Photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Nebraska's inaugural season in the Big Ten did not quite live up to the program's lofty expectations.
Sure, there were high points. The Cornhuskers jumped out to a 7-1 start and were ranked as high as No. 9 in the nation entering an early-November home game against Northwestern. Included along the way were key wins over new conference rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. However, the lone loss in that span came in the Huskers' Big Ten opener, an embarrassing 48-17 setback at Wisconsin. Just when it seemed like they had picked themselves up off the canvas with three straight wins in the subsequent weeks, next came a home upset to the Northwestern Wildcats, who were led by their backup quarterback in the second half. Two weeks later, the Cornhuskers were trampled by Michigan.
A 5-3 conference record in their debut Big Ten season was still enough to get Nebraska into the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks rolled to a 30-13 victory. So, while the 2011 campaign provided Nebraska with its first taste of Big Ten life, it also enforced the reality that there are improvements to be made.
"I think a year under our belt," head coach Bo Pelini said during Big Ten media day, "having some familiarity with the conference, with the teams, with the style of offenses and defenses, you know, there's one thing seeing it on film; there's another thing living it and seeing it in person, firsthand."
OFFENSE: Dual-threat junior Taylor Martinez is entering his third year as the team's starting quarterback and is on pace to break several Nebraska quarterback records. Last year, Martinez threw for 2,089 yards and 13 touchdowns, while rushing for another 874 yards and nine scores. However, he also tossed eight interceptions and completed an unspectacular 56 percent of his passes. In other words, despite Martinez's unique talent, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"My expectations for Taylor are high," Pelini said. "I think he's progressed. You look at where he was from my standpoint from when he started as a freshman to now, he's only going into his junior year. And it seems like he's been around forever. But he's still -- he's just now becoming an upper classman. So I think his best football's ahead of him. And I think he's had a tremendous offseason."
In the backfield, Martinez will once again lean on Rex Burkhead (5-11, 210), who enters his senior season primed to cement his place near the top of the school's career rushing charts. Burkhead broke out in 2011, garnering All-Big Ten honors with 1,357 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, including five 100-yard games against league foes. This year, he'll operate behind an offensive line that returns only two starters but plenty of promising talent.
Keep an eye on wideout Kenny Bell (6-1, 185), who produced a team-best 32 catches for 461 yards and three TDs last year as a freshman and could be in store for a big-time role in 2012.
DEFENSE: Talented defensive end Jared Crick has moved on to the NFL, but senior Cameron Meredith (6-4, 265) is back after leading the linemen with 58 stops and five sacks a year ago. Fellow senior Baker Steinkuhler (6-6, 290) anchors the interior after posting 40 tackles and a pair of sacks last year.
The biggest hole to fill on defense is the one left by star linebacker Lavonte David, who was scooped up in the second round of April's NFL Draft. Senior Will Compton (6-2, 230) was second on the team with 82 tackles in 2011, and he'll be counted on for big-time production this year.
Headlining the secondary are senior safety Daimion Stafford (6-1, 205) and junior cornerback Andrew Green (6-0, 195).
"I feel good about our defensive unit as a whole, front to back," Pelini said. "I think we're a lot more experienced in the secondary than we were a year ago, which is going to help us. I think we have a solid front seven coming back, and we've got some youth coming up behind those guys that I think have the potential to be really good football players."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Nebraska has the conference's top punter and kicker in Brett Maher, who swept All-Big Ten honors last year after replacing former All- American Alex Henery. Not bad, considering it was Maher's first year holding down both jobs. He made 19-of-23 field goals, including three from beyond 50 yards. He also averaged 44.5 yards per punt to rank 10th nationally, as he placed 25 punts inside the opponent's 20.
Similarly, there aren't any questions surrounding the return game. Ameer Abdullah is back for his sophomore season to handle the punt and kick return duties after bursting onto the scene as a freshman. He ranked ninth in the nation with an average of 29.3 yards per kick return, including one that he took back 100 yards to the house.
OUTLOOK: With Martinez and Burkhead back in the fold, the offense doesn't figure to have much trouble scoring. Considering Pelini's forte has always been defense, that's a scary proposition for the rest of the league if that side of the ball can catch up with the offense.
The non-conference schedule features a couple of tough bouts early on with Southern Miss and Arkansas State coming to town in the first three weeks. In conference play, the Cornhuskers are also home against Wisconsin and Michigan, two teams they were beaten handily by a year ago. After knocking off Michigan State and Ohio State last year, this time around Nebraska will face both squads on the road.
Having a year under their belts in the Big Ten will no doubt help the Cornhuskers from a familiarity standpoint, as they got to know schemes and personnel. If the defense can get back to dominating the way Pelini preaches, double-digit wins and a shot at the Big Ten title are within reach.