The SB Nation Big 12 preview will post on Friday at The Ralphie Report. The following is the Nebraska team capsule for the conference-wide preview piece in conjunction with CBS Sports.
Anything less than winning the Big 12 North will be a disappointment. The success of the 2009 Husker offense will depend on Nebraska establishing a firm ground attack, providing time for Lee and the receiving corps to develop into a balanced attack. If the Huskers find themselves one-dimensional, they'll have to rely on their defense to carry them to the Big 12 Championship game, but the margin for error will be very thin.
In 2009, the offense begins with I-backs Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille. In 2008, Helu was bothered by a shoulder injury at the start of the season, but emerged as a star in November, rushing for 510 yards and five touchdowns in the final four games. For the season, he averaged 6.4 yards per carry, which is the highest of any returning back in the North division. Castille was the third back most of the season, but rushed for 125 yards in the Gator Bowl.
Replacing Joe Ganz at quarterback will be junior Zac Lee. Lee, who played sparingly last season, might be Nebraska's most talented quarterback since Eric Crouch. At San Francisco City College in 2006, Lee threw for over 3400 yards and 35 touchdowns. Lee is mobile as well, with 4.6 speed.
Nebraska's top returning receiver is tight end Mike McNeill, who'll probably be the best tight end in the conference not named Jermaine Gresham. Menelik Holt and Niles Paul look to be the top two wide receivers in 2009. Holt was hampered by a knee injury that caused him to miss most of four games last season. Paul's biggest contributions to date have been on kick returns, with an 85 yard touchdown return against San Jose State last season. A group of inexperienced but talented receivers will fight for playing time and to fill out the remaining positions.
Three starters return up front, including honorable mention all-Big XII center Jacob Hickman, who may move to guard this season. Juniors Keith Williams and Mike Smith return to anchor the left side of the line. If Hickman moves to right guard, sophomore Mike Caputo will take over at center. Other candidates for the right side include tackle Marcel Jones and guards D.J. Jones and Ricky Henry.
The defense is lead by pre-season All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who is also a top-ten NFL draft prospect. The defense will be dependent upon Suh to make plays or occupy enough blockers to make them better. Expect sophomore Jared Crick to start alongside Suh, with redshirt freshman Baker Steinkuhler in the rotation.
Defensive end Barry Turner returns this season after breaking his leg in early 2008. Pierre Allen did an excellent job filling in his position last season. Between Suh, Crick, Turner and Allen, Nebraska's defensive line should be one of the best in the conference this season.
At linebacker, no fewer than ten players are fighting for three starting positions. Phillip Dillard returns as the most experienced of the bunch, but after a lackluster spring must fight his way back into the starting rotation. Pelini has so far refused to name starters to keep the competition going, but you could expect redshirt freshmen Will Compton and Sean Fisher to win some starts, along with sophomore Matthew May.
The secondary returns with much more depth than the previous season. Prince Amukamara and Anthony West return as starters at the corners. Anthony Blue returns after sitting out 2008 with a knee injury. Lance Thorrell should reprise his role in the dime package. Larry Asante is the top returning starter at safety, and should make the All-Big 12 list by the end of the season. Eric Hagg should keep his spot as the other starting safety, splitting time with Matt O'Hanlon. Rickey Thenarse must have a good fall camp to fight off redshirt freshmen Courtney Osborne and P.J. Smith. The defensive secondary had too many break downs last season, but that should be much improved this year.
In a single season, Bo Pelini turned around a defense that finished near the bottom of the nation in several categories, and had them playing well enough to finish as one of the top defenses in the Big 12 by season's end. With a year of understanding Pelini's system behind them, expect the Blackshirt defense to become the bright spot for Husker fans this season.
Alex Henery returns as one of the most accurate kickers in the nation. In 2008, Henery went 18-21 in field goals and made 56 of 57 PATs. The Huskers will have to replace holder Jake Wesch and long snapper T.J. O'Leary, who have handled those duties over the past three seasons.
Kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic returns after finishing fifth the nation in touchbacks last season, giving the Huskers a formidable weapon in the kicking game. Henery may pull double duty and handle punting duty, a task for which he was originally recruited.
Nate Swift was the team's primary punter last season and must be replaced after having moved on this season. Niles Paul showed some promise returning punts, and should be more consistent this season. Newcomers Rex Burkhead and Antonio Bell will be considered as will redshirt freshman Tim Marlowe.
Niles Paul looks likely to replay his role as a kick returner after having a decent year in 2008. Two of the top five plays last season were Paul kick returns, including a 85-yard touchdown return against San Jose State. Alfonzo Dennard was one of only three true freshman to play last season and should handle return duties again this season. Sophomore Curenski Gilleylen and newcomers Burkhead and Antonio Bell may get their chance as well.
Kickoff coverage must get better as Nebraska finished 105th in the nation in last season. Watch for Bo Pelini to include some talented newcomers to the coverage team this season as the Huskers look for every edge possible to win the Big 12 North.
Joe Ganz, QB - The former bench warmer that nobody believed in until Sam Keller injured his collarbone. He came in and promptly put up three straight 400 yard games and showed a gritty resolve that endeared him to Husker fans. He leaves after setting 23 school records, including season records for passing yardage.
Nate Swift, WR - Departs as the Huskers record holder for career receptions, and ranks second for yards receiving all-time. Some might consider him a "possession" receiver, but he also had decent speed. In his senior season, he ranked 2nd in the Big XII and eighth nationally in punt returns.
Todd Peterson, WR - Along with Swift, gave Joe Ganz two dependable receivers. The pair combined for 125 receptions and over 1,700 yards.
Marlon Lucky, IB - The former five-star recruit never quite lived up to the hype from his high school days, but was a versatile weapon in all facets of the passing game.
Matt Slauson, OL - The anchor of the Husker offensive line the last few years, Slauson was drafted in the 6th round by the New York Jets, where he'll be reunited with Jets offensive line coach Bill Callahan.
Lydon Murtha, OL - Murtha was an enigma for the Huskers, as he had all of the measurables to be an impressive offensive line prospect, but never developed the consistency to be that dominant lineman that some projected. The Detroit Lions were impressed enough to take him in the seventh round of the NFL draft.
Zach Potter, DE - Potter became a dominant end in his final two seasons, showing a knack for deflecting passes and kicks. Last season, he blocked three kicks and deflected two passes to Ndamukong Suh, who returned both for touchdowns.
Ty Steinkuhler, DT - Steinkuhler was a bit of an unsung hero until the Gator Bowl last season. His presence prevented offenses from double-teaming Ndamukong Suh, as Clemson quickly learned.
Armando Murillo, CB - Nebraska's lone loss in the secondary, he was the Huskers most consistent performer in the secondary.
Dan Titchener, P - Three year starter who averaged 39.9 yards per punt in his career.
Pelini has already shown his penchant for retaining redshirts, so you shouldn't expect to see a lot of brand new faces this year.
Baker Steinkuhler, DT - Another Steinkuhler, the departing Ty's little brother. Should see plenty of playing time this season.
Will Compton, LB - the most likely middle linebacker of the future for the Blackshirt defense.
Sean Fisher, LB - having a break-out fall camp, should be expected to get a lot of starts this season.
Rex Burkhead, RB/KR/PR/? - Burkhead was a ‘do everything' guy in in high school, playing running back, quarterback, receiver, returning punts and kicks, along with taking out the trash. Truly a versatile player, probably too skilled to remain on the sideline this season as a true freshman.
Antonio Bell & Brandon Kinnie, WR - A pair of young wide receivers that should make some contributions and break into the starting rotation by the end of the season.
Big 12 Projected Order Of Finish:
2009 Opponent Previews
Arkansas St. Red Wolves
Virginia Tech Hokies
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
Texas Tech Red Raiders owa St. Cyclones
Kansas St. Wildcats