Taylor Martinez

Under the Radar Husker Keys

Some of the ways Nebraska can have a big season in 2014 are quite obvious (give the ball to Ameer Abdullah, get solid production from Tommy Armstrong, reduce turnovers, establish a punt return game, etc.)

But there are some other keys that have kind of flown under the radar.  They may not be as self-evident as “keep the defensive ends healthy”, but they are just as important.

1.  Move on from Taylor Martinez.

Love him or hate him, he is gone.  And yet, I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve seen and heard Martinez mentioned since the Gator Bowl ended his eligibility.  The program, fans, and media do not do themselves any favors by continually bringing him up.  Don’t compare Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fyfe, or Johnny Stanton to T-Magic.  Don’t compare the plays that Tim Beck calls this year to what he called with Martinez.  Resist the urge to take shots at his coach-ability, his personality, or his mechanics (or the lack thereof).

There is absolutely no good in continuing to rehash the Martinez era.  And none of it matters for the 2014 season.

This isn’t to say that we should completely forget about a guy who holds a bazillion school records.  However, sometimes when you get out of a long, complicated (and possibly dysfunctional) relationship, the best thing to do is to simply move forward without looking back.

It’s over.  He’s gone.  Let’s move on.

2.  Avoid the Super Senior Jinx.

Nebraska is in the midst of a very unfortunate trend.  A player comes off of a strong junior season.  He enters his senior year looking like a potential All-American and team leader.  Then, an injury in the non-conference derails his season and throws the team into a state of flux.  The list of recent victims:

  • 2013:  Taylor Martinez.  Hurts his toe(s) against Wyoming.  Never fully recovers and is done for the season after the Minnesota game.  Spencer Long qualifies too, even though his injury occurred in conference play.
  • 2012:  Rex Burkhead.  Injures his knee in the opener against Southern Miss.  He sits out multiple games, and is not the same until the regular season finale at Iowa.
  • 2011:  Jared Crick.  Tore his pectoral against Washington.  He tried to play with it for a few games, but was clearly not the same player.

If I’m Bo Pelini, I instruct the trainers to wrap Ameer Abdullah in bubble wrap for every practice.  I also suggest treating the Florida Atlantic and McNeese State games like NFL preseason games:  play a few series and then let the backups take over – regardless of the score.

3.  Develop an “Anytime.  Anywhere.” mentality.

Much has been said and written about the five straight night games (including the late night party out in Fresno).  And since Nebraska a) plays in the Big Ten, and b) has a schedule that includes Rutgers, Purdue, and Minnesota, you can all but guarantee a couple of 11 am kickoffs.  Throw in the fact that Nebraska’s toughest games (Michigan State and Wisconsin) are on the road, and you start to see why this mentality is so important.

Nebraska is hit or miss on the road under Pelini.  For every hard fought win (Michigan, 2013; Michigan State, 2012) there is a blowout loss (Michigan 2011; Wisconsin 2011).  Nebraska’s record in road games under the lights since 2010 is 2 – 7, with an average margin of defeat of  18 points (that margin jumps to almost 28 points since joining the Big 10).

With the schedule they face in 2014, Pelini’s team needs to have a mentality of a heavyweight boxer contender eyeing a shot at the title:  I’ll take you on anytime, anywhere.

4.  Don’t shut out the media.

On the surface, you would not think that having reporters and other media members at practice would have any impact on Nebraska’s season.  But it will.  Not necessarily in the on-field results (Tommy Armstrong’s performance is going to be the same regardless of if Dirk Chatelain is at practice).  The impact comes in perception – how we as fans perceive players, coaches, and game planning/preparation.

Don’t believe me?  Look at Nebraska’s spring practices.  The media had greater access to practice than they have ever had under Pelini.  While they could not report on specific things they saw, they were able to confirm a lot of the things we saw in the Spring Game.  For example:  if there was no media access and Pelini says Ryker Fyfe is neck and neck with Johnny Stanton for the backup QB job, you’d wonder what the heck is going on (and probably question the coaching staff).  With media attending practices, we can hear/read from multiple sources that it is no fluke – Stanton is struggling and Fyfe is performing very well.  In short, the media’s presence at practice gives credibility to the personnel moves Pelini makes and likely supports decisions made on Saturdays

For example:  let’s say in the Wisconsin game, Nebraska runs a fake field goal where Drew Brown takes an option pitch to the weak sideline.  Brown is stuffed for no gain and Nebraska goes on to lose by two points.  Certainly, that decision will be questioned heavily by the media (that’s part of what they do).  However, with media access at practice, reporters could note that Nebraska had been working on that play for a month, and Drew Brown has better open field moves then some of the I-Backs.  In other words, having the media at practice allows them to have more information, which allows for better analysis and less assumptions.

I know the media access will go away (or be severely limited) during the season, but I hope Pelini and his staff realize the benefits it can bring for his program – and how they are perceived.

 5.  Find a reliable long snapper.

One of the most concerning pieces of news out of fall camp has been the back injury keeping scholarship long snapper Gabriel Miller on the bench.  As a true freshman, Miller had an outstanding year with no bad snaps.  But if he can’t go (and it certainly appears that he’s going to be out for a while), finding a capable replacement is paramount.

Safety Nate Gerry has been working at the position in practice, but keeping him healthy (and allowing sideline warm up time with the holder and kicker) are big, big concerns.  Very few things can swing momentum like a blocked punt, missed field goal, or other special teams miscue.

Who knows?  Gerry (or walk-on Josh Faulkenberry) might end up being even better than Miller.  But if I’m Ross Els, it might not hurt to scour the campus for potential walk-ons who long snapped in high school.  Just in case…

Husker Hot Takes

For it being a relatively slow time of year, there is a lot going on the world of Husker athletics.  Things that are getting a lot of local and even national attention.  Things that I have strong opinions on.

Unfortunately, my opinions on these topics tend to be too long for Twitter (damn you, 140 characters!), but not quite beefy enough for a full post of their own.

Therefore, I give you Husker Hot Takes – seven servings of delicious opinion, hopefully with no bad aftertaste.

