Previously: Overview and Defense
More on the Cornhuskers: SBN's outstanding Corn Nation
Even if it isn't as disruptive and dominant a unit as was last season's, we know the defense will be a team strength -- at a minimum above average, with the potential to be one of the nation's best. As I stated in the overview: underestimate Nebraska at your own peril. If things don't work out, they'll be very good. If things fall into place, they'll be national title contenders.
The skeptics, of course, might even concede defensive excellence, content to point at the offense and snicker. And they might be right. Offensively, Nebraska was the definition of mediocre last season. But must we conclude that they will be again?
The Huskers entered fall camp featuring 11 offensive players with starting experience, losing only starting center Jacob Hickman from a year ago. Whether this is a good thing depends on whether the group improves on last year's mediocrity, when Nebraska averaged just 25.1 points (75th nationally) and 323 total yards (99th) per game. Moreover, prior to their impressive 33-0 stomping of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl, the Huskers scored a grand total of 47 points against the four best teams on their schedule -- going 1-3 against Virginia Tech (L, 10-15), Texas Tech (L, 10-31), Oklahoma (W, 10-3), and Texas (L, 12-13).
The million dollar question is whether in their encore the same cast of characters is destined to deliver the same performance.
Let's take a look.
All discussion of improvement must start with the quarterback situation, which was mostly miserable a year ago, when Nebraska averaged just 175 passing yards per game (101st nationally) and 6.8 yards per attempt (81st). As a junior Zac Lee started 12 of the Huskers' 14 games, completing 58.6% of his passes with 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions -- good for a meager 126.9 QB rating (94th nationally).
Lee sat out this spring after undergoing arm surgery to deal with an injury he suffered early in 2009 and played through the rest of the way, leading to poor arm strength and a lot of underthrown balls. Fully healthy heading into fall camp, Lee was asked to win the job over sophomore Cody Green and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez. Heading into Thursday evening's final practice before the season opener against Western Kentucky, he had not.
After watching a good bit of Martinez on film, in conjunction with the practice reports this fall I'm convinced that at this point he has more to offer than Cody Green. Green has a long, powerful stride, but he takes a while to get going, making his top-end speed irrelevant. I rather like Green's potential as a passer -- he keeps the ball high and delivers a strong ball off a quick, compact delivery -- but he's a project, and Nebraska's not playing to win the Big 10 title. They're playing to beat Texas on October 16th. To win the Big 12 one last time. To compete, if things go well, for a national title.
So who starts for Nebraska, Lee or Martinez? The majority of Huskers fans seem to be leaning towards Lee, but his inability to win the job prior to game week makes me wonder. Nebraska's goals this season are, first, to get to 6-0, and second, to beat Texas in Lincoln. And just like Texas is betting the farm on Cody Johnson because of what it needs against the top defenses it will face, I'm wondering whether Nebraska's coaches aren't thinking about giving Taylor Martinez every chance to be the team's quarterback this year because of what they need to play Texas. (Think about why Jerrod Johnson made A&M such a tough out last season and you'll arrive at the same conclusion.) Nebraska won't sacrifice an early-season loss to get there, but if they can get to 6-0 with Martinez, he may be the better play against the Longhorns. And that could be decisive.
Whomever trots out there for the Huskers' first offensive series, at a minimum I expect Martinez to be given a fair share of the snaps against WKU and Idaho, to see what he's capable of when the lights come on. He's a redshirt freshman, so it's likely to be a bit bumpy, but at the least I'd imagine Nebraska wants to have him available as a change of pace from Lee, to use against defenses like Texas.
The thing is that Martinez only has to be the equal of Zac Lee as a passer to be more valuable to the offense, because while Lee isn't immobile, he's not a rushing threat. Martinez most certainly is, and would meaningfully boost Nebraska's ground game, which will be the focal point of the offense in any case. That, combined with Lee's inability to win the job outright by now, suggest to me that Martinez will be given every chance to prove himself ready. Don't be surprised if he starts on Saturday.
