Quarterback Taylor Martinez heads a deep list of skill players, but there are plenty of holes to fill on defense.
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Who's gone: Junior Brion Carnes, who switched to wide receiver after losing the backup job to a walk-on and a redshirt.
Who's back: Senior Taylor Martinez (2,871 yards passing, 1,019 rushing, 33 total touchdowns in 2012); senior Ron Kellogg III (22 yards passing, minus-3 yards rushing, 1 total touchdown); freshman Tommy Armstrong; sophomore Bronson Marsh; redshirt freshman Ryker Fyfe; sophomore Tyson Broekemeier; redshirt freshman Evan Williams
Who's next: Johnny Stanton
Targets still on the recruiting trail: None
Outlook: A lighting rod for criticism much of his career, Martinez has become one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Nebraska history, an unpredictable playmaker who can hurt a defense or, sometimes, his own offense with questionable decisions. Returning to the daring, physical runner fans saw in early 2010, Martinez had his best season on the ground — and kept himself healthy to boot. As a passer, he improved in reading defenses and making rhythm throws on third down. He's still making far too many bad decisions throwing on the run, and his poor ball security leads to too many fumbles. But Martinez is rawhide-tough, always up for another drive, and enough of a leader that his teammates deemed him captain by the end of the year. They believe in him now. Armstrong redshirted in 2012, then injured his knee halfway through the redshirt year. Coach Bo Pelini anticipates he'll be fine by spring practice. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck's first true quarterback recruit has the coaches raving. Armstrong throws well on the run, scrambles and has a commanding presence beyond his years. Spring practice will be his first chance to wrestle the backup job away from Kellogg, who knows the offense inside and out and is a capable thrower. Stanton, the recruit from Santa Margarita, Calif., is a bullish, physical runner. He'll have to learn to play out of the shotgun spread offense, but if he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in the fall, he could be a change-of-pace Wildcat quarterback next season. All told: Nebraska's quarterback position is as good as it's been since 2001, when Eric Crouch won the Heisman Trophy.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Martinez
Who's gone: Rex Burkhead (675 yards rushing, 92 yards receiving, 7 TDs); Graham Stoddard
Who's back: Junior Ameer Abdullah (1,137 yards rushing, 178 yards receiving, 10 TDs); junior Braylon Heard (348 yards rushing, 18 yards receiving, 3 TDs); sophomore Imani Cross (324 yards rushing, 7 TDs); senior Mike Marrow (30 yards rushing); senior C.J. Zimmerer (18 yards rushing, 6 yards receiving); sophomore Andy Janovich (6 yards rushing, 13 yards receiving); sophomore Murat Kuzu; redshirt freshman King Frazier; redshirt freshman Carson Collins; redshirt freshman Graham Nabity; redshirt freshman Jordan Nelson.
Who's next: Adam Taylor
Recruiting targets: Terrell Newby; JoJo Kemp
Outlook: The loss of Burkhead's quiet leadership and relentless practice habits won't be underestimated by Nebraska coaches, but since Burkhead missed whole chunks of the season with a left knee injury, Abdullah, Heard and Cross took on bigger workloads and more responsibility. Abdullah — nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” by running backs coach Ron Brown — oozes drive and pride. He'll work just as hard as Burkhead. Abdullah's best talent is weaving through traffic on perimeter plays; he finds a lane and drives through it fearlessly. He needs to get more patient between the tackles and let his blockers do their work. Heard is faster and more north-south than Abdullah, but he needs to get better as a pass blocker and pass-catcher. Cross is the big back, the short-yardage specialist with limited top-end speed but strength to carry two defenders with him. At fullback, expect a heated battle between Marrow, Zimmerer and Janovich for the starting job. Janovich has the most upside, but Zimmerer had some terrific blocks in the Capital One Bowl. Taylor, the incoming freshman, compares favorably to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, but he may be able to redshirt. If Nebraska lands Terrell Newby — long the No. 1 target on the Huskers' board — expect him to play right away, challenging Abdullah and Heard for snaps. He's that good of a runner. Of the many walk-on running backs, look for Nelson to get some looks in the slot. He has roughly the same size and skill set as outgoing senior receiver Tim Marlowe.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Abdullah, Heard
Who's gone: Steven Osborne (91 yards receiving, 2 TDs); Tim Marlowe (54 yards)
Who's back: Junior Kenny Bell (853 yards, 8 TDs); senior Quincy Enunwa (470 yards, 1 TD); junior Jamal Turner (417 yards, 3 TDs); sophomore Taariq Allen (11 yards, 1 TD); junior Tyler Evans (27 yards); junior Tyler Wullenwaber (13 yards); junior Brion Carnes; redshirt freshman Alonzo Moore; redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp; redshirt freshman Brandon Reilly; redshirt freshman Sam Foltz; redshirt freshman Lane Hovey; redshirt freshman Cole Chvatal.
