2011 Nebraska Preview – Offense
Nebraska TE Kyler Reed & RB Rex Burkhead
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Nebraska Cornhusker Offense
Preview 2011 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: Simplify, simplify, simplify. It's not like the Nebraska offense required a Ph.D. to figure out last year, but the attack was inconsistent and didn't do enough with the passing game. Enter new offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who plans to make everything easy to understand and easy to do so that everyone can operate faster. This isn't going to be Oregon when it comes to tempo, but Beck would like to get the running game to speed up enough to keep defenses on their heels. Really, it all comes down to the health of QB Taylor Martinez. If his ankle is fine, the offense should be terrific even if he's not the most consistent downfield passer in the Big Ten. If he's off, like he was at the end of last year, the dynamic changes. Rex Burkhead leads a good group of quick backs, but they need a solid line to work behind. The front five is big, and there will be a steady rotation, but a sound starting lineup has to be found. The receiving corps has promise, but the untested prospects are better than the returning proven veterans. The tight end combination of Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton is terrific.
Star of the offense: Sophomore QB Taylor Martinez
Passing: Taylor Martinez
116-196, 1,631 yds, 10 TD, 7 INT
Rushing: Taylor Martinez
162 carries, 965 yds, 12 TD
Receiving: Brandon Kinne
44 catches, 494 yds, 5 TD
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior OT Marcel Jones
Unsung star on the rise: Freshman WR Jamal Turner
Best pro prospect: Sophomore OT Jeremiah Sirles
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Martinez, 2) RB Rex Burkhead, 3) TE Kyle Reed
Strength of the offense: Running Game, Tight End
Weakness of the offense: Wide Receiver, Consistency
State of the Unit: New offensive coordinator Tim Beck wants a leader at quarterback. The offense is going to be aggressive, fast, and up-tempo, and he needs a confident playmaker to run the show. He also needs everyone to be healthy and consistent. The passing game was relatively efficient last season, but it was last in the Big 12 and 113th in the nation in yards as four players combined to throw for 2,108 yards and 16 touchdowns. The attack will rely mostly on the running game, so all that matters is that the quarterbacks can keep the chains moving on key downs.
There was a time in the first half of last year when it looked like Taylor Martinez would be a key factor in the Heisman race. After tearing up Kansas State for 241 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and after bombing away for 323 passing yards and five scores against Oklahoma State, "T-Magic" had all the makings of a Husker legend. The 6-1, 205-pound
sophomore hurt his ankle and tried to play through it, but he wasn't the same player. The cuts weren't as decisive, he didn't have the same burst, and he appeared to play tentatively, forcing the coaching staff to play around with the quarterback situation to try to generate more consistent production. Those four scores against KSU would be the last rushing touchdowns of the season as he didn't find the end zone again over the final nine games, and he only threw two touchdown passes after the win over the Cowboys. Even with the late season problems, Martinez still finished second on the team with 965 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns and completed 59% of his passes for 1,631 yards and ten touchdowns with seven picks. If he's right, and if his ankle is fine, he'll be one of the Big Ten's most dynamic players with the ability and talent to carry the offense to an explosive year. That's a big if, though.
Redshirt freshman Brion Carnes is a very fast, very athletic dual-threat quarterback from Bradenton, Florida, the hometown of Nebraska legend Tommie Frazier. The 6-1, 200-pound Carnes is Frazier's cousin, and while he doesn't have the same skills or the same game, he's a winner and a leader who can step in and be a dangerous rushing threat in an emergency.
Watch Out For … Martinez's ankle. It's not a big stretch to say the key to the 2011 Big Ten season could be Martinez's health. If he's 100%, the new offense should blow up and the numbers should be terrific. If he struggles like he did over the second half of last year, Nebraska will have to fight for consistent production.
