With the start of the 2013 season a week away, many of the off-season questions are starting to be answered. Newcomers are starting to assert themselves, position battles are being won, and focus is being turned to the opponents Nebraska will face.
But concerns still remain.
Some can find reasons to worry throughout the roster, but here are five major concerns for the 2013 season. Simply put, these are the things that stand between a championship season, and a losing season.
1. What happens if Taylor Martinez gets hurt?
Love him or hate him, you must acknowledge one simple fact: the biggest difference between a 10-2 season and a 6-6 season is a healthy Martinez. The buzz is that Tommy Armstrong will be the #2. He, and fellow recruitnik darling Johnny Stanton, are the future of the program, but if Martinez goes down – especially early in the season – my money is on Ron Kellogg III being first off the bench.
Could RKIII become Joe Ganz, Jr. – the unheralded career backup who exceeds all expectations? Maybe not, but I think Kellogg could be a serviceable replacement until one of the highly touted underclassmen are ready. Regardless, Taylor Martinez needs to slide, run out of bounds, and avoid big hits until October, or even November.
2. Can the offense limit the turnovers?
You know all the ugly numbers – the fumbles, the interceptions, the muffed punts, the sloppy ball handling, the reckless decisions, all of it. In a normal year, excessive turnovers can cost a team games they should win (see also: Iowa State, 2009) or ruin championship dreams (Texas, 1999).
But this may not be a normal year. The defense likely will not be able to carry the burden of an offense that turns it over three times a game. Limiting turnovers to point where the team could be *gasp* positive in turnover margin could be a huge benefit.
3. Will the kicking/punting units be as strong as they have been under Pelini?
The Pelini era teams have had some excellent kicking teams. Alex Henery, Adi Kunalic, Jake Wesch, Brett Maher, T.J. O’Leary, and P.J. Mangieri have made sure that kickoffs, punts, field goals, PATs, and the long snaps behind them have been as automatic as possible.
But in 2013, Nebraska will have a new long snapper, a new place kicker, a new punter, and even a new holder. With such a high standard, a drop-off is likely. Mistakes will probably happen, but when they happen is the real concern. A missed field goal against South Dakota State shouldn’t hurt too badly, but a bad snap in Ann Arbor could cost Nebraska a division title.
4. Can Nebraska establish any sort of punt return game?
How bad was the punt return game in 2012? In the first quarter of the Ohio State game, Ameer Abdullah returned a punt 43 yards. The rest of the season (35 quarters – almost 9 full games) Nebraska had a TOTAL of 22 yards on punt returns, with a long return of 19 yards by Tim Marlowe in the Michigan State game. That doesn’t account for the bobbles, bumbles, and fumbles that put the defense right back on the field.
Here’s the thing: Nebraska has some talented guys – Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, to name a few – who should be able to secure the ball and gain positive yards. While I don’t think your starting running back should return kicks – even if there are two talented freshmen behind him – I think there should be somebody who can get the job done.
5. Can the team handle success; staying focused and grounded?
Many pundits are predicting Nebraska to start off 8-0. Should that happen, they would go to Michigan full of confidence and likely ranked in the Top 10. A loss to the Wolverines, followed by tough games against Michigan State, Penn State, and Iowa, could send the season into a tailspin. On the flip side, it is likely that Nebraska could roll through the non-conference season and start to feel real good about themselves. After hearing the praise from the media, message boards, and fans, they may think they can just show up and win – until an unheralded team like Illinois, Purdue, or Minnesota steals a victory.
This is a fairly young team, with many guys getting their first taste of playing time. Sometimes, younger players don’t know how to handle success, how to ignore their own hype, and take “one game at a team” from a cliché to a mantra. The addition of permanent captains, as well as Pelini seeming to find comfort in his role should help. Unfortunately, Pelini teams have a bad habit of losing games they should win.
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You may notice that none of the concerns I listed are on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not that I’m not concerned about a defense with 8 or 9 new starters, or one coming off of some historically bad performances in 2012. Trust me, I have my worries.
But I also have a hunch on how the defensive performances will go:
- There will be a couple of games where the D looks shaky, but is able to make a play or get a key stop.
- There will be a couple of games where a running back is able to run right up the middle for 6 yards a carry, but the offense finds a way to win.
- There may be a game or two where nothing goes right and they give up a ton of points.
- And I fully expect a few games where everything clicks. Guys are flying to the ball, making big plays, and the Blackshirts completely shut down the other team.
I just have no idea when, where, or in what order those games will occur. And while that absolutely should be a concern, I feel oddly confident that the defense will be better than people expect.