October 13, 2009

Tuesday notebook: Huskers searching for new No. 2

A day after Nebraska's running back situation took yet another devastating blow, the Huskers were back at it looking for the next guy to step up and put some fears to rest.


After losing talented freshman Rex Burkhead indefinitely to a foot injury during Monday's practice, the team came out on Tuesday on a mission to find the next running back to emerge as the No. 2 behind junior Roy Helu.


Nothing was answered as far as who that player would be, but the Huskers have re-opened the competition for the spot for any of their five young backs to take. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said no timetable has been set to establish the running back rotation, and the competition could last the entire week or longer if needed.


"The next guy gets ready," Watson said. "It's just called life. You just have to move forward. We don't panic about stuff like that around here. We've got a next guy. That's why we've got more than two guys on scholarship, so we're in good shape. That's why we don't worry about it."


The five candidates to replace Burkhead - who replaced Quentin Castille in the fall after he was dismissed from the team - are redshirt freshman Lester Ward, sophomores Austin Jones and Marcus Mendoza, redshirt freshman Collins Okafor and true freshman Dontrayevous Robinson.


Ward emerged as the leader for the No. 3 running back spot back in the spring and held onto that role through fall camp. Beck said he's been the most consistent of the other five remaining backs.


Beck also said Ward - who stands at 6-foot-3 - has a unique running style, describing him as a "slicer" that rarely takes big hits because of his ability to shift through holes and always fall forward.


Ward said he's more than ready to take over Burkhead's role in the offense, and that he's been prepared for this exact situation all season.


"We practice like this situation was already going to come up," Ward said. "That's a part of being an athlete, is staying prepared. I know I've been preparing, have been prepared, and so it's just one of those kinds of things you don't have to address, because everybody in there is ready to perform at any time.


"I'm very comfortable. It's not an issue there. I'm ready. I'm very comfortable. They've done a great job of preparing us, and I'm prepared."


Beck said Ward is still the frontrunner for the job, but his lead over the rest of the pack has slimmed over the course of the season. That was one of the biggest reasons why the staff decided to re-open the spot for competition, he said.


"He just plays consistent, but those other guys have been practicing, so their games have picked up," Beck said. "They know the offense better, they understand things a little bit better, so what's happened is they've narrowed the gap some on him. I felt it'd only be fair to open it up and let them compete for the job."





Tuesday practice takes
Huskers ready for either Tech QB: The biggest question mark for Texas Tech heading into Saturday's game is whether Taylor Potts or Steven Sheffield will get the nod as the starting quarterback. As far as the Huskers are concerned, they could care less. Head coach Bo Pelini said it didn't matter who took the snaps for the Red Raiders, as their offense is based far more on the system than the quarterback running the show. On top of that, Pelini said both players were equally talented, and there wouldn't be any drop off one way or another with either player. In his first start last week against Kansas State after Potts was held out with a concussion, Sheffield blew up with 490 passing yards and seven touchdowns, and now has 11 touchdowns in three appearances this season.
New opponent, same game plan: While Texas Tech's offense presents its share of challenges for any defense, don't expect Nebraska to change up its defensive game plan much at all on Saturday. The Red Raiders make it tough on defenses because of their quick passing game and the wide splits their offensive line uses to help focus on pass blocking. However, the Huskers say they're going to attack the quarterback with their front four and different blitz packages. While they may not get to the QB as often as usual, the intent is to throw the passing game out of rhythm and collapse the pocket to make the quarterback - whoever it may be - throw under duress.
Injury update: The big news of the day was when Pelini announced that freshman running back Rex Burkhead would be out "for a while" with a foot injury he suffered during Monday's practice. Junior running back Roy Helu wore a green no-contact jersey, but offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Helu was fine and that he fully expected him to play on Saturday.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team conducted a two-hour full-padded practice inside the Hawks Champion Indoor Facility on Monday. NU is scheduled to come back on Wednesday for another two-hour full padded practice.



Helu wears green jersey, Robinson ready to burn redshirt


Along with who will emerge as the new No. 2 running back, a couple other notable situations have resulted from Burkhead's injury.


The big one was that Helu was seen walking off the field Tuesday with a green no-contact jersey. First off, Watson said Helu was fine and absolutely expects him to play against Texas Tech on Saturday.


Talking with Beck and Watson, the decision to put him in the green jersey was partly to keep him fresh and continue to let his shoulder - which he dinged up late in the win over Missouri - heal some more.


It also was done to give the rest of the running backs as many full-contact reps as possible to see how they would respond.


"I've got to see them," Beck said. "We've got to get those guys some reps and see what they can do… I still think you've got to have two backs, if not three. So whatever it takes for us - I know what he provides for us. I don't need him to come out and run all those plays. I need to find out what these guys can do right now.


"As long as that takes us to do, if we have to do it again tomorrow, we'll do it tomorrow. If we have to do it Thursday, we'll do it Thursday. I'll make sure Roy gets the plays he needs to get, and then we can get him out."


The other interesting turn was that neither Watson nor Beck ruled out the possibility of burning Robinson's redshirt if he happened to be the back who emerged as the clear No. 2. The staff met with Robinson last night to talk about the situation, and he apparently was very receptive to the idea.


Beck said the staff originally wanted to redshirt Robinson this season because there was no need to play two true freshmen. With Burkhead now out of the picture indefinitely, Robinson becomes a much more realistic option.


