LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini enters his fifth fall camp facing questions about his team's game-to-game consistency, but liking the answer that his 2012 team is fixing to provide.
“I kind of like where we are as a team, as a program,” Pelini told World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel last week at Big Ten media days. “And I do feel like we can just go out and do our thing.”
In this case, “our thing” includes settling into a second year in the Big Ten — and the second year of Tim Beck's tenure as offensive coordinator — with the most experienced team in the Pelini era. Seven of the top 10 tacklers return, as do the top four ball-carriers and seven of the top eight pass-catchers on offense.
Starting Saturday — the first practice of fall camp — the Huskers will try to reverse a trend of losing at least three conference games (including league title games) in the first four years of Pelini's tenure. The tests come fast and furious in the first six weeks with games against five bowl teams, including road trips to UCLA and Ohio State.
Senior salute: With 19 seniors on scholarship — and likely more to come in August — Nebraska sheds the “youth” label for 2012. The offense, led by running back Rex Burkhead, is especially seasoned. Pelini has already said he can turn over some of the discipline to older players, who in turn pay it forward to younger players. To a player, the “culture” in the program appears as healthy as it's been since 2006, when seniors like Zac Taylor, Adam Carriker and Stewart Bradley steered the ship. Will it translate into wins?
Martinez makeover: Taylor Martinez started 25 games — winning 17 — with passing mechanics that are best described as flawed. After a spring and summer of personal work with a California-based quarterback coach — plus a trip to the Manning Passing Academy — Martinez must show the kind of improvement and consistency not just to complete passes, but put the ball in the right spot. Teammates say he's done it. Camp represents another month to hone his skills.
Barney's boys: Perhaps no unit better personifies the Huskers “good-not-great” dilemma better than the offensive line, which in 2011 (and 2010) mixed great play with frustrating stretches — sometimes in the same game. Offensive line coach Barney Cotton is working with more talent right now than he has since he arrived, including All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long. Can he and assistant John Garrison get this unit to another level?
Playmakers, please: Defensive coordinator John Papuchis wants the Blackshirts to improve on its 2011 numbers — 37th in total defense, 42nd in scoring defense — without linebacker Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. More experience in Pelini's complex scheme can theoretically account for some of the jump, but NU wants more guys to make more plays, too. Two candidates: Senior safety Daimion Stafford (12 starts, 80 tackles) and junior defensive end Jason Ankrah (nine starts, 17 tackles).
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Health = wealth: Four defensive tackles — junior Thad Randle, sophomore Chase Rome and redshirt freshmen Todd Peat and Kevin Williams — who sat out parts of spring camp with injuries return to fall camp with a clean bill of record, Pelini said. One of them will start alongside senior Baker Steinkuhler on the line, but all four — plus sophomores Jay Guy and Tobi Okuyemi — comprise the Huskers' depth at a thin, inexperienced position. The healthier these players stay, the more they'll learn, the better NU's defense can be.
FIVE POSITION BATTLES
Cornerback: New Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph wants three starters (two corners and a nickel) out of this lanky group: Senior Antonio Bell; juniors Andrew Green, Ciante Evans, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Mo Seisay; sophomore Josh Mitchell; and freshmen Daniel Davie and Charles Jackson. Green started 10 games last year while Evans started seven. Both were inconsistent. Seisay is a junior college transfer while Jackson, originally part of the 2011 recruiting class, impressed this summer.
Offensive tackles: Sophomore Tyler Moore joins juniors Jeremiah Sirles, Andrew Rodriguez and Brent Qvale in an attempt to upgrade the spot after Marcel Jones and Yoshi Hardrick exhausted their eligibility. The quartet's average size: 6-foot-6, 313 pounds.
Outside linebacker: Senior Will Compton has locked down the middle linebacker spot, and seniors Sean Fisher (strongside) and Alonzo Whaley (weakside) have the edge at their spots. But redshirt freshman David Santos (weakside) and junior college transfer Zaire Anderson (strongside) have playmaking skills that could get them on the field quickly.
Fullback: Two-year starter Tyler Legate's graduation leaves a big hole for either senior Graham Stoddard, Omaha Gross junior C.J. Zimmerer or junior Mike Marrow to fill. Pelini said Marrow, an Alabama transfer, had the slight edge coming out of spring camp.
Center: Lincoln Northeast junior Cole Pensick emerged from spring with a slight edge over Roca senior Justin Jackson and sophomore Mark Pelini. Offensive line coach Barney Cotton likes to tinker, so other players — like Sirles or redshirt freshman Givens Price — could take snaps, too.
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