Archive for the ‘Position Breakdowns’ Category

Nebraska Position Breakdowns and DXP Expectations: Special Teams and Cheerleading Squads

April 14, 2009

Often overlooked, the special teams and cheer squads sometimes fail to get the recognition they deserve. With a potential All-American kicker/punter and a stacked cheer squad, look for both units to shine this fall.

Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns: QB, RB, WR, TE
Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns: OL, DL
Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns and DXP Expectations: LB, CB, S


R-Jr. Alex Henery became a household name for Husker fans in 2008, which was highlighted by this 57 yard field goal that gave the Huskers a 33-31 lead over Colorado and eventually would send the team back to a New Year’s Day bowl. “I can make it,” Henerey told Pelini during the timeout before the kick. Kicker and confidence are two words that I haven’t lumped in the same sentence since the days of Josh Brown and Kris Brown. In fact, all that Henery has done in two seasons with the Huskers is go 101 for 102 in PATs and 26 of 29 field goals. Even more impressive, Henery is 12 of 13 from 30-49 yards.

Jr. Adi Kunalic has been the undisputed kickoff specialist for the Huskers the past two seasons and that won’t change in 2009. In 2007, Kunalic had 28 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs with an average of 65.7 yards per kick. Those 28 touchbacks were good enough to put the Huskers at 3rd in the nation in that category. In 2008, Kunalic would rack up another 28 touchbacks on 81 attempts, which was good enough for 5th in the nation. When averaging the two seasons together, roughly 38% of his kickoffs have been touchbacks – impressive to say the least. Should an unfortunate injury happen to Henery, the Huskers have depth with Adi (career long field goal of 46 yards) at place kicker.


In high school, Alex Henery averaged almost 42 yards/punt at Omaha Burke. And with Henery entering his 4th season in the strength and conditioning program at Nebraska, I suspect that high school average doesn’t hold true today. So what are the chances Henery will see double-duty as a kicker/punter this season? “I wouldn’t have even introduced the idea to him about punting if I didn’t think he could handle both,” said John Papuchis, who works closely with the kickers. “If there is ever a point in time where he feels stressed on where he needs to spend the majority of his focus, we’d have to make a decision then. But right now I think he is able to handle both pretty well.” Henery’s comptetion (if you feel the need to call it that) will come from R-Fr. Brett Maher and So. Jonathon Damkroger, although it appears neither one of them will unseat Henery. Maher was a standout athlete in high school at Kearney, NE, where he averaged 41 yards/punt, was 8/14 on field goals, and had 775 receiving yards with 10 touchdowns. Damkroger is a transfer from UNO, where he averaged 35 yards/punt on 40 punts.

Kick/Punt Returner

So. CB Alfonzo Dennard and Jr. WR Niles Paul were the primary kick returners from a year ago. The speedy Dennard returned 8 kickoffs for an average of 18.8 yards/return as a true freshman while Paul returned 41 kickoffs for an average of 23.6 yards/return and 8 punts for an average of 10 yards/return. With their roles increasing at their respective positions this season, it is unlcear if both will be back here again this season. Expect R-So. WR Curenski Gilleylen and his 10.22 speed to step in here at both spots possibly. Whether or not he can catch a kickoff or a punt remains to be seen, but I do know that if he can get the ball and start running you aren’t going to catch him. When R-Fr. WR Khiry Cooper is paroled from the Mike Anderson Penetentiary sometime early in May, I expect punt and kick returns to be first on the agenda. The coaches will look for anyway possible to get the extremely talented Cooper on the field, and if returning kicks/punts is one way to do it, then so be it. R-Fr. WR Tim Marlowe saw practice time at both positions during fall camp last August. Marlowe is a skilled athlete that excelled at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and safety at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio and will get a hard look here – think Josh Davis. True freshman RB Rex Burkhead and true freshman CB Andrew Green should get looks here come fall as both were very good returners in high school. Whether or not they will redshirt is a topic to be discussed at a much later time.

