I started working this weekend on a position by position narrative analysis of the 2007 Huskers, but I realized that I was rehashing much of what just about everybody is posting everywhere. I mean, most folks know that our best I-back declared for the NFL early and was drafted by Green Bay. We graduated our entire defensive starting line. Etc. Etc.
Really, the question becomes... at what positions will the Huskers be improved and which will we be weaker? So here's my take, for what it's worth:
Quarterback: (45% chance improved, 35% about the same, 20% chance weaker)
Everybody is assuming Sam Keller (including myself) is going to be the starting quarterback. I agree, though you never know about injury or if Zac Lee takes the field by storm after sitting out most drills in the spring. But will Keller be an upgrade over Zac Taylor? That I'm a little less convinced of. Keller got a lot of hype last summer as a potential NFL draft prospect and preseason all-Pac Ten. His stats, however, suggest a little caution. He's only started eight games in college, and hasn't played since October of 2005. He's a career 58% passer. His eight starts? Against Purdue, LSU (in the wake of Hurricane Katrina), Temple, Northwestern, Oregon State, USC, and Stanford. We also still don't know what happened to cause his former teammates to ask Dirk Koetter to bench Keller for Rudy Carpenter. Bottom line: The upside for Keller is huge, and could take Nebraska to heights we haven't seen in many years. On the other hand, some skepticism is warranted.
I-Back: (30% improved, 30% about the same, 40% weaker)
Why negative? Brandon Jackson is wearing Packer green, Kenny Wilson is out for the season due to chronic leg injuries, and Cody Glenn is still recovering from his sore foot. Why positive? Marlon Lucky seems to be a man reborn. And the offensive line should be even stronger this season.
Fullback: (1% improved, 20% about the same, 79% weaker)
Some compared Dane Todd to a 6th offensive lineman at times last year. Now Nebraska is desperately searching for a replacement.
Wide Receiver: (75% improved, 20% about the same, 5% weaker)
Everybody's back, so you have to believe this group will be better...which will be needed because the receivers were non-factors at the end of the season against Oklahoma and Auburn, forcing Zac Taylor to hold onto the ball too long or force the ball into coverage.
Tight End: (20% improved, 60% about the same, 20% weaker)
Matt Herian is in the NFL, but none of the replacements look to be the receiving threat Herian is. Can Mike McNeil make an impact here?
Offensive Line: (80% improved, 18% about the same, 2% weaker)
Losing oft-injured warrior Greg Austin and Chris Patrick, the offensive line is deeper and more experienced than it's been in many years. Matt Slauson leads the way as a preseason all-conference pick and even gets a mention on the Outland Trophy watch list.
Defensive Line: (1% improved, 9% about the same, 90% weaker)
Hey, when the entire group graduates to NFL preseason camps, you know you've got huge holes to fill. Ndamakong Suh will lead this pack, but just approaching the effectiveness of their predecessors is a lofty goal for this group.
Linebackers: (60% improved, 35% about the same, 5% weaker)
Losing only Stewart Bradley to the NFL, the Husker linebackers are considered the finest in the conference. Bo Ruud will lead this group, but some fans aren't even sure if he's the best linebacker of the bunch. There's even talk about playing some 3-4 in 2007 to take some of the load off the green defensive line.
Secondary: (70% improved, 25% about the same, 5% weaker)
Losing only Andrew Shanle to the graduation and the NFL, the Huskers may see oft-injured corner Zackary Bowman return to the field later in the season. Even without Bowman, this group will be more seasoned and will get some needed depth from Larry Asante, Rickey Thenarse, and Armando Murillo which will allow the Huskers to play more nickel and not have to play soft (i.e. the "bend and break")
Kicking: (20% improved, 40% about the same, 40% weaker)
This could be a huge issue in 2007 as Jordan Congdon leaves under questionable circumstances. The Huskers have had a problem with kickoff coverage in recent years, struggling to find someone who can put the ball in the endzone. Now the NCAA is moving kickoffs back to the 30 which will magnify this problem. Of course, trouble covering kickoffs can be a good thing because it means you are scoring a lot...as long as those kickoffs are following touchdowns.
Keys to 2007? The two most important areas to watch in the first part of 2007 is quarterback and the defensive line. As Sam Keller goes, so will the Huskers in 2007. And on defense, the adage goes "it all starts up front", and if the defensive line can't handle the load, it will put the strain on the rest of the defense.