LINCOLN — Hope springs for Nebraska football. This time, in winter.
The Huskers will have barely beaten the turn of the calendar when they start offseason practice Saturday morning with a workout coach Bo Pelini is allowing media to attend. He and select players will officially address the media after that workout.
Until then, it's just the water-cooler chatter.
NU tries to bust two trends that have emerged in Pelini's first five years:
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>> Four-loss seasons.
>> Falling short of a conference title and Bowl Championship Series bowl bid.
The most Pelini's team has been able to claim since 2008 are three division titles and two bowl wins. But starting with a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the 2010 Big 12 title game, the Huskers have been 0-5 in the postseason — losing by an average of 17 points — and 3-4 against ranked teams.
Some of the problems that caused those numbers — like a poor turnover margin — are difficult to gauge for improvement in spring. But here are five storylines to follow in spring practice that relate to player development and depth challenges at certain positions:
Precocious players pursuing perfection
What Nebraska's defense last season had in experience, it lacked in sheer speed and athleticism. Just one Husker defender — safety Daimion Stafford — was invited to the NFL Combine. Though NU shut down weaker quarterbacks and offenses last season, it still ranked 90th nationally in run defense and gave up an average of 53.5 points in four losses.
On his radio show Wednesday night, coach Bo Pelini said defenders were “trying to be so perfect” last season that they sacrificed some playmaking ability. Since Pelini preaches perfect execution, it's not surprising that his players would focus on it to a high and potentially unnecessary degree.
Most of those experienced players have graduated; their potential replacements are freshmen and sophomores who won't have as much time invested in the scheme, but could be the kind of athletes Pelini enjoyed in 2009 and 2010. How do Bo and his defensive staff marry these players with his scheme without creating a disadvantage to one part of the equation?
The Huskers' defense could be more dangerous to opposing offenses in 2013 — and more prone to mistakes. Then again, NU's defense gave up 29 plays of 30-plus yards last season. That's 94th in the nation. How much worse can it get?
Finding offensive depth
Outside of tight end, Nebraska returns proven, explosive players at every offensive position. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is a fourth-year starter, top three receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner comprise the Big Ten's best unit, junior I-back Ameer Abdullah ran for 1,137 yards last season and, including Lincoln Northeast senior Cole Pensick, the offensive line returns four starters from the Capital One Bowl.
So offensive coordinator Tim Beck turns his eyes to the backups. He wants to find consistent backups at wide receiver and I-back. He'd like to see continued growth from redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who drew raves in fall practice before injuring his knee. And on the offensive line, a number of underclassmen — Ryne Reeves, Zach Sterup, Paul Thurston and Givens Price among them — are expected to challenge for more playing time.
Watch Thurston, a four-star recruit and redshirt freshman, and his development at center. If he can win that job, that allows Beck to move Pensick to guard, where he excelled during the Big Ten schedule. If Thurston can't emerge, Jake Cotton — one of the most physical players on the roster — will get a long look at guard.
Pinning down safeties
It's fair to say that the defensive line is Nebraska's biggest weakness — but it's also a problem the Huskers can't fully solve until senior Thad Randle comes back healthy and 2013 recruits arrive for fall practice. So fans should redirect their concern toward safety, which, even with seniors P.J. Smith and Stafford playing there last season, wasn't exactly a position of strength.
Juniors Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson perhaps occupied the No. 2 spots on the depth chart last season, but they'll be pushed by sophomore Charles Jackson — smaller, but ultra-athletic — and 19-year-old true freshman D.J. Singleton, who enrolled early. Secondary coach Terry Joseph could move some cornerbacks to safety, as well.
Lots of linebackers
No position on defense has more options or potential than linebacker. Pelini will stick with his 4-3 alignment, so finding three starters out of juniors Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach, sophomores David Santos and Max Pirman, and freshmen Thomas Brown, Michael Rose, Jared Afalava and Courtney Love is a tough-but-fun task for position coach Ross Els.
Brown and Rose, in particular, drew raves on the scout team last season, but it's hard not to see Santos and Anderson on the field, either. And don't forget Love, a true freshman who enrolled early and is much stronger than a true freshman usually is. Els has his share of eraser athletes who can cover for weaknesses on the defensive line — but they have to be in position, too.
Brett Maher's graduation leaves all three kicking jobs — field goals, punts and kickoffs — wide open for next season. Junior scholarship player Mauro Bondi will get first crack at field goals and kickoffs, while Grand Island redshirt freshman walk-on Sam Foltz has a high school résumé in punting that matches Maher's career at Kearney. Redshirt freshman walk-on Spencer Lindsay — also from Kearney — is on the roster, too.
Former Western Illinois kicker Pat Smith joins the program over the summer — he made all 10 field goals for the Leathernecks in 2012 — but Bondi has a head start and full spring to impress the coaches.
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