It’s a juxtaposition that you see surprisingly often in football – stellar, magnificent defenses coupled with inconsistent offenses that don’t look like they deserve to be wearing the same uniform.
Under head coach Bo Pelini, the Nebraska Cornhuskers have prided themselves on their hard-nosed defensive style that grinds down opposing offenses until there is nothing left. Much of the success that has been achieved over the last few years by the program can be directly attributed to the quality of defensive output that the Huskers have gotten from that side of the ball.
The offense, however, has left a lot to be desired. Take 2010, for instance. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was the epitome of inconsistency, the offensive line was injury-prone and sloppy and the running attack -- perhaps as part of a domino effect to the aforementioned problems -- was equally ineffective, big picture. At the conclusion of last season, Pelini booted now ex-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson (who landed comfortably in Louisville) and replaced him with running backs coach Tim Beck.
With a running backs coach at the helm and unproven quarterback in Martinez taking snaps, who do you think becomes the biggest beneficiary of what transpired?
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Answer: Rex Burkhead.
Burkhead served as a longtime backup to Roy Helu Jr. -- who was drafted by the Washington Redskins this past summer -- and thrived in the role. Last year, he accumulated seven touchdown and 951 yards in limited action, and many see the potential in him to do much more than that with an increased amount of carries.
Of course, any time you transition from the 10 or so carries that you’re likely to see as a backup to the 20 or so you’ll likely get as a starter, the questions will be there. Burkhead, coincidentally enough has averaged 11 carries per game over the course his career en route to 5.5 yards per run. He’s expected to see that carry load increase to anywhere from 20-25 per game, depending on how much he establishes himself in the early going and how Martinez looks in the first few games.
Nobody doubts Burkhead’s potential or versatility, though. Three times in 2010 the junior posted 100-yard rushing efforts, and after Martinez got injured in the latter half of the year, Burkhead lined up in the wildcat formation to alleviate some of the pressure from his quarterback. In three pass competitions out of the wildcat, he went three-for-three on touchdowns.
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Everything appears in place for Burkhead’s magnified role in 2011. His school’s move to the Big Ten from the Big 12 will make rushing more grueling (six of the top 45 rushing defenses were from the conference), however, it also makes it more expected. Furthermore, Beck has already indicated that he wants to run a speedier, more efficient offense that will often feature no-huddles. That will no doubt translate into more handoffs with the opposing defense out of position, and in turn, should mean more success for Burkhead.
There is no way for Burkhead or the Nebraska offense to change the past perception of them as being second-tier to the defense. What they can do, though, is step up in 2011 and make people remember them in a new way.
One of the things that Burkhead did this past summer in preparation for his increased role with the team is work on broadening his shoulders. Most assumed it was so that he would be able to battle those ferocious Big Ten defenses like he’s expected to have to, but the explanation is simpler than that – he was just making room for the entire offense to climb on.
Look out for Burkhead in 2011, the least talked about key to Nebraska’s success.