Taylor Martinez and Nebraska hope to be running back to a Big Ten championship game appearance in 2013, but the defense must improve starting this spring for that to happen. (Photo: USA Today Sports)
First Practice: March 2
Spring Game: April 6
Maybe this will be the year Nebraska fans have been waiting for. Maybe this will be the year Nebraska flies under the radar and stuns the Big Ten. Maybe this will be the year we look back at the end of the season and congratulate Nebraska on winning the big game.
Or maybe not. This is the beauty of spring football though, when optimism runs high in every spring football practice across the country. Nebraska certainly has reasons to believe they can remain a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten, but they will have to wipe away the memories and bad habits that polluted last season from start to finish. Porous defenses, turnovers all over the field and inconsistent play were somehow overcome en route to Indianapolis last season but more than enough to prevent Nebraska from making any real impact on the 2012 college football season.
Nebraska has some good ingredients ready to cook in 2013. An veteran starting quarterback protected by an experienced offensive line and an always formidable running game are all found in Lincoln, but the defense will be an alarming concern with massive turnover from a woeful unit under a first year defensive coordinator. Will they be able to turn that page?
Here is what we will be paying attention to out of Lincoln this spring:
Stability Factor (1 = Chaos; 5 = Rock Solid): 2.5
Nebraska is always an interesting program to evaluate. The glory days are certainly behind them but Nebraska is still a program that is capable of making a run to a conference championship game for a chance to swap a trip to a BCS game. Last season Nebraska's shortcomings were glaring. UCLA, Ohio State and Wisconsin – to name a few – obliterated the Huskers and showed us all just how far away they are from being able to say with a straight face they are contenders among Legends (and Leaders).
Nebraska loses Rex Burkhead and the majority of their defensive starters (probably a good thing), but returns the beef of their offensive line, Taylor Martinez and some players who saw some playing time last fall. Bo Pelini's hot seat continues to rise in temperature as the Huskers are still in search of their first conference championship since 1999 (yes, it has been that long).
Under the Microscope: John Papuchis, Defensive Coordinator
Year one with Papuchis as defensive coordinator was nothing short of a mess. Nebraska had one of their worst seasons on defense in recent memory and when that happens all eyes will be placed solely on the defensive coordinator. If any one coach needs to see a drastic change in 2013 it may be Nebraska's defensive coordinator.
Papuchis will have a lot of young players to prepare to step up in 2013 and he plans to hit the spring at a quick pace. Who is able to keep up with this style will demonstrate just who is ready to take the next step on the field as well as how well Papuchis is communicating with his defensive assistants and the players. It all starts now for Papuchis.
Locked and Loaded: Offensive Line
Nebraska had a top ten running game for a reason, and the legs of occasionally injured Rex Burkhead accompanied by the bewildering running styles of Taylor Martinez were just a part of the equation. As is usually the case, the talent behind the line is only as successful as the big behemoths up front in the trenches, and Nebraska is bringing back a hefty crop of starters this season.
All-American Spencer Long anchors an experienced offensive line that hopes to provide a bit more consistency and stability in 2013. The Huskers do lose a pair of tested linemen but Nebraska appears to have players ready to plug the holes and keep the running game going once again in 2013 with plenty of options to work with.
The line may be as stable as can be but there is a coaching change for the unit. John Garrison is taking over the responsibilities of the offensive line after a tweak in the coaching staff this offseason, but the principles should remain the same this spring.
Jockeying for Position: Secondary
Nebraska was torched by opposing offenses last season so often that every position should be a concern this spring. Losing roughly two-thirds of your starting defense presents plenty of opportunities for all to step in and hope to make for a better unit. While the defensive line and linebackers will have to do a better job up front, it will be Nebraska's secondary that will have to try and stop the bleeding as much as they can. Nebraska gave up 18 passing touchdowns, their most allowed since 2008.
Nebraska looks to get some inspired play from Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose, who will be eligible this season after sitting out 2012. Meanwhile a number of players will be competing for starting jobs at defensive back and safety. One of those names will be Andrew Green, who has seen his own ups and downs with the Huskers and looks to bounce back to contribute at a high level in 2013. Another will be competing for some significant playing time is one of Nebraska's spring signees, D.J. Singleton, who is already enrolled and eligible to practice.
Name to Know: D.J. Singleton
As just referenced, Singleton is a player capable of being able to come right in and compete right away for serious playing time. Given the deficiencies of Nebraska's secondary last season the competition should be wide open. Given his scouting reports and abilities, Singleton may end up seeing significant playing time for Nebraska this fall with a strong showing this spring. Being enrolled already gives him the opportunity to work out and mesh with the team and the defensive coaching he will be receiving. If he stays focused, look for Singleton to become a legitimate factor soon enough.
Spring will be a success if…: Nebraska can develop another option at quarterback
Nobody is calling for Bo Pelini to hand Taylor Martinez a clipboard just yet. Martinez gives Nebraska's offense some life with his ability to run with the football and last season he had some moments that made you believe he finally progressed as a passer. Then he had those other moments that cause Bo Pelini's head to explode. For the time being Martinez is going to be the unquestioned starting quarterback for Nebraska, but it would be wise to get a Plan B ready to go if needed, whether due to an injury or because the offense needs a shakeup.
Enter Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III (RKIII?).
Those who seem to follow Nebraska closely appear to be on the same page with the best option here, and the nod goes to Armstrong, who would keep a dual-threat in play when he gets a chance to hop on the field.
Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter.