Two seasons ago, Alonzo Whaley found himself in the starting lineup at weakside linebacker for the Nebraska football team’s opener against Western Kentucky.
“Found” might seem a curious choice, but consider the situation. “I got thrown into that,” Whaley said, looking back. “It wasn’t the fact that, ‘Oh, he earned it, so he’s going to play.’ ”
Two days before the game, sophomore Will Compton, who had earned the starting job in fall camp, suffered a broken foot. So next man up. And Whaley, also a sophomore, was the next.
He responded with five tackles in the 49-10 victory. But he made enough mistakes that he didn’t start again. He saw limited action in eight more games, getting credit for four more tackles. The flush of excitement over the opening-game start quickly faded into back-up anonymity.
Whaley didn’t take care of business off the field, either, which is why he wasn’t among the 105 players invited to fall camp prior to last season. Typically, the only scholarship players not included on the 105-roster are those who are injured. But Whaley was healthy.
While his teammates practiced, he sat in his room and contemplated his future. If he hadn’t responded as he did, he wouldn’t be a Cornhusker now, looking toward a senior season of possibilities. “It’s that simple,” said Whaley. “If I didn’t take the things that Bo (Pelini) had said and I didn’t change the way I act and I didn’t change the way I care about school, I wouldn’t be here.”
When Nebraska opens its fifth season under Pelini against Southern Miss, Whaley is slated to be in the starting lineup at weakside linebacker. He’s earned the start. “It’s not given to me,” he said. “So it’s going to be hard to take it away now. That’s how I look at things.”
Whaley will be among at least a half-dozen new starters on both sides of the ball. Each has a story. In fact, every player who suits up has a story, including a few whose stories have been retold, discussed and analyzed throughout the pre-season. Taylor Martinez, for example.
“I think he’s excited for the year,” Pelini said of the junior quarterback. “I think he’s taking an attitude he has something to prove. I think he’s had a great off-season and an excellent fall camp.”
Martinez has worked on his throwing mechanics during the off-season, to become a more efficient passer. In addition, “he’s really improved as a leader, as a take-charge guy, so I think we’re moving in a good direction,” said running backs coach Ron Brown.
That direction is toward a championship, something the Huskers have yet to win under Pelini.
“I think if you’re in a program like this, you have to win a conference championship and a national championship. That’s the benchmark. That’s what you’re trying to do,” Pelini said.
Nebraska last won a conference championship in 1999, when Pelini was coaching New England Patriots linebackers. It last won a national championship in 1997. And it last played in a BCS bowl (and national championship game) at the end of the 2001 season – the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Since then, the Huskers, like Whaley, have faded, failing to finish in the Top 10. They were No. 24 in the final Associated Press poll last season, after being ranked as high as No. 8.
They were No. 17 in the AP pre-season poll for 2012.
Even so, “you walk into high schools and people recognize the brand,” said Pelini. “Are we where we want to be yet? Absolutely not. But there’s a lot of great things in where we’re heading. I’m not going to be happy, and we’re not going to be happy, until we’re there.”
Optimism is the order of the day, of course, for Pelini’s senior-laden team. Whaley is among 30 seniors, including 24 for whom this will be a fifth season. “We’ve been here since the first day of Coach Bo’s been here,” said senior safety P.J. Smith.
The seniors want their legacy to include Pelini’s first championship at Nebraska.
“It’s a big deal,” Whaley said. “I prepared myself every day up until now to win a championship. And I think that’s what this program, as far as football, has been based. “We need to win a championship. We’re going to win championship. Not can we win a championship? Our mindsets are, we’re going to win a championship, no ifs, ands, buts about it.”
The Huskers have been in position to win a conference title under Pelini twice, reaching the Big 12 championship game in 2009 and 2010. They were picked to reach the Big Ten title game last season, their first in the conference, but finished third in their division. As a result, expectations aren’t quite as high for Nebraska’s second season in the Big Ten – outside the program, anyway.
Running under the radar “doesn’t really matter,” said senior I-back Rex Burkhead. “That’s more for the media to deal with. But at the same time, I feel like we’re a focused group and that we’re ready to get going. I think we’re a focused squad and that we’re ready to do big things.”
Burkhead will play an important role, coming off a junior season in which he rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns to earn first-team All-Big Ten recognition. With a comparable season statistically, he would pass Ahman Green into second on Nebraska’s career-rushing list.
Only Mike Rozier, the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner, would have more rushing yards.
There was a time when being the Huskers’ No. 1 running back carried with it Heisman Trophy consideration. But Burkhead, despite his numbers, is regarded as a Heisman longshot, at best, taking a backseat to Wisconsin’s Montee Ball in the Big Ten.
Burkhead was included on pre-season watch lists for the Walter Camp, Doak Walker and Maxwell Awards. But “I really don’t care about that stuff,” he said. “All I really want is a Big Ten title game. All the individual accolades will take care of themselves throughout the year. Those nominations and all that is more for the fans and media to decide. My main mission is to win the Big Ten title game.”
Burkhead carried 284 times, just two short of the school single-season record, in 2011, a workload that should be lightened. Sophomores Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard and true freshman Imani Cross have been competing to do that. Heard moved to cornerback in the spring but has returned to running back as a result of Aaron Green’s transfer to TCU.
The fullback also could get some carries. Junior Mike Marrow, who sat out last season after transferring, appears to have the edge at that position.
In any case, “Rex wants to play every snap,” said Pelini. “It’s up to us to manage that. At the same time, we need to get the ball in his hands.”
Burkhead’s success, and health, will depend on an offensive line built around returning starters Spencer Long, Seung Hoon Choi and Andrew Rodriguez, who will begin the season as a back-up tackle. In addition, Jeremiah Sirles started every game as a redshirted freshman two years ago.
Long, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, and Choi were among five walk-ons awarded scholarships in fall camp. Justin Jackson, another, has emerged in a three-way competition at center.
Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa are returning starters at wide receiver, a position deep in talented young players as well as senior Tim Marlowe. “I don’t think Nebraska’s ever had higher expectations for receivers,” said Bell, who caught 32 passes for 461 yards and three touchdowns last season.
The same could be said of tight ends Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed, fifth-year seniors.
In addition to Compton, ends Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah, tackle Baker Steinkuhler, linebacker Sean Fisher, cornerbacks Ciante Evens and Andrew Green and safety Daimion Stafford are returning starters. Compton, Meredith, Steinkuhler and Fisher are fifth-year seniors.
The defensive staff has been restructured. John Papuchis has replaced Carl Pelini, now the head coach at Florida Atlantic, as coordinator, and Papuchis has two new assistants: line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph.
As with other areas, expectations are high. “I think we can be the best. We have great depth and knowledge, and the coaches we have . . . we can do it,” Compton said.
All-Big Ten punter and place-kicker Brett Maher, another of those awarded scholarships this fall, gives the Huskers solid kicking, and long-snapper P.J. Mangieri has been in every game the past three seasons. He’s among only four fifth-year seniors.
They all have stories, all as compelling in their own way, as Whaley’s. Much has changed since the 2010 opener against Western Kentucky. “I take responsibility,” said Whaley, “because like I said, at the end of the day, I never looked at myself and said, ‘What are you doing wrong?’ ”
He blamed those around him. “I was too immature to realize it was something I was doing,” he said.
That’s not the case now.