Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Cautiously Optimistic" About Husker Football in 2013

After a long winter, spring, and summer of discontent over the end of the 2012 Nebraska football season, it's finally time for 2013 to kick off. Well, discontent for others... I'm not discontented. Disappointed over the B1G championship game?  Absolutely! (/wisconsin scores again)  But discontented?  Nope.

I'm not as bothered, or as fatalistic about Nebraska's prospects in 2013. Are there concerns?  Absolutely.  Don't last year's problems portray even more problems this year?  Maybe...but likely not.  From my perspective, the success or failure of Nebraska in 2013 depends on improvement in four areas:  defensive line, linebackers, pass protection, and ball security.  The first two are related, as are the last two.

I expect improvement on defense in 2013.  Fans should demand it. They will be young, and they will make mistakes.  But I think the new guys are a significant upgrade in talent.  I keep hearing good things about Vincent Valentine at defensive tackle; the question is more "how good can he be" and how can Nebraska bring out more of his ability and realize his potential.  Randy Gregory looks like he can be the playmaker Nebraska has lacked at end in recent years.

The new linebackers are supposed to be more athletic than their predecessors. Speed was the issue, in my opinion, in covering UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, or Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. Fix that, and some of those deep gouges don't happen. Sign me up with KOZN radio's Damon Benning on that "cautious optimism" bandwagon.
On offense, pass protection was the number one problem last season. When Taylor Martinez got blindsided or pressured to throw early, that's when many of those turnovers occurred. Fix the pass protection, and turnovers should improve in turn.  Can pass protection improve?  That's not quite as clear; it's been a point of focus this off-season and the coaches have talked about utilizing more depth on the line this season.  But improvement there is what I hope to see.

It may be tough to really evaluate this the first couple of weeks.  UCLA may give us a better chance, though the Bruins have their own issues this season. It really may not be until November when we really get a good read on the progress Nebraska has made this season.

USA Today's Paul Myerberg had a nice preview last week of Nebraska.  It's a very optimistic view; he puts the Huskers at number 11.  What was most notable is that he's making observations I've made but most everybody else either ignores or doesn't get. 

It's just one of the ways Pelini has grown since assuming one of the most prestigious coaching jobs in college football following the 2007 season. He's mellowed, for one, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. He's become more comfortable in his own skin. He has taken two hugely vital steps: one, he's admitted to his early regime's recruiting errors, and two, he's made efforts to amend his new-guy missteps. The only thing similar between the Pelini of 2008 and the Pelini of 2013 is the crewneck sweatshirt.
 Many people still hold to the perception that Pelini either can't or won't recruit.  He certainly doesn't recruit the way some recruitniks want him to.  But he's definitely changed things up.  Recruiting coordinator Ted Gilmore was gently nudged aside two years ago when it became clear to Pelini that there were talent issues. We saw those issues manifest themselves last season on defense.  Now we finally get a chance to see if the young pups who've been recruited since can solve the issues.  Cry if you wish about the Tobi Okiyemi's on the roster.  From my perspective, that's spilled milk.  Hopefully those guys get their education.  The focus is on who's coming into the program, and who'll we'll be seeing on the field.

It won't be perfect in game one, but I expect we'll see some good things.  And with a defense this young, seeing some good things in August and September should bode well for the future.  And if we don't see those good things, we'll have to be patient to see if it's just first game jitters before declaring the wheels have come off the cart.

I feel better that Nebraska has young guys coming in to fill the problem areas from last season.  Would you like to be a Michigan State fan who now has to hope that quarterback Andrew Maxwell has somehow improved enough in the off-season?  Not likely, especially when head coach Mark Dantonio has his quarterback depth chart as a four-way tie.  Would you like to be an Iowa Hawkeye fan who's hoping that Jake Rudock is the answer despite not being good enough to sniff the field with James Vandenberg struggling?

Some of these players we are counting on in 2013 weren't on campus last season.  Some were injured, while others were redshirting.  Bottom line is that they weren't the problem last season.

This Saturday, we get our first chance to see if they can be part of the solution.  Cautious optimism.  That's my mantra for 2013.

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