November 21, 2011

Monday notebook: A bittersweet ending for Crick

To say things didn't go as planned for Jared Crick's senior season could be one of the understatements of the year.

After turning down a chance at the NFL to come back for his final year as a Husker, a season-ending pectoral injury turned a chance to cement his name among college football's best defensive tackles into a huge setback and heartbreaking end to his time at NU.

For Crick, though, having to watch from the sidelines as his teammates go through the ups and downs of the season has been the hardest part of all.

"All of it," Crick said when asked what the most challenging aspect of the injury has been. "Just not being a part of it anymore. Not just for games, but for practices, meetings, everything. Not really having a part of it anymore from a leadership role. It just sucks not being out there playing the game I love and what I came here to do."

Despite the frustrating end to his Husker career, Crick said he had no regrets about coming back for his senior season. After earning his degree in history in August, the Cozad native said one of his biggest reasons for staying in Lincoln was to be able enjoy one last year with his Husker coaches and teammates.

While he tries to be as involved as he can, he knows his role will never be like it was when he was suiting up.

"That's the reason I came back for my senior year was to come back and be with my guys," Crick said. Not being able to do that has been hard on me."

Head coach Bo Pelini said it's easy to see how tough the season has been for Crick, especially considering all he turned down to come back to Nebraska for his senior year. While at worst he might have fallen into the middle rounds, the general consensus was that Crick would have been a sure NFL draft pick had he come out after his junior year.

"I think it has hurt him," Pelini said. "He has been disappointed. He wanted to play his senior year and he could have come out last year, but he came back. It would have been nice to see him finish up the way he wanted to. Things happen and he is recovering quickly. He will move past this. It hasn't been an easy thing for Jared."

Obviously playing only five games this season didn't do much to raise his draft stock, but Pelini said he still thought Crick would be a valuable commodity at the next level.

"I think he is going to play on Sunday," Pelini said. "What round will he go in? I don't know. That's more for the scouts, but I know guys like him… That's the thing about Jared, I think he can fit into a 4-3 or a 3-4 (defensive scheme). That is a real positive for him because he can do so many things well and can play inside or outside. That lends well to him and value to him."

Despite the physical limitations of his injury, Crick said he's done his best to stay in football shape since he's been out. In fact, he even said he's still right around his playing weight of 285.

Crick is still unsure when he'll officially be cleared to return to football, but he said he's been told he'll be ready to go by the time the NFL Combine rolls around in February.

Looking back at all he accomplished in his time at Nebraska, Crick said he couldn't be more thankful for his experience as a Husker and the knowledge and experience he gained playing for Pelini and the rest of the NU staff.

"(These coaches) have meant everything," Crick said. "They taught me the game of football. Just everything I know about defense and football in general I've learned from them. I wouldn't be where I'm at if it weren't for them. I can't thank them enough for everything they've done for me."

- Robin Washut

Huskers beaten up heading into season finale

The wear and tear of Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten Conference is showing more than ever as it heads into its final regular season game against Iowa on Friday.

The most recent and concerning injury development came from junior running back Rex Burkhead, who was seen walking around in a protective boot on his right foot before Monday's practice.

Fortunately for Nebraska, the boot appears to be only a precautionary measure.

"He's fine," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "(He practiced) a little bit. We're trying save him. He's beat up a little bit, that's all. He'll play. He'll probably be full bore tomorrow. He's just beat up."

Beck said Burkhead was just one of a group of players the coaching and training staff monitors every day to evaluate how much work each can do in practice. This late in the year, Beck said it was extremely important to know how much work a player could do in practice without making smaller injuries worse.

"There's a couple of guys that we watch," Beck said. "He's just one them. Some guys, towards the end of the week, we don't practice. You get to this time of year, guys are just beaten and battered. You get them the reps they need and you get them out. Sometimes you do things like that to keep swelling down or whatever."

There was some bad injury news for the Huskers on Monday. Pelini already ruled out sophomore guard Andrew Rodriguez for the Iowa game, as he's missed the past two weeks with an sprained foot.

Pelini said junior tight end Ben Cotton, who missed last week after injuring his shoulder against Penn State, was listed as doubtful. He also said junior defensive end Eric Martin would be day-to-day this week after suffering an ankle injury against Michigan.

Nebraska has been dealing with injuries to key players at key positions all season long, but Pelini said he never looks at injuries as an excuse for poor performance.

"I think we have been hit with some injuries, (but) I don't want to make excuses when you have guys go down," Pelini said. "You have to have guys step up. We just didn't execute well enough against Michigan and however many turnovers we had didn't help. We did just enough in that game to create a tough situation for ourselves."