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1.  NU Baseball survives crazy road trip, but has to cancel game with Creighton.
After NU’s three game sweep at Michigan State, the Huskers had a hard time getting back to Lincoln.  Cancelled flights, delayed buses, the fact that East Lansing is 725 stinkin’ miles from Lincoln.  I’m guessing during their 24 hour+ trip home, they quoted every single line from Planes, Trains, & Automobiles.  As a result, Nebraska’s game with Creighton had to be cancelled, and the 10,000 fans who bought tickets are likely out of luck.

Things like this make me miss the Big XII (and especially the Big 8).  Why?  Everything was closer in the 8 / XII.  The average distance between Lincoln and the other eleven towns in the Big XII was 480.5 miles.  In the current Big Ten, the average distance is 625.5 miles.  When Rutgers and Maryland officially join the league this summer, that average will jump to 720.5 miles.

720 miles used to be on the long end of Big XII roadies.  Only two Big XII schools (Texas and Texas A&M) were farther than the 720 mile voyage to Baylor in Waco.  In a few months, that becomes the average trip, and would still leave the baseball team five miles short of completing their epic journey home.

Put it another way:  in the B1G, Nebraska’s closest foe is Iowa – 301 miles away.  In the Big XII, Nebraska had three conference foes less than 225 miles from home (Kansas State, Kansas, and Iowa State), with a fourth that is practically the same distance from home as Iowa (Mizzou, 319 miles).

I get that there are a billion caveats here, notably that cancelled flights, bad weather, travel delays, can (and will) happen to everyone.  But I question the sanity of teams like Nebraska and Creighton travelling cross-country for baseball and other non-revenue / Olympic sports (like Cross Country).  All it does it wastes money and keeps students out of class.

Ultimately, it comes back to something I’ve believed for a while:  eventually, schools will belong to multiple conferences.  There will be a football/basketball conference that is tied to a big TV contract and may span 1500 miles and multiple time zones.  And a smaller, regional conference for Olympic and non-revenue sports.  Because eventually schools will realize that there is little gain in travelling 725 – each way – to play a game, especially when there are dozens of schools within a 500 mile radius of home that would likely offer the same level of competition.

2.  Taylor Martinez fails his NFL physical.

First and foremost, I’m bummed for Martinez.  I don’t follow the NFL as much as I used to, but I was intrigued to see how Chip Kelly would use him in Philadelphia’s offense.  Plus, I’d really like to see the kid be successful.

But clearly, I am in the minority on that.

Here is a quick sampling of some of the 200+ comments left on a Facebook post from a Omaha TV station announcing the news:

  • “You have to pass a physical to be an NFL water boy?”
  • “I think I can speak for all husker fans when I say that we never really trusted him at QB, let alone ever liked the guy.”
  • “Hahaha haha haha haha haha haha haha haha haha haha”
  • “he sucks…..lost all the big games for us….he didn’t care……good riddance……”
  • “Hahahahahahahaha thank god! I hate this loser so much”

Keep in mind, these comments aren’t from the stereotypical message board guy hiding behind an anonymous screen name and avatar in his mother’s basement.  These are Facebook users putting their actual names behind this garbage.  Most of them had profile pictures of (presumably) themselves.  Others had pictures of young children, who I assume are their kids.

Look:  I’m not saying you have to love every Husker to come through the program.  It’s perfectly okay to question the talent and desire of a kid, but there is a line between honest criticism (“Taylor Martinez fumbled too much”) and a cheap personal attack (“Did he call his daddy? Hahah. What a loser!”).

If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t post it on the internet, ya damn trolls.  Next time, I’ll include your name and profile picture so more folks can see just what a great fan you are.

3.  The day of the Taylor Martinez tell-all interview is getting closer.

At some point during Martinez’s senior season, I had a thought:  “Some day this kid is going to do a tell-all interview where he airs ALL of his dirty laundry – the back story of how he beat out Cody Green and Zac Lee, what was said during and after that A&M game, his true feelings on Pelini, Tim Beck, his teammates, and the Nebraska fans who cheered him when he scored and booed him when he turned the ball over.  And it will be EPIC.”

That interview likely will not happen while Martinez still has a chance at the NFL, or even the CFL or arena leagues, but getting cut by the Eagles puts us another step closer to Taylor taking a match to the bridge leading back to what had to be an uncomfortable (and probably unenjoyable) college career.

4.  Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst says NU is “lucky to have” Bo as our coach.

Without getting to the Bo-liever / Bo-leaver partisan bickering that this sound byte provides, I’ll say this:  Nebraska is lucky.  NU is lucky that Bill Callahan is no longer our coach.  Lucky that Frank Solich has found a good fit at Ohio.  Lucky that some of the other candidates never took the job.  (Houston Nutt, I’m looking directly at you).

A part of me wonders if this quote will haunt Eichort’s tenure the way “gravitating towards mediocrity” did for Pedersen.  Let’s face it, I have a feeling that if 2014 is a five or six loss season, Eichorst may try to change his luck by finding a new coach.

5.  The B1G moves the basketball tournament to Washington D.C., fans react with much angst.  

I get it.  Husker fans are getting deja vu all over again about how the Big XII tournament shifted from Kansas City to wherever the heck Texas wanted it to be played.  But here’s the thing:  Having the tournament in D.C. should help Nebraska.  It is a simple fact that there is more hoops talent out east than in Nebraska’s back yard.  Tim Miles has an assistant coach who was at Georgetown for a number of years.  Nebraska can tell a recruit that mom and dad will get to watch him just down the road during the conference tournament.

Besides, raise your hand if you truly planned to travel to the B1G hoops tourney in the next few years.  For most of us, we’re going to watch the event on TV.  With a neutral paint job on the court, most of us would have no idea if the games are in D.C., Indianapolis, Chicago, or the Pershing Center.

6.  That said, Omaha may bid on the basketball tournament.

During an interview, Eichorst said that he saw no reason why the hoops tournament couldn’t be played in Omaha from time to time.  It makes perfect sense.  The Century Link is an excellent venue.  Downtown Omaha has lots of hotels and entertainment options for out of town fans.  And Omaha has a proven track record of surpassing expectations when they host big events – both in Nebraska niceness and in attendance.

