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Nebraska’s Top Challenges Entering Spring Football

There might be nothing better on God’s green earth than spring football. For college football fans it’s like a big palm-tree laden oasis in the middle of a barren, desperate landscape. It provides a place of peace and relaxation, if only for a short time before a long journey starts again. At least that’s the case for the fans. For the players, it’s a whole lot of work in the hopes that the coaches will notice and move you up the depth chart in the fall.

Replacing Nate Swift Will Be One Of Nebraska's Top Priorities. It's Easier Said Than Done.

Bo Pelini had an exceptional rookie year as a head coach. His biggest problem will be that Husker fans expect his second year to be even better, even though he’s replacing the core of his offensive skill positions. If that’s to happen, several challenges that face the 2009 version of Husker football must be solved.

The list of top challenges can be found after the jump:

- Quarterback Auditioning

The most surprising news of the spring was the announcement that Patrick Witt had left the Husker football team. Witt’s departure lead to rampant speculation as to the cause, but regardless of the reasons, his choice left the quarterback position a little understaffed. With Witt, Nebraska had two quarterbacks who’d been around long enough to know the offense and take snaps on the field wearing a Nebraska uniform. Without him, there’s only one, Zac Lee.

Zac Lee holds the clear lead on the starting job due to his experience in learning Shawn Watson’s complex offense. Newcomer Cody Green has all the hype going for him -  enough that everyone seems to have forgotten Kody Spano -  but the best scenario would be that Spano and Lee perform well enough on the field in the fall that Green can take a redshirt season to further his development.

The key to the quarterback position in spring is simple enough  - learn more of the offense to the point that you’re comfortable calling and executing the plays. After that, don’t do anything stupid, and don’t get injured.

- In A Word, Dependability

It’s not hyperbole to say that replacing the combination of Nate Swift and Todd Peterson may be one of the biggest personnel challenges the Huskers have faced in quite a long time. The pair accounted for more than half of the team’s touchdowns through the air, nearly half the total receiving yardage and along with Marlon Lucky, over half the receptions.

Swift and Peterson were remarkable in their ability to consistently find an opening in the opponent’s secondary, giving quarterback Joe Ganz a pair of dependable targets. I don’t recall a pair of receivers in Husker history who were better football players on the field at the same time.

When we talk about playmaking receivers, we frequently talk about that guy who can stretch the field, outrunning the defense while streaking down the field for the perfectly lofted long bomb. It’s that guy who makes the highlight reel and wins the Biletnikoff Award. While it’d be nice if one or more of our young receivers would assume that role those are not necessarily the guys we’re looking for.

Nebraska’s 2009 offense will need some of what it got in spades from Swift and Peterson, the ability to keep the offense moving in clutch situations. Moving the chains through the air to provide balance in the offense will be a huge key in success in 2009, meaning the replacements will need to step it up. It won’t just happen in a couple weeks of spring practice, it’ll take time. All the more reason for a strong work ethic, or in a word, dependability.

- Establish Run Blocking Dominance

If you had to choose one key to the 2009 season, it is in Barney Cotton’s ability to build a group that will establish physical dominance in the running game. Gone is last year’s right side of Slauson and Murtha, and while they excelled in pass blocking, they were slow off the ball when it came to establishing the run. Their replacements can’t afford more of the same this coming season. 

Starting a new quarterback in combination with a relatively inexperienced set of receivers means that Nebraska must establish a solid running game this coming season. They are as responsible for replacing the Ganz-Swift-Peterson combination as are the receivers. If the run game can pick up four or five yards a carry, the passing game will have the time to take care of itself.

- Rebuild The Punting Game

Nebraska’s kicking game is in better shape than it’s been in quite a while. You couldn’t ask for a better duo than Alex Henery and Kunalic. Both are capable of winning games, as was evident with Alex Henery’s 57-yard game winner over Colorado.

Unfortunately, Nebraska’s punting game needs to be rebuilt. Nate Swift handled the majority of punt returns last season with Niles Paul getting some work. Paul showed flashes at times, but at others looked like a disaster waiting to happen. He must become more consistent. Better yet, Pelini needs to find a second punt returner. Spring football is the perfect time to provide that opportunity.

Nebraska will be looking for a new punter as Dan Titchener and Jake Wesch have moved on. Punting is as important as any other phase of the game, especially when you’re trying to return to the top of your conference.

- Push The Performance Higher

Pelini redshirted a few guys that might have been able to help him in his first season. It would have been easier to put Will Compton, Sean Fisher, or Baker Steinkuhler on the field to see how’d they do, but that’s not the route Pelini chose. He chose to invest in the future.

The redshirt year allowed those players to get stronger, more knowledgeable, and most importantly, more comfortable within Pelini’s system. They won’t be trying to learn at the same time they’re trying to figure out what college life is all about. They’ll be ready to take their shot and earn their time on the field. If you’re a returning starter, you can’t assume you’ll get your old job back. You’ll have to earn it.

Case in point is Phillip Dillard. A year ago, Dillard was the most experienced linebacker in a unit that had serious depth issues. It wasn’t that difficult for Dillard to keep his job, at least not as difficult as it will be this coming season. He’s not the only returning starter, and there are even more players gunning for his position.

Pelini’s choice to redshirt increased the depth across the board, increasing the competition for positions. The upper tier players cannot afford to give anything but their best effort, or they will find themselves replaced. Best effort must start in spring and continue through the fall. Anything less and the young, hungry wolves will get you.

- Follow The Leaders

If Nebraska is going to make it back to the top tier of college football, a new group of leaders must be found. The kind of leadership I’m talking about isn’t the kind that’s on the field, but must find itself dwelling in the core group of players who will hold their teammates accountable for their actions off the field.

After spring football begins the nuclear winter occupying May to August, an unbearably long time for college football fans. Leaders will assure the long layoff isn’t just that - a layoff, where guys take extended time away from weight and conditioning training.

- Back to that 'Stupid' Thing

This one is a little tongue in cheek, but not by much. If players thought they lived in a fishbowl during the regular season, the spring season can be much worse. The downside of spring football is that everything is magnified.

When 80,000 people show up for the spring game, they’re expecting a show. They’ll be looking for great plays on both sides of the ball. One poor performance will stick in their minds for months regardless of whether is has anything to do with what might happen in the fall. One stupid pass, one stupid fumble is all it takes. It may not make a difference to the coaches, but the players will hear about it and read about it.

The other unfortunate part of stupidity is this - get caught doing anything that requires a police report and your name will appear on every web site across the nation. It doesn't matter how minuscule it may appear. One not need look any further than Sam Keller’s cup throwing incident to be reminded of that.

- Pelini's Second Year Harder Than His First?

Bo Pelini has plenty of challenges facing him as he enters his second season. Take into account that he’s not a rookie coach anymore and you could argue that the challenges this year are greater than his first.

It'll be interesting to watch how Pelini handles his second year. Scratch that. It'll be more than interesting. It'll be entertaining.