Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring optimism must be taken with caution

“There’s something in the air in Lincoln. It might just be the hope of spring. But the Nebraska football team, from fifth-year coach Bo Pelini on down, is convinced it’s more transformative than that.

Defensive end Cameron Meredith, on the third day of spring practices in preparation for his senior season, said, “We’re all vibing on it.”

But what is it?

“There’s a lot of confidence,” Meredith said, “but it’s not just confidence. It’s the reasons we have to be confident.”

The Huskers believe they’re a smarter team than the 2011 squad that went 9-4 overall, had a disappointing third-place division finish in its first season in the Big Ten and lost 30-13 to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. They say they’re more together, too. Pelini says they’re deeper and already
showing signs of being better prepared, and he includes himself in the latter area.

Those were some of the words spoken in a recent Sporting News story as the Nebraska football team prepares for the 2012 campaign. If there is one thing I have learned about spring football is that if you are not optimistic now, when will you ever be? However, such optimism should always be taken with caution.

I remember now former defensive coordinator Carl Pelini (now the Florida Atlantic head coach) saying last year that the defense was so far ahead of any other defense he has had. Pelini added that they were beyond the basics and working a lot on different packages, and we all know how that turned out. I find it somewhat interesting that they are going back to the basics now that head coach Bo Pelini seems back to being more involved with the defense even though John Papuchus is the defensive coordinator by title.

I like what I’m hearing but I want to actually see it on the field. About that bowl game against South Carolina, Nebraska had a 13-9 lead, lost two turnovers, both of which more than likely would have been touchdowns and Brett Maher missed a field goal. If they put those points up on the board, the Huskers go into halftime with a 21 point lead. Coulda. Shoulda. Woulda. But didn’t. And the Northwestern game (28-25 home loss), that’s what happens when your team doesn’t take an opponent seriously.

There’s usually one or two teams every season where it is blatantly obvious that the Huskers didn’t really prepare. I think Pelini is a very good coach and despite what a segment of Husker fans think, the seat he is as on isn’t even warm let alone hot. While Pelini has done a fine job pulling the program from the wreckage known as the Bill Callahan era, at some point the Huskers need to take that proverbial next step and become a BCS bowl team. Winning a national championship would be outstanding but let’s focus on winning the division first, then the Big 10 title and if the BCS bowl game is there at the end, great.

I can’t honestly see Nebraska winning a national championship this year either but I definitely think a division and Big 10 title are within reach. The out of conference slate is not particularly strong and Wisconsin, Michigan, and Penn State all come to Lincoln. Theoretically that leaves Ohio State and
Michigan State as the two potential road losses. The Huskers going 11-1 is possible but 9-3 again
as more likely. The biggest key will be to see what happens when this team faces adversity in 2012. It’s not that the Huskers gave up when facing adversity but they had a tendency to self-destruct.

I think many people forget how young this team was two years ago and how little depth there was at every position. Let’s also remember how many systems and offensive coordinators they have had. Last year was the learning curve in Tim Beck’s first season. Most of us knew that the defense was going to struggle, they were put together to stop the spread not a power game. They didn’t attack; they waited for the play to come to them.

I really have no clue how to predict next season though. I can’t quantify how much impact playing in a new conference, against 11 new teams had on the outcome last season, or the performance of the offense/defense. Nebraska might have had defense better than the 2010 version had we still been in the Big 12. Who knows? If I put too much weight into last season, I see 8-4 going into the bowl as a real possibility. If I don’t put as much stock in it, and assume we are going to have a major jump in our second year if for no other reason than we'll be better prepared going into games then I’m seeing 10-2 out there.

I like the skill positions and like the offense as a whole if they can come together as a team. Quarterback Taylor Martinez has to be effective, he’s in his third year. Rex Burkhead is Rex Burkhead. The freshman running backs behind him are now into their second year. We had some guys last year we didn’t hear from on defense, who I think will send a loud message this year like Eric Martin, Meredith, Damion Stafford, Will Compton, and Andrew Green. That’s a pretty solid six.

There were three great players last year on defense but I see us having 6-7 very good players going in this year. No one shines, but overall maybe a little more potential.

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