Nebraska shedding distractions, focusing on meeting expectations
Conference realignment gave Nebraska's last two seasons extra significance
With 17 returning starters, the Cornhuskers may be in a position to contend
Pressure's on Bo Pelini, who has been consistent but hasn't broken through
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Will Compton had a simple solution for the pervasive problem. It wasn't easy, considering his addiction. But he quit, cold turkey. No more surfing Safari, using his iPhone to read the Husker message boards. Compton unfollowed a bunch of people on Twitter -- well-meaning fans, journalists, and heck, maybe a friend or two -- and the end result was something like radio silence.
He hasn't regretted it. No, who are we fooling? Nebraska's senior linebacker misses the interaction. He'd like nothing more than to keep up with the buzz, and to keep in touch with all of those acquaintances. And if Compton gets real honest, he would also enjoy checking the pulse of Husker Nation. But he hasn't, and he won't.
"That's for outsiders," Compton said, "and their little offseason kicks."
Compton and his Nebraska teammates have their own little offseason kick. Whether they're paying attention or not, they understand the lingering vibe from a sour end to the 2011 season. It's why buzzwords like "urgency" and "accountability" were in frequent use during the winter months and into spring. The themes are offseason universals. So is the idea of shedding distractions to focus solely on football.
But 2012 holds the prospect that the Huskers might finally be able do just that. While Nebraska football is huge all the time, the last two seasons were freighted with extra significance. In 2010, it was Nebraska's departure from the Big 12. Last season, it was the arrival in the Big Ten. Those overarching themes were unavoidable, though it's not like anyone tried. Each added significant pressure to a program that always feels over-pressurized.
The Huskers wanted to leave their old conference, Compton said, "with a bang." They wanted to make a similar entrance in their new home. Hard feelings attended their exit -- just ask any Husker about the loss to Texas A&M in 2010 -- as decisions made in boardrooms were carried into stadiums, and every game carried more meaning, on both ends. Last season, hype and hoopla accompanied them into each game, when everything was a first of some kind.
"It seems like it's been one challenge after another," Bo Pelini said. "There's been a lot going on."
By contrast, the stated goal of 2012 -- nothing too difficult, just a return to past glory -- almost feels, well, like a relief.
And that brings us back to the lingering residue of last season. In four years under Pelini, Nebraska is 38-16; the Huskers have won at least nine games each year, with two division titles. The program is in much better position than when he arrived. But everyone understands the standard is still higher.
"The past few years, a lot of us have kind of gotten sick of just being a good team," senior running back Rex Burkhead said. "We want to take the steps to become a great team like some of the teams here at Nebraska in the past."
Yeah, like those teams. And lest you think it's one guy getting a little rambunctious in an offseason interview, here's junior quarterback Taylor Martinez: "If we don't go to the national championship, I'll be disappointed," he told the Sporting News.
Unrealistic or not, it's always the expectation, as shown by the five national championship trophies near the entrance to the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex on the north end of Memorial Stadium. Never mind that the most recent one is 15 years old, or that the last time Nebraska was in the national title conversation was 2001. No one needs to be reminded that for all of the progress under Pelini, Nebraska hasn't returned to the elite tier it once inhabited.
Last season, the Huskers lost three of their last five games, including a loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. After a 7-1 start that included a 24-3 win over eventual Legends Division winner Michigan State, the fade was especially hard for fans to take. Included was a surprising home loss to Northwestern the week after beating the Spartans and a discouraging 45-17 loss at Michigan.
It's no secret Nebraskans live and breathe Husker football. It's a place where news of an alternate uniform for one game next season touches off a brushfire; where the spring game draws more fans than most programs get for actual games -- except when, like this year, it's cancelled because of bad weather. That's too bad, because it means the lasting memory remains that loss in the bowl game, when the Huskers gave up a 51-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the first half and lost 30-13. Sure, there's been uproar, and there was good reason for guys like Compton to unplug.
"I could care less," Pelini said. "I could care less what anybody says the perception is. What I say is, 'What do we need to do?'"
Some might ask it differently: What more does Pelini need to do? On the surface, he seems like an ideal fit: Maybe some rough edges could be sanded a bit, but he's Midwestern, old-school, no-nonsense. The program is closer to competing for conference titles -- and more -- than it has been in years. If there's a disconnect somewhere, the remedy is evident. Pelini may not care what anyone else thinks, but he is thinking similar things: It's time to make a move forward.
"The way last year ended, it raised my sense of urgency," Pelini said. "I think it raised our sense of urgency as a program. ... We want to win championships around here, and I think we're close."
With 17 returning starters, the Huskers might be in better position to do it than they have been. There's more depth. They're Pelini's players. The foundation has been laid. Still, most preseason predictions will probably rank Nebraska no better than second in the Legends division, behind Michigan.
To even begin to approach expectations -- internal, external, whatever -- Martinez's continued development as a passer will be critical. Last season Nebraska ran the ball almost 67 percent of the time, or "something ridiculous," said Burkhead. "Definitely you want more balance." The imbalance was simply playing to the Huskers' strengths -- Martinez can really move, and Burkhead, all-Big Ten last season, is a dangerous weapon -- but by omission, it also highlighted a weakness.
"Taylor can throw it," said Pelini, and reports out of closed spring practices had him doing just that. Another spring priority was finding ways to reduce the load on Burkhead, who rushed for 1,357 yards (almost half the team's total) but had nearly 300 carries (again, almost half the total). It would have been nice to monitor the progress of both storylines during the spring game. Instead, we'll have to take the Huskers at their word when it comes to reports of improvement, and wait to see what next fall brings.
Defensively, the Huskers must fill big voids including All-Americans Lavonte David and Alfonso Dennard and defensive tackle Jared Crick. The defense didn't perform to "Blackshirt" standards -- but then, like the overall expectations for Nebraska, those are always pretty high. Mixed with a dash of urgency, the Huskers' confidence seems high, too. When his brother Carl became head coach at Florida Atlantic, Pelini promoted John Papuchis to defensive coordinator, and the Huskers didn't appear to skip a beat. Pelini expects significant improvement from the defense and from the entire team.
"We've had the same type records since I've been here," said Compton, and he's right: Under Pelini, Nebraska has won nine games twice and 10 games twice, but has also lost four games every season. "It's a night-and-day difference as a team and where we are as a program," the linebacker continued, "but it's still the same type of record. We could take the next step easily."
Just focusing on football might help. The Big 12 feels like the distant past. And while life in the Big Ten isn't old hat, it's not a novel experience anymore, either. The program feels "more settled in," Compton said. For the first time in a while, there's no extra freight -- just the routine demands of Husker football. Good thing, because the built-in burden is plenty.
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