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March 12, 2011

Nebraska could make a splash in Big Ten

Nebraska takes some of its first steps as a Big Ten program this spring, looking to wash away the bad taste from a 2010 season that ended with a thud.

The last time we saw the Huskers, they were getting unceremoniously dumped by Washington in the Holiday Bowl. It was Nebraska's third loss in four games, including a setback against Oklahoma in the final Big 12 title game.

Coach Bo Pelini has turned the page and begun to focus on a 2011 squad that is filled with promise. In fact, some feel Nebraska has enough to win its division this fall. First, the Huskers' altered coaching staff must come together.

NEBRASKA AT-A-GLANCE
QB Taylor Martinez was brilliant in 2010 before an ankle injury derailed his season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bo Pelini
Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-2 in Big 12 North. Lost 23-20 to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. Lost 19-7 to Washington in Holiday Bowl.
Spring dates: March 14-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): C Mike Caputo, TE Ben Cotton, WR Brandon Kinnie, QB Taylor Martinez, TE Kyler Reed, T Jeremiah Sirles.
Defense (6): SS Austin Cassidy, T Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard, E Cameron Meredith, T Baker Steinkuhler.
Special teams: None.
Gone are offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, receivers coach Ted Gilmore and secondary coach Marvin Sanders. Newcomers are secondary coach Corey Raymond (hired off the staff at Indiana), linebackers coach Ross Els (Ohio U.), receivers coach Rich Fisher (Massachusetts prep coach) and assistant offensive line/tight ends coach John Garrison (intern). The biggest change is the promotion of running backs coach Tim Beck to coordinator. He will install a simplified scheme that will incorporate elements of the spread and also use "big" sets, with two tight ends and a fullback. The zone-read will remain, as could the "wildcat" formation.

Beck must pump up an attack that ranked last in the Big 12 and 113th in the nation in passing (150.6 ypg) in 2010. How bad was the offense at the end? Nebraska scored just one touchdown in the last six quarters of the season.

Beck never has called plays but was passing game coordinator at Kansas in 2007, when the Jayhawks averaged 43 points and won the Orange Bowl. His offense holds the key to the season. And lots of work must get done this spring.

Here's a look at the Huskers as they prepare to open spring drills.

Positions of strength

The front seven on defense looks stout with players such as T Jared Crick, T Baker Steinkuhler and LB Lavonte David back to serve as anchors. Crick paced the squad with 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, while David led the team with 152 tackles in his first season after transferring in from a junior college. Even with RB Roy Helu (1,245 yards) gone, Nebraska still has a good option at tailback in Rex Burkhead. There are two good tight ends in Kyler Reed, who made a team-high eight touchdown catches in 2010, and Ben Cotton. In addition, WR Brandon Kinnie is back after pacing the team with 44 catches.

Help is needed

QB Taylor Martinez was brilliant early as a redshirt freshman. Who could forget his four-touchdown, 241-yard rushing effort at Kansas State? Brilliant. But after suffering an ankle injury against Missouri on Oct. 30, he wasn't the same. Martinez tossed just one touchdown pass and four picks the rest of the season and ran for just 79 yards. Nebraska needs a healthy Martinez. The staff also will be looking for some wide receivers to emerge as complementary targets. Two new guards and a tackle must be broken in on an offensive line that helped Nebraska pace the Big 12 in rushing (247.6 ypg) last season. Keep an eye on the kicking, as standout Alex Henery must be replaced. Three starters from a great secondary -- including star CB Prince Amukamara -- also must be replaced.

3 guys to watch

WR Kenny Bell: The staff raved about Bell while he was redshirting as a freshman in 2010. He's quick off the ball, and in and out of his cuts. Bell could emerge as a big-play threat for an offense that needs some home-run hitters on the outside.

CB Ciante Evans: Evans, a sophomore, was pushed into a starting role when Alfonzo Dennard was out with a concussion against Missouri and Iowa State last season. Evans, one of just three true freshmen to play for Nebraska in 2010, did a solid job. Now, he's slated to start opposite Dennard at Amukamara's old spot.

Gs Brent Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez: The sophomores belong together, as the duo is slated to start at the guard slots vacated by Keith Williams and Ricky Henry. Rodriguez (6-6/325) and Qvale (6-7/320) are classic road-graders who play with a defensive mentality.

The pressure is on

OT Marcel Jones: Jones, a former touted recruit, is a senior who never has realized his potential. If he stays healthy, Jones could be a big-time player for an offensive line that is being reworked. He'll battle fellow senior Jermarcus Hardrick for the right tackle job.

The buzz

Nebraska is poised to make a splash in its Big Ten debut, and it all begins this spring. The revamped coaching staff must develop chemistry, the passing game needs to be goosed, the offensive line solidified and the secondary rebuilt. The Huskers also need to play smarter. Nebraska led the Big 12 in fumbles lost (16) and committed the most penalties (109). This also is a huge spring for Martinez, who must mature, learn a new scheme, become a vocal leader and stay healthy. There were reports that he contemplated transferring. Is he all in? If spring practice goes well, Nebraska could win the Big Ten.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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