Strength: Rushing options. Martinez was on pace for a 2,000-yard rushing season before getting hurt. Carnes is a terrific,
Weakness: Martinez's ankle. It's impossible to overstate just how much the season changed when Martinez had to fight through the injury. The tension was high as the coaches wanted more out of its burgeoning star, there was talk of transferring, and the offensive pop wasn't there like it was over the first half of the season. If he's not healthy and the coaches turn to
Carnes, it'll be one of the Big Ten's biggest storylines.
Outlook: The situation was already in the spotlight before the coaching change, and now with the new offense and the idea that everything is starting from scratch, the pressure is on even more. Martinez is just a sophomore and he could become one of the program's greatest players, but he has to be more consistent throwing the ball – he completed 4-of-13 passes in the spring game – and he has to get his mojo back.
Carnes is a nice option, but he's not T-Magic.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: Can the Nebraska running game go back to being the Nebraska running game? More importantly, can it be Oregon? That's the goal for the new aggressive offense, and the pieces should be there to run wild. Of course, the quarterbacks are going to play a huge rule in the rushing production with Taylor Martinez and the other options all certain to combine for well over 1,000 yards, but the backs will be asked to do even more. Gone is leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. and his 1,245 yards and 11 touchdowns
Junior Rex Burkhead might not have lead the team in rushing, but he picked up the slack when Martinez was hobbling and helped carry the Huskers to the Big 12 Championship game. The 5-11, 210-pounder produces whenever he gets on the field rushing for 951 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, while catching 15 passes for 148 yards. A former quarterback from Texas, he was one of the team's top recruits a few years ago with good size and home run hitting speed, but he suffered a broken foot in the middle of the 2009 season, came back late, and has been great ever since. He tore off 101 yards against Colorado and ran for two scores in the title game loss to Oklahoma, and now the running game is his after a strong spring showing.
6-1, 225-pound junior Collins Okafor is a big, strong, smart back who didn't get much work last year, running just two yards, but he has the want-to and the ability to fit whatever role the offense needs. An Omaha native, he will finally get more of a shot in the rotation and could grow into a power back in place of Burkhead. While Okafor will be the physical runner, true freshman Aaron Green is expected to bring the flash. The 5-11, 190-pound top recruit out of San Antonio is explosive with home run hitting ability from anywhere on the field. He has the hands to be used as a third down back if needed, but his role will be to find the hole and fly.
Back again as the starting fullback is 5-10, 235-pound senior Tyler Legate, an academic all-star and former walk-on transfer from South Dakota, he has earned his spot as one of the team leaders. Purely a blocker, he caught a touchdown pass but didn't get any carries. He's a great athlete who hits well, and he'll once again be one of the keys to the ground game, while 6-0, 235-pound sophomore C.J. Zimmerer will also step into the mix from time to time and could end up seeing a few short-yardage carries. Like Legate, Zimmerer is an academic all-star who'll mostly be used for the ground game as a lead blocker. He has enough speed and enough athleticism to do even more if needed.
Watch Out For … Green. Okafor has potential and size, and Burkhead is the main man, but Green is the flash of lightning who should replace the speed and dash of Helu.
Strength: The offense. The coaching staff will make sure the backs get the ball in the best possible place to do something with it. There will be lots of open spaces to run through and lots of big chances. The backs will have to be patient, find the hole, and go.
Weakness: Proven depth. The Huskers had Burkhead to rely on last year in place of Helu. The team's No. 2 and 4 runners were quarterbacks, and they could be again. Green and Okafor have to prove they can handle the workload.
Outlook: Burkhead is a very nice, very productive back who had a great offseason and appears to be ready to take on the starting job. He'll be the main man for the ground game, but he needs help with Okafor and Green's emergence one of the big keys to the attack. Helped by the quarterbacks, expect Nebraska, who led the Big 12 in rushing, to finish second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The receivers are basically going to be along for the ride. While the coaching staff wants a downfield passing game, the receivers will block, make the big play when they get the chance, and block some more. The attack got used to life without Niles Paul, who was hurt late last year, but a big, fast, NFL-caliber receiver will always be missed. Now the battle for jobs is wide open.
