September 17, 2008

Wednesday notebook: Injuries plague secondary

As soon as the subject of injuries comes up to Nebraska defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders, a frustrated yet knowing smile immediately comes to his face.

More so than any unit on the team, the Huskers' defensive backfield has been riddled with injuries since the start of fall camp. With two players originally listed on the fall camp starting lineup missing last week's game and the first two days of practice this week, the problem doesn't seem to be going away, either.

As of Wednesday, junior safety Rickey Thenarse and sophomore cornerback Anthony West are both unable to fully participate in NU's practices with injuries. Thenarse is currently in a green no-contact jersey in full pads, but he hasn't had a full practice since injuring his shoulder first quarter in the Huskers' season opener.

West, who missed the final week of fall camp with a knee contusion, missed last week's game and hasn't practiced in nearly a week and a half while nursing a new injury. Senior cornerback Armando Murillo also missed essentially all of the season opener with an injury as well.

Thus, when you ask Sanders about the injury situation in his secondary, he gives you a very honest opinion.

"I'm sick of them, I'll tell you that much," Sanders said. "Unfortunately they're part of the game. You don't like it, but they're part of the game. Hopefully this next week and a half we'll get a chance to get some guys healthy with West and Rickey and try to get them back into the rotation."

Sanders said he expects West to be ready for next weekend's game against Virginia Tech, but the status of Thenarse is still up in the air.

"When he has a green shirt on, it's encouraging because he's going through practice and he's getting repetitions," Sanders said. "When you're hurt and you're not getting repetitions, that can set you back a little bit. But now that he's there, he's getting some repetitions. That way he does come back, he doesn't lose too much."

With Thenarse out, junior Matt O'Hanlon has held down the starting strong safety spot since the beginning of the season. Last week against New Mexico State, O'Hanlon hauled in his first career interception at the goal line for a key red zone stop.

When Thenarse finally does return to 100 percent, Sanders said the coaching staff would address what his role would be at that point. For now, the starting job at strong safety is O'Hanlon's to lose.

"Right now Matt is my starter," Sanders said. "I'm proud of what he has done, but we need some depth. Austin Cassidy came in and did some promising things, but seeing with Rickey being injured, there's a possibility of injuries happening. So we've got to develop some depth, and when Rickey can come in and compete, we'll see what happens."

-Robin Washut

Wednesday's Practice Takes
Foster connection: You learn something new every day. On Wednesday, Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is also a Southern Illinois graduate. Foster helped Watson put in his defense with the Salukis when he was their head coach from 1997 to 1998.
Waiting to prepare: Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the Huskers haven't worked on preparing for Virginia Tech's offense at all this week in practice. Instead, NU is working against its own offensive scheme. Pelini said the benefit of that was to help the defense ease into preparing for an entirely different offensive attack from what they've seen the past three weeks. As opposed to the primarily spread-out, multiple-receiver sets they've been facing, Hokies will bring more of a run-based, play-action passing game to Lincoln.
Injury update: Junior safety Rickey Thenarse continues to practice in a green jersey and Pelini expects him to be doing full contact next week. Sophomore cornerback Anthony West remains out with what Pelini calls a "day to day" injury. Sophomore defensive end Pierre Allen won't practice at all this week, but Pelini said he'll be ready to go on Monday.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team held a one hour and 45 minute full-padded workout on the grass practice fields north of Memorial Stadium on Wednesday. NU will come back for another full-padded practice on Thursday and they will also practice on Friday before taking Saturday as an off day.

Huskers making imprint on Texas recruiting scene

It's no secret what state has been Nebraska's focal point since head coach Bo Pelini and his staff took over this past offseason, and it's pretty much a given it will stay that way.

With a school-record nine players from Texas committing to the Huskers this past signing day, NU made it clear that the Lone Star State was priority No. 1 when it came to recruiting the talent to fit Pelini's new system. Though two players didn't qualify from this most recent class, the number still tied Nebraska's modern day record of signees from Texas with seven, which was last done in 2007.

As of Wednesday, the Huskers have already got commitments from six Texas players, making up at least half of their 2009 class.

