The Nebraska Cornhuskers had a strong season in 2012, but didn't walk away with much to show for it. As they hit the field for spring ball, they'll look for a more satisfying finish this season.
The Huskers were 10-2 last year in the regular season, but finished 10-4. They got brutalized by Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, losing 70-31 as Montee Ball gashed for 202 yards, and couldn't put the clamps on Georgia in the Citrus Bowl, watching Aaron Murray throw for 427 yards, including the final three touchdowns of the game in a 45-31 loss.
Bo Pelini's squad returns many of its key offensive components from a relatively successful unit. Taylor Martinez heads into his fourth year as a starter after his best season as a passer, and many of his receivers are back too. The other side of the ball is where the concern is. The bad news is not many players are back from the 2012 Cornhuskers defense. The good news is last year's unit didn't play like Blackshirts anyway, giving up 36 points or more in all four of their losses, including 63 points against Ohio State and 70 in the Wisconsin game. Corn Nation looked at it optimistically in their 2013 position group post about the team's linebackers:
With Will Compton, Sean Fisher, and Alonzo Whaley departing, it's a whole new set of linebackers. Speed was an issue last season with this group of seniors, but after Zaire Anderson's torn ACL was discovered, Bo Pelini didn't have much of a choice: play the experienced seniors, or pull someone's redshirt. He chose to go with the experience in 2012. In 2013, there is no other choice. These guys will play, ready or not.
You could argue that cornerback Ciante Evans is the only player on Nebraska's defense who has a spot locked down. Everything's up for grabs: spring ball will be an interesting time for Nebraska to see whether highly touted recruits can play like it and which ones are likely to be first teamers come fall.
After winning their division last year, the Huskers have a good shot to repeat this season. The schedule actually pans out for them to have a better year in 2013: after losing in the Rose Bowl last year, their game against UCLA shifts to Nebraska, and their only Big Ten loss was to Ohio State, who shifts off of their docket this season.
Spring practice start date: March 2
Spring game date, location, TV info: April 6
Approximate returning starters: Offense: 6, but they're five big players. Taylor Martinez is the sprinting quarterback with the rock-skipping motion that's drawn the mockery of every Big 12 or Big Ten fan for the past three years, but this year he completed a career high 62 percent of his passes and threw 23 touchdowns - his previous high was 13. Not to mention that he still ran for more than 1,000 yards at 5.2 yards per carry. His top two targets from last year, Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell, are back as well. And second-team All-American guard Spencer Long and both offensive tackles - Big Ten second-teamer Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale - are back, giving the team power up front. Ameer Abdullah didn't start as a starter - he played so much mainly due to injuries to Rex Burkhead - but he had a fine season, racking up a team-high 1,315 yards from scrimmage.
Defense: 4, defensive end Jason Ankrah, defensive tackle Thad Randle, cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Josh Mitchell. Ankrah, Randle, and Mitchell weren't even full-time starters, so you really could say just one starter returns.
Biggest addition: The Huskers bring in three early enrollees.
Biggest loss: The transfer bug has already bitten. Elsewhere, Burkhead was a bulldozer for Nebraska, but injuries hampered him from following up on a 1,357-yard junior season, so he's not that big a loss. Plus, all of his "backups" - all of whom had significant playing time last year - are back. Linebacker Will Compton was the rock of the 2012 defense, earning second-team all-conference honors.
New players? Linebacker Courtney Love seems like the most likely of the three early enrollees to contribute - Bo Pelini called him "way ahead of the game" when talking about what he's seen from the three freshmen in Lincoln already. Here's a highlight video:
Also new in the program are 6-foot-8, 290-pound lineman David Knevel and safety D.J. Singleton. With the defense as open as it is, it's not unrealistic to imagine Love and Singleton competing for spots in spring ball.
New coaches? The Huskers bring back the same coaching staff from top to bottom under Bo Pelini.
New schemes? There's rumors of the Huskers switching to a 3-4 defense, but its tough to know how serious those are. The lack of change on the staff would seem to play against that, as does the fact that Nebraska prefers to play extra defensive backs -- Evans is most frequently a nickel back. Then again, no Big Ten team currently plays a 3-4.