Spring practice is starting soon. This is a great time to shake the rust off, put last season in the rearview mirror, and lay the foundation for a great season.
But unless you have been drinking the Big Red kool-aid by the gallon, you likely know there is much work to be done over the 15 spring practices. Sure, Nebraska can definitely win the Big Ten title in 2012, but let's just say there is room for improvement across the board. Here are my position-by-position suggestions on things to clean up during Spring drills:
Quarterback: Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Taylor Martinez needs to improve his accuracy (and likely his throwing mechanics). Master the Beck offense. Work on the option game wouldn't hurt either. Yet, I think the biggest need is for Brion Carnes to develop. Look: I am not saying that Carnes should be playing over Martinez - aside from a glorified scrimmage against a hodge-podge NU defense, Carnes has not shown anybody anything. And that is exactly the point: Martinez takes some big hits every game and it was nothing short of a miracle that he played the entire season. Make sure Carnes (or somebody else) is ready to step in and be a true #2. And if the #2 can make a legitimate run at the #1 job, well, competition tends to make players better. The development of a respectable third string QB (not named Jamal Turner) would be a nice bonus, but I don't want to get greedy.
Running Back: With Braylon Heard now on defense, Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah need to get in the playbook, learn the finer points of pass protection, and whatever else Ron Brown asks of them so they can make more of a contribution next year. Both showed flashes of potential, and with Rex Burkhead leaving after the 2012 season, the audition for the 2013 starting job begins now. As for Rex, his sole assignment is to stay healthy. I have no problem with him spending most of the spring on the sidelines hanging out with his buddy Jack.
Fullback: Find a replacement for Tyler Legate, which means replacing a guy who did quite a bit (blocking, catching passes, and even running a dive or two) from a pool of guys who haven't accomplished much of anything. I'm a fullback fanatic, and while nothing would please me more than having another Nebraska native (C.J. Zimmerer or Graham Stoddard) lining up at FB, my guess is Mike Morrow will be the starter next fall - your dad doesn't get a coaching gig unless the kid can play (cough, cough, Cotton, cough, couth).
Tight End: First and foremost, both Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed need to get healthy. Secondly, they need to try to become more complete players. Kyler, you are faster than a TE should be, but you tend to block like a backup punter. Your blocking performance in the bowl game was not good. Really, really not good. Spend some time with Quincy Enunwa and learn what receiver blocking is all about. Ben Cotton showed some improvement in his receiving skills this year, but I don't know how many defensive coordinators are worried about getting burned by him the way they are with Reed. Another position where the next generation needs to step up and start earning 2013 playing time.
Wide Receivers: A basketball player will spend his offseason shooting thousands of shots every day. A baseball player will live in the batting cage. A golfer will go through hundreds of buckets of balls on the driving range. The WRs need to be doing the same type of thing with passes, as there is room for a good hands receiver to earn playing time. I think Bo needs to make Jamal Turner a full-time WR (and I still say he should also return kicks). Quincy Enunwa needs to lead a blocking seminar for the other receivers (and Kyler Reed). Kenny Bell needs to avoid getting a haircut.
Offensive Line: First off, improvement was made last year. This is good. Yet, much work needs to be done. Finding a replacement for Mike Caputo is job #1. My guess it will be somebody who redshirted this year, but we'll see. Secondly, while the line play was better, for the love of God, if you whiff on your assignment, don't just stand around like a statue - hit somebody else. There is nothing more frustrating than watching Burkhead or Martinez getting drilled behind the line of scrimmage while several linemen stand and watch. Next up - build depth. Let's go back to that ugly drive in the bowl game where Yoshi Hardrick had like 17 false start penalties. You know why he was jumping? A series or two earlier, he got dinged up and was limping, so I believe he was trying to cheat the snap count to compensate for his decreased mobility. That tells me Barney Cotton would rather have Yoshi at 80% health, committing penalties, than bring in the next guy. And that is a problem. Finally, the spring and summer is when the reporters from the World-Herald or Journal Star come around to write their annual "the O Line is much improved, has great depth, and will be a run blocking force again" story. Just say "no comment". Please.
Defensive Line: Stop getting blocked into your linebackers. Start generating some sort of pass rush, or at least a pass brisk walk. Getting healthy and building depth is the surest (and quickest) way to getting this accomplished. Baker - which Steinkuhler do you want to be: your big brother Ty - a decent, yet largely forgettable player. Or your dad - somebody with his name forever displayed on the North Stadium facade? You've shown the ability to play at (or very near) the Suh Standard. Now is the time to do it every snap. I'm looking forward to seeing what new Coach Rich Kaczenski can do with this group. I'm hopeful that some tough love will make the big nasties even better.
