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State of the team: Nebraska

12/3/2014

Nebraska is not a broken football program. As the Huskers search for Bo Pelini's replacement, they have plenty that'll look attractive to candidates, from returning personnel on the field to resources away from it.

Here's a look at what the next coach figures to inherit:

Offense: Nebraska loses its most productive running back-receiver combo of the past 30 years in Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. brings back experience and possesses strong leadership qualities. Emerging talent on the offensive line must jell in a way that did not happen this year. Line play, in fact, ranked as the Huskers’ most glaring deficiency in 2014. Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor, who has yet to play, are solid in the backfield but likely lack the star quality of Abdullah. Jordan Westerkamp must account for the loss of Bell with help from explosive wideouts De'Mornay Pierson-El, Taariq Allen and Alonzo Moore. The biggest question, of course, involves fitting these nice pieces into the style of play installed by the next staff. New leadership could provide an opportunity for former blue-chip QB Johnny Stanton, who has not made an impact in two seasons, to challenge Armstrong.

Defense: Even without defensive end Randy Gregory, who is expected to leave early for the NFL, the Huskers’ strength remains up front with the return of Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentine and star-in-the-making Maliek Collins. Nebraska is dangerously thin, though, at end, and linebackers Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach are gone, leaving a lot of work for the next staff. They’ll be tasked to find the right spots for once-promising Josh Banderas and David Santos. Youngsters Marcus Newby and Courtney Love look the part but did not contribute as expected. Linebacker Michael Rose and safety Leroy Alexander return and should offer a big boost. In the secondary, first-year coach Charlton Warren may have a chance to stay. He did great work with safety Nate Gerry this year, and this area features the team’s best collection of young talent with the likes of Kieron Williams, Josh Kalu and Chris Jones.

Special teams: Looks good all around, with the return of punter Sam Foltz, who developed into a weapon in his second season, and freshman place-kicker Drew Brown. Pierson-El amassed more punt-return yardage -- by a margin of 30 percent -- than any other team nationally, returning three kicks for touchdowns. His value to the next coach cannot be overstated.

Fan base: Here’s where it gets tricky. Husker Nation is again splintered after the firing of Pelini, whose backers will struggle to accept anything less than the Bo standard of nine or 10 wins. Even then, if the Huskers don’t win a conference title in a short time, a faction of fans will loudly question the need for change. It has the potential to get toxic in a way similar to the dark days of the Bill Callahan era, when many fans and former players felt alienated. All of this magnifies the need for Nebraska to find a coach who embraces the school’s tradition and can unite people. There are hurt feelings to soothe, and if Pelini’s replacement doesn’t understand that, he’s facing a stacked deck from the start. Nebraska has sold out an NCAA-record 340 consecutive games. And since the expansion of the stadium to more than 90,000 in 2013, ticket demand has softened. As an institution, Nebraska can’t afford empty seats in the stadium.

Administrative support: It’s strong. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst, asked why he fired Pelini after a 9-3 regular season when 8-4 was good enough to stay last year, pointed immediately to support from the administration. Pelini made requests, particularly to better fund recruiting, and Eichorst complied. Even the former coach mentioned several times that Eichorst provided all the resources that Nebraska needed to win. Was it a scheme from the boss, who planned to fire Pelini all along and wanted to remove every potential excuse? That’s a theory for the most fierce of the Pelini loyalists. Regardless, the next coach will be Eichorst’s guy, tied to him for the duration, so it stands to reason that Nebraska’s administrative support, already outstanding, will only grow. The school has millions in its reserve fund, evidenced by the ease with which it is handling Pelini’s $7.9 million buyout. And as long as the stadium remains full, the resources will expand after the Big Ten inks a new, rich TV contract in 2016.

Recruiting: Nebraska had a small senior class in 2014 and expected to sign a group of less than 20 in this recruiting cycle, though normal attrition that accompanies a coaching change could increase the demand for reinforcements. If a coach is hired soon, he could likely salvage much of the 2015 class, headlined by Louisiana running back Kendall Bussey, who has re-opened his recruitment, and Coloradans Avery Anderson and Eric Lee. Anderson and Lee, defensive backs who signed early enrollment paperwork in August, can still renege. In the big picture, Nebraska could benefit from a coach with connections in talent-rich California, Texas or the South. And at a minimum, the next staff must feature the diversity and experience to recruit nationally. Nebraska faces challenges here that are unique among the elite programs, but the right group of recruiters can make it work well.