- Robin Washut

Huskers frustrated by opponent 'injury' tactics

It may have only been a coincidence, but it seemed whenever Nebraska was starting to get into a rhythm with its no-huddle offense on Saturday, a Michigan player would go down with an apparent injury.

While it's impossible to know how hurt a player really is, the Huskers admitted they were a bit frustrated and annoyed when those supposedly injured Wolverines would be back in the game a snap or two later looking perfectly healthy.

Pelini didn't come out accuse Michigan or any other team's players of faking injuries to control the tempo of NU's offense, but he did say he's noticed more than a few times opposing defenders acting a bit more injured than they really were this season.

"I think they need to look into something," Pelini said when asked if there was any way the NCAA could regulate faking injuries. "I think it has been pretty obvious at times but it obviously hasn't been to the referees. What are you going to do? Sometimes your hands are tied. I don't know what the answer is to that."

Quarterback Taylor Martinez said he's seen several instances of defenders walking around just fine and then suddenly dropping to the turf with an injury. He said seeing defenses resort to those tactics made him lose a bit of respect for some opponents.

"I do sometimes just because you'll see a guy standing up just all of a sudden fall down because we're moving at a fast pace," Martinez said. "It just kind of painful to see somebody go down, even though we do have momentum going forward. It's just kind of shocking that somebody would actually go like that."

One suggestion has been requiring players who do leave the game with an injury to sit out the rest of the possession, which would hopefully make coaches think twice about having one of their starters fake being hurt.

Pelini said he would support such a solution, and was hopeful something could be done about the situation by next season.

"That would make sense," Pelini said. "I don't know. It is something we will talk about in the off-season."

- Robin Washut

Mixed opinions on annual Friday kickoff

It's been a yearly tradition for Nebraska to close out the regular season on the Friday after Thanksgiving ever since the Huskers faced off against Oklahoma for the first time back in 1990.

The tradition lived on even after NU's move to the Big Ten, as Iowa will replace Oklahoma and Colorado as the annual post-holiday foe.

While the Friday showdown provides great national exposure, Nebraska's players and coaches have mixed feelings about ending their season on a short week. Pelini said the biggest change would be packing five days' worth of preparation into just four days of practice.

"You just approach it a little different," Pelini said. "We will get more done today than we do on a normal Monday. We have one less day so you have to amp things up a bit."

For the players, the worst part about the Friday game is not having much of any time to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with their families, especially when the series flips and the game will be played in Iowa City.

"I don't really care," Martinez said. "I'd prefer it on Saturday just to have Thanksgiving with family and friends out here. But other than that, yeah, I (like) it on Friday just so we can watch football on Saturday."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Despite his breakout season in replacing the great Alex Henery this season, junior kicker/punter Brett Maher was left off the list of Groza Award finalists, which were announced on Monday. Florida's Caleb Sturgis, Florida State's Dustin Hopkins and Texas A&M's Randy Bullock were named the three finalists.

***Nebraska's Diamond formation has produced several big plays this season, but its appearances have been few and far between. Beck said part of the reason the formation has been effective is because of the surprise element, and that he didn't think NU could live out of it full time.

"It's a good change-up," Beck said. "That's what it is. It's just a good change-up. I don' think you could live out of the formation the whole time. It's a good change up. Teams don't do it. It's a unique formation. It causes teams alignment issues, and that's why we're able to get big plays out of it."

***Beck said Iowa's Mike Daniels would be the next standout defensive lineman the Huskers would have to face this season. Beck said he's been nothing but impressed with the quality of defensive lines in the Big Ten, and Iowa's would be up there with the best of them.

"They're well coached, physical," Beck said. "(Daniels) is a heck of a defensive lineman, a good player. They're very sound fundamentally. A tough team, pretty much like every defense we've faced this year, it seems like."

***Beck said the biggest key to improving offensive performance would be to sustain drives by converting third downs. He said NU averaged roughly 5 yards per play against Michigan, but the bigger gains mostly came in long-yardage situations and did not convert third downs.

"We've got to get first downs," Beck said. "We were 0-for-whatever on third down. We averaged five yards a play, we just didn't average them when we needed them We've got to convert third downs, that's the bottom line. When we can't stay on the field, bad things happen."

***Beck said NU's offense was maybe a little bit confused at times by what Michigan's defense was doing on some plays, which forced them to execute poorly.

"I think at some times we were a little bit confused," he said. "We just didn't execute very well as a whole in those situations. Whatever it may have been, everybody took their turn at one time or another, from back protection to quarterback read to offensive line protection to wide receiver routes. We all took our turn, and it snowballed. We just weren't able to make a play when we needed to make a play."

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