Defensive Ends: Remember when this position used to be called "rush ends"? You and I do, but it is pretty obvious that the current players do not. Cam Meredith - you flash some nice potential, now let's work on the consistency. Bring it every game. Jason Ankrah - I'll be blunt: I'm not currently a fan. You seem like more of a space filler than a contributor. Let's change that. Eric Martin - I think you could have a big season. Keep your speed and work on technique. Another position where depth - and having 2013's starters begin contributing now - is important.
Linebackers: The last three years, NU has had to replace an irreplaceable player. 2010: Who fills Suh's shoes? Jared Crick does an excellent job. 2011: Nobody can do what Alex Henery did, but Brett Maher came very, very close. 2012: Can anybody replicate Lavonte David's instincts, speed, and big play ability? Good question. Will Compton - you can be the star of the defense. I see your 2012 campaign being somewhere between Bo and Barrett Ruud in terms of accomplishment, which would be a step up. Sean Fisher - Oh, you so look the part of a dominant football player. Now it is time to play the part. If you're not 100% healthy and confident - get there. Alonzo Whaley - I'm hopeful that you can be another Philip Dillard, which would be great. Micah Kreikemeier - if you want to be remembered for something other than being the token "Tom Osborne tries to help us forget about Bill Callahan by signing a small town Nebraska kid" recruit, well, the time is now, son.
Cornerbacks: Meeting and getting familiar with new coach Terry Joseph is the first assignment. Next is stopping the revolving door from spitting out a new starter every week. Depth is great, but I'd like to see 2-3 guys separate themselves from the pack. There are some very talented and intriguing athletes at DB (Mo Seisay, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Braylon Heard, in addition to Andrew Green and Ciante Evans), the key is to get them in position to make plays (and an improved pass rush wouldn't hurt their cause). We'll see if the third position coach in three years brings clarity or confusion.
Safeties: Another interesting position group. The safeties have a lot of seniors who've played in a bunch of games (P.J. Smith, Courtney Osborne, even Justin Blatchford) and an unproven group of underclassmen (notably, Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson) who could compete for starting roles. I really like Daimion Stafford, especially if Bo and Papuchis decide to bring back the Peso, as he seems like a better run stopper than cover guy. This is a group that I'd like to see improve in their knowledge of their role - it seemed like a lot of times the safeties were nowhere to be found on big plays. Once again - the adjustment to coach Joseph will be critical.
Brett Maher: It's tough to find a lot of things to put on the "To Do List" of the All Big 10 punter and kicker, but here are a couple: a) figure out the perfect kick to take advantage of the new kickoff rules (I'm thinking the big lob that lands at the 5 or 10, just as Eric Martin arrives on the scene), and b) tutor the next guy in the same way Alex Henery trained you. Oh, and if you could master the Henery technique for having a punt hit at the 5, and then bounce sideways out of bounds at the 3, that would be super.
Holder: Gotta find somebody to replace Austin Cassidy. My guess is we'll see another kid who played QB at a Nebraska high school - Tyson Broekemeier or Bronson Marsh. Somebody who has (likely) held before and has the athletic ability to make something happen if the play goes south.
Kick Returners: Ameer Abdullah - let's focus on catching and securing the ball before running. I'd rather not have the franchise RB (Burkhead) back shagging punts, so surely there is somebody else who can take his place, perhaps Jamal Turner? Much like the kickoff team, a key will be to figure out how the new kickoff rules will impact the return game. Being able to take advantage of the new rules could translate into some early wins.
Yes - we have homework for the spring and summer too.
First and foremost - get out to the Spring Scrimmage. That is a big day for recruiting, and having 60,000-70,000 folks on hand sure looks good. I know it will be aired on BTN at some point, but this is a great (and reasonably priced) way to take the kids, your wife, or buddies to a Husker event.
Secondly - do not read too much into what happens at the Spring Scrimmage. Somebody always has an amazing performance (against the 2nd & 3rd team defense) and is never seen again. So when Bronson Marsh scores 3 TDs in the second half, just drop that fantasy of him starting ahead of Martinez. Also, a strong performance does not mean a 14-0 season, just as a sloppy outing does not mean 6 losses. Despite the "Red-White Game" moniker, this is a glorified scrimmage. Hold back on the hype or doom and gloom and just enjoy the chance to watch the team on a nice spring day.