March 23, 2010

Huskers ready to get competition going this spring

As soon as Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini took the podium for his spring practice press conference on Tuesday, it was clear there was something a little different about his demeanor.

Now entering his third spring in Lincoln, Pelini seemed more comfortable, cool and confident than ever before.

When the Huskers kick off their latest spring session on Wednesday, they'll be taking the next step towards a season that will likely have them as the favorite to both win the Big 12 North and compete for a conference championship.

While there's obviously a lot of pressure that goes along with those kinds of expectations, Pelini said he couldn't wait to get back on the field and try to live up to them.

"I'm excited," Pelini said. "I like spring ball. I love the aspect of it. It gives you the opportunity to really develop your team and find out about how guys learn. I don't read too much into it, but I think it gives you a chance to take all that work they put in during the winter and put it on the field and really start getting your guys developed.

"I really like our football team. Forget about the talent and expectations and all that stuff. I like the way they handle their business. I like the way they work. I like their attitude. I like their leadership. I like the type of football players we have on this team and how they've come together, and I think our culture is starting to take hold. That's exciting to me."

Though Pelini made it clear right off the bat that he wasn't going to say anything about depth charts or go into detail about any position battles, he did say he was excited for the competition to get underway for his team across the board.

In fact, the Huskers apparently already got under way in setting the tone for this season during winter workouts.

Along with the normal conditioning and 7-on-7 drills, the coaches also broke the players up into eight different teams and pitted them against each other to see who could turn out the best offseason gains.

Also on those eight teams were two captains selected by the coaches and strength and condition coach James Dobson, as they didn't waste any time in establishing the team's leaders.

Some of the captains included junior defensive tackle Jared Crick, sophomore linebacker Will Compton, senior wide receiver Niles Paul, senior guard Ricky Henry, junior offensive tackle Marcel Jones and sophomore tight end Ben Cotton.

For now, though, Pelini said Nebraska's 15 practices this spring would be primarily geared towards re-emphasizing fundamentals and the team's philosophies and getting the younger players up to speed.

"Spring practice is about getting reps for guys and getting them taught," Pelini said. "That's why we're going to do some more multiple-team, multiple-station things. Some things where we can get guys on the field and get them taught. It's going to be more about teaching fundamentals and technique and the basics to get them up to speed as quickly as we can. The more experience we get them this spring, the better off we're going to be in the fall. There's just a lot of learning to do.

"I like where our football team is right now. I like what we accomplished through the winter from January through March, and I think it set us up to have a good spring. I think we're in good position right now to make the best use of these 15 practices."

- Robin Washut

McNeill excited about new "adjuster" role

As was widely reported last week, senior Mike McNeill will no longer play tight end. However, he won't exactly be a wide receiver, either.

To put it simply, McNeill's position can now be referred to simply as the "adjuster" - a unique combination of receiver, tight end and fullback.

Specifically, the Kirkwood, Mo., native will take on the responsibilities of the Zebra (slot) receiver, the U tight end (also known as the H-back) and fullback in Nebraska's offense.

"It's basically just a mix," McNeill said. "I guess I'll have to compete with people at three different positions. Obviously I can't say that my (new) spot is set in stone, but no one's is."

Pelini said the coaching staff decided they needed to make an effort to get McNeill the ball more this season and thought moving him out into more of a flex receiver role would help make him an easier target in the passing game.

That's why offensive coordinator Shawn Watson called McNeill into his office to discuss the position change as soon as McNeill got back on campus after winter break. Coincidently, Watson took the thoughts right out of McNeill's head.

"It's funny, because I told my parents this was what I wanted to tell Coach Watson, and then as soon as I got back he pulled me into his office and said exactly what I wanted to say to him," McNeill said.

"I wanted to talk to Coach Watson after the season just because I felt a lot of times third down was basically when I was going in, and it was more running on first and second down. So this is just a way to be on the field more and not having to worry about run and pass."

Pelini said the move could mean big things for McNeill, as he thought McNeill could have had a much bigger year last season.

"I thought we needed to get him the ball more," Pelini said. "Sometimes it wasn't a scheme thing. Sometimes he was open and we didn't get him the football. We just think he's a heck of a football player. I thought he had a chance to have a bigger year than he had, because I saw him on film and he was open a lot.

