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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 wins over Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State and finishing with the school's fourth straight season of at least nine wins. But Big Red Nation, which hasn't celebrated a league title since 1999, isn't settling for anything less than winning the Big Ten. "That's what we're here to do," coach Bo Pelini says.
In his fifth year of coaching, Pelini will have a roster of returning players with the necessary pieces to build off last season, not least of whom is junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who threw for 13 touchdowns and rushed for nine more in his second season as the starter in Lincoln. Martinez ranks fifth in career rushing yards by a Nebraska quarterback but spent much of the off-season tweaking his inconsistent passing game, especially his technique. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says 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 last year, will reprise his role in the backfield, while junior guard Spencer Long is one of two starters returning 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 coordinate his defense 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 sorely will miss all-conference players Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick. Still, "we have a strong group of leaders, seniorwise, heading into this season," says linebacker Will Compton, Nebraska's top returning tackler (82) and the man Pelini expects to be the team's defensive quarterback.
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 says, "to be a really good football team."
COACH Bo Pelini (5th year) 38--16 (5--3 in Big Ten)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Tim Beck
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR John Papuchis