April 4, 2010

Huskeronline.com's spring midterm review

Nebraska wrapped up its second week of spring practice on Saturday. The Huskers will return to the practice field again on Monday. As NU catches its breath, HuskersIllustrated.com decided to slice and dice the first two weeks of spring practice.

Here is a quick summary and breakdown of all the trends and storylines thus far through seven spring practices. What have been the biggest surprises and disappointments thus far?

Things we expected


The secondary is as deep as ever

Coming off last season's breakout performance, everyone knew Nebraska's defense was going to be its strong point this year. In particular, the secondary was supposed to be as good as it's ever been.

Two weeks into spring practice, that thought hasn't changed one bit. Not only do the Huskers' feature all-conference caliber players like Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard, they also have a wealth of depth at every spot in the secondary. The more reps the younger players get this spring, the better and better the unit will get come the season opener.

The running back stable is as good as advertised

It looks like senior Roy Helu is going to have as much help as he could ask for this season. With sophomores Rex Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson a year wiser and more experienced, the Huskers have the luxury of having three running backs capable of starting in the Big 12 Conference.

In fact, Burkhead is pushing Helu more and more for the starting job in practice, and all Robinson seems to do is make big plays every time he touches the football. Add in the depth behind those three and NU should have no worries about its running back situation.

Niles Paul is the man

It was no secret that senior Niles Paul was going to be the leader of Nebraska's wide receivers this season both on and off the field. Based on his play so far this spring, there's no question Paul is taking that role for everything it's worth.

Along with stepping up his role as a leader, Paul is having one of the best springs of any offensive player. This is a season where Paul could finally become that dominant factor in the Huskers' offense, and he's using every rep as a chance to make sure that is what happens.

Things we didn't expect


The introduction of the peso

The biggest news of spring practice so far has been the news of Nebraska's move to the peso as its base defense. Instead of the 4-3, which was NU's base package since 1993, the Huskers eliminated the Buck linebacker position altogether and replaced with the nickel as a full-time starter.

The change was made to both limit the number of substitutions the defense had to make during games and help match-up better against the spread offenses of the Big 12. As a result, senior Eric Hagg became a full-time starter as the nickel. In the end, the formation change was intended to simply get as many of NU's best defensive players on the field at once, and with the depth NU has in the secondary, the peso just made the most sense.

West, Gomes move to safety

With the introduction of the peso, seniors Anthony West and DeJon Gomes both moved to safety to provide more depth across the board in the secondary. Both players played safety in high school, and they've been working at the position since the start of 7-on-7 drills this winter.

For West, he gets a chance to see more playing time after losing his starting cornerback job to Dennard last season. The move might not be permanent for Gomes, though, as he's still working as the sixth defensive back in the dime package and had a lot of success last year playing up towards the line of scrimmage. Either way, the moves were intended to try and get the best players on the field together.

Mike Smith moves to center

After playing 39 straight games and starting the past 26 games at tackle, senior Mike Smith surprised everyone by moving inside to work at center and some guard this spring.

Smith said he felt he was a bit undersized (6-6, 285) to be a starting left tackle in the Big 12, and his coaches said they wanted to work him as an interior lineman to try and get their best players all on the field, just like the defense. As a freshman, Smith was NU's third-string center, so the move hasn't been a completely new adjustment.

Three questions left to answer


Which quarterback will emerge?

With senior Zac Lee sitting out while recovering from tendon surgery in his right arm, this spring was supposed to be a golden opportunity for Nebraska's younger quarterbacks to show what they could do running the first-team offense.

After two weeks, there still doesn't appear to be anyone that has emerged as the clear challenger for Lee this fall. While sophomore Cody Green has the experience advantage, redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez has competed right with him this spring. If the race continues like this, fall camp could be very interesting at the quarterback position.

Who will be the linebackers?

With Nebraska replacing one linebacker with a defensive back in the peso, the question becomes who will emerge as the two starting linebackers with so much competition at the position?

With guys like Eric Martin, Will Compton, Sean Fisher, Alonzo Whaley and even Micah Kreikemeier all competing for playing time at two spots this spring, every rep becomes more valuable than ever before. Add in injured guys like Mathew May and Matt Holt and then the incoming Lavonte David into the mix, and competition gets even tighter.

After Paul, who else?

Paul has obviously proven himself as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver. After him, though, the depth chart gets a bit murky. While junior Brandon Kinnie and former tight end and now "adjuster" Mike McNeill seem to be the most likely candidates, there has yet to be anyone to establish themselves above the rest of the pack.

Other receivers like junior Curenski Gilleylen, sophomore Antonio Bell and senior Will Henry have all had good springs so far, enough to where offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said the competition would likely go on into the fall and possibly through the season.


ROSTER NEWS

***Junior Austin Cassidy also moved from safety to nickel to back up Hagg. Cassidy's size (6-1, 210) and physicality against the run make him a natural fit at the position.

***True freshman Chase Rome is working at defensive tackle and not defensive end this spring.

***Even though sophomore defensive end Cameron Meredith is the leading candidate to take over as the starting right defensive end, his coaches said he could move inside to defensive tackle "tomorrow" if they had to make the switch.

***There have been rumors that senior kicker Adi Kunalic redshirting the 2010 season so he could be the primary place kicker in 2011 after senior Alex Henery graduates. Head coach Bo Pelini didn't rule it out, but said it was way too early to speculate if that will happen.


***With senior Ricky Henry out for the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, redshirt freshman Jeremiah Sirles has taken full advantage by working all spring as the No. 1 right guard.


INJURIES

***Junior offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick broke a bone in his left hand earlier this week, but he'll be able to make it through spring practice with a protective cast. He's also dealing with an injured knee, and Pelini said Hardrick is scheduled to have surgery on his hand shortly after spring practice ends on April 17.

***Pelini expects redshirt freshman cornerback Andrew Green to compete for playing time once he fully recovers from his shoulder injury.

***Pelini also said sophomore cornerback Justin Blatchford injured his knee and underwent surgery on it on Friday.

***Junior linebacker Mathew May most likely won't return to the field this spring, as he's continuing to recover from off-season surgery he had on his groin.

***Tough they're all out with injuries, Lee, Henry and May are all putting in their share of work during practice. While the rest of the team goes through position drills, the three have been doing conditioning work with strength and conditioning coach James Dobson.


QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I don't buy into that. They can swagger all they want, they've got to execute. That's all we care about. I'm not even sure what swagger is - whatever. They can swagger as long as they're winning football games."

- Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini the using the word "swagger" to describe his defense's mentality this spring.



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Check out all of HuskersIllustrated.com's coverage of spring practice on our Spring Foottball HQ, a daily reference page linking all of our related content items.

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