Who's next: Kevin Gladney, Dominic Walker
Recruiting targets: Shelton Gibson; James Clark; Marquion Lane
Outlook: The receiver corps was the best in the Big Ten. It only gets better in 2013 with the top three receivers returning, plus the additions of Moore, Westerkamp and Walker. Bell developed into the complete package in 2012. He can catch the deep ball, run after the catch, block and be a vocal leader. Enunwa is a physical, consistent target on third down, good at catching the ball in traffic. And Turner caught 18 of his 32 receptions and all three TDs over the last six games of the year; now that Martinez trusts him, look for Turner's numbers to rival Bell's next year. Allen showed promise last year, but a knee injury suffered in the Michigan game will take time to heal. If Moore stays on offense — he might switch to defense — he becomes a deep threat. Walker could play early because of his size. Westerkamp is kind of a Swiss Army knife who could play a variety of positions. He isn't the fastest or shiftiest, but he knows the game and knows how to get open. This position is NU's biggest strength for the next two years. At least.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Bell, Enunwa, Turner
Who's gone: Kyler Reed (357 yards receiving, 2 TDs); Ben Cotton (239 yards, 2 TDs); Conor McDermott
Who's back: Senior Jake Long (55, 1 TD); sophomore David Sutton; sophomore Eddie Ridder; redshirt freshman Sam Cotton; redshirt freshman Trey Foster
Who's next: Greg Hart
Targets still left on the recruiting trail: Brandon Vandenburg, Durham Smythe, Cethan Carter, Arshad Jackson
Outlook: Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed were co-starters for two years. Sure-handed, smart, dependable. It'll take a year to replace them, at least, no matter whom Nebraska signs. You just don't easily replace their knowledge and reps in the offense. Long will get first crack at starting. He has good hands but won't be the blocker Cotton was or the deep threat Reed was. Of the backups, Sam Cotton has the most upside, but he needs time. So does his former Lincoln Southeast teammate, Foster, whom coaches like. Hart is essentially a big slot receiver who will move inside to tight end. Again: It'll be hard to expect an immediate impact, although Hart will be given every chance to do it.
Potential All-Big Ten players: None
Who's gone: Justin Jackson, Seung Hoon Choi, Brandon Thompson
Who's back: Senior Spencer Long; senior Cole Pensick; senior Jeremiah Sirles; senior Brent Qvale; senior Andrew Rodriguez; junior Mark Pelini; junior Jake Cotton; sophomore Ryne Reeves; sophomore Givens Price; junior Mike Moudy; sophomore Zach Sterup; redshirt freshman Paul Thurston; senior Brodrick Nickens; senior Brandon Chapek; redshirt freshman Dylan Utter; redshirt freshman Corey Whitaker; redshirt freshman Garret Johns; sophomore Adam Kucera; sophomore Chris Long; sophomore Will Sailors; sophomore Robby Painter; senior Scott Criss; senior Nick Ash
Who's next: David Knevel, Dan Samuelson, Zach Hannon
Targets still left on the recruiting trail: Aaron Cochran, Matt Finnin, Na'Ty Rodgers
Outlook: The pressure is on Barney Cotton to produce a great line, and the 2013 unit will be his best chance to do it; he'll have five experienced seniors anchoring it with a glut of young, touted talent behind it. No excuses with this bunch. Time to produce. All-Big Ten guard Long has talent, in spades, and he'll continue to be a good interior run blocker while improving as a pass blocker. But Long may not have had the best year. That possibly belonged to Pensick, who lost the starting center job to Jackson, but proceeded to play well at guard. He then dominated Georgia's talented defensive line in the Capital One Bowl at center in place of Jackson. Pensick could move back to center — and probably should — if Barney Cotton feels like his son, Jake, is fully recovered from a knee injury and ready to take over for Choi at left guard. Reeves will push Cotton. At tackle, the three seniors have to get better — a lot better — at pass protection. Good defensive ends and linebackers overwhelmed them all year. NU should have good depth at every position, including center, where Mark Pelini could back up Pensick. This is the year for the Huskers' offensive linemen to prove their position coach right — or lacking.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Long, Sirles, Pensick, Cotton
Who's gone: Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler (78 career starts between them), Eric Martin, Joe Carter