Final Thoughts

Make no mistake about it, Henery will be our kicker and punter this season. The only way this isn’t going to happen is if he decides he isn’t fit for double-duty, which I don’t see happening. And whether he is thinking about it or not, being a double-duty kicker will get you noticed in the national media and most importantly, it has become a hot commodity in the NFL as of late. There is no reason to think Kunalic won’t be specializing as a kickoff specialist again in 2009. With Henery and Kunalic, Nebraska will showcase one of the best kicking games in college. Paul’s recent run-in with the law surely isn’t going to put him in a very favorable spot with the team anywhere heading into the fall. I expect Gilleylen, Cooper, and Marlowe will get the hardest looks to step into the primary kick/punt returners early next season with Dennard being more of a crutch. However, depending on what the coaches eventually decide, my darkhorse special teams star is Rex Burkhead (pictured). Burkhead is years ahead of most incoming college freshman physically (5’11, 210 lbs.) and all he did last season in Plano, TX was rush for 1,762 yards and 28 touchdowns and haul in 24 receptions for 594 yards (24.8 average) and five scores. And with Mendoza seeing time at wide receiver, I am beginning to think the coaches know what they have in Burkhead and would not be surprised at all to see Burkhead slide into possibly the #3 running back spot (as a true freshman, he could be an everydown back if needed to be) sometime next season along with his special teams duties. Overall, pinpointing the return specialists is next to impossible to predict at this point, and no matter who ends up there, we won’t be hurting.

Cheer Squad and the Scarlets

Let me start by saying that since Nebraska isn’t anywhere near the SEC or Pac-10 in location, it can be rather difficult to reproduce the Song Girls or the Gatorettes in the Heartland. The 2009-10 cheerleading tryouts were conducted last weekend and no word has come out of camp as to who the lucky ones are. I’d love to be able to breakdown all of the candidates for you, but the athletic department deems DXP not qualified enough to help analyze and help select the future cheer squad. Weird huh? Regardless, Nebraska has always done a fine job working with what we have and have even produced a few professional cheerleaders in recent memory. In fact, Nebraska’s own and Kansas City Chief cheerleader Trish Neneman was selected to the 2004 Pro Bowl. Since it won’t be known who will be part of the 2009-10 Nebraska Cheer and Scarlet squads as of yet, let us look at some of the stars that will be in attendance at the spring game and who could possibly one day fill Neneman’s big shoes.



Final Thoughts
Both squads have been a pleasant surprise under Pelini’s short tenure at Nebraska. It’s no secret that success on the field can be directly correlated to the quality of the cheerleaders and dance teams. See USC, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. Whether or not Nebraska can live up to its lofty expectations is something we’ll have to wait until fall to see. However, like I said, the bar has been raised over the past few seasons and I see no reason why there will be any decline from this unit in 2009-10.

Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns and DXP Expectations: LB, CB, S

April 13, 2009

For Nebraska to improve on its #2 ranked Big XII defense a year ago, they are going to have to rely heavily upon a group of young, talented linebackers and defensive backs. And assuming the defensive line performs to their capabilities, these two units will have ample opportunity to shine. Exactly who is going to get that chance and where remains to be seen.

Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns: QB, RB, WR, TE

Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns: OL, DL


Mike (middle): No question that Sr. Phillip Dillard (6’1, 240 lbs.) holds by far the most experience here with 33 games played. You would think that this spot is Dillards to lose, but after last season, I don’t see it that way and the coaches don’t either. In 9 games in 2008, Dillard accumulated only 13 solo tackles (38 total) and half of a sack – not going to cut it at middle linebacker for a defense this good. Dillards‘ inconsistent play and knack for injury will leave the door wide open for competition. Enter walk-on Sr. Colton Koehler (6’1, 230 lbs.) and R-Fr. Will Compton (6’2, 230 lbs.) Koehler had to fill in at Mike during Dillard’s injury-plagued 2008 season and started the Gator Bowl. Although Koehler didn’t miss a beat on the field when compared to Dillard, I still have a hard time buying he is the best we have. I’m starting to get the feeling that this is Will Compton’s time. Last season, Bo Pelini and Mike Ekeler said on more than one occasion that keeping his redshirt on became increasingly more difficult. After practice two weeks ago, Ekeler said, “it’s go time, and it’s got to be perfect. I don’t think on Saturdays (next season) you’re going to put an asterisk by it and say, ‘Aw, you know what, Will Compton’s a freshman. We’ll let that one go. He missed that play.’ It’s all for keeps. We’ve got to demand and expect perfection.” What I take from the that is that Ekeler is working overtime to groom Compton as the undisputed #1 by September. Compton was ranked as the #34 best athlete in the country by Rivals when he was recruited out of Missouri and has the most athletic ability of this group. You’d be crazy if you aren’t smiling when you think about four years with Will Compton.

