Welcome to the Big Ten, Cornhuskers. Welcome to a conference with even tougher defenses, Taylor Martinez. A young quarterback will have his hands full in 2011. He needs to brush up on his skills before the schedule gets tough. That's why the Chattanooga Mocs are the opening-week opponent at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
Nebraska hopes to make a splash in its first season as a member of the Big Ten. After consistently being one of the better teams in the Big XII North, the Huskers are headed to the Big Ten Legends Division where they’ll be the odds on favorite to represent the division in the conference’s first ever championship game in Indianapolis. Coach Bo Pelini’s Nebraska teams have developed a reputation for suffocating defense and a commitment to the ground game; characteristics that will make them feel right at home in the Big Ten. The Huskers’ initial Big Ten schedule is tough as well but should allow them to be successful in year one of conference play.
Few had any idea that sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez would be the remarkable weapon that he was in his redshirt freshman season in 2010. Lightly recruited out of high school, all Martinez did was rush for 965 yards and throw for 1,631 and catapult himself into the Heisman discussion in early October. However, injuries and tougher opponents took their toll in late October and throughout November. Martinez didn't handle the 12-game grind with distinction, but in his defense, Pelini rode him mercilessly and did nothing to improve the freshman's sense of confidence. Martinez struggled to throw the ball consistently last year, which means that his development as a passer will be the biggest factor in Nebraska being a championship caliber team in 2011. Yet, given the way he's been treated by his head coach, Martinez might not be able to deliver the goods over the next three months. Nebraska's in big trouble if that's the case. This first run against Chattanooga is important because it needs to build back a positive outlook for the Huskers' main man under center.
Even with the loss of Roy Helu, Jr. to the NFL, the Huskers will still run the ball effectively. Rex Burkhead emerged as a viable running threat both as a traditional tailback and as the quarterback in Nebraska’s version of the wildcat formation. Burkhead and Cody Green will form an excellent running back tandem in Nebraska’s offense. The bigger challenge to the running game will be replacing three offensive linemen from last year’s experienced group. The Huskers could be forced to start three or possibly four sophomores along the offensive line. The coaches are thrilled with the way Jeremiah Sirles performed after being thrust into the lineup as a true freshman last season at left tackle. He should be a star in 2011.
For all of the talk about offense, it is defense that defines Nebraska football. For the Huskers, defensive dominance starts up front. Pelini’s defensive line once again should be one of the very best in all of college football. Jared Crick is as dominant and disruptive a defensive tackle as you’ll see in college football and is joined inside by Baker Steinkuhler. Crick recorded 9.5 sacks last season and surprised many by returning for his senior season. Steinkuhler had four sacks of his own. Cameron Meredith benefits from the disruptive play of the tackles and is an excellent pass rusher from his defensive end position. Eight different players with experience are back along the defensive line which should make this one of the best units in the country.
The linebacking corps should be solid once again. The team’s leading tackler, middle linebacker Lavonte David, returns in the middle and is the quarterback of the defense. He’s joined by fellow returning starter Will Compton. Both Compton and David enjoy a great deal of freedom to move around because of the defensive line’s ability to occupy blockers. Sean Fisher takes over at outside linebacker and is an imposing physical specimen at 6’6, 235 pounds. The secondary will have a real challenge in trying to replace lock down cover man Prince Amukamara. However, Pelini has shown quite a knack for developing defensive backs in his time in Lincoln and he’s confident in Alfonzo Dennard’s ability to step in and be the lock down guy.
Enough of defense, though: As Taylor Martinez goes, so go the Huskers in their maiden voyage through the Big Ten. Smashmouth defenses are licking their chops; Martinez better learn to throw the ball against Chattanooga, or he'll be in for a long season on the plains.