Who's back: Senior Thad Randle (21 tackles, one tackle for loss in 2012); senior Jason Ankrah (26 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles); junior Chase Rome (19 tackles, 1/2 tackle for loss); sophomore Kevin Williams (four tackles, 1/2 tackle for loss); redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine; redshirt freshman Aaron Curry; redshirt freshman Avery Moss; redshirt freshman Greg McMullen
Who's next: Randy Gregory (juco), A.J. Natter
Targets still on the recruiting trail: Ben Bradley, Toby Johnson, Maliek Collins, Jaylen Miller, Mike Love, Casey Sayles
Outlook: In two straight seasons now, Nebraska has scrambled for depth on the interior defensive line, while hoping to get just a little more production and disruption from the guys out on the end. Injuries have factored in considerably (Jared Crick out most of 2011, then Steinkuhler goes down late in '12), but several recruiting misses have depleted the D-line numbers and forced the NU staff to take drastic measures. For instance, Justin Jackson was moved back to defensive tackle in the middle of the inaugural Big Ten season after he'd started the year on offense. Also, an undersized Meredith was asked to play snaps this season on the inside because of injuries to Rome, Randle and Williams. Some first-year players could have helped this past year, and momentarily it appeared Moss and Curry would — until they got hurt. Valentine impressed on the scout team, but coaches weren't convinced he was ready to play immediately. The coaches continue to speak optimistically about the D-line's current mix of injury-plagued veterans, slow-developing scout teamers and potential-filled freshmen. But they aggressively targeted (and continue to pursue) the top junior college prospects within the 2013 recruiting class. They're seeking more high schoolers, too. Rick Kaczenski admitted in December that it's becoming more difficult to lure the nation's top prospects. Developing under-the-radar guys is not a bad option, though, Kaczenski said. You just need some depth, he said. In the meantime, Nebraska's defense has struggled without a front four that can consistently pressure quarterbacks while also keeping ball carriers contained in the backfield long enough for linebackers and safeties to fill the running lanes. Kaczenski has his work cut out for him. And he knows it.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Ankrah
Who's gone: Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley. Maybe Sean Fisher, who's considering applying for a sixth year of eligibility. Also leaving is Justin Blatchford, who played a hybrid role off the bench.
Who's back: Sophomore David Santos (24 tackles, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble); junior Zaire Anderson (four tackles); sophomore Max Pirman; and three redshirt freshmen: Jared Afalava, Thomas Brown and Michael Rose
Who's next: Josh Banderas, Courtney Love, Marcus Newby
Targets still on the recruiting trail: None
Outlook: Nebraska spent more than two full years crafting a defense to combat the spread offenses in the Big 12, which amounted to a relative shutdown of the traditional recruitment of linebackers. Then came the move to the Big Ten. And after the coaching staff quickly realized the roster lacked potential contributors at linebacker, the Huskers finally appear to have reloaded on talent. It's young and unproven — but talent, nonetheless. Now it's up to coach Ross Els to get the youngsters ready to play in this complex defensive scheme. Understanding their responsibilities. Accurately dissecting offensive strategy at the line of scrimmage. Properly applying rules in an instant after the snap. There's lots for a linebacker to think about. The key, however, is to play so fast and aggressive that you appear to be acting on instincts, allowing your athleticism to take over. Santos appeared to be figuring that out toward the end of the year (he was a first-teamer in Nebraska's base formation at the Capital One Bowl). And coaches have raved about Brown, the defensive scout team MVP. Anderson may have been playing with a torn ACL for six months, so his ceiling remains high. Rose and Afalava are off to promising starts, too. Nebraska's defense is made for linebackers to thrive. But they're ineffective if they don't fully grasp their roles. The offseason mental growth of each individual in this position group will determine his chance at making an impact next fall.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Santos
Who's gone: Safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford, who took nearly every snap on the back end. Plus their top reserve, Courtney Osborne.