The one sure-thing in the passing game is Brandon Kinne, a 6-2, 225-pound senior who came to Nebraska as a top JUCO prospect – after originally signing with Kansas State - and blossomed last year into the team's top receiver making 44 catches for 494 yards and five scores. Nowhere near the gamebreaker that Paul is, he's still a good big play target who's great on the move. A good, strong receiver, he's a good receiver, but he's not a scary No. 1 target. He'll have to be steady and he'll have to be reliable.
Ready to take off and become the flash for the passing game is freshman Jamal Turner, a star at Sam Houston High just outside Dallas, with 6-1, 180-pound size and acrobatic, playmaking skills. Great this offseason, the former dual-threat quarterback showed that he has the potential to be a devastating target on deep balls, while also being able to make the tough grab across the middle. The expectations are sky-high, but he should be able to fill them. Junior Tim Marlowe has the experience to possibly be a steadying target for the passing game, but he has yet to do anything as a receiver. Smart and quick, the 5-10, 175-pounder has been a strong kick returner, but he didn't catch a pass.
A speedy combination will work on the outside. 6-2, 195-pound junior Khiry Cooper made 13 catches as a freshman but was out of the mix last year, failing to catch a pass in his six games of work. A baseball player, he was out of spring ball for the third straight year and didn't get a chance to establish himself as a possible go-to receiver, but the outfielder has the skills to possibly be a No. 2 next to Kinne. Cooper will be pushed by Kenny Bell, who might be the team's fastest receiver. At 6-1 and 180 he's a slim speedster with gamebreaking ability, and while the freshman might not be a steady, across-the-middle factor, he should come up with some big plays deep. He'll get plenty of chances to make an immediate impact.
Also looking to break out is JUCO transfer Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a huge 6-3, 220-pound presence from Miami who spent last year at Fort Scott CC in Kansas. Physical enough to be a high school defensive back, he switched to receiver full-time and was unstoppable last year. He sat out last year, but the expectations are high. He'll push for time behind Kinne, but he'll also see time at the other spots to get his combination of skills on the field.
Junior tight end Kyler Reed set the Nebraska record for touchdown catches in a season grabbing a team-leading eight. The team's third-leading receiver, he made 22 catches for 395 yards, making his grabs count, and he can block a little bit, too. The 6-3, 230-pounder is a smart, high-character athlete with the speed to stretch the field, averaging 18 yards per catch, and the toughness to go over the middle. He's the receiver, while 6-6, 255-pound junior Ben Cotton is the blocker. Cotton caught three passes for 34 yards, but the First Team Academic All-Big 12 performer is in to hit people. Considering he's the son of offensive line coach, Barney Cotton, he knows how to block.
Watch Out For … Bell. It's a coin flip on who'll make the biggest impact between him, Jean-Baptiste, and Turner, and while Turner has the all-around talent and Jean-Baptiste has the size, Bell has the wheels. Bell might not be a 35-catch receiver, but he could average over 15 yards per catch and become a difference-maker.
Strength: Young players. The returning veterans are underwhelming, to be kind, while Jean-Baptiste, Bell, and Turner could quickly take over as the stars for the passing game. They're more talented than the top returning targets.
Weakness: The top returning targets. Losing Paul hurts, and Kinne is okay, but everyone else is replaceable. There are plenty of reasons to be fired up about the new emerging prospects, but they're unproven.
Outlook: The Husker receivers are long on upside and short on sure-thing production. The tight ends are fantastic – Reed and Cotton could be the Big Ten's best tandem – and there are plenty of interesting options to play around with. In a perfect world, Kinne grows into a sure-thing, go-to guy, Cooper and Marlowe play bigger roles, and Bell, Jean-Baptiste, and Turner take over.
