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Training Camp Previews: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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As training camp moves on and we get ready for the 2012 football season with a trip around the Pac-12 to see what else is going on in the conference and what the Bruins will face this season. We already got our fill of Cal, learned about Colorado and got some info on Stanford, but now it is time to step outside the Pac-12 and venture to the midwest. UCLA takes on Nebraska on September 8 at the Rose Bowl so we asked our friends at Corn Nation to tell us all about their Cornhuskers and they were kind enough to oblige.

1) What were the core questions that you had hoped would be answered by Spring Practice? Were conclusions reached?

Aaron: Well. I guess my big question was, "who will step up on defense for the blackshirts?" Not sure that it got answered. Lots of solid players, but no one is standing out right now. That's not necessarily a bad thing as it might lead to more of the "team first" concept, but it is always good to see someone step up and lead the charge.

Salt Creek and Stadium: I wanted to hear that Nebraska would be using the same offense for two seasons in a row under Pelini. I've felt that's always been one of our major difficulties under Pelini and I was glad to hear that we weren't going to kick out Beck or any of the other offensive coaches. While I'm worried about Beck's pronouncements of an emphasis on passing considering the drops our receivers had last season, I'm glad that we'll have an offense built around Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead heading into this fall. The lack of a spring game probably helps keep expectations low as we didn't see our true freshmen running in touchdowns against our vaunted Blackshirts.

Mike: I wanted to see major improvement on both lines and in the secondary, but the rained-out spring game means all I have to go by is talk. Supposedly the offensive line made some improvement, but there were so many injuries on the defensive line, it's impossible to say. And as for the secondary, Pelini mentioned last week that if he had to set a starting lineup after fall practice, former wide receiver Antonio Bell would have been a starter at cornerback. If that's the case, either Bell is really, really good or we're in really, really big trouble back there.

Jon: No spring game = no questions answered. At least in a glorified scrimmage you'd have something to talk about, but nooooooo, we've had to make stuff up the entire off season. The worst part? No big play from a newcomer that we could get excited about, because that's what spring games are about - having some guy you've never heard of catch a pass or jump a tackler while doing a triple flip in the air.

Dpm917: Well, like Jon said, we didn't get to see anything. No spring game. Just spring talk. Like we hear every year, we're deep. We're healthy and everyone's in great shape, they're moving around well, Martinez has made mechanical improvements, leaps and bounds, we're told, but we haven't seen anything from anyone yet. Until we actually get to see things take shape and unfold under the pressure, we can't and won't have any answers. There are a lot of questions, just not many answers.

2) Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?

Aaron: John Papuchis is the new defensive coordinator after Carl Pelini left for some directional Florida school. I haven't heard too much about how things are going to change. It would be nice to see a little more blitzing, but the past few years blitzing has been a reward for stopping the opposing offense on 1st and 2nd downs. I think you'll see a more balanced offense by Nebarska. It may not be 50-50 pass/rush, but there should be more passing in year two of Tim Beck's offense now that the players are adjusting to it.

Salt Creek and Stadium: The defense should be mostly the same, I would think. I anticipate Pelini returning to play-calling for this fall to allow Papuchis the time to acclimate himself to the responsibilities as Pelini did for his brother in 2008, 2009 and 2010. New position coaches Terry Joseph (Secondary) and Rick Kaczenski (Defensive line) may also lead to some changes - Pelini has indicated that he picks the brain of both young coaches. As for the offense, you can expect the same spread option set up from last season. Depending on the productivity of our receivers, Beck has indicated that he would like to put a greater emphasis on the passing game to give Burkhead a moment to breathe. I would also expect fewer rookie mistakes out of Beck - if you want an example, go look at the Wisconsin game.

Mike: Specifically in that Wisconsin game, Beck's play calling led to three Taylor Martinez interceptions that turned a 14-13 Husker lead to a 34-14 deficit early in the third quarter. But the biggest change I anticipate will not be so much schematic as tactical, and that's in the secondary. I have high expectations that the secondary will improve dramatically under new assistant Terry Joseph.

Jon: What? You haven't heard? Taylor Martinez has completely changed his throwing style so that TV announcers will no longer make fun of him for having the worst delivery in the history of the universe.

dpm917: Hopefully we'll see some changes on defense. If they try and do this mush rush thing they did last year it will be more of the same. Like Aaron mentioned, I'd like to see more blitzing and attacking like we saw when Pelini was new on the scene. They brought pressure from all over the place. Kept QB's and offensive coordinators guessing where the pressure was going to come from next. They also had a lot of talent on those defenses which allowed them to be some of the best defenses this school has ever seen. As far as I can tell, they don't have that level of talent on that side of the ball right now, but they aren't void of talent either. There should be enough talent to fly around and hit people. If there's one thing this secondary should possess, its speed. Also, it sounds like Terry Joseph is closer in style to former coach Marvin Sanders than he is to Corey Raymond, at least in terms of style and philosophy. If that's true and he can coach even a little, we should see tangible improvement in the secondary.

3) What players emerged on offense? On defense?

Aaron: Well, our spring game was cancelled this year so we were limited as to who emerged from spring ball. We heard a lot about the players taking over at certain positions for graduating seniors during the practices. We'll know a lot more as fall ball starts and we get closer to the regular season.

Salt Creek and Stadium: What Aaron said. Rex Burkhead is still amazing though.

Jon: We know nothing about the starting center. That bothers me more than you can possibly imagine. You realize that guy touches the ball on every play? Not even our quarterback can say that (we sometimes run Wildcat with Burkhead taking the snap).

Defense... what?

dpm917: On offense, keep an eye on Kenny Bell, Ameer Abdullah, Kyler Reed and whoever gets the job at center.

On defense, we'll be looking for linebackers not named Will Compton to step up. Big gaping hole left by one of the best linebackers in school history in LaVonte David. Compton quietly had a solid season and is expected to pick up where he left off. He'll need some help in the middle.

4) What are your biggest worries coming out of spring ball for the fall?

Aaron: For me, this is always the offensive line. At times they look great. Other times, they look awful. The past few years, injuries have really stacked up and show in the later games. We lost 3 of 4 to end the year last year. In the 2010 Big XII title game, Nebraska took charge but lack of depth at the position was apparent in the second half as OU's D-line took charge.

Salt Creek and Stadium: Our receiving corps. Last season, they were young and predictably had a lot of problem running the right routes, catching the ball and being on the same page as Martinez. As bad as Martinez' throwing motion may be, his receivers were frequently out of position or had really bad hands. Athlon Sports for some reason ranked our receivers as the second best crew in the Big Ten. Based on what I've seen, I'm guessing that means the Big Ten is pretty bad at throwing the ball.

Mike: I'm going with the offensive line. At times, they looked like they could be dominant...but at other times, they were shockingly pedestrian. (See Northwestern.)

Jon: That no one pays any attention to anyone on this team except Martinez and Burkhead. Everyone else has been all but ignored. I worry heavily about their psyches. You have to wonder if they'll be in "I'll show you" mode or falling down on their blocks so that our backfield loses against Idaho State.

dpm917: Both lines. Both have talent, both underperformed last year. If the game is won in the trenches, we've got to see improvement there.

5) Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the pack?

Aaron: Nebraska teams under Pelini have been pretty solid. However, they always seem to lose a game that they shouldn't. This needs to be the year they get over that hump. The schedule is tough drawing the three big guns from the Leaders division (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State), but Nebraska has really been under the radar this year due to Michigan's successful season last year. If the reports of Taylor Martinez improving his throwing mechanics are true, and the defense is solid, Nebraska could catch some people off guard. Win all the games they are suppose to and 6-2 or 7-1 conference play is achievable.

Salt Creek and Stadium: Contender but I'm not sure if we have the weapons to catch BOTH Michigan and Michigan State. I do think we finish #2 at worst in the West Division - we will beat either Michigan or Michigan State, but not both. I also think we drop one other conference game, likely Ohio State but possibly an upset by Minnesota or Northwestern. I think we finish the season 11-2 with a BCS bowl game win over the Big 12 champ in the Fiesta Bowl.

Mike: Fit me with those rosey-red colored glasses. I don't see anybody on our schedule that Nebraska absolutely cannot beat. But Pelini's teams have had a knack for losing games they shouldn't. So I'm going with 10-2, and going to Indianapolis. And as long as I'm being a homer, the Big Red wins that, and finishes the season for a second game in Pasadena.

Jon: It is August, isn't it? Time to get serious. I keep trying. It's not happening yet.

dpm917: They should be right in the middle of things. They'll need some help, probably. The season will likely come down to how they fare vs. teams from the state of Michigan.

6) Any frosh you can't wait to get on campus?

Aaron: Not really. I don't pay a lot of attention to recruiting.

Salt Creek and Stadium: Our offensive linemen so they can start learning the offense and hopefully start rebuilding Nebraska's famed "Pipeline".

Mike: I don't follow recruiting either. But I've heard good things about linebacker Michael Rose out of Kansas City. I don't expect to see much from him this season, though.

Jon: How the hell did I build a whole site full of writers that don't follow recruiting?

dpm917: Seriously guys? Just one stinking linebacker? That's it? That's the best you can do? I'll throw a couple of names out.

Offense: Jordan Westerkamp (WR), Imani Cross (RB)

Defense: Jared Afalava (LB), Greg McMullen (DT), Charles Jackson (CB)

Can't break down their games for ya though. I only loosely follow recruiting. sheesh...!

7) Who will you miss the most from last season? Who will be stepping up to fulfill those shoes?

Aaron: Lavonte David was the key cog in the defense last year. Will Compton is taking over his spot. He's been solid, but not overly impressive.

Salt Creek and Stadium: Lavonte David. He was the difference between a tire fire and simply an off year for a Pelini defense.

Mike: Without a doubt, Lavonte David. For all the reasons above.

Jon: Mike Caputo, last year's starting center.

dpm917: If anyone answers anything other than the two names listed above they're either lying, forgetful or related to one of the other seniors on the team. Alfonzo Dennard will be a big loss too.

8) Do you believe in Taylor Martinez? What'd his ceiling, floor and what do you expect from him this year?

Aaron: This is a big year for Taylor. Either he gets it down this year, or he's hit his ceiling and next year we should give someone else a shot. I've always supported him, but he does have his "deer in the headlights" moments. Those typically occur with offensive line breakdowns.

Salt Creek and Stadium: I expect Martinez to take a step forward. I don't think he'll ever reach a level we typically reserved for the greatest QBs ever - he's not Tommie Frazier or even Eric Crouch. But I think being paired with Burkhead, a somewhat experienced offensive line (better than the last three seasons), and a receiving corps hungry to redeem themselves, Martinez finally has all the tools he needs to show his real potential. (I'm guessing Jay Cutler might even get jealous of our offensive line.)

Mike: I never jumped onto the Martinez bandwagon in 2010, but I bought in a bit last season. If the reports of his work this spring and summer are correct, I think he'll probably silence a lot of his critics. I think we saw the floor in that Big XII championship game in 2011. What's the ceiling? I think it's really high; we know he has the speed to go the distance, and if he can develop the poise he lacked in the passing game, he could live up to that freshman hype.

Jon: Okay, that's like four questions in one. Those should have been labeled 8a, 8b, etc. etc. I do believe in Taylor Martinez. I don't care if he has the worst throwing motion in modern history, he's a damned good dual-threat quarterback. The guy was being talked about for the Heisman as a freshman. Why can't his ceiling be that high again? I expect him to be the guy that pulls out big plays that wins close games this season.

dpm917: His ceiling? It's as high as any player in school history. When his eligibility expires, he'll likely be the most prolific offensive producer Nebraska football has ever seen. Better than Frazier. Better than Gill. Better than Fryar. Better than Crouch. But that's all up to him. The talent's bottled up in there somewhere. But we haven't seen him put it all together. He burst onto the scene his freshman year. Then defenses figured him out. Then some Missouri defender rolled up his ankle and he's never really been the same since. He missed holes last year he exploded through two years ago. He seemed tentative at times. Will another year in the offensive system help? Will the time spent with Steve Calhoun force defenses to respect his throwing "ability"? Will the running game expand? Will the offensive line turn into a solid line that helps him and not force him to scramble for his life? He's got the talent, I don't think that's really in question. It's everything else that Nebraska fans fret about.

9) What are the specific injury concerns heading into training camp?

Aaron: I'm not aware of any. Hearing about guys getting back to (or close to) 100%. Bo banned twitter for his players so we don't get any "insightful" tweets from 18-year-olds anymore.

Salt Creek and Stadium: No specific concerns but we have seemed to have issues with linemen and early injuries. Hopefully we can escape this fall camp without any of those.

10) Based on what you've seen, who is ready to take a major leap this fall?

Aaron: I think Kenny Bell (WR) is ready for a big year. I'm hoping that Kyler Reed sees more catches and that Rex Burkhead's eventual heir makes a statement.

Salt Creek and Stadium: Taylor Martinez. I think he almost has to, for the sake of his own confidence.

Mike: Martinez is one. Jamal Turner is another; we were teased with him in the 2011 spring game. He's a dangerous player with the ball; now if he could just stop being a liability when he doesn't have the ball.

Jon: Good lord, do we have a defense? You notice all these answers? Offense, offense, offense.

dpm917: Alright Jon, here you go. Damion Stafford. Andrew Green. Happy?