"We've used him a lot at wide receiver in the past. I wouldn't read too much into that. We believe Mike is a multi-talented guy. He can bring a lot of different things for your football team."

- Robin Washut

QB race could be interesting without Lee

The possibility of seeing senior quarterback Zac Lee this spring doesn't look good. Pelini said Lee continues to recover from the surgery he had on his right flexor tendon and more than likely he won't take part in any portion of spring practice.

"I don't think he'll be here for the spring, but who knows," Pelini said. "Time will tell. He's progressing right along and we feel he's doing just fine."

With Lee out, the door is wide open for sophomore Cody Green, senior Latravis Washington, sophomore Kody Spano and redshirt freshmen Taylor Martinez and Ron Kellogg to compete for the starting job.

Pelini said none of the quarterbacks will wear green no contact jerseys this spring, but Spano will be limited in his contact due to the fact he's had two major knee surgeries in the last year.

"We took them off them a long time ago so I don't think there's much to talk about," Pelini said. "It' football. It's a physical game. They aren't going to be put out there in tackling drills or anything like that, but they are going to get hit. That's part of the game."

This winter, Lee has been around the team for conditioning, but Green has received the reps with the No. 1 offense in his place.

Senior wide receiver Niles Paul said all of the quarterbacks are trying to take advantage of this opportunity as much as they can.

"I see Cody (Green) and (Latravis Washington) and Kody Spano getting better," Paul said. "Every Saturday (Washington) and Cody Green will come up here and we'll just run routes. It will be us and them and some of the receivers and Rex (Burkhead) and Roy (Helu) and we'll just come up here and run routes every Saturday."

- Sean Callahan

Smith moving around the line this spring

With the addition of junior college transfer Jermarcus Hardrick, Nebraska has really improved their overall depth across the board on the offensive line.

With players like Hardrick coming in, Pelini said it's allowed them to try some different things with the offensive line this spring. One player who will be trying a number of different position will be senior Mike Smith.

"Mike Smith is going to play a number of positions on the offense line, not just tackle," Pelini said. "We're going to look at him at center and even possibly some guard. But he'll still be out there at tackle some. This is the time of year to tinker with things and give other guys opportunities."

As for Hardrick, it's obvious he has a ton of potential, but like any newcomer there's going to be a natural transition process over the spring and summer that must take place.

"He's raw right now," Pelini said. "He's a talented young man. He's big. He's got good size. But he's got a long way to go as far as getting up to speed on conditioning and getting in position where we can get him developed. He's got a lot of learning to do."

- Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Both offensive lineman Cruz Barrett and defensive tackle Ben Martin are no longer listed on the official NU roster. Both players have reportedly been placed on medical scholarship, which will free up two more scholarships for 2010.

***Senior cornerback Prince Amukamara said he really never considered coming out early for the NFL Draft. However, it did pique his interest some when an Internet mock draft had him going in the first round.

***Pelini said fifth-year senior Rickey Thenarse is as close to 100 percent as ever after injuring his knee last season.

"I think he's ready to go," Pelini said. "Anytime you're coming off a knee it's going to be tough. I think he's done everything he needs to do up to this point to allow himself to get out there and compete. We'll see how he comes back, but I think physically he's doing real well. The training staff and doctors have done a great job with him."

***As for another Husker coming off an ACL injury, Pelini said Spano has also rehabbed very well. However, he said he would still be cautious with Spano and make him wear a green no-contact jersey until both he and Spano were full comfortable that they wouldn't risk further injury.

"Kody's doing great," Pelini said. "Kody Spano is doing well. He's in great shape. He's probably going to be the one guy, at least until he feels fully confident, I might put a green jersey on him, just really for his mental well being, and to give me a little piece of mind."

***In other injury news, redshirt freshman cornerback Andrew Green will likely miss at least the early portion of spring practice because of a nagging unspecified injury.

***Despite losing the great Ndamukong Suh, Pelini said the Huskers' defensive line just might have "greater depth than we've ever had since I've been here."

***Sophomore running back Dontrayevous Robinson appears to be headed towards becoming Nebraska's next power back, as Pelini said he's now up to about 235 pounds.

***One last position move to mention is junior Ryan Hill is moving from tight end to fullback.

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