I see no reason why Omaha shouldn’t put a bid together for any Big Ten championship.  And after Omaha gets done blowing the doors off of the attendance records for the Big Ten baseball tournament next week, I think they’ll have a damn good chance.

7.  Josh Banderas is arrested and charged with felony theft.

If you thought the comments on the Taylor Martinez story were bad, you should take a look at what some people posted on the Journal-Star’s website.  On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t.  By allowing people to comment on the news story of Banderas’s arrest – something that I had never seen before on the LJS – they seem content to scrap the presumption of innocence for these young men.  Josh Banderas may very well be guilty of what he has been accused of doing, but I’d prefer if his due process came in a court room instead of the comments section of the local newspaper.

Speaking of due process, I don’t expect Bo Pelini to decide on possibly suspending or dismissing Banderas until the case is further along.  We can all speculate on what Bo would do in case of A, B, or C, but what I really like is the confidence I have that Nebraska’s depth a linebacker will not factor in Bo’s decision making process.


NU Coaching Grades – 2013 (C)

It took a little while, but the report card is in.  I’ve graded the members of the Nebraska football coaching staff on how well they coached their positions and developed their players.  It is time to see who passed, who needs to consider summer school, and who should update their resume.  Click here to see last year’s grades.

Methodology:  Last year, my approach was rough.  While I utilized the same criteria below, there was no hard and fast rule to how the grades were issued.  Looking back, there are some grades that were tough for me to justify.  So this year, I’ll assign a letter grade (A through F) for each of my four factors and then give each coach an overall GPA (using the standard 4.0 scale).

Here are the things I’m grading the coaches on:

  • On-field performance.  Did the unit made the team better or were they a weakness?  Did they live up to the hype or a big disappointment?  Coordinators are also judged on the overall performance of their area.
  • Improvement.  Did the position group play better in 2013 than in 2012?  Better in November than September?  Or did they take a step back?
  • Positional depth.  How many players were in the mix for playing time?  When injuries occurred, was there a noticeable drop off to the backup?  I think this is a fair representation of “coaching up” the talent to a level where they can contribute and/or succeed on the field.  If a starter playing at 60% health is still better than his backup, that says something about how the coach is getting his players ready to go.  On the flip side, if a several guys are  injured and the unit plays as well as (or better than) they have been, that reflects well on a coach.  Obviously, things like injuries, suspensions, and protecting redshirts were considered, but recruiting busts do not.  In my opinion, a good coach should be able to turn most lemons into lemonade – even if it takes a lot of squeezing.
  • My gut opinion.  I was at every home game, and watched every other game.  I can’t diagram the Tampa 2, but I feel that I have a good understanding of what’s going on.

It is also important to note that recruiting is NOT included in these grades.  Why?  First and foremost, I’m not enough of a recruitnik to know who lands the 4 and 5 stars, and who might be a double agent secretly working for Wisconsin.  Also, grading how a coach recruits leads to a lot of incomplete grades – you simply cannot truly tell if a player is boon or a bust until their playing career is over.

So with the explanations and disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look at the report card, starting with the straight A student.  (All titles listed below are from huskers.com)

John Garrison – Assistant Coach/Offensive Line
Garrison was easily the star performer of the staff.  The line seemed stronger and more cohesive than 2012.  Throughout the season, the O line was a strength of the team.  The depth, as tested by the number of injuries that took out stars, starters, and key reserves, was outstanding.

While it is possible that Garrison’s grade is inflated as a result of having four seniors (and multi-year starters), I don’t think anybody would disagree that grade was earned during conference play when a starter seemed to get injured every week.

Recruiting does not factor into my grades, but having Garrison included in “top recruiter” lists cements him as the head of the class.
2013 GPA:  4.25, A+
2012 Grade:  C 

Rich Fisher – Assistant Coach/Wide Receivers 
Fisher was the valedictorian of the 2012 grades, but he slips a little bit for 2013.  Why?  Part of it was not fully meeting the high preseason expectations placed on returning starters Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, and Jamal Turner along with touted freshman Jordan Westerkamp.  I’m not sure if I can truly say the receivers were top to bottom better in 2013 than 2012.  It felt like there were a few more drops than the 2012 unit.  Of course, considering there were three very different QBs throwing passes at them throughout the year, I can forgive some of those drops.

Fisher’s group has the headliners, but don’t discount the positional depth, with several guys getting decent reps.  I like that Fisher seems to get solid contributions from touted recruits and walk-ons.

2013 GPA:  3.75, B+
2012 Grade:  A

Rick Kaczenski – Assistant Coach/Defensive Line
No position group made a bigger improvement over 2012 than the defensive line.  First and foremost was the improved depth.  It felt like there were always fresh bodies able to come in.  Losing Avery Moss at the end of the season could have set up a repeat of the disastrous end to the 2012 season.  Instead, Kaz plugged in the next guy, and the drop-off was minimal.

The other key improvement was in the line’s ability to generate a pass rush.  Certainly, Randy Gregory was a key component, but the line was able to put more heat on opposing QBs even when Gregory wasn’t on the field.  Never underestimate the benefit that a pass rush has on a Pelini defense.

2013 GPA:  3.625, B+
2012 Grade:  D

Ron Brown – Assistant Coach/Running Backs 
You end up looking pretty good when you have Ameer Abdullah in your position group, and therefore Brown grades out well.  But if you look at all of the backs under Brown’s tutelage, you’ll find excellent talent.  This leads to one of my biggest gripes on Coach Brown:  I would like to see more touches for the backups (especially the dynamic Terrell Newby), but I can understand why he would be hesitant to remove his franchise player.  (And I’ll always argue that the fullbacks should get some carries).  I probably should ding Brown for the sometimes shoddy ball security, but he has enough good will built up for me to let it slide – for this year.
2013 GPA:  3.5, B+
2012 Grade:  A-

Ross Els – Assistant Coach/Linebackers 
Surprised to see Els this high?  If you take a second look above, you’ll notice that this grade is only about Ross Els – Linebackers coach.  Ross Els – Linebackers coach is a decent coach.  He lost three senior starters and opened the season with a true freshman, a guy coming off of a knee injury, and a top backup/occasional starter from 2012.  Yes, it took some time for Els to put guys in the right positions (taking the MIKE responsibilities away from David Santos and giving them to Michael Rose was a smart move) but there is absolutely no denying that the backers improved greatly as the season went on.  Going into 2014, the LB corps looks like a strength of the entire team.

