The 2011 season for Nebraska was likely viewed as a disappointment. Although the team finished 9-4, it was just 5-3 in conference play, good for third in the Big Ten Legends division. Two of the defeats were blowouts against Wisconsin and Michigan.
The rub for the Cornhuskers is that they don't appear to be much better heading into this season. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is among 14 starters back this season (seven on each side of the ball). The junior is in his third year as a starter and on pace to break some of the team's all-time passing records. He'll get a chance to throw even more this season. Head coach Bo Pelini told reporters this offeason, he wants to split run and pass plays 50/50 this season. A year ago, it was 60/40 in the run.
But make no mistake, Nebraska's success on offense is defined by its running game. Martinez was second on the team in rushing yards with 874 last year. First was senior Rex Burkhead with 1,357 yards and 15 scores. Overall the team was 15th in the nation in rushing yards, but just 104th in passing.
Perhaps most impressively about Burkhead is that he held up well in Big Ten competition. He ran for 100 yards or more in seven conference games, including 160 against Iowa. His running should be a certainty for the Cornhuskers.
Martinez, though, remains a crapshoot throwing the ball. With his elongated motion, Martinez completed 56.3 percent of his passes a year ago to a talented group of receivers. The a receiving corps paced by Kenny Bell who had 32 receptions for 461 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. The sophomore should only improve as he gains experience. Nebraska also has perhaps the best group of tight ends in the conference with Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton.
The offensive line needs to replace three starters, but has both guards (Seung Hoon Choi and Spencer Long) are back. Long was a second-team all-conference choice a year ago.
Pelini is largely known for his prowess on defense, and he'll have to earn his money on that side of the ball this year. Star linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and defensive tackle Jared Crick aren't the only players gone on defense. Pelini's brother Carl Pelini, the former defensive coordinator, took over at Florida Atlantic.
The defense will rely heavily on its defensive line. Senior end Cameron Meredith is arguably the best player on the line and is coming off a season of 58 tackles and five sacks. At the other end spot, the team is expecting a lot out of Jason Ankrah, an athletic junior who had 17 tackles in part-time duty last season. Inside, senior Baker Steinkuhler could be the latest Nebraska lineman to get drafted following Crick and Ndamukong Suh.
Replacing David will be difficult. He's led the defense in tackles the past two seasons. Back, though, is Will Compton, who finished second a year ago with 82 tackles. Two seniors, Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley will be plugged into the other two spots.
The secondary remains unsettled. As the Omaha World-Herald points out, several players will be recycled through the cornerback spots. Safety is slightly less complicated with senior Daimion Stafford guaranteed to start following a season where he was third on the team in tackles. Next to him may be sophomore Harvey Jackson. He made a late push for the job, according to the Daily Nebraskan.