Nebraska eyes title as league newcomer
Nebraska offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles imagines that doesn’t sit well in locker rooms around the league.
If Sirles were on one of those other teams, he said, “I’d want to take ’em out. I’d want to show them this is my conference, this is how we do things.”
Off the field, the Huskers have felt nothing but love from their 11 new conference mates and commissioner Jim Delany. With its five national championships and 837 all-time wins, Nebraska has been called a perfect fit in the tradition-rich Big Ten.
But on Saturdays starting in October, all the niceties go away.
If the Huskers do, in fact, win the title, they’ll have earned it against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Conference play begins with a night game at defending co-champion Wisconsin on Oct. 1 and a home date with Ohio State the next week.
“They’re going to try to come after us,” Sirles said, “but we’re going to come right after them, too.”
Fourth-year coach Bo Pelini has encouraged his players to embrace the challenge of taking on eight new conference opponents.
“It’s going to be a hard schedule,” cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said. “But like coach Bo says, they have to play us, too.”
Nebraska has posted back-to-back 10-win seasons and made it to the Big 12 championship game the last two years, losing both by a combined four points.
The Huskers, however, lost three of four games to end last season, including an embarrassing Holiday Bowl loss to a Washington team they clobbered in the regular season. Sirles said last year—including a Big 12 farewell tour and plenty of ill will from the fans—prepared him and his teammates for what awaits in Nebraska’s inaugural Big Ten season.
“Last year was an incredibly tough challenge in the Big 12,” he said. “You have the target on your back. A lot of people were saying we were ruining the conference, so everyone would give us their best shot.
“This year we’re coming into a new conference and everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, you think you can come into a new conference (and dominate)?’ ”
Defense has been, and remains, the Huskers’ strength. They ranked in the top 12 nationally in four major statistical categories last season, and they return all-conference performers in the line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
“We feel like we can line up and play against anybody in the country,” Pelini said. “We’re going to do our thing. We’re going to play our way.
“Obviously, you have to make some adjustments according to who you’re playing in a particular week. But we feel like our style, the type of kids we recruit, the type of football team we put on the field can fit into any conference.”
The offense, which underperformed in the biggest games, is the biggest question mark. Pelini fired Shawn Watson as offensive coordinator and promoted Tim Beck from running backs coach.
Beck and his charges have been vague about what the new offense will look like. To a man, the players say the system is simpler than Watson’s offense, which was an amalgamation of the quarterback run and short passing game with a hint of the wildcat.
The ability to go with no huddle figures to be a big part of the plan.
“We have a lot of different tempos,” center Mike Caputo said. “Being set and being ready to go, we might go like that, or we might be sitting there checking. The defense isn’t going to know.
“It’s a little more cardio than the offensive line is used to. We did more running in June than we used to. I think we’re prepared.”
Everything offensively depends on second-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, who was one of the nation’s top freshmen before leg and ankle injuries hampered him in November and December. Now that two-year backup Cody Green has transferred, the Huskers have no other quarterbacks who have taken a snap in a college game.
Multitalented running back Rex Burkhead returns after running for 951 yards and seven touchdowns and passing for three more TDs out of the wildcat formation. Promising newcomers Aaron Green, Braylon Heard and Ameer Abduallah are in line to be Burkhead’s backup.
Wideout Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed are the top returning receivers, but the Huskers are high on youngsters Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Kenny Bell and converted quarterback Jamal Turner.
Caputo and Sirles are the returning starters on the offensive line, but there will be new starters at right tackle and both guard spots.
The defense will have to contend with more physical offenses than the spread systems common in the Big 12.
The Huskers have plenty of heft up front. Jared Crick is a national honors candidate and on track to become Nebraska’s first three-time all-conference pick since 1997-99. Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith are back, and converted linebacker Eric Martin is being counted on to be a big playmaker at end.
The linebackers are led by Lavonte David, who set a school record with 152 tackles last season. Sean Fisher returns from a broken leg, and Will Compton figures to get more playing time.
Dennard, who intercepted four passes and broke up another 15, steps out of the shadow of New York Giants first-round pick Prince Amukamara. Ciante Evans likely will take Amukamara’s spot, and the Huskers have three experienced safeties.
Maybe the biggest hole is at place-kicker. Alex Henery was Nebraska’s all-time leading scorer and the most accurate field-goal kicker in NCAA history. He also was one of the nation’s top punters the past two seasons.
Brett Maher looks to be the new punter, but he’ll have to beat out freshman Mauro Bondi for the kicking job.