September 30, 2010

Thursday notebook: Paul wants to be bigger factor

This was supposed to be the season when Nebraska wide receiver Niles Paul emerged as one of the elite playmakers in the Big 12 Conference.

Maybe more importantly, it was also supposed to be the year when he finally cut out all of the costly mental errors and stopped being his own worst enemy.

Through four games, neither of those predictions have held true.

With just 10 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown and four carries for 13 yards, Paul hasn't exactly put up the type of numbers many expected from a guy ranked as one of the top senior receivers in college football.

Even worse, the Omaha native has once again struggled with his ball security. Of his 27 total touches via rushing, receiving and kickoff and punt returns, he's fumbled the ball four times, losing two of them.

Whether it's a case of Paul continuing to try and do too much when he gets the ball in his hands or just more of the same bad luck that's plagued him seemingly throughout his career, he knows his turnover issues have to be corrected for him to take his game to the next level.

"I'm definitely my toughest critic," Paul said. "Obviously (fumbles) can't happen. Those could have been detrimental fumbles in the game."

Though Paul was supposed to be Nebraska's No. 1 receiver coming into the season, junior Brandon Kinnie (17 catches for 214 yards) has emerged as quarterback Taylor Martinez's favorite target early on.

Not only that, the number of chances Paul has gotten to even touch the ball has decreased dramatically, as NU has run the ball 176 times compared to just 70 pass attempts.

"I definitely have a little chip on my shoulder, because I know I am the lead receiver on the team, or the go-to guy," Paul said. "But like I said, we've run the ball a lot, and I have to respect that. It's working for us, and if this is what it takes to get to the national championship, then I'm down for it."

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said he wasn't going to go out of his way to get Paul more involved in the offense, but he did say the coaching staff has tried to make Paul a focal point in the game plan all season. It just always seems to turn out that defenses key on him enough to make it difficult to get him the ball.

Watson said he's had discussions with Paul about his role in the offense, and he told his receiver that he would continue to create opportunities to get the ball in his hands as much as possible.

"We always listen to our guys," Watson said. "We've had a lot of (plays) dialed up to him, and (defenses) will take him out sometimes. If they do, they do. We'll always try to get him deep on stuff. We always have him - trust me - in mind when we game plan. Always."

For Paul, though, the only stats that matter when all is said and done are located in the wins and losses columns.

"It's something I have to adjust to," Paul said. "I came here because we were so heavy on the pass, and just certain things turned out the way they did and obviously the running game is a big part of our offense now, and I have no problem with that. Like I've said, we can run the ball all day if that's going to get us to a national championship."

- Robin Washut

Thursday practice takes
Kunalic getting attention: Of senior kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic's 28 kicks this season, 12 have been downed or sailed out of the back of the end zone for touchbacks. That total ranks third in the country, but it's been Kunalic's work in the classroom that's been the biggest reason he was named a semifinalist for the 2010 William V. Campbell Trophy, given to seniors who have at least a 3.2 GPA and excel both on the field and in the community. Kunalic was one of 121 semifinalists who were nominated by their respective schools.

Big 12 schedule set: With Nebraska and Colorado just a few months away from their respective exits from the Big 12, the conference took a big step toward gearing up for life with only 10 teams on Thursday. The league announced each remaining team would play a nine-game conference schedule next season, meaning each team will play one another every year.

Injury report: Junior offensive tackle Marcel Jones (back) sat out of practice again on Thursday, and it continues to look like the soonest he'll be ready to return to action will be on Saturday. Other than Jones, there were no new significant injuries to report.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced in full pads inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Thursday. The practice marks the Huskers' final full session of the week, as they will hold a before they begin their preparation for next week's game against Kansas State on Saturday. The team will hold a brief weight lifting session on Friday but will not practice.

Martinez back on track

For some quarterbacks, putting on the type of performance Martinez had at home against an opponent the caliber of South Dakota State would have resulted in a major setback in confidence.

Fortunately for Nebraska, Martinez isn't one of those quarterbacks.

Just as he's been able to keep his early success in perspective, that same even keel demeanor has helped the Corona, Calif., native move on from Saturday's game as if it never happened, Watson said.

"He's done a great job," Watson said. "He puts things behind him real fast, and he learns from them too. We challenged him in a lot of situations to help him iron those things out, so he's had two good days of practice. He looks like he did before the season, which was pretty good."

After completing just 6-of-14 passes and throwing two interceptions against the Jackrabbits, Watson said Martinez immediately realized what he had done wrong in the game. As a result, he was able to watch film and return to practice knowing full well where he struggled and what he needed to do to get better.

"He knew it when it was happening," Watson said. "I mean, he knew. He knew it before I even had to show him a bit of film. He made some bad decisions, and those bad decisions started snowballing because he kept trying to make amends to them. He's just got to let the game come to him, and I think that's the thing that he's learned. Honestly, (young quarterbacks) all have to go through that."

- Robin Washut

Farwell tour begins

Ever since Nebraska announced they were leaving the Big 12 Conference for the Big Ten following the 2010 season, opposing teams from across the league have wanted their shot at the Huskers.

