The 2011 season marked the first for Nebraska as a member of the Big 10. They kicked off conference play with a loss to Wisconsin, and finished the campaign going 5-3 in the conference, with a 9-4 record overall. 2012 will be Bo Pelini’s fifth season as the Cornhuskers head coach, and it appears they’ll have to get through Michigan and Michigan State for a shot at the Conference Championship. Here is a look at the top draft-eligible players on the Nebraska roster. Underclassmen are designated with an asterisk…
Rex Burkhead RB 5’11 210 – Burkhead was the nation’s ninth rated all-purpose back out of high school in Plano, Texas. He saw work immediately as a freshman but missed five games that season with a foot injury. As a sophomore he gained close to 1000 yards rushing, ran for seven touchdowns, and even passed for three scores, including twice in one game against Colorado. Last season, Burkhead rushed for 1357 yards, averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and scored 17 total touchdowns. He was a true workhorse, surpassing 20 carries in eight of his 13 starts in 2011. He toted the ball 38 times against Iowa, and 35 times against Michigan State. Burkhead is a high effort player. He has soft hands and can help in the receiving game. While he doesn’t shy from contact when carrying the ball, he does look uncomfortable at times when pass blocking. Burkhead is not a shifty runner. He won’t make opponents miss in the open field. He can tend to hesitate when picking his running lanes, and he lacks the lateral agility and quickness to recover in those instances. Burkhead is a well-rounded player. So while he is not necessarily exciting with the ball in his hands, he’s the type of reliable player that coaches and teammates can trust. His versatility and work habits should earn him a role as a backup or situational back at the NFL level.
Baker Steinkuhler DT 6’6 290 – Not only was Steinkuler the nation’s second rated offensive tackle prospect coming out of high school in 2008, he was the eight rated prospect overall. Steinkuhler had experience on both sides of the ball, so after redshirting in 2008, he was moved to defense full time. By his sophomore season, he was a full time starter, but his production declined after the first few games of the season. Then, toward the end of the season, Steinkuhler was charged with a DUI and was suspended for the school’s Holiday Bowl loss to Washington. He returned as a full time starter in 2011, and was a consistent if unspectacular presence on Nebraska’s D-line. He has yet to live up to the accolades he received while starring at the prep level. His strength lies in run defense, as he isn’t a dynamic athlete and his primary move is to rely solely on his strength. He’d be best served to study and apply some new pass rush techniques for use on obvious passing downs, where bull-rushing interior linemen is often ineffective. Because of his size and body type, Steinkuhler is likely to get consideration as a five technique end in a 3-4 alignment, a position that best seems to suit the skill set and style he’s shown to this point in his career.
Taylor Martinez* QB 6’1 200 – After redshirting in 2009, Martinez started 12 games as a freshman the following year. In his first game, against Western Kentucky, he made an immediate impression by rushing for three touchdowns on seven carries, and averaging better than 18 yards per carry. After five games he had gained 737 yards on 68 carries (10.8 yards per carry) and scored 12 rushing touchdowns. Two games later, Martinez passed for over 300 yards and five touchdowns, and ran for 112 more yards in a win over Oklahoma State. Things fell off for Martinez and the Huskers the rest of the way. The opposition began to catch up to the freshman QB, he missed the better part of two games with injuries, he butted heads with Pelini, and the team went 5-3 down the stretch. But Martinez returned as the starter and led the team to a 9-4 record in its first season in the Big 10. Martinez will kick off his third year as a starter against Southern Miss on September 1st. He’ll need to show drastic improvement in his accuracy as a passer to ever be taken seriously as an NFL quarterback prospect. At this point that seems highly unlikely. More probable is a scenario in which Martinez plays out the next two years as Nebraska’s QB, then tries to make a position switch to take advantage of his exceptional running ability. An eventual move to wide receiver may be his only shot at sticking in the NFL, but it will probably be a while before anyone sees him attempt that transition.
Cameron Meredith DE 6’4 265 – Meredith was one of the under the radar defensive players mentioned here.
Also keep an eye on: Antonio Bell CB 6’2 200, Courtney Osborne FS 6’3 200, Will Compton ILB 6’2 230, Daimion Stafford FS 6’1 205, Sean Fisher OLB 6’6 235, Jeremiah Sirles* OT 6’6 310, P.J. Smith SS 6’2 210, Kyler Reed TE 6’3 230, Ben Cotton TE 6’6 255, Brett Maher K 6’0 185