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August 15, 2010
All the components are there for Nebraska to make a serious run at the national championship.
There is that issue of inconsistent quarterback play to deal with, and that's a major concern.
The Huskers have a strong offensive line, productive running backs, a beastly defense and one of the best kickers in the country. They also have an advantageous schedule, one that brings chief Big 12 North rival Missouri and long-time nemesis Texas to Lincoln.
The Huskers are hoping to pick up where they left off in '09. They closed last season with six wins in their last seven games, a streak in which they allowed just 66 points (9.4 per game).
If their quarterback play improves, the Huskers may be even tougher to beat this season.
THE SCHEME: The Huskers use a variation of the "West Coast offense" They use multiple sets and place an emphasis on the running game.
STAR POWER: WR Niles Paul has the speed and explosiveness to be a difference-maker, but needs to be more consistent. He averaged nearly 20 yards per catch in '09 but had only 40 receptions. He had catch for at least 45 yards in six games, so the potential for a huge season is there if he hones his receiving skills. Paul also is dangerous on kick returns.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Although the Huskers return two starting tackles, Jermarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick has a great chance to get in the starting lineup. Hardrick (6-7/320) has to improve his conditioning, but once he gets on the field, his talent is obvious. He has the potential to upgrade an already-solid line.
STRONGEST AREA: It's just like old times at Nebraska, where the running back position (or I-back as the Huskers like to call it) is talented and deep. Roy Helu is coming off an excellent junior season in which he gained 1,147 yards and earned all-conference acclaim. Versatile sophomore Rex Burkhead had a strong freshman season; despite missing time with a broken foot, he rushed for 346 yards, including 92 in a Holiday Bowl victory. The Huskers also are high on sophomore Dontrayevous Robinson, who played well when forced into action by midseason injuries to Helu and Burkhead.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Quarterback definitely is a concern. Incumbent starter Zac Lee was terribly inconsistent last season and passed for fewer than 200 yards in nine games. To be fair, he was playing injured much of the year and had offseason surgery to repair a tendon in his throwing arm. He's healthy now, but isn't assured of retaining his starting status. Sophomore Cody Green and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez, a star during spring drills, will challenge. Most preseason top-10 teams don't have questions at quarterback.
THE SCHEME: The Huskers use a 4-3 set. They play a four-man front but use only two true linebackers. Eric Hagg plays linebacker against some offensive sets and can move to cornerback against others.
STAR POWER: Junior T Jared Crick was an All-Big 12 selection last season and will contend for even greater honors this season. In 2009, he had 73 tackles, including 15 for loss, and 9.5 sacks. This season, he'll play an even greater role in the Huskers' defense without All-America Ndamukong Suh, the second player selected in the NFL draft, playing next to him.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Lavonte David will add depth -- and maybe much more -- to the Huskers' corps of linebackers. One of the nation's top junior college prospects, David averaged nearly 10 tackles per game and posted 19.5 tackles for loss last season for Fort Scott (Kan.) CC, where he was a teammate of Hardrick.
STRONGEST AREA: Crick and E Pierre Allen anchor what should be one of the country's best front fours. The secondary also should be strong. Three starters return from a group that a year ago helped the Huskers rank 18th in the nation in pass defense and grab 20 interceptions (against just seven touchdown passes). CB Prince Amukamara has All-American and NFL potential. Alfonzo Dennard is strong at the other corner, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There is concern at the safety positions, which will be manned by new starters. DeJon Gomes, Anthony West and P.J. Smith are talented, but it won't be easy to match the standards set by departed All-Big 12 selection Larry Asante or Matt O'Hanlon, who led the Huskers with six interceptions.
Any team with Alex Henery will be sound on special teams. Henery is an All-America candidate at kicker and punter. Last season, he converted 24-of-28 field-goal attempts; three of his misses came from more than 50 yards. He also averaged 41.4 yards per punt. The Huskers are dangerous on the receiving end of kicks with Paul. He averaged 10.7 yard on punt returns and brought one back for a touchdown. He also averaged 27.9 yards on kickoff returns. The Huskers' kickoff coverage was excellent, but the punt coverage needs vast improvement.
An Oct. 16 rematch with Big 12 championship game foe Texas, which has won five in a row over the Huskers, probably is circled on every calendar in the state of Nebraska. It's a chance for redemption against the Huskers' nemesis, but it's also one of the few games in which Nebraska may be in jeopardy. The Huskers' early-season schedule couldn't be much more advantageous, although a trip to Washington on Sept. 18 could be dicey. The Huskers also could be in jeopardy with a November game at Texas A&M, where they've been severely tested in previous seasons.
Every program, no matter how powerful, eventually goes through a down cycle. Nebraska had its recent period of tribulation (also known as the Bill Callahan years, from '04-'07). But the Huskers have bounced back strong under coach Bo Pelini and appear ready to challenge for the national championship. The Huskers aren't without their questions. The quarterback position needs to stabilize, the new starting safeties must prove themselves and the intimidating presence of Suh is gone. Still, Pelini anticipates the defense will be even better than last season's unit, which was one of the best in the country. And with a bolstered offensive line and talented crew of I-backs, the running game could resemble some of the overpowering offenses from the '90s. That, of course, was the last time Nebraska won a national title.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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