince Amukamara, CB: The returning first-team All-Big 12 cornerback put the NFL on hold to return for his senior season.
Roy Helu Jr., RB: The Huskers' offensive MVP in 2009 has averaged 5.7 yards per carry in his two-year career.
Alex Henery, K/P: The most accurate field goal kicker in school history is one of only three players in the top 50 nationally in both field goals and punting average.
Ndamukong Suh, DT: The All-American was the most decorated defender in school history, leading the team in tackles and ranking second in pass break-ups.
Phillip Dillard, LB: He was the team's second-leading tackler despite not playing in the first two games; a model of persistence.
Larry Asante, S: The three-year starter was named first-team All-Big 12 by coaches and ranked third on the team with 79 tackles.
Matt O'Hanlon, S: The former walk-on started every game and led the team with six picks, the most by a Husker since 2003.
Jacob Hickman, C: The offensive leader had 37 starts in four seasons, including 14 despite injuries and illness in 2009.
10.4: Nebraska led the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 10.4 points per game. The Huskers allowed 28.5 and 37.9 points the previous two seasons.
The offense returns virtually intact, with a 1,000-yard rusher in Roy Helu Jr., a big-play wide receiver in Niles Paul, a versatile tight end who can line up as a slot receiver in Mike McNeill and a quarterback who completed nearly 60 percent of his passes in Zac Lee. That's the good news.
The bad news is, the numbers haven't added up. The Huskers ranked 75th nationally in scoring offense and 99th in total offense last season, averaging fewer than 150 yards per game rushing, a number that has to increase.
Injuries were a factor. Lee is coming off surgery on the flexor tendon in his throwing arm, an injury he played through during his first season as a starter. Helu had a shoulder problem, and the other running back, Rex Burkhead, missed five games with a broken foot.
But injuries alone can't explain the offensive inconsistency. For starters, the line has been shuffled and bolstered by young players and a junior college transfer.
Also, the quarterback position is far from settled. Lee missed spring practice while recovering from surgery. When he returns to action in preseason practice he will have to hold off sophomore Cody Green, who started twice in 2009, and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez, who has the skills to play elsewhere if he doesn't end up at quarterback.
Though the defense lost some key players, most notably Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner Ndamukong Suh at tackle, it's deeper this year and the players are more attuned to the system. So don't look for a significant drop-off.
Tackle Jared Crick, a first-team All-Big 12 pick last fall, is a star, and third-year starter Pierre Allen is at one of the ends on a line that's two-deep at every position. The Huskers are also stacked with linebackers and cornerbacks -- including another All-Big 12 selection in Prince Amukamara -- and although the starting safeties will be new, they'll be experienced; DeJon Gomes started six times in the dime package.
Nickelback Eric Hagg is key to what this defense does. He can move up into the box against the run like a linebacker, or drop in coverage. He'll rarely leave the field.
Alex Henery is the most accurate placekicker in Husker history. He has made 50-of-57 field goal attempts and 139-of-140 extra points. And he has kicked four or more field goals in six games during his career. He is also the punter, averaging 41.4 yards per kick, with 30 downed inside the 20-yard line.
The Huskers have come a long way in two seasons under coach Bo Pelini. They've had a pair of nine-plus win seasons, including two bowl-game victories. Still, Pelini wants more: "We're not there yet," he said. "We're about winning championships."
That's the expectation. Nebraska should be the favorite to repeat atop the Big 12's North Division and could be in the top 10 for the first time since 2002.
"We're right at the verge, I feel, of doing some great things in the program," Pelini said.
The Huskers again will do it with defense after ranking in the top 10 nationally in four major defensive categories, including first in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. The kicking game will provide solid support. But for this team to make a leap forward, the offense must improve significantly.