I separated Els’s duties as Linebackers coach from his other roles for two reasons:  1) to help illustrate that Els has too much on his plate, and 2) to make sure Els received proper credit for the performance and growth of his position group.
2013 GPA:  3.5, B+
2012 Grade:  n/a (not graded solely as a LB coach)

Terry Joseph – Assistant Coach/Secondary 
The secondary was a strength of the defense.  Granted, for the first part of the season that was akin to saying Bo is the best coach named “Pelini” – the bar is kind of low.  The development of Corey Cooper from potential recruiting bust to budding star is a positive, as is the performances of Leroy Alexander and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

I’m a little concerned that there seems to be more turnover in the secondary coaching job than turnovers produced by the members of the secondary, but I’m optimistic that new coach Charlton Warren can stem that.
2013 GPA:  3.5, B+
2012 Grade:  B

Joe Ganz – Graduate Assistant (Quarterbacks)
Regardless of Tim Beck’s official title, I think we can all agree that Ganz was the de facto QB coach on the 2013 squad.  Given that there were three different starting QBs in Nebraska’s last seven games, Ganz did a pretty damn good job – especially considering his true title and salary.  I’ll be interested to see how Beck handles the QBs this fall.
2013 GPA:  3.375, B
2012 Grade:  n/a

John Papuchis – Defensive Coordinator 
I wonder if Papuchis will ever get away from the stigma that Bo truly runs the defense and he is just a glorified assistant.  Regardless, his title means the responsibility falls on him, so he gets the blame for the embarrassing chunks of yardage bled out against Wyoming and UCLA as well as the credit for containing Michigan and Georgia.

The improvement from August to January was very easy to see, and overall, I felt the 2013 defense was better than the 2012 version.  As a result, his grade for on-field performance isn’t that great, but he makes up for it with improvement and depth.
2013 GPA:  3.25, B
2012 Grade:  C-

Tim Beck – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks 

I gave Beck a lot of credit for depth on offense as getting to nine wins with a patchwork line and two backup quarterbacks was no easy feat.  That said, I think most fans (myself included) expected more from the offense – not necessarily the 50 points per game that Jamal Turner referenced in fall camp, but certainly something that could score more than 23 points at Minnesota.

As the offensive coordinator, Beck gets the bill for turnover issues that plague this team (and costs them wins).  My gut tells me that after Martinez went down Beck struggled to know how he wanted to attack defenses.  Credit is given for putting the brakes on the hurry up pace when it was obvious that the young defense was struggling.  Despite a down year, I still maintain that Beck is the best offensive coordinator Nebraska has had since Osborne retired.
2013 GPA:  3.00, B
2012 Grade:  B+

Bo Pelini – Head Coach 
The Bo blurb is tough to write.  I feel like the political reporter who will be called “too liberal” and “too conservative” by partisans – within the same article.  No matter what I write, I’m going to tick somebody off.

Since Bo is becoming a polarizing figure, I’m going to go strictly by the methodology I laid out at the top:

It is worth noting that I am not factoring the “F______ fans” audio gate into his grades.  It’s not fair to base his 2013 grade on something that happened two years ago.

  • On-field performance.  I am on record saying that 9 wins matters, but I think we all expected a better outcome to the season.  I like how the 2013 Huskers won the close games (5-0 in games decided by less than seven points), but nobody likes the manner in which they lose (average margin of defeat:  16.25 points).  Too many mental mistakes, wasted timeouts, an embarrassing punt return game, and a turnover margin that almost got him fired.
  • Improvement.  The team got better from beginning to end.  The team that beat Georgia would have beaten UCLA and Minnesota.  I also look at Bo’s off-field “improvement”.  He’s learning and improving as a coach.  I give Bo credit for his improvement in being more personable, embracing fun (his prank and Harlem Shake videos), and for his role in getting Jack Hoffman a touchdown.  That improvement may not be as fast or dramatic as we want it to be, but it is there.
  • Positional depth.  The team talent, speed, and athleticism was noticeably improved in 2013 at a variety of positions.  Anytime you lose a four year starting QB, an All-American lineman, and other contributors and avoid complete meltdown is a good thing.
  • My gut opinion.  I like Bo Pelini as a man.  I like what he stands for, and how he runs his program.  I want to believe in Bo as a coach.  I see the potential and the growth.  I see a coach who is coming into his own and truly understanding what it takes to consistently win on the highest levels.  I also see a coach who is haunted by demons, whose passions run deep and hot, and is having to play catch up from bad recruiting classes, schematic woes, and a transition to a completely different league.  My grade here would probably be higher, if not for November 29.  Against Iowa, Bo coached like somebody desperate to save his job, and acted like somebody who knew he had lost it.  The whole day left a bad taste in my mouth.  Had Eichorst pulled the trigger, I would have supported that decision.  But I will do as I did in 2003, 2007, and every other year:  support the head coach of the University of Nebraska, and wish success upon him.

2013 GPA:  3.0, C
2012 Grade:  B-

Barney Cotton – Associate Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator/Tight Ends/Offensive Line 
Barney gets a boost for having his name on the run game, as well as having a hand in the O line’s success.  Play at his core position group (tight end) was underwhelming, even when factoring in the loss of Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton as well as the injuries to Jake Long.  There was not a lot of improvement, and due to injuries, the position was not very deep.

