DT – Vincent Valentine
Sophomore / 6-foot-3, 320-pounds
Bo Pelini’s defensive scheme over the years has been the best when he has an elite defensive tackle. Vincent Valentine isn’t there yet, but has the tools and now the experience to be very good this season.
Valentine looked almost like a different player in his helmet this spring. He was a slimmed down version of himself and appeared to be approaching his craft with a different mindset. His coaches credit maturity as the reason behind the change – Valentine knows now what it takes to be successful at this level.
Getting to the quarterback is important, but Valentine’s role as a hole-plugger might even be more crucial to the Blackshirts in 2014, especially with guys like Jeremy Langford, Melvin Gordon, Mark Weisman, David Cobb, and Duke Johnson on the schedule.
Valentine’s strongest two-game stretch of his career came last season against Penn State and Iowa, where he recorded eight tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack. If the Illinois native can continue to play at that type of level, the front four has a shot to be pretty good.
OG – Jake Cotton
Senior / 6-foot-5, 305-pounds
Cotton won’t make a lot of lists as the best offensive lineman for Nebraska, but he might be the most important. It will be an offensive line filled with talent, but a serious lack of experience – five starters are gone from last year’s squad.
Cotton will be the most experienced starter this fall for Nebraska and that counts for something. The senior will be heavily relied upon to be the glue of a unit that will need a rock to build around.
A physical presence in the trenches, Cotton has a certain tenacity on the field that the offense can feed off of. It’s that type of play that players like Zach Sterup, Ryne Reeves, Mike Moudy, Matt Finnin, Mark Pelini, Chongo Kondolo and even Alex Lewis will need to rally around.
The offense battled inconsistencies sustaining drives last year - some of those due to breakdowns up front. Nebraska had injuries to battle through last year. A lot of players were rotated in which could make for a stronger unit.
Nebraska will be run-heavy with players like Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross lining up in the backfield. A player like Cotton will be looked upon to open up the holes needed to get Nebraska’s offense in a rhythm, which will help with the inconsistencies that Nebraska battled last year.
Regardless of who is running the ball behind him or Tommy Armstrong throwing the ball, Cotton will be a key part to the Nebraska offense this coming season.