Running backs coach Tim Beck admitted that he and the rest of the staff have made Texas one of their main recruiting targets, and are banking on the state to help provide the talent to turn Nebraska's program around.

"I think we're trying," Beck said. "All of us are down there doing the best job we can. It's just going to take some time like anything else. Hopefully we'll get the dividends of all our hard work."

Beck said the hard part wasn't traveling down to Texas to recruit players, but more getting them to consider Nebraska over the many in-state programs as well as boardering schools like Oklahoma and Louisiana State.

Though Beck said the coaches try to use Nebraska's tradition to their advantage in the recruiting process, some players are too young to remember the Huskers as a national power.

"Regardless of how people feel or think, it all comes down to is these kids were in high school four years ago as freshmen, that's what they know," Beck said. "They know the last four years. With the great tradition that we have, we certainly use that as a recruiting tool, but some of them don't remember. You have to overcome those barriers, so winning is extremely important."

While schools like Texas and Oklahoma have reached the point where they have the majority of their recruiting classes filled before the season is even halfway over, Beck said the Huskers will use as much time as possible to assemble a quality class.

"(The recruiting process) is a lot faster than it's ever been, but that can be a detriment as well," he said. "You hurry up and recruit and you feel like it's a race. It's not a race. You gotta find the right guys. It doesn't matter how late you sign them as long as they're the ones you want."

-Robin Washut

NU staff has strong knowledge of Hokies

The Nebraska coaching staff will arguably go into the Virginia Tech game with a stronger knowledge of the Hokies than any opponent they'll face all season.

In all, five of the 10 coaches on the NU staff coached against the Hokies in the 2007. Head coach Bo Pelini, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler and defensive ends coach John Papuchis were a part of a 48-7 win over Virginia Tech in Baton Rouge last September.

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini saw the Hokies the week after LSU did, but the Bobcats fell short losing 28-7 in Blacksburg.

Running backs Tim Beck is the final member of the staff that saw the Hokies in a game last season. Beck helped lead the Kansas Jayhawks to a 24-21 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl when he was working under KU head coach Mark Mangino in Lawrence.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is also very familiar with the Hokies because their defensive coordinator Bud Foster is somebody he's gotten to know over the years through his old Southern Illinois days. Both Watson and Foster are graduates from Southern Illinois.

With such a strong working knowledge of the Hokies, Watson said there's no question it will help the Huskers in their preparations for next Saturday's game in Lincoln.

"It's big because you have their thoughts, although they have evolved on their end too, they don't stay the same" Watson said. "We have that history on film. I think they being the guys that have worked against them already have good history, and that will certainly help us out."

However, when you look at the Hokies, they're obviously a much different team in 2008, as eight players off their Orange Bowl squad were drafted and they've also lost a few key players on offense to either injury or suspension.

"They've changed," Watson said. "Bud (Foster) is a great coordinator and I have a lot of respect for him. He's did some things a year ago that maybe hurt him, where now he's strengthened those things and kept the integrity of what he likes to do. He's done an excellent job of protecting himself. He's one of the best for a reason."

Watson said he and the rest of the staff will have a watchful eye on the Hokies on Saturday when they take on North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Virginia Tech will actually go into that game as a slight Vegas underdog.

"They'll face a team that after watching them last week, I have a lot of respect for," Watson said of the Tar Heels. "North Carolina is multiple and they do a lot of good things. They have a good offensive staff and I'm sure they'll do some good things to attack them."

-Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***With just one fumble by a running back this season in the Huskers' second game against San Jose State, ball control has not been an issue for NU's backfield this year.

"That's our No. 1 goal - ball security," Beck said. "We talk about it, we harness it, we do as much as we can to remind those guys that without the ball in our hands we're not going to score."

***When asked about the Huskers' improvement in fumbles this season, one reporter asked Beck if it was due simply to "serendipity" or an increased focus on ball security in practice. Beck was apparently caught off guard with the verbiage of the question, and jokingly upset that the reporter jinxed the encouraging trend.

"You're using all these big word on me, man," Beck said. "Jeez oh man. Plus you jinxed me. You jinxed me and you used big words."

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