September 21, 2011

Wednesday notebook: Injury questions linger

Two of Nebraska's top defensive players have been the focus of attention all week long, as injuries have put the statuses of senior defensive tackle Jared Crick and senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in doubt for Saturday's game against Wyoming.

For the third day in a row, Crick did not practice after taking a pretty hard shot to the head this past Saturday in the Huskers 51-38 victory over Washington. Head coach Bo Pelini has yet to specifically address the injury, but he is set to talk one final time before departing to Laramie, Wyo., on Thursday.

Defensive line coach John Papuchis obviously couldn't address Crick's status for Saturday, but he did say they're preparing for both situations right now.

"We are just repping the other guys," Papuchis said. "Coach (Bo) Pelini handles the injuries, but if Jared is there, he's there and if he's not, he's not. We are getting the other guys ready to go if that happens, but Jared will be ready to play on Saturday as long as everything goes well from here on out."

Regardless if Crick plays or not, Papuchis said NU plans to rotate a lot of buddies up front on their defensive line. Both senior Terrence Moore and junior Thaddeus Randle have been the two guys the Huskers have leaned on in practice this week with Crick's absence.

"We've been just rotating them," Papuchis said. "We are kind of letting it play out. We split equal reps during practice, so how we rotate with our first group and second group isn't that big of a deal."

Things are looking a little better for Dennard, though.

Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said Dennard looked as good as he has since before injuring his leg back on Aug. 15. Even better, Raymond said the last mental hurdle of trusting his leg enough to play full speed has all but been cleared.

"He's flying all over the place," Raymond said. "He's doing all the little bitty things he needs to do, and he'll be a big boost to the defense when we get him back, especially to the secondary."

Should Dennard return to the lineup, it's unclear as to how much he will play or if he'll be limited to a certain number of snaps in order to ease him back into live game action. With his on the field, though, it would provide a big lift to a secondary that has struggled somewhat early on this season.

His return could allow for Ciante Evans to man the nickel back spot for the majority of the game against Wyoming's spread offensive attack, with Andrew Green as the other cornerback.

Dennard's status for Saturday's game still remains up in the air, but with Crick questionable this could be the week where he finally makes his senior season debut.

"Hopefully we can get him back," Raymond said. "That'd be wonderful. Just get him back in the fold and get that veteran leadership out there… He's getting there. You know, it's going to take time. He's just got to get out there and start running and being out there live. That will help him a whole lot."

- Robin Washut and Sean Callahan

Young backs finding their stride

It took all of three games for each member of Nebraska's trio of freshmen running backs to make a splash for the Huskers this season.

Against Fresno State, it was Ameer Abdullah who emerged from the pack with his stellar play on special teams. Last week against Washington, Aaron Green scored a pair of touchdowns and Braylon Heard came up with some big runs of his own to help lead the NU's offensive attack.

For Green, Saturday was twice as memorable after recording his first collegiate rushing and receiving touchdowns in the win. After not playing a single down the week before against Fresno State, Green said having a performance like he did against the Huskies lifted a big weight off of his shoulders.

"At first it was hard, especially not playing at all (against Fresno State)," Green said. "That was really hard, and I took it pretty hard. But I had to just go home and think and humble myself and pray, just ask God to keep me, keep my head up and keep my focus. The season is not decided on one game, so I knew I was going to have more chances. I was just going to have to make them count.

"I felt confident. It was just a blessing to get on the field. I just believed in myself and believed in my team, and things went well for me."

Though he didn't reach the end zone, Heard's five carries for 34 yards were nearly just as special considering all that he had to go through just to suit up for the Huskers. Academic qualifying issues forced to sit out all of last season, but now that he's finally getting the chance to get on the field and make some plays, it's almost been worth the wait.

"It felt great," Heard said. "It's been a long time coming. I hadn't broken a long one in a little while, so it was great to get back out there… It's a true blessing. I had a lot of great people around me telling me to keep pushing and don't give up. I'm finally here, and it feels great."

Few teammates have been prouder of the three freshmen backs than junior Rex Burkhead. After spending the first two seasons of his collegiate career as the young buck of Nebraska's stable of running backs, Burkhead is relishing his chance to be the veteran leader of the unit this season.

The only upperclassman in the running back rotation, Burkhead has made it a point to be a mentor of the Huskers' young backfield. Now that those freshmen are making big impacts for the team on game day, Burkhead has been like a proud big brother.

"It's been fun leading the younger guys and being able to learn from them as well," Burkhead said. "They've done a great job coming in and showing their talent this last game. They showed that they could play at a high level as freshmen, and they are just going to get better as they gain more experience."

- Robin Washut

Preparing for the elevation

Nebraska has a unique challenge this week in trying to prepare for the elevation levels they'll face in Laramie on Saturday.

The elevation level is listed at 7,165 feet, which is considerably higher than Boulder, Colo., which is 5,430 feet. Lincoln sits at 1,189 feet. When talking about preparing for the elevation levels in Laramie, Garrison said NU won't do anything different this week in practice.

"We are taking a rocket ship up tomorrow," Garrison joked. "You know what it's not even an issue for us. Other teams have gone there and played. It is what it is. You just have to go and attack it.

"I don't think we've got any hyperbaric chambers that some of those Tour De France guys use. We are just going to play our game."

Garrison said another thing that will help the line this week is the fact they played eight linemen regularly last week against Washington and they plan to use a similar rotation on Saturday.

"I once walked a mountain in that elevation and our guys could definitely feel it," Garrison said. "Our guys will be ready though. I think it will be big for us to rely on that rotation as far as what we did with the offensive line last week."

- Sean Callahan

Mitchell not satisfied with debut

With Dennard sidelined and Washington opening the game in a three-receiver set, redshirt freshman Josh Mitchell was thrust into the starting lineup and thrown int the fire for the first time last weekend.

Mitchell only played when the Huskers used their nickel defense and Evans moved inside to the nickel spot, but he ended the day with five tackles and a pass breakup in the win.

It seemed like a fairly decent debut for Mitchell, who came to NU ranked as one of the top-55 prep cornerbacks in the country by Rivals. But the Corona, Calif., native wasn't nearly satisfied with his performance.

"Personally, I don't think I played good," Mitchell said. "I could play a lot better, and I need to… It comes with watching more film. That was my fault for not watching more film throughout the week and not being as focused as I needed to."

Mitchell said the two biggest areas he needed to improve on were his pre-snap alignments and remembering his coverage assignments in different situations.

It also didn't help that the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Mitchell was being matched up against Washington's much older and much bigger receivers. The Huskies wide outs averaged 6-2, 195, and their size definitely put Mitchell at a disadvantage.

Raymond said Mitchell worked on adding some bulk all offseason, but said he would likely have to continue to compensate for his size in most games he plays.

"He's only 165, so he knows he has to put a little more weight on, and he's been trying," Raymond said. "He's just got to rely on his technique and play with the scheme of the defense. If he does that, he'll be fine."

The good news is Mitchell is no stranger to going up against big, physical receivers since he does it every day in practice with Nebraska's wide outs. He said he learned a lot about covering bigger and stronger receivers during his redshirt season last year working against guys like Niles Paul (6-1, 220), Brandon Kinnie (6-3, 220) and Will Henry (6-5, 215).

"It helped me a lot going up against receivers like BK, Niles, Will and those guys," Mitchell said. "It helped me a lot with the speed of the game and learning routes, too."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Papuchis said he still saw a lot of inconsistency with NU's coverage on kickoffs last week.

"Probably seven of the nine coverage plays on kickoffs were executed and covered well," Papuchis said. "They didn't execute well at the end of the game and (Washington) got a big (return) on us and we've got to eliminate those."

***Papuchis said that Abdullah (ankle) has practiced all week and has been "full-go" in the return game.

"He's doing a good job of handling the returns this week," Papuchis said.

***Raymond said Nebraska would use more defensive backs against Wyoming's spread offense than they have all season. He said guys like redshirt freshman Corey Cooper could see a much bigger role on Saturday.

***Raymond also said sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste has been working almost exclusively at cornerback. Jean-Baptiste said on Tuesday the coaches wanted him to help at nickel when they first approached him about the move, but Raymond said they like what he brings to the cornerback position.

"That's what you want, big corners who can run," Raymond said. "I mean, you look around at everybody else, and that's the way we're going to be built around here… You can tell he has a lot of talent. You can see he can do a lot of things, it's just getting him to play the position."

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