But overall, this should be considered a good year for Barney.  He seems to have dropped his role as punching bag for the fans.  Now he is kind of a forgotten man on the staff.  Personally, I think Cotton probably being anonymous.
2013 GPA:  2.625, C+
2012 Grade:  C

James Dobson – Head Strength Coach
Dobson replaced Barney as the official Message Board Whipping Boy.  I’ve read a lot of the criticism on him, some of which comes from people who claim to understand the athletic medicine/training field who claim that Dobson’s impact borders on malpractice.

And yet….I have a hard time laying the blame for injured knees on the offensive line at his doorstep.  I’m not saying those folks are wrong, I just want to hear those claims from somebody who is more visible than a message board screen name.

Early in the season, I noted that the players appeared gassed at times during games.  That definitely falls on him.
2013 GPA:  2.375, C
2012 Grade:  B

Ross Els – Assistant Coach/Special Teams Coordinator/Recruiting Coordinator
Above, I graded Els strictly as a Linebackers coach, and I think he graded out pretty well.  Despite having “recruiting coordinator” in his title, I’m not going to grade him on that – I just don’t follow recruiting enough to give a fair and accurate grade.  That leaves us with Els’s role as Special Teams Coordinator.

Let’s begin by looking back at what I wrote a year ago:

“The kick return teams – especially punts – were dreadful for most of the conference season, costing the team acres in field position as well as several turnovers.  Special teams went from being a relative strength to a definite weakness.  It should be noted that Els also serves as Recruiting Coordinator.  I ask:  if Els spread too thin?  Would the team would be better served if another coach took over special teams?  My opinion is yes.”

Sadly, every word is still true.  Jamal Turner bumbled two punts in the opener against Wyoming, and yet it was still better than this.  There were two fake punt attempts (against UCLA and Iowa) that not only destroyed any hope of a Husker comeback, but were tragically ill-conceived (especially the one against Iowa).  Frankly, the right legs of placekicker Pat Smith and kickoff specialist Mauro Bondi are the only things keeping Ross Els – Special Teams Coordinator from a big fat F.
2013 GPA:  0.5, D-
2012 Grade:  D (for all roles)

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Here are my individual grades for each coach:

Coach On-field Performance Improvement Positional Depth Gut Opinion GPA
John Garrison A A A+ A+ 4.250
Rich Fisher B+ B+ A A 3.750
Rick Kaczenski A A B B+ 3.625
Ron Brown A A C+ B+ 3.500
Ross Els B A B+ B+ 3.500
Terry Joseph B+ B+ B+ B+ 3.500
Joe Ganz B B A B+ 3.375
John Papuchis C+ A A B 3.375
Tim Beck C+ B A C+ 3.000
Bo Pelini C+ B B+ B 3.000
Barney Cotton B C B C+ 2.625
James Dobson C C B+ C 2.375
Ross Els D F D F 0.500

Add it all up, and you get a grade point average of 3.10 on a 4.0 scale, or a respectable B average for the staff.

2013 GPA:  3.10, B

2012 GPA:  2.46, C+

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(Author’s note:  Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post?  Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge?  Like clicking on links?  These questions are all answered here.)

The Legacy of Taylor Martinez

Back in August, I kept hearing about how the 2013 season would “define Taylor Martinez’s legacy”.

At the time, I thought that statement was a hot load of crap.

After three full seasons with Taylor Martinez as Nebraska’s quarterback, his “legacy” was already defined.  The definition of that legacy all depends on how you view Martinez.

If you are optimistic on Martinez, you view him as one of the most dynamic and explosive quarterbacks in school history, somebody who owns nearly every school record a quarterback can own.

If you are pessimistic on Martinez, you view him as a frustratingly inconsistent turnover machine, who never won a championship or bowl game.

Here’s the thing – both of those perspectives are correct.  I get it:  there is a certain subset of the fan base who will never forgive Martinez for this actions during (and after) the 2010 Texas A&M game.  There are fans who will never fully support a player who quits and rejoins the team (allegedly), no matter how talented and successful he is (see also:  Crouch, Eric).  I don’t subscribe to that theory, but I understand where those people are coming from.

With injuries having cut his senior season short, we can look back on his career; his triumphs and tragedies, and really dig into what made Taylor Martinez the player that rewrote the record book while alienating a section of a fan base that loves to love their quarterbacks.

*   *   *

Taylor Martinez’s legacy can be summarized in six words.

Wow.  I will remember Martinez for the highlight reel of “wow” moments.  The plays where his speed and athleticism turned disaster into touchdowns.  I’m talking about 80 yard runs against Washington and Kansas State, his run against UCLA, the mad scramble against Wisconsin.  But there was more than just big runs.  Despite his funky mechanics*, he put up four 300 yard passing games, and delivered several key touchdown passes to help Nebraska win games.

And when he put it all together?  Then you get wow moments like the fourth quarter of the 2012 Michigan State game, where he led a comeback win with a combination of big throws and back-breaking runs – against one of the best defenses in the conference.  Or the 2010 Oklahoma State game, where Martinez threw for 300+ yards.

*Ah yes, those mechanics.  At best, they were unorthodox.  At worst, they were a horror show.  There were several deep balls where I truly believe he yelled “500!” as he released the ball.  But let’s not pretend that other Husker greats had textbook mechanics.  They had to replace the Memorial Stadium turf after the 1995 season because Tommie Frazier had bounced so many passes on it.  Scott Frost threw as if he was taught by a women’s shot put champion.   

Turnovers.  If Taylor Martinez’s performances were a coin that was flipped before every snap, one side of that coin would say “wow”.  What would the other side say?  I’m not sure, but it is probably an expletive uttered by fans after another Martinez turnover.

Without sugar-coating it, Martinez was a turnover machine, leading the nation in fumbles and fumbles lost in 2011 and 2012.  He regularly threw ill-advised passes into double coverage or over his intended receiver.  Often these turnovers were momentum killing soul crushers that put the defense in a bind, or contributed to blow out losses.  Making matters worse, many of them appeared as if they could have been prevented with better decision-making.  Martinez did not discriminate in who he turned it over to (FCS teams, non conference foes, division rivals, etc.), but it always felt like most of his turnovers came in crucial moments of games against ranked opponents.

Records.  Simply put, Taylor Martinez owns just about every offensive record that a quarterback can own.  Among the big ones:  career starts at QB, Total Offense, Passing Yards, Touchdown Passes, Rush Yards by a QB, and multiple testing records for quarterbacks.

From a purely statistical standpoint, Taylor Martinez may be the greatest QB Nebraska has known.  And as great as his stats are, it is scary to imagine the numbers he could have put up had he been healthy throughout his career.

Injured.  Of the 44 games that Taylor Martinez played at Nebraska, how many did he play at 100% health?  At 90%?  Below 75%?  Martinez, when healthy, was an amazingly dynamic player – a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the field.  But when injured, Martinez struggled to be an average QB.  Without the healthy legs, he had to rely on his arm (and decision-making skills) to lead Nebraska to victory.  Without the threat of him running, defenses were free to focus on the pass, and often confused him with blitzes and different coverages.

To be sure, Martinez is a tough kid.  He absorbed a ton of hits over his career and did not miss a meaningful snap in the 2012 season.  Even when he was hurt, he wanted to continue playing – even if it was detrimental to the team.  Part of the blame falls on Martinez for being too proud/stubborn/foolish to try to play when he was injured.  But I feel the majority of the blame falls on the coaching staff for a) not recognizing their injured QB was becoming a liability, and b) not having a capable backup on the roster.  Seriously, as poorly as Martinez played in some of the games where he was hurt, was the option on the bench (Brion Carnes, Ron Kellogg III, Cody Green, etc.) going to be any better?

Mercurial.  This may be my favorite on this list.  Why?  Name another athlete – college or pro, football or any other sport – who is widely described as “mercurial”.  In doing a search for a good definition of “mercurial”, I came across the following description:  “cool and willful at one moment, utterly fragile the next.”  I don’t know Martinez at all, so it’s not fair for me to comment on the true depths of his personality.  However, given how often that word appears in articles about him, one can assume that the media who covered him for four years certainly felt that way.

To be sure, Taylor’s personality is a big part of his narrative.  He comes across as quiet and reserved, and appears as if he doesn’t trust people outside of his circle.  Most of us see truth in Tunnel Walk of Shame’s depiction of Martinez as a childlike Bro:  yelling “YOLO” while getting excited over bounce houses and coloring books.  Simply put, his personality doesn’t mesh with what we expect from a starting quarterback.  Martinez comes across as a passive Type B in a position that seems to require an assertive Type A.  While he could be as bold and confident as any QB, his claims (stated goals of a national championship and a 70% completion percentage) were often met with rolled eyes.

While nobody will argue that Taylor’s personality is wired differently than any other Husker QB, I think the media and fans own a part of this too.  As a redshirt freshman, he was clearly not ready for the fishbowl of being Nebraska’s starter, nor the spotlight brought on by his immediate success.  However, the fan and media criticism for not being a vocal leader, not speaking at press conferences, and having every syllable of every quote parsed and analyzed to death surely did not help his comfort or trust with the media and fans.

Polarizing.  Taylor Martinez may very well be the most polarizing figure in Nebraska football history.  Ask ten people their opinion on Martinez and my guess is most will be at one extreme (“he’s great”) or the other (“he sucks”) with very few in the middle.  As Martinez was rewriting the career record book in 2012, there were fans wondering why his backups were not starting instead of him.  At the 2013 fan day, a female fan brought a life-sized cutout of Martinez for him to sgin.

Here is what I find most telling:  In the almost 40 years that I have cheered for this team, I cannot remember another time where friends, family, fans, and random other day-to-day contacts were truly excited over a Nebraska player suffering an injury.  I don’t think there was a lot of joy that Taylor Martinez (person) was injured. but I have heard and felt unmistakable joy that Taylor Martinez (quarterback) may never take another snap.  Name another Husker player who got the same treatment?

*   *   *

You may notice there is one key word that does not equate into Martinez’s legacy definition:  Rings.  For all of his statistical greatness, his longevity, his 40+ starts under center, Taylor Martinez will leave Nebraska without any championship rings*

*While Nebraska may have ordered rings for the various division championships Martinez was involved with (2010 Big XII North, 2012 Big Ten Legends) not even the most fervent of Martinez supporters would claim those match the rings earned for conference or national championships.  

And this is the big hole in Taylor Martinez’s legacy –  the strikeout pitch for any debate over where Martinez ranks in the pantheon of great Husker QBs – he has zero conference championships (0-2 in title games) and zero bowl wins (0-3) on his resume.  I will point out that the full weight of those losses is not on #3’s shoulders (unless Martinez was somehow responsible for failing to stop Melvin Gordon on the jet sweep) while acknowledging that Martinez was at best inconsistent when the lights were the brightest.

*   *   *

So as he prepares to enter Memorial Stadium for the final time on Friday’s Senior Day, what is the legacy of Taylor Martinez?  How will we remember him?

My son’s first Husker jersey has #3 on it.  He is too young to remember Martinez, so here is how I’ll describe Martinez to him when he is older:  Whenever Taylor Martinez took a snap, the odds were good that the other team’s offense would soon be on the field – either because he scored from 70 yards or because he turned it over.

Personally, I found that risk/reward proposition exciting.  I didn’t always agree with his decision-making process or the sometimes haphazard way he protected the ball.  But often it was worth it for the results – the “did you see that?” moments that likely kept defensive coordinators up all night.

The other stuff?  His aloof appearance, his perceived selfishness, not speaking to the media after losses. and all of the other off the field stuff?  All in all, it didn’t bother me.  Sure, I think we would all like to have seen a personable, engaging, and selfless leader who is as quick to take the blame as he is to deflect praise.  But admit it:  if Martinez’s record in championships and bowls is 4-1 instead of 0-5, a lot less of us would care about the type of person/teammate we perceive him to be.

As Taylor Martinez comes out of the tunnel one last time.  I will stand and applaud a man who gave everything he had to Nebraska, and helped this team win games they should have lost.  

I know it won’t be as easy for some of you, but I hope that you can join m in cheering for this Husker legend (sorry, the stats and records say he is a legend).

If it helps, you can cheer the fact that it will be the last time you see him in a Nebraska jersey.

Gopher Broke

Thanks for stopping by!  While I am very grateful for those who take the time to read my work, I would greatly it if you read this one on HuskerMax.com.  

Why?  As a writer for the site, I earn a fraction of a penny per page view.  And with three mouths to feed, and a poor wife who becomes a football widow 12 Saturdays a year, I need those penny parts to keep everybody happy.  

Thank you,

Feit Can Write

The Most Popular Guy on the Team

Frankie London.
Eric Crouch.
Bobby Newcombe.
Tommie Frazier.
Mike Stuntz.
Joe Dailey.
Turner Gill.
Joe Ganz.
Cody Green.
Brion Carnes.

What do all of the above have in common? At one point in their career, they were the most popular player in the state:  Nebraska’s backup quarterback.

After his impressive debut in Nebraska’s 59-20 romp over South Dakota State, we added a new name to this storied list: Tommy Armstrong, Jr..  Time will tell if he follows the career path of Frazier, Crouch, and Gill or that of London, Stuntz, or Carnes.

To hear and read the collective opinions of our fans, Tommy Armstrong is destined to be a four-year starter, whose many talents will lead Nebraska back to glory.  Some have noted the similarities in circumstances with Tommy Armstrong’s first starts and those of Tommie Frazier and see a similar career path.

While some of the shine came off the Armstrong apple with his ugly performance at Purdue (6-18, 43 yards, 3 INT), many Husker fans are still very high on him.  And with good reason – Armstrong has lots of talent, athleticism, and potential.  But is he the clear choice to lead this team forward?

Martinez’s injured toe has healed enough that he will take some snaps against Minnesota.  A fully healthy Martinez is, in my opinion, the clear and obvious choice.  Heck, Martinez at 80% health may prove to be better for the offense than Armstrong.  Ron Kellogg III might channel some of the career backup magic that his position coach Joe Ganz had, and take control of the starting job.  We just don’t know.

Let me be clear:  I mean no disrespect to Armstrong – from what I have seen, I’ve been impressed with his talent, and am very optimistic about his future. I am just cautious about going all-in on a redshirt freshman who has not faced an opponent more talented than Illinois.  After so many years of hearing the recruitniks hype up every QB to step on campus, as well as the general fan obsession with the #2 QB, I’m a little leery of diving head first into Armstrong Mania.

The view from the backup QB pedestal

Consider two case studies from the Pelini era:

Cody Green was a much-hyped recruit, and fans wanted him to be the starting QB as soon as he got on campus.  He had a very unspectacular career at NU and transferred out.

Joe Ganz was a rather unheralded recruit, and despite the struggles of Sam Keller, not too many fans were clamoring for Ganz to start – until the offense started lighting up the scoreboard and record book under his leadership.

I’ll say it again so I’m clear:  I hope Tommy Armstrong is successful – just like I hope every Nebraska player is successful.  By and large, I am supportive of any player who I feel can help Nebraska win….

Which leads us to Taylor Martinez.

I just don’t understand the reaction I’ve seen from some of our fans.  Many were thrilled that somebody else was starting the last three games.  They were happy that he was hurt.  They hope he never sees the field again.  They truly believe that Nebraska’s best chance to win the division and conference title is with a redshirt freshman instead of a four year starter.

I know that many people within the fan base have issues with Martinez – both factual (he led the nation in fumbles) and emotional (he “quit” on the team following that A&M game).  But that does not mean we should take joy in his pain, or disparage a player who has done a lot of good things at Nebraska.

I get it:  some fans will never like or appreciate Taylor.  Heck, if you read some of my previous work, you’ll notice that I’ve been rather critical of him over the years as well.  But my criticism is usually constructive and never personal.  And I feel that I recognize the good things he does and the growth he’s made.  I don’t think many of his bashers can say that.

Has he improved over his four seasons?  Absolutely, and without a doubt.

Is he an NFL-caliber quarterback?  Heavens no.  (Of course, no NU quarterback has been NFL worthy since Brook Berringer passed away, but that’s another topic for another day).

But there is a difference between pointing out the things a person does not do well, and being rude and disrespectful. Saying I use too many run-on sentences and love bullet points too much is constructive (and honest). Saying that I suck, don’t know what I’m talking about, and would be easily replaced by a drunken chimpanzee with a keyboard is rude (and insulting to the chimp).

What’s my point with all of this?  I guess if I could have you take away anything from this rant, it would be that you can be excited for Armstrong’s potential without tearing down another Husker.

*Author’s note: The original framework of this post was started back in 2011 after Nebraska lost at Wisconsin, sparking calls from fans, message boards, and the media that it was time to bench Martinez in favor of Brion Carnes.

It just goes to show that some things never change. 

Feit Can Write Interview: Tunnel Walk of Shame

*Author’s note:  I’m posting this interview both here on Feit Can Write, as well as on HuskerMax.com.  Which site should you read it on?

  • If you want the PG version, (or want to help me earn fractions of a penny per page view), click here to read this on HuskerMax.   
  • If you want the unedited version, where the word “shit” isn’t replaced with [expletive], then read on.

I’ve got a special treat today.

Last year, a co-worker asked if I had ever seen a website called “Tunnel Walk of Shame”.  At the time, I had not.  Five minutes later I’m laughing to the point of tears coming down my face.

For those who are unfamiliar with the site, TWOS is what the creator calls a “web comic”.  In simplistic terms, he takes a bunch of pictures of Husker players and coaches, imposes text on them, and puts them into a slide show, creating a story.  He posts a new one on www.tunnelwalkofshame.com* the day before every Nebraska game.  The comics contain many recurring characters and running gags that make the whole thing funnier every time you read it.

If you don't read this, you must start.  Seriously.

If you don’t read this, you must start. Seriously.

*If you haven’t seen TWOS, it is worth noting that the comics often contain language that you may not want displayed on your monitor in 48 point font.

To put it another way:  the standard TWOS comic contains more f-bombs than Bo Pelini being secretly recorded.

For those of you wanting to know “Who writes Tunnel Walk of Shame?”, you’re not going to find that answer here.  The lone condition for this interview was to not reveal his identity.

But don’t click away yet – the responses he gives are terrific:  thoughtful, honest, funny, and from a perspective that gets how utterly ridiculous it is to live and die and obsess about 18 – 22-year-old kids.  Personally, I think Husker fans could truly be the “Greatest Fans in College Football” if more people adopted his viewpoint.

Buckle up and let’s have some fun…


Thanks for stopping by!  While I am very grateful for those who take the time to read my work, I would greatly it if you read this one on HuskerMax.com.  

Why?  As a writer for the site, I earn a fraction of a penny per page view.  And with three mouths to feed, and a poor wife who becomes a football widow 12 Saturdays a year, I need those penny parts to keep everybody happy.  

Thank you,

Feit Can Write

What Not To Wear – Nebraska Football Edition

Okay…I’m going to talk about something that will be considered trivial by the vast majority* of my readers.  I’ll completely understand if you want to read something a little more meaningful like this or this.

English: Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska...

I see a red sea, and they want to paint it black. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

*Of course, the last time I wrote about a niche subject like this, it ended up being one of my most read pieces.

There is a growing controversy among Nebraska football fans.  It started during last week’s win over Southern Mississippi and has been growing stronger throughout the week.  Lines are being drawn.  Names are being called.  Generations are being divided.

What could possibly cause such a rift within the “Greatest Fans In College Football”?  A quarterback controversy?  Debate over a decision to go for it on 4th down?  Yet another rehash of the “Should Solich have been fired” debate?

Nope.  This one is about fashion.

Specifically, the shirt color a Nebraska football fan should wear to Saturday’s game against UCLA.

For the majority of Nebraska fans, the default answer is “red”*.  The fans in Memorial Stadium has long been known as the “Sea of Red”.  When the fans are in red, it creates a dramatic effect for opposing players.

*Yes, technically it is “scarlet”, but don’t be THAT guy.  Nobody calls it the Sea of Scarlet.

But the students have been leading a charge to have fans wear black to the UCLA game.  The Huskers, for the first time, will be wearing alternative black jerseys and helmets with black trimmings.  In their mind, an blacked out stadium would create a very intimidating atmosphere.

I can’t say for sure where the black out movement started, other than to say it was with the students.  My guess is the Iron N student group played a part.  During the Southern Miss game, a student was shown on the HuskerVision screens holding a sign that read “Next week, wear black”.  The cameraman lingered on the sign, giving the crowd ample opportunity to see it.

From there, it picked up momentum on message boards and social media.  All week, there have been Facebook posts and tweets asking fans – both regular and famous to participate.

Even Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez got involved:

As the buzz has picked up, members of the Nebraska media have taken notice – and provided a disclaimer:

Maybe I’m just cynical (and I’m not trying to put words in Callahan’s mouth), but when I saw that I heard “no, you don’t have to wear black if you don’t want to”.  Score one for those who believe Nebraska doesn’t need gimmicks like black outs, rally towels, and the like.

So now the battle lines have been drawn.

The people in red are the “grey-hairs”, the traditionalists, the people averse to change.  They dislike the alternative jerseys solely on principle.  If somebody tells you to sit down on Saturday, you can bet they are wearing red.  To hear the other side, fans wearing red on Saturday are hypocrites for not supporting the team, when the team has asked for their support.

Those wearing black?  Young bucks who think they know everything, but actually know very little.  Sheep who follow the herd instead of sticking to their beliefs.  They don’t know, don’t appreciate, or don’t care about maintaining Nebraska’s traditions.  They are part time fans who spend the game staring at their phone.  They bought the black replica jersey because it’s cool, and think Nebraska should wear black more often.  To hear the red wearers – why should they listen to the students, who are so passionate about the team that they struggle to fill up their section for several games in the last few years?

Here’s my prediction:  at 11 am on Saturday, the southeast corner of the stadium (i.e. the student sections) will be almost completely black.  There will be pockets of black t-shirts and jerseys throughout the stadium, but there will be higher concentrations in the newer seating area (the high altitude levels of east and the top rows of north).

As for the rest of the stadium, the majority will be in red.  The strongest concentration will be in the west as well as the lower rows of north and east.

*   *   *

What will I be wearing when I take my seat on Saturday?

I don’t know yet.  I’m torn, and have gone back and forth all week.

On one hand, I always try to do my part to create the Sea of Red.  I own Husker gear in black, grey, and white, but only the red stuff makes its way into the Stadium on Saturdays.  Admittedly, I’m not wild about the black alternative uniforms, but me wearing red would be more about respecting the tradition than any sort of personal protest.

I might be more apt to wear black if the University had authorized it, promoted it, or even acknowledged it.  Without the athletic department’s backing, the whole thing seems like some “wouldn’t it be cool…” idea that will ultimately fizzle out.  I’m not a big fan of gimmicks and stunts.  I think those sorts of things are beneath a program of Nebraska’s stature and reputation.

On the other hand, I can see where the blackout folks are coming from.  I get that turning Memorial Stadium black should be a way to get mentioned on ESPN or Fox Sports, which never hurts when recruiting high school kids.  And let’s face it:  in college sports, it always comes back to recruiting.

Plus, with it being an 11 am kickoff, the jolt from seeing the stadium in black could add a boost of energy to the crowd.  Due to a short window at the tailgate/bar, morning games tend to be much more subdued, so any little spark could help the crowd provide some home field advantage.

Even now, I still don’t know what color I’m going to wear.  I’m leaning towards black, but I very well may throw on my favorite red shirt.  At the end of the day, the color of shirt I wear doesn’t matter.  It won’t define who I am as a person or as a Nebraska fan.  Come kickoff, I will be supporting the team fully, cheering loudly, and trying to help the team win – and I would do the same thing in red, black, or pink with lime green polka dots.

Husker Concerns

Nebraska Football

Nebraska Football (Photo credit: echobase_2000)

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.


*   *   *

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.

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