By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 10-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7
Passing: Taylor Martinez, 2,089 yards, 13 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Rex Burkhead, 1,357 yards, 15 TD
Receiving: Kenny Bell, 32 rec., 461 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Will Compton, 82
Sacks: Cameron Meredith, 5
Interceptions: Four tied with one
Redshirts to watch: DT Todd Peat, DT Kevin Williams, OL Ryne Reeves, LB David Santos, OL Ryan Klachko
Sept. 1 Southern Miss
Sept. 8 at UCLA
Sept. 15 Arkansas State
Sept. 22 Idaho State
Sept. 29 Wisconsin
Oct. 6 at Ohio State
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Northwestern
Oct. 27 Michigan
Nov. 3 at Michigan State
Nov. 10 Penn State
Nov. 17 Minnesota
Nov. 23 at Iowa
Offensive Strength: The backfield is clearly the position of strength for this roster. Taylor Martinez still has loads to learn but returns for his third season as the starter. All-American candidate Rex Burkhead is arguably the most complete player in the nation at any position. And the depth behind both is improved from a year ago. All seems right in the world when the Cornhuskers have a powerful running game.
Offensive Weakness: The loss of two all-conference performers and another with 13 starts up front along the line has left the biggest void on the offense. The cupboard is far from bare as an all-league guard returns in Spencer Long and upside prospects like Andrew Rodriguez look for breakout seasons in 2012.
Defensive Strength: The overall depth of the roster. The unit has stars in the making on every level of the defense, so Bo Pelini just needs to put the right people in the right places to succeed. The D-Line has loads of upside and the secondary is extremely deep, but...
Defensive Weakness: This side of the ball lost most of its star power. Particularly hard hit were the cornerback and linebacker positions, where the best player at his position in the conference graduated. This group has churned out elite level players on every level of the defense over the last 3-4 years and finding leaders might be the biggest concern for a unit that needs direction.
Spring Storylines Facing the Huskers:
1. The continued physical and mental development of Taylor Martinez. The sky is once again the limit with this team but will go only as far as the inconsistent signal caller will take them. Martinez, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck, will point to his command of the offense as his biggest area of growth in 2011. However, it doesn't matter how in control T-Magic is if he cannot complete passes when he wants to. His mental toughness and overall maturity also appeared to improve last season, leaving his accuracy and consistency as the major hurdles left to clear. He will work heavily this spring on footwork, throwing motion and developing a new set of receivers. Martinez's athletic ability will never be a question as there are few players in the nation that cover the first 10 yards as quickly as he can. So the ceiling for the 2012 Cornhuskers will tied directly to Martinez's ability to complete key third down and fourth-quarter passes.
2. Outside of getting more from Martinez, rebuilding the offensive line after losing three starters including All-Big Ten honorable mention blockers Mike Caputo and Marcel Jones is Nebraska's biggest offensive issue. With the loss of 13-start left tackle Yoshi Hardrick as well, Pelini needs to find some pieces to protect Martinez this spring. The good news is Long brings second-team all-Big Ten recognition back to the right guard position. After him, however, there is a long list of names looking to gain starring roles: Rodriguez, Tyler Moore, Seung Hoon Choi, Cole Pensick, Mark Pelini, Justin Jackson and Ryne Reeves. The two most important commodities on this team will line-up in the backfield, so keeping them healthy and opening up lanes on the ground will be major area of concern this spring.
3. Who will fill the void left by weakside linebacker, and Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, Lavonte David. Pelini has stated confidence in both Alonzo Whaley and David Santos as the top two candidates to fill the massive void left at the Will backer spot. No matter how much confidence the reworked defensive staff has in Whaley and Santos, no team in the nation can remove its heartbeat — aka 285 total tackles in two years — from the chest cavity of the defense and operate at the same level. All eyes in Lincoln will be on those two tacklers this spring.
4. Longtime Pelini minion John Papuchis takes over as the defensive cooridnator and he is charged with reinvigorating a defense that appears to have lost its edge. This unit, albeit led by a Boy Named Suh, was downright nasty three seasons ago but has clearly lost its tenacity in the last two years. The Blackshirts finished 64th nationally in rushing defense in 2011 and 63rd in 2010. This coming on the heels of finishing ninth in the nation against the run in 2009. Losing tackles Jared Crick and Terence Moore, as well as end Josh Williams, doesn't help matters either. Yet, with developing stars expected to produce career years (Baker Steinkuhler, Chase Rome, Eric Martin, Cameron Meredith), Papuchis has all the pieces in place up front to re-install the Blackshirt way. He just needs to go out and produce now (no pressure).
5. Additionally, replacing the Big Ten's top coverman, Alfonzo Dennard, and honorable mention All-Big Ten safety Austin Cassidy will be an area of focus as well. There is a lot of depth and talent in the secondary as Andrew Green, Ciante Evans, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Justin Blatchford should fill in admirably for Dennard while P.J. Smith, Daimion Stafford, Harvey Jackson and the injured Courtney Osbourne return to the safety position. This is a very deep collection of defensive backs, but deciding how the pieces will fit and rotate together will be key this spring.
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College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
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