On Thursday the official "Nebraska Farewell Tour" begins in Manhattan and senior wide receiver Mike McNeill feels the Huskers are up to the challenge.

"It's going to be fun," McNeill said. "We're going to have a bulls-eye and people are going to want to take us out, so it should be fun."

McNeill joked that he feels like NU already has a bulls-eye on their chest when they go on the road, but their recent move to the Big Ten has made it even bigger.

"I think teams already don't like us very much and now (going to the Big Ten) probably adds more animosity," McNeill said. "We're expecting every place to be hostile and loud and not really like us very much coming into their place."

-Sean Callahan

Snyder a dangerous coach with extra time

With Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder you have to be ready for just about anything. That's why as the Huskers begin their preparations for the Wildcats defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said they are getting them ready for multiple different looks and sets.

"I think he's a good coach on a normal week and he's probably a better coach with 10 days preparation," Pelini said. "Again, you try to get better yourself and prepare your guys just as well as you know he's preparing his offense."

Through four games most people around the Wildcat program have said Snyder has done a good job of keeping things pretty basic or vanilla on offense.

For example, KSU has two wide receivers, along with running back Daniel Thomas who have all played quarterback before, leaving the possibility for trick plays endless.

"You just don't know what they're going to come up with or what they've been working on that they haven't show yet, you just don't know," Pelini said. "There's going to be adjustments as the game goes on, just like there was last year. We're expecting that kind of game. Giving a good offensive coordinator two extra days to prepare is always dangerous."

-Sean Callahan

Ekeler not worried about David's progress

On Wednesday, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler voiced some concerns over his players' performance through the first four weeks, even saying the position had been the weak point of the defense.

Though junior Lavonte David headlines the unit as the starting Will linebacker, he is the least of Ekeler's concerns.

"The thing about him is the guy - nobody works harder, nobody cares more than him," Ekeler said. "He's going to fix it. I'm not worried in the least about that guy. Not in the least. What he's accomplished to this point is good, but we want it perfect, and that's what he wants. His goal is to be the best Will linebacker in America, and it should be."

David said he's sometimes even surprised himself with how quickly he's been able to pick up Nebraska's complicated defensive schemes, which sometimes take players years to finally get down pat.

"Each week I feel like I'm getting better and better," David said. "I feel like I'm learning the defense more and I'm learning the scheme and the right places I'm supposed to be at and the right fits. I'm getting more comfortable with all that."

The major problems David has struggled with, Ekeler said, have been in small technique issues and fully grasping all of the schemes within the Huskers' defense.

Considering that he's only been practicing with the team since August and still leads NU with 44 tackles, Ekeler said David would be just fine in the long run.

"I mean Lavonte just got here, and what he's done in a short amount of time is phenomenal," Ekeler said. "But we've got certain concepts that we've got to get shored up on him, and he'll be fantastic, but it's just he's a work in progress."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***McNeill said on Thursday he's practiced the last two days and has not been bothered by the ankle injury he left the game with against South Dakota State.

"There's a little bit of pain, but nothing that's holding me back," McNeill said. "Everything is good."

***Pelini said that sophomore linebacker Will Compton continues to move along in his recovery process, but it remains to be seen when he'll return to the practice field.

"He's running, but he's not running at full body weight," Pelini said. "It's just a process. Every day is a test for him. He gets a little more weight on it, runs a little faster or increases the amount of weight on it or he's walking on it full weight. Every day he tests (his foot) and every day he passes it and every day they up it a little more. It's still kind of a guess when he'll be back, but he's getting closer."

***When talking about last week's South Dakota State game, McNeill said the entire offense played poor, and it wasn't just Martinez's fault for making some bad throws to open receivers.

"I don't even know if it was Taylor struggling," McNeill said. "I just feel like in every phase of the game we were outplayed by them. They wanted it more and it showed on the film. They were just out-competing us. It has nothing to do with Taylor I think. Our route running, our blocking, our special teams and our defense - none of us came ready I think is what it basically boils down to."

***While talking about occasionally trying to do too much when he actually gets the football, Paul admitted that he's taken a few more risks in the punt return game than he otherwise might not have by trying to return punts with defenders closing in on him.

"I know in punt return, I reached the point where I didn't care if they were in my face, I'm not going to fair catch it," Paul said. "That's exactly what I did (on the fumbled punt against SDSU). I just wanted to touch the ball, and I just wanted to make a play or do something, just make everybody amped. I know I can do that on punt return, I just think I was forcing myself to do too much to try and make a play."

***Sophomore wide receiver Tim Marlowe saw the most extensive playing time on offense of his career on Saturday after McNeill left the game. Watson said Marlowe played fairly well on short notice, but said he still has a long way to go before he becomes a regular presence on the offense.

"That was the first time he really got extended playing time because of Mike's injury," Watson said. "The thing he needs to keep doing is he needs to keep developing. Honestly, this was his first time with extensive duties at receiver, so he just has to learn his position."

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