|Running back Rex Burkhead :: Getty Images|
Nebraska was anything but a shy newcomer in its first year in the Big Ten. After ditching the Big 12 last summer, the Huskers were contenders in their new conference, racking up victories over Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State en route to the school's fourth straight season with at least nine wins. But Big Red Nation, which hasn't celebrated a league title since 1999, isn't settling for anything less than a Big Ten championship this year. "That's what we're here to do," said coach Bo Pelini.
In his fifth year of coaching, Pelini will have a roster of returning players with the necessary pieces to build off, not least of whom is junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who threw for 13 touchdowns and rushed for nine more in his second season as Nebraska's starter. Martinez ranks fifth in career rushing yards by a Nebraska quarterback but spent much of the offseason tweaking his inconsistent passing game, especially his technique. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said that overall "there's a different confidence level about Taylor."
Martinez won't be the team's lone weapon on offense. Tailback Rex Burkhead, who accounted for nearly half the Huskers' ground game in 2011, will reprise his role in the backfield, while junior guard Spencer Long is one of two returning starters on the offensive line. Last year's top wideout, Kenny Bell, will lead a group of receivers that should see more action thanks to Martinez's development.
Pelini promoted John Papuchis to defensive coordinator after Pelini's brother, Carl, accepted the head coaching position at Florida Atlantic. Nebraska ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in rushing defense last fall, so building a more aggressive unit was the emphasis during spring practice. The Huskers will sorely miss all-conference players Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick. Still, "we have a strong group of leaders, senior-wise, heading into this season," said linebacker Will Compton, Nebraska's top returning tackler (82) and the man Pelini expects to be the team's defensive anchor.
Nebraska finished third in the Legends Division last year, a result hardly foreshadowing an end to a conference-title drought. But feeling at home in the Big Ten was the first step. "We now have a chance," Pelini said, "to be a really good football team."
Will the run-heavy Cornhuskers have a reliable enough passing attack this season to keep Big Ten defenses honest?
2,231 -- Rushing yards for Taylor Martinez (874) and Rex Burkhead (1,357), highest of any returning quarterback-running back duo in the FBS.
Kenny Bell, WR, So. -- Nebraska's top wideout (461 yards, three TDs) in a deep receiving corps, Bell also had an 82-yard touchdown run against Minnesota that was the longest by a freshman in school history.
Taylor Martinez, QB, Jr. -- He started 25 games over the past two years and was eighth nationally in rushing yards (874) among quarterbacks in 2011. Though his passing raised questions, Martinez threw zero picks over his final four regular-season games. "He continues to grow as a quarterback in every facet," said offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
Daimion Stafford, S, Sr. -- Stafford transferred to Lincoln from Southern California's Chaffey College in 2011 and started all but one game last year. His 80 tackles led the team's defensive backs, and he had a team-high 10 pass breakups.
Cameron Meredith, DE, Sr. -- The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has started 27 straight games. Last season he had five sacks and led the team in quarterback hurries (nine), and he will be trusted to shore up the hole left by departed All-America tackle Jared Crick.
Alonzo Whaley, LB, Sr. -- The Madisonville, Texas, native played in all 13 games last year (with one start) but finished with only 11 tackles, including three on special teams. Given Whaley's performance in offseason workouts, however, Bo Pelini has reason to expect an increased role for the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder this fall. "He showed in the spring that he's ready for it," said Pelini.
Michael Rose, LB, Fr. -- Rose, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds and had 104 tackles and three sacks as a senior at Rockhurst (Mo.) High, was also pursued by Ohio State, USC and Missouri. The 230-pounder is the standout among Nebraska's four linebacker signees.
Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead was a senior at Plano Senior High in Dallas when he first picked up a copy of The Mental Edge. In the midst of a season during which he scored 35 touchdowns and led the Wildcats to the state 5A playoffs, Burkhead came across the book by noted sports psychologist Kenneth Baum and was turned on to its message: The mental aspect of sports is often the most important. "There are always things you can do physically," Burkhead said, "but when it comes down to it, when you get in tougher situations during games, you have to have that mental edge."
Burkhead carried this mantra to Lincoln, where he has been a staple in the Cornhuskers' backfield for the last two seasons. "He's the kind of guy that anybody would die to have on their football team," coach Bo Pelini said. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior tailback finished with 1,357 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns for Big Red last season -- the most yards by a Nebraska running back since Ahman Green's 1,877 in 1997 -- and reached the end zone in each of the season's first 10 games, tying a school record. He and scrambling quarterback Taylor Martinez formed the Cornhuskers' two-headed rushing attack, which finished third in the Big Ten.
The mental side of football is where Burkhead likes to find his advantage. This offseason he again cracked open Baum's book and also passed it to linebacker Will Compton, one of the returning leaders on defense, to help stress accountability across the roster, the notion of playing smart and not simply playing hard. "We can relay that message to the rest of the team," Burkhead said. It's a message with no better spokesman than Burkhead. "Every aspect of his football game -- mentally, physically, emotionally -- he's all in," said offensive coordinator Tim Beck. "I think that's one of the things that really separates him."
For the past year Burkhead, a history major, has separated himself in other ways, spending time in the company of Jack Hoffman, a six-year-old Nebraska fan battling a rare pediatric brain tumor. The team set up a meeting between the two last fall, and the friendship grew throughout the season as the Huskers sported wristbands supporting Jack's fight. In February, Burkhead was named the national 2012 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion. Burkhead has stayed in touch with Jack, who still has several months of chemotherapy ahead of him. "That award was for Jack and other kids who have diseases [like his]," said Burkhead.
On the field Burkhead's durability made him irreplaceable for Nebraska in 2011, when he carried the ball more than 20 times in eight games, six against Big Ten foes. But he knows the work off the field makes the difference, so he put in extra hours in the film room this offseason. "Each year you start to see a game that's coming to you slower," he said. "I've been working in the film room a lot just trying to see what defenses are doing, just so I can react quicker to what they bring."
Though he theorized that the Big Ten brings "bigger guys up front" than the Big 12 did, Burkhead had little trouble steamrolling defenses in the Huskers' first season in their new conference. But it was his brain, not just his brawn, that produced his success. "You have to have mental toughness that will put you over your opponents," Burkhead said. "That's what separates the good from the great."
SI: John Papuchis will head up the defense this year. Did you see improvement during the spring?
BP: We've had some really good competition in the secondary, and I think we've grown up there. Coming out of the spring, I was very encouraged. We have a chance to be outstanding on [the defensive] side of the football.
SI: You've lost a handful of big names on defense. Whom do you see filling the void?
BP: Last year linebacker Will Compton started coming into his own. I thought he really had a good year, [and] another senior linebacker, Sean Fisher, was a mere shadow of what he could be.
SI: How different is the Big Ten compared with the Big 12?
BP: Top to bottom, [the Big Ten] might be a little deeper. It's a heck of a conference.
SI: Taylor Martinez was effective as a runner in 2011, but how has his passing game improved?
BP: He worked very hard in the offseason to improve certain things: his throwing, his mechanics. It's his second year with the offense, so I think he's really comfortable and he's confident. That usually leads to good things.
SI: You actually have a lot of experience offensively, especially with Martinez and Rex Burkhead. What are your expectations?
BP: We also have Ameer Abdullah, so we have some guys that can toast the ball. Plus we have some guys at wideout. I like our skill positions. We could have a very explosive unit.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.