Despite their move to a brand new conference, expectations are high for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2011. Already, the AP preseason top-25 poll has ranked them ahead of all of the traditional Big Ten powers, and aside from a few backhanded compliments from Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State loyalists, nobody is really questioning the ranking.
Putting the lofty expectations aside, though, a lot of things have to go right for Nebraska to succeed this year. For one, they have to adjust to a whole new style of play that comes with going to war against Big Ten defenses – something that is very different than battling Big 12 schools on a weekly basis. Two, they have to get their offensive line healthy again, as the bunch is already nicked up before the season even got a chance to begin. And finally, Bo Pelini (defensive genius that he is) has to ensure that the offense gels this season. The Huskers can’t afford yet another wasted campaign of the defense having to pick up the offense’s excess slack a la 2009 and 2010.
Football is a team game and every player is vital to a squad’s overall success, however, it’s undeniable that some pieces are a little more important than others. Below, check out the five players who will have the biggest impact on whether or not Nebraska has a successful run in 2011.
5. Lavonte David – He’s a massive part of Nebraska’s three-linebacker system, and as a result,,, David’s improvement will be key to the defense staying at the top of their game. A second team All-American in 2010 who put up 152 tackles in 14 games last year, the talented youngster made getting bigger a priority over the summer – putting on additional bulk hoping that it will help him in the notoriously grueling Big Ten style of play. Expect for David’s numbers to dip in 2011 -- because he won’t be the only linebacker anymore -- but for his overall value to the defensive unit to rise.
4. Ciante Evans – How do you fill a gaping hole left behind by an NFL first-rounder (Prince Amukamara) and hold your own opposite a preseason All-American pick (Alfonzo Dennard)? Although Evans hasn’t accomplished much in his young collegiate career (two pass break-ups), he hasn’t really gotten the opportunity to showcase his talents until now. For a long time he’s sat back and watched some of the best at his position thrive, so on top of his undeniable physical talents, he now has an a certain knowledge for the game that he may have otherwise lacked. The time for learning is done at this point, though. It’s Evans’ time to shine, and in order for the Huskers defense to stay up to stuff, he’ll have to do what’s being expected of him.
3. Jared Crick – Crick is the best defensive talent on the Nebraska roster and easily could have fled to the NFL after last season. Following some soul-searching and heart-to-hearts with Ndamukong Suh, the lineman opted to stay in school and pursue his degree like he originally intended. Between his innate versatility and shocking athleticism (for his size) Crick will play a major role in the Huskers’ defensive plans for the coming year. Between him, David and Dennard, Nebraska has a trifecta of defensive superstars that should further the tradition of excellence which the program has always had on that side of the ball under Pelini’s watch.
2. Rex Burkhead – As great as the defense is for the Huskers, in order for the team to reach the plateaus expected of them, the offense has to shine. They can’t just sporadically play well in bursts and then flounder the rest of the time leaving the defense to have to compensate for their weaknesses like they have over the last two years. Rather, they have to excel. Now, in 2011, is the time for Burkhead to step up. For two years he’s served as a very solid backup to Roy Helu Jr. and now he needs to show that he’s prepared to carry the ball 20-25 times per game with similar effectiveness. Under the new offensive coordinating regime more carries are a given, the only question is whether Burkhead can make those three 100-yard games and 5.5 yard per carry average a more regular occurrence in the coming season.
1. Taylor Martinez – There is no doubt in any college football aficionado’s mind who the most important piece to Nebraska’s success is. It all starts and ends with the quarterback, and Martinez -- for better or worse -- is that quarterback. At times in 2011 the youngster showed flashes of brilliance (vs. Kansas State) and other times he looked absolutely lost (vs. Texas A&M). A dual-threat who can run and pass on a whim, Martinez is finally healthy again (something he wasn’t to close out last season) and as a result should be able to move around even if his offensive line isn’t all there. With more experience under his belt, some nice weapons in Burkhead and Brandon Kinnie, and a new offensive coordinator that should take some of the pressure away from him (and put it on the running game), expect for Martinez to become a much better player in 2011.
Honorable Mention: The entire offensive line.