Who's back: Senior Andrew Green (50 tackles, one sack, three pass breakups); senior Ciante Evans (56 tackles, two sacks, one interception, eight pass breakups); senior Stanley Jean-Baptiste (24 tackles, two interceptions, nine breakups); senior Mo Seisay (seven tackles); junior Corey Cooper (17 tackles, 1/2 sack); junior Harvey Jackson (13 tackles); junior Josh Mitchell (29 tackles, one sack, one interception, five pass breakups); sophomore Charles Jackson (11 tackles); sophomore Jonathan Rose; sophomore Daniel Davie (seven tackles); redshirt freshman LeRoy Alexander.
Who's next: Marcus McWilson and Nathan Gerry
Targets still on the recruiting trail: Priest Willis and Boaz Joseph
Outlook: Just when it seemed like half of the secondary was solidified for 2013, Nebraska allowed the fourth-most passing yards in school history in the Capital One Bowl — mostly because the Huskers' promising group of cornerbacks couldn't cover Georgia's young and talented receivers. All those corners return, and clearly they have room for improvement (two specific areas jump out: eliminating the pass interference calls and knocking down lob balls downfield). From a list of names like Green, Evans, Jean-Baptiste, Seisay and Mitchell and maybe Davie, at least two will emerge, right? At safety, though, the Huskers are essentially starting over. Harvey Jackson and Cooper were the presumed phenoms, but neither appears to have cleared the mental hurdle just yet. Charles Jackson said he'll try out at safety. Rose may, too. Alexander will get his shot. As will walk-on Wil Richards, who'll be motivated by unheralded depth-chart risers of the past such as Matt O'Hanlon and Austin Cassidy. In this defensive system, coaches aren't always looking for superior athleticism, but reliability and dependability. That's because mistakes at safety can't be tolerated. Safeties are regularly the last line of defense, the difference between a 5-yard gain and a 50-yard touchdown. The last time NU was this raw at safety was in 2010, and it took nearly two-thirds of the season to identify the ideal combination. Coach Terry Joseph hopes he'll be able to solve the puzzle more quickly than that.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Evans
Who's gone: Kicker Brett Maher, holder Jase Dean and long snapper P.J. Mangieri. Maher did virtually all the kicking and punting this season.
Who's back: Sophomore Mauro Bondi, who quietly may have redshirted in 2012 after playing in four games as a true freshman.
Who's next: Long snapper Gabriel Miller
Targets still on the recruiting trail: None
Outlook: Where to begin? The special teams units were largely inconsistent all season, which often proved costly in a year where in-game momentum seemed to make all the difference. Maher started slowly but finished strong. He made 14 of his 15 field goal attempts before missing one from 47 yards against Georgia. As a punter, he had a few too many shanks, but for the most part, he compensated for an often mistake-prone coverage unit (NU allowed 11.5 yards per return, ranking 107th nationally). Maher did the same on kickoffs. He kicked touchbacks 60.1 percent of the time, ninth-best nationally. Meanwhile, Nebraska's return units somehow found a way to self-neutralize the ability of Ameer Abdullah. There was a stretch midway through the conference season when the Huskers' average starting field position on kickoffs was short of the 25-yard line, which is where the ball is placed after touchbacks. Granted, Abdullah's return role was limited because his workload increased at running back. And, of course, there were the fumbles. Abdullah didn't help himself by struggling to field punts. Then again, nearly everyone NU put out there muffed one. No matter what the Huskers tried, it seemed to backfire. Now it's up to the coaches to correct it. They'll have to start by finding a kicker (presumably Bondi). Then a punter (perhaps Grand Island's Sam Foltz). Strategy in every aspect should be revisited, too. It seems as if Nebraska adopted a no-risk approach in hopes that sound execution would be the result. That hasn't worked. Back to the drawing board.
Potential All-Big Ten players: Abdullah