"We're in a good position right now, and we've got to win games," Beck said. "That comes first. I talked to Traye about that, and he wants to play. He said 'Coach, I'll do whatever.'"


- Robin Washut


Gomes hopes to continue rise up depth chart


Less than a week after officially introducing himself to Husker Nation in a big way on a national stage, junior cornerback Dejon Gomes is ready to take yet another step.


Because of his play in the previous weeks of practice, Gomes put himself in a position to see early playing time against Missouri. After his five tackles and fourth-quarter interception against the Tigers, it's going to be hard for Nebraska's coaches to keep him off the field.


Gomes said he wasn't quite sure what his role would be against Texas Tech on Saturday, but until then, he plans on keeping on doing what he's been doing. So far, that plan has worked out pretty well for him.


"Hopefully I just go in and have a good week of practice, then everything should play itself out," Gomes said.


The good news for Gomes is that his chances of seeing an equal or greater amount of playing time are definitely higher this week, as the Red Raiders' pass heavy offense should require a heavy rotation of defensive backs by the Huskers.


Even better, Gomes said he's worked at regular cornerback, nickel back and dime back since joining the team in the spring, meaning he can be used in a variety of ways in the secondary.


Should he continue his ascent up the depth chart on Saturday, Gomes said he'd be as ready as ever for the challenge of going up against Texas Tech's vaunted passing attack.


"I think it should be every DB's dream to play a team that throws the ball as much as Texas Tech," Gomes said. "You get a chance to go out there and make some interceptions and make some plays and also have everything on your shoulders. I like the pressure."


- Robin Washut


Defense stepping up in tough spots


Through its first five game this season, Nebraska's offense has committed a total of seven turnovers.


Following each of those seven turnovers, Nebraska's defense hasn't allowed a single point.


The Huskers' ability to prevent turnovers from turning into points for the opposition has played a big role in their 4-1 start. Even when teams start drives deep in NU territory following a fumble or an interception, the defense has made the errors forgivable by getting the ball back to the offense with no harm done on the scoreboard.


"We've grown as a team, and we don't panic," senior safety Larry Asante said. "We're a team, and we're all in it together. It doesn't matter if the opposing team's defense causes a turnover - we have each other's backs, and the offense knows that, and they have our backs. It doesn't matter where we get the ball at. We just go out there and try to get the ball back to our offense."


Asante pointed to one situation in particular last week against Missouri, when the Tigers took over at the Huskers' 29-yard line after recovering a fumbled snap early in the third quarter. Leading 9-0, it looked as if quarterback Blaine Gabbert was in prime position to lead the offense into the end zone, or at least get a field goal out of the drive.


Instead, the Huskers' stuffed them on three straight plays, leading to a 43-yard field goal attempt that MU kicker Grant Ressel hooked wide left.


Prior to the start of that series, Asante said the defense never had a doubt it would keep the Tigers from scoring. He even said the unit took the field laughing because senior linebacker Phillip Dillard was cracking jokes about how Missouri wasn't going to score.


"We love it," Asante said. "We walked out on the field smiling. I think that's when Phil had cracked a joke right after they had got that turnover, because we knew we were going to get the stop."


- Robin Washut


Quick hits


***Burkhead's injury apparently happened as he was running into the end zone after scoring on a screen pass towards the end of practice. He wasn't hit at all on the play, as he just pulled up limping at the end of the run and immediately left the field to the trainer's table.


Beck said he wasn't exactly sure of the extent, but said Burkhead either broke or fractured a bone in his foot on the play. He had not been told how long to expect the freshman would be out as of the end of Tuesday's practice.


***Asante said he's not one to set specific numbers in the stat lines as goals for the defense to hold opponents under, but he gave some general ranges he hopes the Huskers can hold teams to as far as rushing and passing yards.


Asante said his yardage goals each game were less than 100 yards rushing and 150 yards passing. Personally, he also wants to "just to challenge receivers on every play and challenge the ball and create turnovers."


***The Heisman Trophy push continued for senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh during Tuesday's press conference. Pelini was asked his thoughts on Suh's chances and whether a defensive player should be nominated for the award.


"That's up to you guys," Pelini said. "I've been through that before. I went through it with (former LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey) a little bit. That's up to you guys… I think he's as good of a football player at his position that there is in the country."


Asante took his assessment of Suh's Heisman chances a bit further.


"He's probably the greatest player I've ever played with," Asante said. "He's made my job a lot easier. He's just a great player, and he deserves all of the attention… It hasn't happened (a defensive player winning the Heisman), but the way he's playing, I feel like he can do anything. That's how much confidence I have in him."


***Just so you know, if you ever meet Dillard in person, chances are he's going to make fun of you.


"I make fun of everybody," he said. "Regardless of if you just got here or not, I'm going to make fun of you."


Dillard's favorite way to give his teammates a hard time is to assign as many of them nicknames as he can.


"I've got nicknames for all the linebackers, half the d-line and half the d-backs and half the offense," he said. "So, like Suh, I probably call him ''Hungry Hungry Hippo.' I call Matt May 'Patrick Swayze.' I call Will Compton 'Limp Bizkit.' Anytime I see someone on TV that looks like one of my teammates, the very next day I'm calling them that nickname."








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