Can Bo Pelini’s defense get its mojo back? Husker coaches believe their defense is faster, more athletic and deeper than a season ago. And it’s probably true that this defense, on paper, has players with higher ceilings than in 2012. But many of those players also are starting on the ground floor. They’re underclassmen who haven’t been through the battles on Saturdays. Can their talent overcome their inexperience? And even with that youth, can they exhibit more mental toughness than a season ago, when mistakes snowballed in key games and led to embarrassing results?
Is this the year the Huskers find the cure for turnovers? Most Nebraska offensive players and coaches will tell you the only thing that usually can stop this offense is itself. The Huskers had 35 turnovers last year and 16 of those came in their territory. And this isn't a one-year problem. NU has fumbled 112 times the past three seasons, fortunate to lose just 49 of those fumbles. That's the downside. The upside? Think how high the offense might fly if the Huskers suddenly find a cure. For now, that remains a big if.
Can Nebraska get more consistency out of its safeties? Much of the talk this offseason has been about the defensive line, and for good reason. But improved play at the safety spots is a necessity. While Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith had some bright moments last year, the Husker defense went off the tracks when they weren't in sync. There are six players battling for the two open spots this year. Potential is high among players such as Harvey Jackson, Corey Cooper and Charles Jackson. But potential alone won't do it. The Huskers need to find a duo who can stay locked in every down and avoid the breakdowns that plagued NU at the position at key times.
Will Nebraska be able to make its special teams special again?
While the Huskers have had some great kickers, the coverage and return units have been less than stellar. And it's not just the fumble issues. NU ranked 46th in kick-return coverage and 109th in punt-return coverage last year. And it ranked 50th at returning punts and 63rd at returning kicks. The Huskers were 86th in net punting. Can Nebraska bring the big play back to the return game and can it put a blanket over teams with its coverage? It'd be a great advantage if the Huskers can, especially in a year where there are so many questions about the young defense.
Can the Husker defense find a way to limit explosive plays? The Blackshirts gave up 63 plays of 20 yards or more last year. People expect growing pains with this defense. But if the D can make offenses earn their keep by nickel and diming their way down the field instead of gargantuan-sized chunks of yardage, it will have taken a step forward. The Huskers allowed 11 plays of 50 yards or more, and six of 60 yards or more. That can't happen again. And when a big play is given up, the Huskers are going to have to show mental toughness, bow up, and not let one bad play lead to another.
3 numbers for the road
79: That's how many yards Kenny Bell was from Johnny Rodgers' school single-season receiving record of 942 yards. Can Bell push for the record, or even 1,000 yards? It's possible, although sharing receptions with Jamal Turner, Quincy Enunwa and other receivers could make it a challenge.
0: That's how many times in Husker history the team returned two 1,000-yard rushers from the previous season. NU does with Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah this year.
28: That would be Nebraska's national rushing defense ranking a year ago in its 10 wins. But add the four losses, where the Huskers gave up 1,254 yards combined, and NU ranked 90th nationally. The defense gave up 46.5 percent of its rushing yards in the defeats. Can this defense avoid those meltdowns?
Projected depth chart
(Journal Star predictions)
DE: Avery Moss, so.; Randy Gregory, so.
DT: Thad Randle, sr.; Brodrick Nickens, sr. OR Vincent Valentine, rfr.
DT: Aaron Curry, so.; Kevin Williams, so. OR Maliek Collins, fr.
DE: Jason Ankrah, sr.; Greg McMullen, rfr.
BUCK: Jared Afalava, rfr.; Nate Gerry, fr.
MIKE: David Santos, so.; Josh Banderas, fr.
WILL: Zaire Anderson, jr.; Michael Rose, rfr.
CB: Josh Mitchell, sr.; Daniel Davie, so. OR Jonathan Rose, so.
S: Harvey Jackson, jr.; Charles Jackson, so.
S: Corey Cooper, jr.; Andrew Green, sr.
CB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, sr.; Mohammed Seisay, sr.
Nickel: Ciante Evans, sr.; Mohammed Seisay, sr.
Dime: Mohammed Seisay, sr.; Charles Jackson, so.
K: Mauro Bondi, jr. OR Pat Smith, sr.
P: Sam Foltz, rfr.; Mauro Bondi, jr.
QB: Taylor Martinez, sr.; Tommy Armstrong, rfr.
RB: Ameer Abdullah, jr.; Imani Cross, so.
FB: C.J. Zimmerer, sr.; Andy Janovich, so.
WR: Kenny Bell, jr.; Alonzo Moore, rfr., OR Tyler Evans, jr.
WR: Quincy Enunwa, sr.; Sam Burtch, so. OR Taariq Allen, so.
WR: Jamal Turner, Jr.; Jordan Westerkamp, RFr. OR Tyler Wullenwaber, Jr.
TE: Jake Long, sr.; Cethan Carter, fr. OR Sam Cotton rfr.
LT: Brent Qvale, sr.; Matt Finnin, jr.
LG: Jake Cotton, jr.; Ryne Reeves, so. OR Chongo Kondolo, jr.
C: Cole Pensick, sr.; Mark Pelini, jr.
RG: Spencer Long, sr.; Mike Moudy, jr.
RT: Jeremiah Sirles, sr.; Andrew Rodriguez, sr.
KR: Jamal Turner, jr.; Kenny Bell, jr. OR Alonzo Moore, rfr. OR Terrell Newby, fr.
PR: Jamal Turner, jr.; Alonzo Moore, rfr.