Some of the ways Nebraska can have a big season in 2014 are quite obvious (give the ball to Ameer Abdullah, get solid production from Tommy Armstrong, reduce turnovers, establish a punt return game, etc.)
But there are some other keys that have kind of flown under the radar. They may not be as self-evident as “keep the defensive ends healthy”, but they are just as important.
1. Move on from Taylor Martinez.
Love him or hate him, he is gone. And yet, I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve seen and heard Martinez mentioned since the Gator Bowl ended his eligibility. The program, fans, and media do not do themselves any favors by continually bringing him up. Don’t compare Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fyfe, or Johnny Stanton to T-Magic. Don’t compare the plays that Tim Beck calls this year to what he called with Martinez. Resist the urge to take shots at his coach-ability, his personality, or his mechanics (or the lack thereof).
There is absolutely no good in continuing to rehash the Martinez era. And none of it matters for the 2014 season.
This isn’t to say that we should completely forget about a guy who holds a bazillion school records. However, sometimes when you get out of a long, complicated (and possibly dysfunctional) relationship, the best thing to do is to simply move forward without looking back.
It’s over. He’s gone. Let’s move on.
2. Avoid the Super Senior Jinx.
Nebraska is in the midst of a very unfortunate trend. A player comes off of a strong junior season. He enters his senior year looking like a potential All-American and team leader. Then, an injury in the non-conference derails his season and throws the team into a state of flux. The list of recent victims:
- 2013: Taylor Martinez. Hurts his toe(s) against Wyoming. Never fully recovers and is done for the season after the Minnesota game. Spencer Long qualifies too, even though his injury occurred in conference play.
- 2012: Rex Burkhead. Injures his knee in the opener against Southern Miss. He sits out multiple games, and is not the same until the regular season finale at Iowa.
- 2011: Jared Crick. Tore his pectoral against Washington. He tried to play with it for a few games, but was clearly not the same player.
If I’m Bo Pelini, I instruct the trainers to wrap Ameer Abdullah in bubble wrap for every practice. I also suggest treating the Florida Atlantic and McNeese State games like NFL preseason games: play a few series and then let the backups take over – regardless of the score.
3. Develop an “Anytime. Anywhere.” mentality.
Much has been said and written about the five straight night games (including the late night party out in Fresno). And since Nebraska a) plays in the Big Ten, and b) has a schedule that includes Rutgers, Purdue, and Minnesota, you can all but guarantee a couple of 11 am kickoffs. Throw in the fact that Nebraska’s toughest games (Michigan State and Wisconsin) are on the road, and you start to see why this mentality is so important.
Nebraska is hit or miss on the road under Pelini. For every hard fought win (Michigan, 2013; Michigan State, 2012) there is a blowout loss (Michigan 2011; Wisconsin 2011). Nebraska’s record in road games under the lights since 2010 is 2 – 7, with an average margin of defeat of 18 points (that margin jumps to almost 28 points since joining the Big 10).
With the schedule they face in 2014, Pelini’s team needs to have a mentality of a heavyweight boxer contender eyeing a shot at the title: I’ll take you on anytime, anywhere.
4. Don’t shut out the media.
On the surface, you would not think that having reporters and other media members at practice would have any impact on Nebraska’s season. But it will. Not necessarily in the on-field results (Tommy Armstrong’s performance is going to be the same regardless of if Dirk Chatelain is at practice). The impact comes in perception – how we as fans perceive players, coaches, and game planning/preparation.
Don’t believe me? Look at Nebraska’s spring practices. The media had greater access to practice than they have ever had under Pelini. While they could not report on specific things they saw, they were able to confirm a lot of the things we saw in the Spring Game. For example: if there was no media access and Pelini says Ryker Fyfe is neck and neck with Johnny Stanton for the backup QB job, you’d wonder what the heck is going on (and probably question the coaching staff). With media attending practices, we can hear/read from multiple sources that it is no fluke – Stanton is struggling and Fyfe is performing very well. In short, the media’s presence at practice gives credibility to the personnel moves Pelini makes and likely supports decisions made on Saturdays
For example: let’s say in the Wisconsin game, Nebraska runs a fake field goal where Drew Brown takes an option pitch to the weak sideline. Brown is stuffed for no gain and Nebraska goes on to lose by two points. Certainly, that decision will be questioned heavily by the media (that’s part of what they do). However, with media access at practice, reporters could note that Nebraska had been working on that play for a month, and Drew Brown has better open field moves then some of the I-Backs. In other words, having the media at practice allows them to have more information, which allows for better analysis and less assumptions.
I know the media access will go away (or be severely limited) during the season, but I hope Pelini and his staff realize the benefits it can bring for his program – and how they are perceived.
5. Find a reliable long snapper.
One of the most concerning pieces of news out of fall camp has been the back injury keeping scholarship long snapper Gabriel Miller on the bench. As a true freshman, Miller had an outstanding year with no bad snaps. But if he can’t go (and it certainly appears that he’s going to be out for a while), finding a capable replacement is paramount.
Safety Nate Gerry has been working at the position in practice, but keeping him healthy (and allowing sideline warm up time with the holder and kicker) are big, big concerns. Very few things can swing momentum like a blocked punt, missed field goal, or other special teams miscue.
Who knows? Gerry (or walk-on Josh Faulkenberry) might end up being even better than Miller. But if I’m Ross Els, it might not hurt to scour the campus for potential walk-ons who long snapped in high school. Just in case…