November 16, 2011

Wednesday notebook: Long brothers on the rise

Compton becoming playmaker at linebacker

Will Compton looked like a completely different player during his seven-tackle performance three weeks ago in Nebraska's win over Michigan State, and he hasn't been the same since.

With a renewed physical and aggressive approach against the run, Compton has emerged as one of the Huskers' better run stoppers over the past three games, with his best performance yet coming last week against Penn State.

The junior linebacker racked up a team-high 13 tackles against the Nittany Lions, and he was named the team's defensive player of the week for his efforts. Compton now ranks second on the team with 64 tackles on the season, including 25 stops in his last three outings.

"Will is making plays now," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "He's always been a very particular guy, almost obsessive, about doing the right thing. We visited with him maybe a month ago and talked about, don't just go to the right places, but go make plays. That's what he's doing. He's really playing more aggressive and getting off of blockers.

"That's really three weeks in a row he's kind of been all over the field. He's really taken his play to another level over the past few weeks."

Pelini said the biggest reason for Compton's turnaround has been his ability to loosen up a bit on the field and not be so concerned with being absolutely perfect in his assignments. Before, Pelini said Compton was too focused on being in the right place that he wasn't making plays when he got there.

Now, he said the Bonne Tierre, Mo., native has gotten to the point where he's comfortable enough with his knowledge of the defense that he's been able to kick up his intensity on the field.

"I think Will, it's just a maturation process, where now he's figuring out, 'you know what? I can take care of my responsibility, do a great job with my hands, get off blockers and go make plays,'" Pelini said. "Sometimes it'll mean back-dooring a block or something that's not in the playbook, but heck, that's category one, make a play. We've kind of given him the green light to do that, and he's responded really well."

Senior linebacker Lavonte David said he hasn't been surprised by Compton's play in recent weeks. Based on everything he'd seen from his teammate in practice and in the film room, David knew it was only a matter of time before things started to click for Compton.

"He's a great football player," David said. "He's a student of the game. That's just something you've got to expect him. We knew he had it in him all along."

- Robin Washut

Beck opening up playbook

Following Nebraska's win over Penn State on Saturday, offensive coordinator Tim Beck admitted there have been times when he's felt he's been too conservative with his play calling when a little aggressiveness could have resulted in game-changing plays and drives.

That's why the Huskers showed a few new wrinkles against the Nittany Lions, including rotating running back Rex Burkhead under center and quarterback Taylor Martinez to the backfield for option run plays.

From here on out, Beck said don't be surprised if he continues to mix things up and go a little deeper into NU's playbook to close out the season.

"We just kept them off balance," Beck said. "We were more attacking, and we tried to take advantage of the things they chose to do. In order to attack a team and take advantage of a team, sometimes you have to maybe do things that are unconventional."

Putting Burkhead at quarterback wasn't the only gadget play the Huskers broke out last week. They also ran a toss play to Burkhead that was intended to be a pass, but Penn State had it covered and forced Burkhead to tuck and run.

While Nebraska has had some success in recent weeks by grinding out long drives with running plays and short passes, Beck said the offense would have to kick up its aggressiveness and go after defenses down the final stretch of the year.

Head coach Bo Pelini said Beck had only scratched the surface of the tricks he has buried in the Huskers' playbook.

"He is like the witch doctor," Pelini said. "You don't know what he is going to do. I was sitting in the meetings last week and I thought some of the things he did really made sense. Some of the things really helped us, like the play at the goal line at the end of the first half. It is a little bit old school what we did right there. I think that we do enough things that it gives defenses a lot to prepare for."

Beck can certainly get a little more creative moving forward with a player like Burkhead at his disposal. Having already been used under center, on running back passes and as the Wildcat quarterback this season, Burkhead will likely be front and center in the Huskers' new aggressive approach, which suits him just fine.

"It's a lot of fun to act like you are the quarterback every once in a while," Burkhead said. "You get to show your versatility and other things you can do out on the field. Whenever you get in that situation, to be able to pass the ball or run like you are the quarterback at certain times in the game, it can be really fun."

- Robin Washut

Cotton's absence will be felt

Nebraska suffered two blows when junior tight end Ben Cotton went down with a shoulder injury against Penn State.

With him out of the lineup for at the very least this week's game at Michigan, the Huskers will not only be without one of their top tight ends, but also without one of their overall team leaders.

"Obviously it's tough to lose a guy like Ben, because he really was playing well all the way around; in the run game, pass game, great leadership," Beck said. "You know, he just has those uncanny instincts as a player.

"You lose some of those things when you play a younger guy, but we're not changing at all. We're going to do what we do."

As far as X's and O's are concerned, Cotton played a huge roll in Nebraska's running game, as his blocking on the edge has helped break some big runs all season. He was also a timely receiving threat, with many of his 13 receptions on the year resulting in key third down conversions.

What will be equally missed is the leadership he brought to the Huskers' locker room and out on the field. Beck said not having a guy with Cotton's fire would obviously be a big loss, but he was confident the rest of NU's offensive leaders would be ready to step up in his absence.

"There's other guys," Beck said. "Ben's one of them, but have (Tyler) Legate, Rex, Taylor, and (Mike) Caputo, and Brandon Kinnie and (Tim) Marlowe. You'll see a lot of those guys step up."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Co-offensive line coach John Garrison said Cole Pensick was still the No. 3 guard at this point behind Long and Seung Hoon Choi. He said there's chance Brent Qvale would not even be on Nebraska's travel roster, as he continues to recover from a concussion despite returning to practice this week.

***Garrison said Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin was one of his favorite defensive players to watch on film just because of the physicality he brings on every play.

***Going through the gauntlet of stingy defenses in the Big Ten, Garrison said it's been getting a little difficult trying to emphasize how good each opposing defense would be during practice and film sessions each week. He joked that telling his guys they would be going up against the one of the best defenses in the country was starting to lose some of its impact because he's been telling them that seemingly every week.

***Co-offensive line coach Barney Cotton said he's been very pleased with the play of Choi and Long since they've emerged as the clear starters at guard. Cotton said Choi's strength was what has separated him from the rest of the pack, as he is one of the team's strongest players in the weight room. As for Long, Cotton said his tenacity and quick feet were his biggest attributes.

***Running backs coach Ron Brown talked about the challenge of getting the team mentally ready for another crucial road game in a hostile venue this week at Michigan. He said the Huskers had been through a lot this year with all the different circumstances the team has faced, and they've handled it all very well. He said the challenges have only made the team stronger and more mature as a result.

***Brown said Michigan's defensive line has been able to get a great push on opposing offensive lines all season long, particularly in short yardage situations. He said that has forced the offensive line and running backs to turn up the intensity even more than usual this week in practice.

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