Unit Rating: 6
State of the Unit: Three starters are gone, including all-star right guard Ricky Henry, but there would be a transition period anyway with a new coaching staff coming in, so it's not as big a deal to start new at a few key spots. Line coach Barry Cotton's goal is to keep the players moving in a steady rotation, and while the Huskers are short on veteran starters, they're long on depth and potential.
Four starters returned to last year's line with the one big replacement needed at center. Senior Mike Caputo stepped up and turned in an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 season as a steady starter in every game while quickly becoming a good leader. Despite the offense working in the shotgun, Caputo, a former walk-on, didn't make any mistakes and he proved he could handle the pressure of making the right reads and calls. Now, after being a newcomer, this is his line. He'll be backed up by sophomore Cole Pensick, a 6-2, 275-pound former defensive lineman who stepped up into a backup job last year and will be the understudy before possibly taking over next year. He's not huge, but he's active and quick.
The only other returning starter is at left tackle where Jeremiah Sirles returns after starting every game last season. Out this offseason with a shoulder injury, he's coming off a good year and proved he could hold his own. While he's not a top athlete and might be better for the right side, the 6-6, 320-pound sophomore has the size and frame to be a strong all-around blocker who should be even more consistent with more time. Working as a key backup at both tackle spots is 6-7, 325-pound senior Jermarcus Hardrick, a top recruit from the JUCO ranks who worked in the rotation last season. "Yoshi" has the size and the bulk, but there have been some questions about his raw strength as a blasting blocker. The raw tools are there, but he has to prove he can be a tough all-around performer.
Working on the right side, at least for now, is 6-7, 320-pound senior Marcel Jones, who has had problems with injuries, highlighted by an ankle problem, and hasn't shown enough toughness on a regular basis for the ground game. A huge blocker who's tough to get around, he's also smart, has great character, and will bring the effort on a regular basis. Now he has to prove he can handle the full-time job at right tackle and he has to show he can stay healthy. Also in the hunt for the starting job, along with Hardrick, is 6-6, 285-pound redshirt freshman Jake Cotton, son of line coach Barney Cotton. The former defensive lineman has a good frame and decent upside, but he needs time.
Trying to take over for Henry at right guard is sophomore Brent Qvale, an academic all-star with 6-7, 325-pound size who saw time as a backup last year and worked as a special teamer. While he's built like a big tackle, and he's a bit tall and a bit rangy to be a guard, he's strong and can generate a push. Backup up Qvale and also trying for time at left guard is Brandon Thompson, a versatile 6-6, 300-pound junior who spent nine game as a backup and should be a key reserve at several spots.
6-6, 325-pound sophomore Andrew Rodriguez will get a long look at the starting left guard job, but he'll be pushed by Thompson and 6-5, 275-pound sophomore Nick Ash. Rodriguez earned honor roll status in the classroom and got on the field right away as a freshman working in five games. Strong and promising, he should be able to hold down the job for the next three years, while Ash is trying to get past injury problems to be a factor in the rotation.
Watch Out For … Hardrick. On raw talent and potential, the superstar recruit of last year has the look and the skills to possibly be a major blocker. Can he play left tackle? Will he push for the right tackle job? Will he be a key swing backup? He could turn out to be the key piece of the line's puzzle.
Strength: Size. Caputo is 275 pounds, and that's about it for the lightweights. If all goes to plan, the two starting guards and two starting tackles should average around 6-6 and 325 pounds. Blasting away for the ground game shouldn't be a problem.
Weakness: The starting five. Caputo is a sure-thing at center, and Sirles, when he gets back from his shoulder problem, should be a rock at tackle, but the other three spots are up for grabs. You can't win in the Big Ten if you don't have a great line, and the jury is still out on what the Husker front five can do.
Outlook: The Husker O line hasn't been consistent over the last few years, and while it was able to pave the way for the ground game, it didn't do enough in pass protection. The blocking scheme should be far easier with the idea to see guy, hit guy, and open up the hole for the backs. Up to ten players will work in a regular rotation, but a set starting five needs to be settled on.
Unit Rating: 7
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