With the departures of key starters such as Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard, Jared Crick, Austin Cassidy, Marcel Jones and Yoshi Hardrick, Nebraska’s football team looks very different this spring.
The absence of these veterans forces other Huskers to step up to keep the team goal of winning the Big Ten Championship in tact.
As Bo Pelini continues executing the “process”, the following five players are on the verge of falling so far behind their peers, they won’t be able to catch up.
Guard Andrew Rodriguez - “A-Rod” came to Nebraska with high praise from recruiting services and scouts who touted the big man from Aurora, Nebraska as future All-Conference lineman.
However, there was also rumor among the locals that Rodriguez lacked the necessary work ethic and passion to become of one college football’s elite.
His play has mirrored these claims, being dominant at times, and sluggish at others. Given his incredible natural talent, there was no reason for the one-time New Yorker to get beat out midseason by former walk-on Seung Hoon Choi, no offense to the plucky South Korean.
While coaches have stated that Rodriguez was suffering from lingering injuries, he didn’t seem to have the fire necessary keep a full-time starting gig.
It’s time for this enigmatic player to make a decision between being great or fading into the background. If he chooses the latter, Nebraska has ample depth at the guard position to fill his absence with other highly-talented players chomping at the bit for playing time.
Tight end Kyler Reed – No. 25 has had one of the most frustrating careers to follow. Flash back to the Oklahoma State and Missouri games of two years ago, and you see a tight end that can fly past safeties for long touchdowns and constantly create mismatches.
Reed was non-existent last season, battling injuries and toughness issues only magnified by Ron Brown’s move to running backs coach.
While part of the blame must be placed on Taylor Martinez for failing to find an often open Reed, there was no reason for the preseason star to experience such a dramatic drop-off in play.
He faces his senior season, and it’s crucial to Nebraska’s success that he finds a way to play at a high level for the entire season. If not, expect the Husker offense to continue to be boxed in by safeties playing near the line of scrimmage. There’s no fear of being burned deep by Ben Cotton.
MIKE linebacker Will Compton – Lavonte David is not a player that can be replaced with one guy. No. 4’s ability to make plays across the field was the biggest reason the Husker defense had a fighting chance at stopping the better teams faced during the past two seasons.
Nobody on the roster possesses his combination of speed, agility, sure tackling, and instincts. However, if the Blackshirts are to survive without the future NFL linebacker, Compton must step up his game this season and become the player many thought he could be when he signed his letter of intent.
He has expressed desire to become the vocal leader of the Blackshirts, but fans have to wonder whether No. 51’s bite will match his bark.
Against Michigan State, the Missouri native showed flashes of his why he was rated a four-star prospect, stopping running backs in their tracks and chasing the opposition down at every turn. While this performance was impressive, it still appeared to be the exception instead of the rule for Comtpon.
In 2012, the senior linebacker must perform like he did against the Spartans every week if the Blackshirts are to regain the form that has become expected of a Bo Pelini-coached defense.
If Compton can’t handle the load, expect young guns David Santos and Trevor Roach to garner serious playing time while all Husker fans simultaneously shake their heads and mutter, “David would’ve made that play.”
Safety P.J. Smith – No. 13 is another Husker whose playing time has risen and fallen like the temperature of so many Nebraska seasons. With Austin Cassidy’s graduation, there is a wide open spot next to Daimion Stafford at the back-end of the defense.
While Pelini and company have accumulated above average depth at the position, nobody seems to stand out as a clear favorite this spring.
Due to Smith’s knowledge and experience, along with the demands Pelini places on his safeties, it’s fair to guess that he could have a leg up on players like Corey Cooper. Cooper is one of many secondary members full of potential, but very green.
Additionally, Courtney Osborne will be anxious to get back on the field after mysteriously disappearing in 2011. Smith has played well when given the chance, showing a great knack for finding the football, but injuries and a lack of top-shelf athletic ability have kept him from permanently needing an extra hanger in his locker for the a black practice jersey.
If Smith can’t take his play to the next level this spring, don’t be surprised if new secondary coach Terry Joseph decides to roll the dice and go with the inexperienced, more athletic Cooper as his other starting safety.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez – Martinez’s weaknesses in the passing game have been well-documented over the past two seasons. Heading into spring ball, T-Magic still has the keys to the Husker offense. One that was often very good, but maddeningly inconsistent.
Opposing defenses were able to force Tim Beck to call plays that the dual-threat quarterback was clearly not comfortable executing, while containing opportunities for Martinez’s trademark long runs.
If No. 3 can’t find a way to consistency complete more 10-plus yard passes downfield, Nebraska’s offense will again struggle to put up enough points to win games against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State.
Should his struggles continue, the great unknown remains about whether Beck and Pelini will finally give another quarterback a chance to lead the first team offense against live ammunition.
Expect fans to become restless if the staff isn’t willing to make a change in the face of even more disappointing offensive performances, especially with Carnes and incoming signal-caller Tommy Armstrong itching for the chance to make people forget about Martinez.
Can these five embrace the challenge of becoming the vital cogs to the Big Red’s success? If not, there are players below them on the depth chart happy to take their place.