CHICAGO - Picked to finish third in the Big Ten West Division in an unofficial conference media preseason poll, expectations for Nebraska around the league and on a national level aren't exactly soaring going into 2014. The feeling within NU's locker room couldn't be any more different.
While addressing a room full of reporters at the 43rd annual Big Ten Media Days at the Hilton Chicago on Monday, Pelini said the Huskers were full of confidence about their chances to finally get over the hump and compete for their first conference championship since 1999.
"I think we have depth in areas that is really going to help us be a good football team, and also we saw a lot of young guys last year kind of come of age as the season went on, and I'm looking forward to seeing those young men continue to develop into the type of players we feel can win championships at our school," Pelini said. "That's what we're after. We're looking for a championship. I think we have the pieces. We have a lot of potential on our football team, but there's going to be a lot of hard work that needs to be done for that to make that become a reality."
As he's done since he took over in Lincoln back in 2008, Pelini immediately dismissed Nebraksa's relatively low rankings in the preseason polls. With the new College Football Playoff debuting this year, Pelini said how a team is judged before a season now has little-to-no impact on its chances of making the playoff and competing for a national championship.
While Nebraska may not be getting the same type of love it received prior to previous seasons, Pelini said the only thing that will matter is where the Huskers stand when all is said and done.
"That's the reality of college football," Pelini said. "It doesn't matter where you start or how people perceive you now or what your potential is. That's irrelevant. It's going to be how this football team comes together and meets the challenges that lie ahead. I like our potential, but there's a lot of teams that like their potential. It's going to be how we put things together, how we grow and how we come together as a team. It's not going to be the best collection of talent, it's going to be the best team. That's what we're looking to be."
- Robin Washut
More composed offense, QBs could make unit dangerous
The quarterback position was a bit up and down last season, but Ameer Abdullah saw a new level of commitment and understanding from Tommy Armstrong, Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe this offseason.
"It's like a storm," Abdullah said. "When it comes, it comes."
When asked by a reporter to clarify, Abdullah fired back a question of his own: "What storm are you most afraid of?"
It might take some time for the young signal callers to turn NU's offense into an F-5 tornado, but Abdullah said there's a different in the offense now as opposed to a few years ago, calling the unit as a whole "more composed."
"There is more balance to our offense," he said. "Taylor (Martinez) was almost all zone read when he started, then he threw, then it was play action. Tommy came into a situation where he knew the identity of the offense - this is what we do, and this is where we can go."
- Dan Hoppen
Cooper's time off in spring turns into positive
Last season, Corey Cooper established himself as one of Nebraska's most important defenders, leading the team in tackles and providing the unit with an intimidation factor from his safety spot.
But the senior had to take on a new role this spring when turf toe kept him out of practice completely. As with many players who miss time with injuries, Cooper said his time on the sidelines helped him see the game from a different perspective, and the time off could help both himself and young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry moving forward.
"I hate watching guys play football," Cooper said. "I had to take care of myself. I still got a lot out of it. I saw the game from a different angle and was able to help the young guys out. I think it helped me a lot on the mental aspect of the game.
"(Alexander and Gerry) grew a lot. They were forced to take all of the reps, and I think that's valuable. We're going to have a lot of depth once I get back."
- Dan Hoppen
Abdullah hoping for time on special teams
Abdullah has previously proven that he can be a force on NU's return units - he was a first-team All-American as a kick returner his freshman year and was the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week once as a sophomore.
As his offensive role has increased, the Huskers haven't used him as much on special teams, but Abdullah wouldn't mind returning to the unit, especially in a different capacity.
"Whatever role they give me. If I could, I would go out and block punts. That's something I really have a passion for - I feel I could go out and block a couple of punts.
"Any role they can give me on special teams, I want more of it. I returned kicks my freshman year, and if they need me to do it, I'll do it."
- Dan Hoppen
Pelini continues push to eliminate NSD
Back in June, Pelini created a bit of stir around college football by publicly advocating changes to the NCAA's recruiting policies and even suggesting the elimination of National Signing Day. Those feelings likely increased ten fold after Nebraska was recently burned by a couple of recruits who backed out of verbal commitments to NU over the offseason, and Pelini certainly didn't back away from his stance on the matter on Monday.
"I said publicly I believe it would be a great idea if we would look at maybe getting rid of Signing Day," Pelini said. "That's something that I think would make a lot of sense, as far as, hey, you come to an agreement, somebody commits to your school, you've made a commitment to a young man to come play in your program - why do we have to wait to any certain day? Why don't we just go ahead and let's sign on the dotted line, let's get it over with and move forward?
Pelini said by scrapping the NSD it would "slow down" the recruiting process and help cut back on the amount of early offers and commitments given by prospects early in their high school careers. He said it would also make it easier for schools in that staffs wouldn't be left scrambling to fill spots in their recruiting classes should a verbal commit decided to re-open his recruitment before signing a Letter of Intent.
Pelini said his staff at Nebraska and teams around the Big Ten generally "do things the right way" in the recruiting process, and changing the way recruiting is handled in college football would be beneficial not only for coaches and schools, but also for the players.
"It's not about any individual; it's about a team," Pelini said. "There's a bigger picture involved. And I think sometimes the way the recruiting process works is that contradictory to what we're trying to teach these kids and how we're trying to develop these kids in the long run to be successful, not only as football players and as athletes, but beyond, as husbands, as fathers, and their professions, and sometimes we always talk about having to de-recruit kids and some of that has just - it's made up of kind of the way the process is set up.
"I think there's some things that could be done, and I think that would be a big step in the right direction."
- Robin Washut