The offensive line has to be as good as advertised.
Nebraska returns everyone of significance from last years offensive line that helped the Huskers lead the Big Ten in both rushing (8th nationally) and total offense (26th nationally). An experienced group led by Spencer Long (27 starts) and Jeremiah Sirles (28 starts), this years line is being touted as the teams best in over a decade. Jake Cotton appears to be an upgrade at left guard over graduated Seung Hoon Choi, who split time with new starting center Cole Pensick, a Rimington Trophy watch list member. Former four-star recruit Andrew Rodriguez, who bypassed a needed redshirt year, had his best camp and looks primed to put it all together as a senior. Offensive line coach John Garrison has said this is the deepest and most talented line he has had. Players like Brent Qvale, Mark Pelini, Matt Finnin and Ryne Reeves are talented enough to start for the Huskers and the team would show no drop off.
There is little doubt the Huskers will again be formidable rushing the football. Where the team needs to show marked improvement is with its pass blocking. Nebraska was tied for 90th nationally in sacks allowed (35), giving up an average of two and a half per game. Taylor Martinez graciously called this years line the strength of the offense. If that statement is more than lip service, the Husker offense should put up 40+ points and 500 yards per game.
This year's front seven has to be an improvement over last year's.
Bo Pelini has lauded this group for being athletic, versatile and multiple, three things that define a Pelini defense. The fact is, the best defenses Bo has fielded whether at Nebraska, LSU or Oklahoma have had these three elements in droves. Last years front seven was unathletic and lacked depth, two things this years team has in abundance. The defensive line boasts upwards of ten players who should see playing time. Randy Gregory should contend for conference newcomer of the year honors and be a threat to reach double-digit sack numbers - he is that good. Along with proven commodities like Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the sky seems to be the limit for youngsters like Vincent Valentine, Greg McMullen, Aaron Curry, Avery Moss and Maliek Collins.
Inexperience reigns at the linebacker spot where only David Santos and Zaire Anderson played last year. The fact remains though that along with Santos and Anderson, the rest of the pups who are expected to comprise the linebacker rotation in 2013 (Jared Afalava, Josh Banderas, Michael Rose, Nathan Gerry) are SEC-caliber athletes.
Defensively, Nebraska led the country in opponents completion percentage (47%) and ranked 4th in overall pass defense. The Huskers can expect their defensive backfield to play at an even higher level this year. The problem is that the Huskers ranked 90th against the rush, giving up over 192 yards per game on the ground. The front four have to do a better job of occupying blockers so the linebackers can slice through and make plays. The front four also needs to do a better job of pressuring the quarterback so Pelini's matchup-zone can be at its best. Other than a week 3 matchup against a Top-25 UCLA team, Nebraska doesn't face a team of significance until they host Northwestern on November 2nd. The Huskers also have the benefit of five straight home games to start the season. The front seven will have a chance to get their feet wet and work out the kinks before a difficult November stretch.
Nebraska's Special Teams have to be 'Special' again.
During his first 5-years at Nebraska, Bo Pelini has been spoiled by All-America caliber kicking and punting. From 2008-2012, Alex Henery and Brett Maher were a combined 99-of-118 for an amazing 84%. Both were All-Conference punters as well. The Huskers also had P.J. Mangieri, one of the best long-snappers in the country. While it is unrealistic to expect results comparable to those of Henery and Maher, coaches are confident they will remain solid in the kicking game.
Returning scholarship sophomore Mauro Bondi and Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith are in a reported dead-heat for the kicking job. Bondi, who was considered one of the better kicking prospects in the 2011 class, redshirted last season after seeing limited action as a true freshman. Pat Smith connected on all 10 of his kicks as a junior and was a finalist for the Fred Mitchell award, the FCS equivalent to the Lou Groza award. The punting duties will be handled by redshirt freshman Sam Foltz who was named to the Lincoln Journal Star Super State team as a senior. Foltz chose to walk on at Nebraska despite having four scholarship offers to FCS and Division II schools. Coaches have given Foltz high praise since spring practices. The long-snapper job will likely go to 2013 recruit Gabriel Miller, generally regarded as one of the top specialists in the country.
The concerns lie with the coverage and return units. Last year Nebraska ranked 109th in the country, giving up 11.8 yards per punt return. On the flip-side, Nebraska ranked 50th in punt return average. If you take away the 81-yard punt return touchdown Ameer Abdullah had against FCS opponent Idaho State, the Huskers averaged 6.5 yards per return which would have rank 85th nationally. Nebraska also ranked 63rd in kickoff returns. Again, if you take away the 83-yarder Abdullah had in the first Wisconsin game, the Huskers are looking at 91st nationally with a porous 19.6 average. This does not take into account the countless muffs and wide-open fair catches.
This is the deepest team Bo Pelini has had at Nebraska. With the athletes the Huskers have at LB, DB and RB you have to assume the coverage units will be fixed. Whether its due to scheme, coaching or execution, Nebraska has too many playmakers to struggle in the return game. While many coaches like to limit the exposure starters receive in return roles, Abdullah and Jamal Turner are too dynamic to not put them in those spots. Ross Els has to find a way to use the talent on this Husker roster to make the special teams units a strength of the team. The talent is clearly there, he just needs to get it out.
The Huskers must improve on their turnover ratio.
Nebraska ranked an appalling 105th nationally in turnover margin in 2012. Nebraska gave the football away 35 times through interceptions and fumbles, while taking it from their opponents 23 times (13 int, 10 fum). Those 35 giveaways were the 2nd most out of 120 FBS schools. Some might point to an offense that has the ball changing hands so often with the zone-read and option being so prominent. To that I point out that Oregon was No. 1 in the country in turnover margin, committing only 19 turnovers with a comparable offense in terms of style, tempo, philosophy and risk-vs-reward principals.
Taylor Martinez has been notoriously careless with the football, especially in pressure situations. Too often we have seen an ill-advised pitch, a forced throw or overall sub-par ball security from him. He has to make better decisions. Does the familiarity of entering the 3rd year of Tim Beck's offense help alleviate the turnover problem? Does an improved offensive line? One thing is for sure, if Nebraska wants to contend for conference crowns and BCS bowls, their turnovers need to be trimmed substantially.
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all football website N2FL.com. He served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on recruitment and talent analysis, including the NFL Draft. You can email him at N2FL@hotmail.com.