March 24, 2011

The five biggest questions heading into Week 2

With only two days of media availability through the first week of spring practice, there are obviously still plenty of questions left to be answered regarding the Nebraska football team as it gets ready to head into Week 2 of spring ball on Monday.

Today, we take a look at the five biggest questions for the Huskers after the fist of their four weeks of spring practice.

How has the Beck era settled in?

There's no doubt that the hottest topic during Nebraska's spring press conference a little more than two weeks ago was what would become of the Huskers' offense under newly promoted offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

Beck and head coach Bo Pelini both stressed that the new system would be simplified but at the same time even more aggressive than it was under previous OC Shawn Watson. But how have the players taken to the change in offensive philosophies?

So far, the answers to that question have been all positive, as the players have echoed their coaches' descriptions and raved about how much easier it has been to learn the plays and their specific assignments therein. However, the team is only one week into the Beck era, and the majority of that practice time has been spent on basic installation.

In the next three weeks, it will be important to keep an eye on whether these early rave reviews of Beck's simplified and aggressive plan hold up once the team really starts to dig into the meat of Nebraska's new offense.

Has Martinez really taken charge?

Another storyline that came out of the spring press conference was how much sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez had embraced his role as a team leader both on and off the field over the course of the offseason.

While he still refuses to talk to reporters, Martinez's coaches and teammates all spoke about how much more vocal and involved he has been with his teammates.

By far the biggest knock on Martinez last year in what started as a potentially record-breaking freshman season was his presumed lack of leadership. Whether it was standing off on his own on the sidelines during games or his insistence on avoiding all contact with the media, Martinez put off the image of player who simply didn't care as much as a starting quarterback should.

With things about to kick into gear a bit more with the second week of spring ball coming up, it will be interesting to see whether the "new" Martinez actually holds up after a week on the field with his teammates.

Who will fill the voids on offense?

Much of the talk regarding the players Nebraska has to replace from last season have been focused on the defensive side of the ball, but some of the most important shoes to fill just might be on offense.

Starting this spring, the Huskers have to replace one of their leading receivers and return man in Niles Paul; their No. 1 running back and all-time single-game rushing record holder in Roy Helu; their two starting guards in Keith Williams and Ricky Henry as well as staring right tackle D.J. Jones.

In other words, there will be competition aplenty until the final day of fall camp. That competition started last week, and will only continue to heat up when the Huskers return to action on Monday afternoon.

Will Brandon Kinnie be able to handle the role of the No. 1 wide out? Will Rex Burkhead be able to handle the load as the top running back while NU's heralded crop of freshmen backs find their place? Can talented but inexperienced offensive linemen like Brent Qvale, Andrew Rodriguez and others pick up where Nebraska's departed linemen left off? Only time will tell.

Can the Blackshirts' Big 3 lead the way?

It's been a while since Nebraska's defense had the kind of star power on all three levels like it does this season in defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

With three potential All-Americans, the Huskers appear to have all the weapons they need need on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, there's been some speculation - even from the Huskers themselves - that this year's edition of the Blackshirts could be the best yet under Pelini.

The question is, though, how much can three players do on their own? There's little doubting that Crick, David and Dennard will make significant impacts this season, but will it be enough for the Blackshirts to once again carry the load while the offense again tries to establish a new identity?

One of the most important impacts the trio can make is making sure the rest of the players at their respective positions get better every day through the rest of the offseason. How much they can do that over the next three weeks of spring practice will go a long way in answering that question.

Are the players buying into the new staff?

Not only have the Huskers had to adjust to Beck's new offense, they've also had to familiarize themselves with a number of new additions to the coaching staff. All together, Nebraska hired three new assistants, promoted John Garrison to assistant offensive line/tight ends coach, moved Ron Brown to replace Beck as running backs coach and also added a couple other new graduate assistants and interns.

Last season, NU prided itself on being one of the few coaching staffs that had been able to maintain continuity by keeping the entire staff intact throughout the first three years under Pelini. For the first time since Pelini was hired in 2008, though, his players will have to get used to some new faces this spring.

How well the team not only gets comfortable with but also buys into what the new coaches are saying and teaching will be huge as far as bringing some momentum into the start of the season.

In particular, it's no secret that the players loved former assistants Marvin Sanders and Mike Ekeler. That means new defensive backs coach Corey Raymond and linebackers coach Ross Els have a lot of work to do in earning their players' trust over the course of the rest of spring practice and through fall camp.

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