As far as the Will (weakside) and the Sam (strongside) linebacker positions go, Ekeler recently said, “we’re looking for the best three. Whoever emerges, that’s who we’re going to play.”

Jr. Blake Lawrence (6’3, 220 lbs.) and R-Fr. Alonzo Whaley (6’1, 225 lbs.) appear to be going to head to head at the weakside. With one year at the strongside and one year at the weakside, Lawrence appears ready to step into a more prominent role. Lawrence, who I consider another victim of Callahan’s redshirt philosphies or lack thereof, improved dramatically as his sophomore season progressed and finished with four tackles and an interception in the Gator Bowl. Whaley, who was twice named to the first-team Class 3A all-state teams in Texas, had a whopping 162 tackles in his senior season as a two-way starter. And with one year to grow in the program, Whaley will be ready. Speedy walk-ons So. Matt Holt (6’0, 200 lbs.) and So. Matthew May (6’1, 200 lbs.) were forced to play significant roles last season with the lack of depth and both should see the field often this season, although it is unlikely either will start. Holt had an outstanding game against Texas Tech with 8 tackles (7 solo) but saw little action at the end of the season while May appeared in 5 games and recorded 5 tackles. R-Fr. Sean Fisher (6’6, 225 lbs.) and R-Fr. Micah Kreikemeier (6’3, 210 lbs.) have both been practicing primarily at strongside linebacker this spring and both are impressing coaches. Fisher appeared in one game last season before an injury which allowed to gain a medical redshirt. At 6’6 and 225 lbs., I’m more than interested to see what this former high school quarterback can contribute at outside linebacker. Both of these players will be on the field early and often, and whether or not one of them can earn a starting spot might depend solely on Alonzo Whaley’s readiness as Blake Lawrence can and will play both outside positions.

Easily two of the better recruits in Nebraska’s 2009 class were linebackers Chris Williams (6’0, 230 lbs.) and Eric Martin (6’2, 216 lbs.) – both inside linebackers in high school. One, if not both of them would have been on the field last season, but with the plethora of linebackers this year, I’ll be more than interested to see what becomes of their redshirt decision.

Final Thoughts
Unlike a year ago, Bo Pelini should be feeling pretty good with what he has here. In fact, moving former LB LaTravis Washington to QB is just one example of how much depth the Huskers have. There are currently 15 players (2 Seniors, 2 Juniors, 2 Sophomores, 9 Freshmen) that sit in at linebacker meetings this spring and it’s no secret that probably only two of them will see the field together at any given time due to the dynamic Big XII offenses. Speed baby, speed. Although it’s great to have two veterans in the middle with Dillard and Koehler, I expect to see Compton move into the starting role by September 5th at the earliest, October 8th in Columbia at the latest. The outside is going to be crowded come fall. All of the six aforementioned outside LBs will play with the Blackshirts (we’re saying that again, right?) hardly missing a beat. As far as who gets to start, I expect that to come on a week-to-week basis throughout the season. And if I had a preference, I’d hope that Williams and Martin redshirt this coming season, further proving to the rest of us that we are in fact loaded here.


