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July 18, 2009
THE SCHEME: The Huskers like to use multiple sets. They sprinkle in a lot of spread looks but also have some power formations. Last season, they opened with two tight ends six times, with three wide receivers six times and with no tight ends, two backs and three wide receivers once.
STAR POWER: Junior RB Roy Helu Jr. came on strong at the end of last season, and he gives the Huskers a back with 1,000-yard capabilities. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry on 125 carries last season, and he should get 175-200 carries this season. His receiving ability makes him an all-league candidate. Junior TE Mike McNeill had a breakout season in 2008, with 32 catches for 442 yards and six touchdowns. That set a school record for receptions in a season by a tight end. McNeill – who was a high school teammate of former Missouri star Jeremy Maclin – should reach the 40-catch plateau this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman WR Antonio Bell signed in 2008, but he delayed his enrollment until January 2009. He went through spring practice, and he did enough during spring ball that coaches feel he can be an important part of the receiving rotation this season. Bell has good size (6 feet 2/180 pounds) and speed, and he also is expected to vie for a role as a return man this fall.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Senior Menelik Holt was a complementary receiver last season, when he started four games, but the Huskers need him to step up and be the go-to guy this fall. He had 30 catches and one TD last season; it wouldn't be a surprise to see him get to 60 catches overall, with eight to 10 touchdowns, this fall. Holt has great size (6-4/220), and if he's 100 percent recovered from a knee injury that hampered him last season, a big season is in the offing.
STRONGEST AREA: The Huskers look good at running back, with Helu and Quentin Castille, and at receiver. Holt and junior Niles Paul, who also started four games last season, have 50-catch potential, and there is good depth at wide receiver, too. Chris Brooks and Will Henry got some playing time last season. Marcus Mendoza has moved from running back and is the fastest guy on the team. Curenski Gilleylen is another speedster, but his hands need to improve. Khiry Cooper missed spring drills because he was playing baseball, but coaches like his potential and athleticism. Bell adds size and speed. There also is a lot of depth at tight end, with the Huskers going four-deep at the position.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There's a new quarterback, with Zac Lee replacing Joe Ganz. Lee – who played in two games last season and threw two passes – is a better athlete than Ganz, but will he be as productive? The backups don't exactly engender a ton of confidence: Cody Green is highly touted but is a true freshman, and junior Latravis Washington has played linebacker since arriving on campus. It would help Lee's cause if the line played with more consistency. There's a lack of nastiness up front, though there is good size. The right side will have two new starters, and coaches hope junior Ricky Henry – who redshirted last season after transferring from junior college – steps up in fall drills and nails down a starting spot. If he doesn't, Jacob Hickman, who started at center last season, will move to guard.
THE SCHEME: The Huskers run a traditional 4-3 set. They also use a lot of nickel and dime packages to counter the wide-open offenses in the Big 12.
STAR POWER: Senior T Ndamukong Suh is a legit All-America candidate. He led the team with 76 tackles last season – an indication of his active nature and playmaking ability, but also an indictment of the lackluster group of linebackers the Huskers had last season. Suh has a quick first step, evidenced by his 19 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season. Suh also had two interceptions, three pass breakups, a forced fumble, two blocked kicks and seven quarterback hurries.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman Baker Steinkuhler is expected to play at least a key backup role this season. Though some observers think his athleticism and nastiness could be put to good use on the offensive line, he's a defensive lineman for now. He has a great motor and could potentially force his way into a starting role this season.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Sophomore LB Mathew May played sparingly last season, but big things are expected this season. May was a walk-on out of a small high school in western Nebraska and played safety in high school. But Huskers coaches liked his speed and moved him to linebacker late last season. He's up to 215 pounds, and his athletic ability should make him a good fit for this defense, especially against teams that like to run the spread. May almost certainly will be one of the linebackers on the field when the Huskers go to their nickel package.
STRONGEST AREA: Coach Bo Pelini has a big-time defensive front with which to work. Suh is a stud, and there is a nice group of ends with veterans Pierre Allen and Barry Turner and redshirt freshmen Cameron Meredith and Josh Williams. Allen has 10-sack potential. Turner is coming off a broken leg and his production bears watching. T Jared Crick, a backup last season, is a new starter, and he'll benefit from playing next to Suh. Steinkuhler heads into the season as Crick's backup, but eventually could beat him out.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: All three starting linebackers are new. May is expected to slide nicely into the starting lineup, but because he played so little last season, there still is a hint of mystery about him. Senior Colton Koehler heads into the season penciled in to start in the middle, but he's limited athletically and may not be able to hold off Phillip Dillard, who lost his starting job late last season. The demotion seems to have made Dillard work harder, though, and he could win his job back; he certainly has more tools than Koehler. The other starter is redshirt freshman Sean Fisher, who is 6-6 and could become a big-time pass rusher. Depth is iffy; the bodies are there, but how talented are they?
Alex Henery should be one of the best kickers in the nation; he was 18-of-21 on field-goal attempts last season. One thing to watch: He also is expected to be the punter this season, and you wonder if the double-duty will affect his kicking. The kickoff man is Adi Kunalic, who routinely puts the ball in the end zone. Paul saw action as a kick and punt returner in 2009, but he'll be pushed in August by Bell and backup CB Alfonzo Dennard. The coverage teams were spotty last season. The kick-coverage unit, especially, needs an upgrade.
Pelini deserves credit for getting a flawed Nebraska team to nine wins last season. But he and his staff still have work to do on defense (more on that in a minute). Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was a holdover from the old staff, and his unit played well last season. The work of linebacker coach Mike Ekeler – who had been a graduate assistant at LSU when Pelini hired him – will be closely scrutinized this fall.
Five of the first seven games are at home, including three of the first four, which should enable Lee to get his feet wet in front of the home folks. Three of the four non-conference games are against Sun Belt Conference foes; the other is much tougher – a trip to Virginia Tech, which won in Lincoln last fall. The first two Big 12 games are against teams Nebraska lost to last season but are rebuilding this season (Missouri and Texas Tech). Oklahoma visits Lincoln this fall, but the Huskers have to travel to Kansas, which looks to be the team to beat in the Big 12 North. The Huskers haven't won at Missouri since 2001 and at Kansas since '03, and Mizzou has scored 93 points in its past two games against Nebraska. Still, this schedule is not overly difficult.
Nebraska surprised some folks by winning nine games last season, and that's a legit goal for this season. But a closer look at last season shows some warts. In its four losses, Nebraska gave up an average of 46.5 points, and in the four-game winning streak to close last season, the Huskers gave up an average of 28.8 points. In other words, there are some defensive questions. Other than Suh and maybe Allen, there are no players with all-league talent. The Huskers could get away with the mediocre defense last season because the Ganz-led offense usually put up a ton of points. Can a Lee-led offense do the same? The skill-position talent is on hand, so it's up to Lee – and the offensive line – to produce. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Huskers win the Big 12 North; it also wouldn't be a surprise to see them finish third in the division. Let's split the difference and call for a second-place finish, behind Kansas.