Rex Burkhead (SO) 5-11, 210
Roy Helu, Jr. (SR) 6-0, 220
Dontrayveous Robinson (SO) 6-1, 230
At least by fans outside of Lincoln, this is a relatively underrated trio. Helu is a name you know, but many don't realize how good he is at full strength. He battled a shoulder injury throughout last season, which led to difficulty hanging on to the ball (and the disastrous, but unquestionably fluky, loss to Iowa State), but he runs exceptionally well, marrying powerful downhill ability with excellent balance and ability to change directions. He's not afraid of contact, but he's good at avoiding it.
Health allowing, Helu will get the bulk of the carries, but Nebraska won't be shy about spelling him with sophomores Rex Burkhead and Dontray Robinson. Burkhead's a nifty little athlete who can get going in a hurry, but my overall opinion of Robinson is a bit higher. Burkhead's a favorite amongst the Huskers faithful, but I'm betting that they'll be content to keep cheering him on as the No. 2 when Robinson takes over as the main guy after Helu. His great hips make him deceptively shifty, and he's just starting to learn how to use his strong body.
Helu is critical to Nebraska's fortunes this year, but certainly against the weaker competition on the schedule, won't have to do it all himself, which should help keep him fresh and healthy for Nebraska's season-defining match ups.
RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS
WR Khiry Cooper (SO) 6-2, 195
WR Curenski Gilleylen (JR) 6-0, 215
WR Will Henry (SR) 6-5, 215
WR Brandon Kinnie (JR) 6-3, 220
WR Niles Paul (SR) 6-1, 220
WR/TE Mike McNeil (SR) 6-4, 235
TE Ben Cotton (SO) 6-6, 255
TE Ryan Hill (JR) 6-3, 255
TE Kyler Reed (SO) 6-3, 230
TE Dreu Young (SR) 6-4, 255
Niles Paul is the known commodity, a well-built, physical receiver with enough speed and quickness to separate who just needs someone to deliver him the ball. In a better offense, he'd be a favorite to make the All-Conference team. He's got great footwork and acceleration, and he's capable of taking you all the way if you give him a seam on kick returns, or fail to challenge him on the line as a receiver (or bring help over top with a safety). Watch his touchdown reception in the Holiday Bowl for a lesson in how not to defend him one-on-one.
Less well known, but for my money a crucial name to watch this fall, is junior Brandon Kinnie. Like Malcolm Williams for Texas, Kinnie is for Nebraska fans something of a Holy Grail of receivers -- irresistibly tantalizing, but seemingly always just out of reach. As with Paul, he needs a quarterback, but on top of that he just needs to put it all together himself. He's long, fast, wow-you athletic, but maddening in his ability to disappear. All I'm saying is keep an eye out. If Nebraska fields a respectable passing attack, don't sleep on Kinnie.
Curenski Gilleylen started strong last year before fading fast, and I'm not sold on him as a guy Nebraska wants to be counting on for key production. The move of Mike McNeil from tight end is partly about depth, but I think they (rightly) see him as providing more value as a Dallas Clark-type receiver than Gilleylen does as an average wide out. McNeil provides useful versatility, running well enough, featuring superior hands, and mentionable blocking.
As for the rest, Will Henry is a back up player hampered by limited acceleration, and Khiry Cooper is still more potential than useful. He's rightly focused on baseball, where his future lies.
Nick Ash (R-Fr) 6-5, 275
Mike Caputo (JR) 6-1, 275
Jesse Coffey (R-Fr) 6-7, 290
Jemarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick (JR) 6-7, 320
Ricky Henry (SR) 6-4, 305
D.J. Jones (JR) 6-5, 310
Marcel Jones (JR) 6-7, 315
Brent Qvale (R-Fr) 6-7, 320
Andrew Rodriguez (Fr) 6-6, 325
Jeremiah Sirles (R-Fr) 6-6, 310
Mike Smith (SR) 6-6, 285
Brandon Thompson (SO) 6-6, 290
Keith Williams (SR) 6-5, 310
As bad as Zac Lee often looked, his 2,143 passing yards were the fifth-most in school history; needless to say, the Huskers like to get it done on the ground, and that's where they'll be hoping for big improvement over last year, when they managed just 147 yards per game (62nd nationally) and 4.0 yards per carry (70th). The Huskers' inexperienced offensive line struggled a good bit last year, but got better as the season wore on.
