- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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After guiding Nebraska to the doorstep of two Big 12 championships, Bo Pelini is ready to reach the next level in a new league.
Pelini, who enters his fourth year as Huskers coach, leads a talented Nebraska team into the Big Ten this season. Nebraska has recorded back-to-back 10-win seasons and returns a squad Pelini thinks can compete for a championship in Year 1. While many consider the Huskers as a potential favorite in the Big Ten, Pelini's group must survive a difficult schedule and adjust to a new offensive vision, not to mention eight new conference opponents.
Nebraska's Big Ten membership is now official, and Pelini recently took some time to discuss the move and his team.
How would you describe the transition process of getting ready for the Big Ten?
Bo Pelini: It has required some extra time, trying to familiarize ourselves with some new opponents. It's almost like taking a new job. It's a job in a new conference, and there's a lot of things to do to acquaint yourselves with what's going on. We've done some work on the Big Ten teams, made some notes, talked about it and watched them. So hopefully that will help us, and when each particular game week comes along, we've already become familiar with what they like to do and what they don't like to do. There are some challenges with it, but you look forward to those.
Some of your players started watching film on Big Ten teams this spring. Did you encourage them to ramp it up this summer?
BP: Not really. I'm sure guys have looked a little bit, but we really concern ourselves with us at this time of year, through the spring and into the summer. We want our players to work on themselves, learning our offense, our defense, our special teams better. We're taking care of us.
When you've reviewed tape of Big Ten teams, has anything surprised you?
BP: About what I expected. There's nothing earth-shattering that I said, 'Wow, I didn't expect that.' They're good football teams, they're talented, they're well coached and I expected that. I had a lot of respect for the Big Ten and what it represents for a long time. It sure will be a good challenge for us.
How challenging will it be for the Big Ten to prepare for what you do?
BP: I think we do some things that are going to present some challenges for people. That's why we do them. I think we're going to be a good football team. How good? It's what we earn. It's one thing watching teams on film. I'm sure we'll have a whole different appreciation and view of them once we've actually gone through the whole schedule. Obviously going to some new venues and playing on the road in some stadiums and atmospheres we haven't been to yet, that will be a challenge for us. But as a whole, players, coaches, everybody, we're looking forward to it.
Do you sense the excitement among the players?
BP: They're looking forward to it. They're hungry to win a championship, just because it's our next opportunity.
How has being so close the last few years motivated your team?
BP: They're always motivated, but we were really close. We played in two Big 12 championships in a row and lost two heart-breakers. It makes you hungry. We're really black and white about it. We didn't win because we didn't take advantage of our opportunities. That means you've got to prepare better, you've got to work better and you've got to become a better football team. That's what we're concentrating on.
How did you feel about the team coming out of spring ball?
BP: I thought we had a great spring. We had a great finish to the school year. We've had a really productive summer, our players are committed. It's right there. It's all sitting out there for us to be really good. We've got to work hard, take care of each other, hopefully stay away from the injuries. The pieces are there. Now how we come together, how the leadership of our football team develops and continues to develop, that's always a big aspect of it. Each year is different, but so far I like what I see.
Who is developing into those leadership roles?
BP: Obviously, you've got guys like Jared Crick, who's been around and played a lot of football, Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard. Rex Burkhead's a natural leader. Taylor [Martinez] has really stepped up as a leader this offseason. He's continuing to develop in that area. I see it across the board. Our team is pretty tight-knit and there's a lot good chemistry going early. That needs to continue.
What's your outlook for Taylor this season?
BP: He had a really good spring and he's continuing to get better each and every day. People tend to forget he was only a freshman last year. He had so much success early that some of those expectations were ludicrous. He's continuing to get better. He's way ahead of the curve, he's getting better and he's poised to have a great year, I'm excited for him.
How valuable is it to have Crick, David and Denard leading each level on defense?
BP: We have guys across the board on the defensive side. You also look at Will Compton and Cameron Meredith. We have experience coming back, a lot of guys that have played, guys who really have character and leadership ability, and guys I think are hungry to be good football players. It's good to have it across your unit. We want that leadership, that commitment to extend throughout our whole football team, and we're a lot closer to having that.
How would you describe the transition you went through on offense, and what do you expect from that unit?
BP: We've got to be more efficient. We weren't real efficient last year. Even early in the year, when we were scoring a lot of points, we were living on the big play. We made too many mistakes, we weren't as disciplined as I would have liked, too penalized. We had a lot of issues. We didn't make a lot of progress in some of those areas, so we're simplifying it, we're reducing and making the terminology easier and a little more user-friendly. A lot of the progress in the spring I'll continue to see through the fall. Our players have really embraced it.
You have quite a few veterans, but what types of opportunities are there for your incoming freshmen?
BP: There's a lot of opportunities. Around here, every day is competing and the best guys are going to play, the guys who earn it are going to play. We're going to need some freshmen running backs to come in and complement Rex, help him and provide some depth. We only have 11 seniors in this next class, so we're still a pretty young team. That's exciting for me. I think we have a chance to be really good, but the future's bright.
Are you in a wait-and-see mode with Bubba Starling? What's your feeling with him?
BP: Bubba's going to have to make the decision that's best for him and his family. We're behind him no matter what he chooses. I believe he's going to be here. I'm going business as usual until he tells me he's not. He's going to be here in about a week and a half, and he'll be getting ready to start the second semester of summer. It's business as usual for us until we know otherwise.
How valuable could he be for you guys?
BP: He's obviously tremendously talented, a fierce competitor. I love what he brings to the table. We're excited to have him in our program.
What would it mean for Nebraska to compete for a Big Ten championship in Year 1?
BP: We expect to do that. That's what our expectation is, so if we don't, we'll all be disappointed. It's not going to be easy; it never is. It'll be a fight, but as long as we continue to do the right things and keep getting better each day, we'll line up and be ready to go come September.
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney