October 20, 2011

Thursday notebook: O-line leaning on experience

At the beginning of the season, Nebraska's offensive coaches said they would ideally like to rotate as many players as possible on the offensive line in every game.

However, the Huskers only played six lineman against Ohio State, with the starting five seen the majority of the snaps.

In the non-conference season, NU routinely used as many as eight different linemen in a game, including a total of seven different starters up front. Last week, though, the rotation has been cut back significantly.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the biggest reason for the cutback in the rotation was the offense wanting more experience up front against the Buckeyes' talented defensive line. The Huskers also struggled to move the football in the first half, which prevented them from establishing drives and getting more chances to sub.

When the offense finally got going in the second half, Nebraska didn't want to disrupt the flow by taking out any of the five linemen who were out there.

"They had an exceptional defensive line I thought," Beck said. "You hate to throw a guy in there who hasn't been in there, and in the first half we just weren't moving the ball enough to get any kind of momentum or rhythm to be able to even sub to allow those guys to play so you feel good about playing them later. It just didn't work out that way. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't."

One player who has helped add some of that experience over the past couple weeks has been senior Marcel Jones. After missing the first few games with a lingering back injury that had plagued him since last season, Jones has finally been able to get healthy and play consistent downs for the Huskers.

In fact, he's essentially replaced freshman Tyler Moore as the new No. 1 right tackle, as Jones has started the past two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

"He has some injuries, and we were kind of bringing him along slowly to make sure he was really ready to go," Beck said. "Tyler Moore was playing really well, and I think Tyler pushed Marcel to even up his game more. (Jones) just continued to improve. Being healthy and with is experience as an older guy, I think he's been able to hold of Tyler at that position.

"I like what he's been doing. He's an all-in guy giving everything he's got, and he's certainly been a big help to our football team."

As for Moore, co-offensive line coach John Garrison said the Clearwater, Fla., native has hit a bit of a plateau in his development after his impressive start to his collegiate career in the spring.

Garrison said Moore's pure physical ability were good enough to propel him up the depth chart and start the first four games of the season. While the return of Jones has played a big part, Garrison said Moore needed to take the nest step in his progression in order to be a trusted piece of the offensive line rotation new that Big Ten play in underway.

"I think it's just taking your game to the next level," Garrison said. "So what does that mean? It means a little bit of everything. A little bit of your technique, a little bit of effort; it's a combination of things, and it happens a lot. It's not like he's going through a slump by any means. He's still doing a nice job, but he's got to push himself.

"He's no longer a true freshman player. He's taken his game to the next level, and he's got to continue to improve. He will, and it's our job to continue to push him to do that."

- Robin Washut

Buck linebacker spot still up for grabs

Nebraska shook things up a bit on defense against Ohio State by giving the nod to Eric Martin as the starting Buck linebacker in place of Sean Fisher.

While both players saw plenty of time in the game, the Huskers are now trying to figure out which player, along with fellow junior Alonzo Whaley, they want to start this week against Minnesota.

Linebackers coach Ross Els said all three players bring a unique skill set to the position, but the problem is none have separated themselves from the pack as the clear starter.

"That Buck spot, we don't know if it's going to be Eric Martin, is to going to be Alonzo Whaley, is it going to be Sean Fisher?" Els said. "We can put different guys there depending on their strengths, and we'll just have to see Saturday as far as what Minnesota is giving as to who we put in there."

It's expected that Minnesota will try and spread Nebraska's defense out with multiple receiver sets, so the question of who will get the start at the Buck may be a moot point since the Huskers might use their nickel formation the majority of the game.

Still, the coaching staff is going to have to decide which player it wants out there when the Gophers do try to line up in heavier sets and run the football. Els said he and the rest of the defensive coaches have been evaluating Fisher, Martin and Whaley the past two weeks in practice to try and figure out which player can handle all three phases of the position the best.

"Who's our best player as far as rushing the passer, playing the running game on the inside and in coverage?" Els said. "Each of those three guys has a little bit different quality that's good to them. What they show us, we think we have a guy we can plug into that position."

- Robin Washut

Abdullah shares praise for return success

It took all of one career game for freshman Ameer Abdullah to establish himself as one of the best return men in the country.

Coming into Saturday's game, Abdullah leads the Big Ten and ranks third nationally in kickoff returns with an average of 31.9 yards per return. His 211 yards on five kick returns against Fresno State set a single-game school record and ranked eighth all-time in Big Ten history.

He was named a mid-season All-American by several publications for his efforts so far, and at his current pace there's no reason he won't end up with a few post-season honors.

But for all the attention Abdullah has garnered over the first six games, he said he wouldn't be anything without the help of his kickoff return team.

"We just have a selfless return unit," Abdullah said. "They don't mind sacrificing their bodies for you. They know if they give me the proper blocking, I can take it to the house. They really take pride in it, and I take pride in it to. When we take the field, we have that confidence that if we come together as one, we can take it to the house every time."

One of the most unheralded players on the entire team are the ones responsible for creating the blocking wedge in front of Abdullah on every return. Whaley and senior fullback Tyler Legate have helped fill that role all season, taking on opposing kick coverage running at full speed head on and clearing some big holes for Abdullah to run through.

"Those guys are so encouraging for me to take me under their wing as a young guy and tell me they've got my back," Abdullah said. "I really trust those guys, so any time we take the field I know they have my back."

On Saturday, there will be a unique match-up of the top two kickoff returners in the Big Ten, as Minnesota's Marcus Jones ranks second in the conference at 27.8 yards per return.

While Abdullah always likes to see how he stacks up with the best players around, but in this particular case, he's more than willing to let Jones get as many kick return opportunities as he wants on Saturday.

"Hopefully I won't get many kickoff returns, because that means they're scoring on our defense," Abdullah said. "I don't really see it as competition, but I always want to be better than the other return man. I pride myself on being the best one out there. I've just got to work hard and stay confident in my own game and not focus on things that don't matter as much as winning. As long as we're winning, I don't really mind."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Garrison talked about what the Huskers are expecting from Minnesota's defensive front seven on Saturday.

"I think the biggest thing up front, they're extremely active," Garrison said. "They're doing to do a lot with their defense scheme wise as far as movement, and we've got to be able to block movement. In doing that, you talk about movement and they start doing this and that, guys start playing timid as an offensive lineman when guys are moving around. We can't do that. We've got to have schemes and things that allow them to play fast and be able to handle that movement."

***Beck talked about what it takes for wide receivers to see playing time in Nebraska's offense, saying it generally comes down to the ones who execute with the most consistency and can go out and simply make plays.

"Our expectations are very high, and this is what we expect," Beck said. "Either you're doing it or you're not doing it. I think the guys respect that, and they also realize the guys that are executing and making the plays, those are the guys playing, whoever that may be. If you continue to work, you'll get playing time. Just look at Brandon Kinnie, a perfect example. Maybe he wasn't playing as well (early on), now he's playing as well as any of them. He just kept sticking with it, and now he's back doing his thing."

***Part of that mentality within the receiver group comes from their position coach, Rich Fisher. Redshirt freshman wide out Kenny Bell said Fisher has brought a new attitude to the unit since he took over in the spring.

"He's changed I'd say everything about our receiving corps," Bell said. "Our attitude, our character, how we work, how we approach things. He's brought an energy to our room that's really garnered a little bit of respect for our receiving corps, and that's what we want. We haven't been making a lot of noise here in the past couple years at the receiver position, and I think we have a group of guys with a coach at the helm that wants to change that."

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