Nebraska has been hit hard by injuries this fall, including on the line. The Huskers were primed to feature four returning starters on the line before senior Mike Smith -- a two-year starter at left tackle -- suffered a season-ending broken leg. (Back up sophomore guard Brandon Thompson is not suiting up for Western Kentucky after suffering an undisclosed injury this week.)
The Huskers will again start seniors Keith Williams and Ricky Henry at left and right guard, respectively, along with junior Marcel Jones, who started the first 11 games last season before suffering an ankle injury that kept him out of the last three. Keith Williams has lost weight and looked good in fall practice, while Marcel Jones has considerably more potential than he's shown in his first two years and will be counted on to turn a corner this fall.
It appears as though junior Mike Caputo will take over for departed center Jacob Hickman, while JUCO transfer Jemarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick will slide in as the new starter at left tackle. It's not often that fans get worked up about the debut of an offensive lineman, but the Huskers faithful are salivating to see the massive Hardrick, whose disposition is... different, shall we say, than that of departed Longhorn tackle Adam Ulatoski. Here's how Hardrick's community college coach described him this winter:
"Only it’s not just a game to Yoshi," says Jeff Sims, who coached offensive tackle Jermarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. "It really, really isn’t. Football is his lottery ticket, and he ain’t going to give it up."
Bottom line, "With Yoshi, it’s personal. He really is trying to drive you into the ground when he blocks you."
"Nebraska’s getting the meanest football player I’ve ever coached in my life," Sims adds. "Let’s put it this way: There are people who play the game for fun, and there are people who play the game for their lunch. Yoshi plays it for his lunch. I mean, this is how he’s living. Having a scholarship at Nebraska, having all his meals paid, having housing, having books, having tutoring — that’s all something he feels he earned. Sometimes other kids take it for granted. He doesn’t."
Beyond Hardrick, the Huskers coaches have been impressed with the play of redshirt freshman Brent Qvale, a three-star prospect likely to back up at guard.
All told, Nebraska's depth along the line is solid enough to withstand the loss of Smith, and especially if Hardrick is as good as advertised, it should be an improved unit over a year ago. That said, a lot of that depth lacks experience, and another injury -- especially to either of the two guards, both of whom look poised for strong seasons -- would present problems.
Nebraska skeptics have plenty of gas to fuel their position, but there's more upside here than most seem willing to recognize. Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie are a terrific 1-2 combo at wide out, if anyone can get footballs in their hands, while Helu-Burkhead-Robinson is a trio any team would be glad to feature.
Substantial improvement will turn on a meaningful step forward from the offensive line and -- the big one -- quarterback play. On the former, losing Mike Smith hurts, but if Hardrick lives up to his billing and the relatively undersized Caputo can hold point at center, at a minimum the line should be solid, and have the potential to be a good bit more than that. As for QB... I think Lee's inability to win the job in fall camp speaks volumes, and makes sketchy any optimist's position based on a strong season from the senior. More compelling -- to me, at least -- is a position based on the upside of Martinez. If he's ready at least to share duties, he adds an interesting component to Nebraska's attack that makes them more diverse, and more dangerous.
All told, if the defense takes a small step back from last season, the offense will need to be substantially better, making Nebraska an unlikely title contender. If, however, the defense is equally strong to last season's, even modest improvement on offense makes Nebraska a likely favorite in every game they play, with the possible exception of Texas, who they draw in Lincoln.
The skeptics have a valid position. But so do the optimists.
Finally, we can shut up and just watch. The season is here. Let's get it on.