11) Grade Bo Pelini from A-F on his four years in Lincoln, what is your favorite thing about him and what's your biggest concern about him?

Aaron: I give Bo a B. I like him. He's a young coach that's still learning (at least I hope he is). I'll defend the guy on his outbursts. Hell, every college basketball coach loses is in most games, why can't a football coach? When he started in Lincoln, he kept (or was told to keep) some holdovers from Bill Callahan. Now he finally has his coaching staff from people he has picked personally. I believe that it's just a matter of time before things gel. He runs a good program. Kids graduate and (generally) stay out of trouble.

Salt Creek and Stadium: B. As Aaron points out, Bo runs a clean program that is good for 9 to 10 wins a season. To earn an A, though, Pelini will need to find a way to clean up the mental mistakes on the field that have plagued this program since he took over for Callahan. Winning a conference championship would also help.

Mike: B+. When you consider his consistency in turning the Huskers around from the Bill Callahan error, I want to give him an A. But then they turn around and lose to Iowa State or Northwestern.

Jon: I'd give him a B for coaching, but an A for style. He's Italian, for crying out loud. An entire industry of mafia films have been built around the "angry Italian" or the "angry Sicilian" guy that you don't want to cross. You want that guy as your coach, or you want to meet him in the alley?

dpm917: C+ Came in and righted the ship on defense. Kind ignored the offense for a while, that seems to be coming around, but defense slipped last year. Jury is still out on whether or not he can get the necessary talent to join the team. Also, at Nebraska, we grade by championships won. He's 0-2 in that category and has way too many ugly losses. All in all, hasn't been terrible, shown flashes of being capable, but lots of questions still linger.

11) Who do you want to punch in the face?

Aaron: Sandusky

Salt Creek and Stadium: Lil' Red.

Mike: Ed Cunningham.

Jon: That son of a bitch who stares at my hot wife every time I go to the bar.

dpm917: Chase Utley (that's kinda random, I just hate the Phillies)

12) Who has the best nickname on the team?

Aaron: I don't realy keep up with nicknames. Sorry. I never really cared much for "T-Magic". The girls call Burkhead "Sexy-Rexy".

Salt Creek and Stadium: If Lil' Red counts, I've heard him called "nightmare fuel". Otherwise, Rex Burkhead's had a few though I always favored "Superman". With our new alternate uniform for the Wisconsin game, I guess he'll be portraying that nickname loud and clear.

Jon: Nebraska - horrible at nick names. There's so few that "Sexy Rexy" has to take it, hands down.

dpm917: Most of the nicknames that get thrown around while I'm watching games usually require earmuffs for the small children.

13) What's it like to have an AD and President who actually care about success in your athletic programs?

Aaron: It's good, but with the whole Penn State debacle, it also makes you a little cautious. Hopefully the AD and President have higher priorities than just win-at-all-costs. Last year, Nebraska reported an NCAA violation regarding improper benefits surrounding book scholarships, so you know they are trying to keep the house in order.

Salt Creek and Stadium: Frankly, it's not just the AD and Chancellor, but the entire state. Nebraska's abnormal success in football and many other sports (the ones that don't involve men and orange rubber balls) can be directly tied to support from the entire state. To some degree, the AD and Chancellor are just responding to the requirements of their employers. Nebraska's athletic programs aren't just educational opportunities for athletes on their way to professional careers or marketing options for the university- they're a matter of state pride. As Aaron suggests, the football worship is concerning in the aftermath of the events in State College, but I think that the criticisms of Osborne as a Congressman and recently as an Athletic Director and his failure to become governor are indicators that for the most part, Nebraska can separate football from how the real world should function.

Mike: I don't want to give Harvey Perlman as much credit as you do. Perlman has been trying to defend the BCS for years, and he also doesn't get nearly enough blame for Steve Pederson. Pederson started out ok, but then he went off the rails. Fired Frank Solich despite a 76% winning percentage. Couldn't find a coach for a month and a half. Finally settled on Bill Callahan who invented new ways to lose at Nebraska. I know UCLA fans are disgusted with Dan Guerrero, but at least Ben Howland has had a sniff of success as a basketball coach.

Jon: It's a source of pride for the state, and for anyone who called themselves "Nebraskan". If we had a chancellor or AD that didn't care about the success of the athletic department, they would be deposed, and their bodies would hang in the street so that dogs could tear at them and small children could throw rocks at them.

dpm917: I write about the basketball for Corn Nation. It's gone neglected for...ever. That may or may not start to be changing. That clouds my judgment on how the effectiveness of the administration. I'm not much of a fan of Chancellor Perlman.