Jr. Anthony West (6’0 205 lbs.) and Jr. Prince Amukamara (6’1, 200 lbs.) will likely enter the spring game as the starting corners. Both provide much needed big game experience, which is something this group needs. West is the most physical back of the group and is an excellent open field tackler. In 2008, he had 23 solo tackles and 9 pass break-ups. Amukamara, like West, can also bring a physical presence to the position and is the more athletic of the two. While racking up 21 solo tackles, 3 pass break-ups, and a pair of forced fumbles, Amukamara also excelled on special teams which is something he will more than likely be relied upon again this season. I expect Jr. Eric Hagg (6’2, 205 lbs.) to play one of the more important roles on the defense at nickel back, although he is getting reps this spring at safety. Along with his heroics late in the Gator Bowl to seal the win, Hagg had an outstanding season with 29 solo tackles and 7 pass break-ups and played in every game. Said Marvin Sanders, “Eric’s a guy who I think needs to be on the field every single play” – whether he moves to safety or not is still up in the air. As one of the few true freshman to play last season, Alfonzo Dennard (5’10, 190 lbs.) averaged almost 19 yards/return on kickoffs and will more than likely see action there again. Much buzz has been created this spring with his play and I fully expect him to get his share of snaps this fall. R-So. (and former walk-on) Lance Thorell (6’1, 195 lbs.) settled into the starting dime back position last season, and although I expect to see him get extensive action, I’m not sure if he will be among the top four backs. R-So. Anthony black and Blue (5’10, 185 lbs.) hasn’t played a down since he was a true freshman in 2007 when he was named to the Big XII All-Freshman team. According to the OWH, ‘Sanders said he doesn’t consider Blue a whole year behind, but said it won’t be easy cracking back into a starting lineup as he competes against guys who have had more time with the system.’ Juco transfer Dejon Gomes (Jr., 6’0, 190 lbs.) arrived in Lincoln in January and could possibly see time at safety along with the corner. True freshmen Dijon Washington, Lazarri Middleton, and Andrew Green are all highly touted backs, but they will not arrive until fall camp.

Final Thoughts
With Armando Murillo as the only key loss from the 2008 unit, the cornerback position will be vastly improved. Each and every one of the names above will be on the field throughout the season as playmakers on defense and special teams. Amukamara, West, and Hagg (provided he stays here) should be the three primary backs to start the season with either Dennard or Thorell filling in at the dime. It seems as if Anthony Blue still is learning to adjust to game speed and will see time as a back-up to start the season. As I mentioned, Gomes is still a little of question mark with little being said about him and he could very well land at safety. Whether he will contribute much remains to be seen and the spring game should give us an idea of where he stands. I highly doubt that the coaching staff will redshirt all three incoming scholarship freshman as all three have the capabilities to contribute immediately. Expect Dennard to shine on special teams this fall where he was a standout as a true freshman.


After two years as the starting strong safety, Sr. Larry Asante (6’1, 215 lbs.) seems primed for a big year. Asante returns as Nebraska’s second-leading tackler from 2008 (67 tackles, 45 solo tackles) and will be relied upon to do the same in 2009. Lining up alongside Asante will be either Sr. Ricky Thenarse (6’1, 205 lbs.) or Sr. Matt O’Hanlon (5’11, 200 lbs.). Thenarse improved tremendously after an injury limited his time earlier in the season. Despite missing almost 3 full games to begin the season with injury, Thenarse adjusted quickly and took the starting role away from O’Hanlon the final four games of the year. O’Hanlon still produced big throughout the year with 52 tackles, 1 Int., and 5 pass break-ups, but expect him to back-up Thenarse. As previously mentioned, Eric Hagg remains the wild card here. Whether or not the safety experiment works out, Hagg is still the best nickelback we have. I’m excited to see R-Fr. PJ Smith (6’2, 210 lbs.) play. In high school, Smith put on an impressive display of speed and football instinct to go along with a love for making a big hit. R-Fr. Courtney Osborne (6’3, 190 lbs.) will be another youngster to see the field often next season. Osborne, who was recruited as an athlete, also possesses a knack for the big hit as well as great speed. As mentioned above, it appears Dejon Gomes will get a shot at safety and with two outstanding years at City College of San Francisco (Zac Lee, Maurice Purify), he could be a better option than either one of the redshirt freshmen here.

Final Thoughts
Expect great things this season from Asante, Thenarse, and O’Hanlon. Although it sure seemed like the learning curve proved rather steep in the first year under Pelini, all three showed very promising signs as the season progressed. And as far as Asante and Thenarse go, I want all-conference type of play from both. I do think O’Hanlon will serve most of the season as a back-up although he will see significant playing time. Gomes by all accounts should be ready to step and help this unit immediately if he remains at safety. I’m still not buying the Hagg move to safety, but the spring game will give us a better idea. The two talented freshmen, Smith and Osborne, have been earning the respect of the coaches and players alike this spring as both appear to be ready to see playing time early and often. All in all, this group should be nothing short of great this season.

Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns and DXP Expectations: OL, DL

April 10, 2009

We made a couple switches, and we may switch a couple more things before spring gets out,” offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. “To be honest with you, I think you evaluate this thing up front until you get about a week before that first game.” He’s not kidding. On the defensive side, let’s just say we’re thinly loaded.

Click here for QB, RB, WR, TE

Offensive Line

Left Tackle: Jr. Mike Smith (6’6, 285 lbs.) has the position locked down heading into the fall. Smith started every game in 2008, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his moments. To say that Clemson’s DaQuan Bowers exposed Smith badly in the Gator Bowl might be the understatement of the year. However, with one full year as a starter behind him, I expect Smith to have two great years ahead.

Left Guard: Jr. Keith Williams (6’5, 305 lbs.) was a regular last season at the guard and from all accounts has a firm hold on the starting role here. Jr. Cruz Barret (6’4 310 lbs.) should be the likely back-up to Williams here on the left side.

Center: The emergence of (former walk-on) So. Mike Caputo (6’1, 275 lbs.) this spring as one of the top five lineman – according to Barney Cotton – has pushed Jacob Hickman to right guard and Hickman into the starting center position – for now. According to Cotton and Hickman, no player on the team has worked harder than Caputo during the offseason. And here’s what Hickman had to say about the change, “He told me beforehand, ‘Hey, we’re just going to check this out for a couple of days, see how it goes. If it’s good, we’ll stick with it, if not, then we’ll go back. ‘

Right Guard: As just mentioned, Sr. Jacob Hickman (6’4, 290 lbs.) has moved to the right guard. Hickman should be fine with the move since he played the left side in 2007 and is a quick study. R-Jr. Ricky Henry (6′ 4, 305 lbs.) was redshirted last season as the coaches wanted more time to develop him. Henry is one of the harder workers on the team and possesses a mean streak that makes him a nightmare to line up against in practice. D.J. Jones (6’5, 305 lbs.) remains practicing at right guard, but there are rumors that he might be on the move to left tackle.

Right Tackle: R-So. Marcel Jones (6’7, 310 lbs.) steps in to replace Lydon Murtha. Jones’ size and athletic ability are a huge plus, and his work in the spring has solidified him as the starter here. With three years of eligibility left, I expect great things from Jones. Likely backing up Jones will be Kansas State transfer and Sr. Derek Meyer (6’5, 300 lbs.). Meyer sat out the 2008 season and had limited time on the field with the Wildcats due to injury. Jr. Jaivorio Burkes (6′ 5 325 lbs) is one of the more talented lineman we have, but his health issues (blood pressure) have hindered him significantly. If healthy, Burkes could contend for playing time here but there has been little talk about him this spring.

Final Thoughts
Nebraska’s offensive line is a young, talented group. Gone are Lydon Murtha and Matt Slauson on the right side of the ball and their 55 combined starts the last three years. Marcel Jones and Hickman should be able to fill their big shoes. Hickman’s move to the right guard spot comes as a surprise, as this is now his third position move in three years. The LJS claims that Shawn Watson voiced his concern over the right guard position sometime last week. Regardless, Hickman – the undisputed leader of this group – is an intelligent and gifted player and will adjust fine if they decide to keep him there. Should DJ Jones move to a back-up role at left tackle he would simply be the victim of the domino effect Mike Caputo has created. With Burkes’ health as a concern, I expect Derek Meyer to see time early at either tackle position. I truly have no idea about Sr. guard Andy Christensen, who was granted a surprising sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA in early March. All in all, give a big hat tip to offensive line guru Bill Callahan for keeping the cupboard full. What’s even more encouraging here is that this is going to be your offensive line for the 2010 season minus Hickman.

Defensive Line

Defensive Tackle: Expectations couldn’t be higher for Sr. Ndamukong Suh. Suh’s 76 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 2 INTs for touchdowns in 2008 are astronomical numbers for a defensive tackle, especially when you see nothing but double teams. Whether Suh can reach those numbers this season will depend heavily on who gets the duty of lining up next to him. It appears So. Jared Crick (6’6, 285 lbs.), who saw time in nine games last fall, will get the first chance. His main competition for the starting job will come from fellow So. Terrence Moore (6’3, 275 lbs.), who appeared in seven games last fall and is the more athletic of the two. But, don’t sleep on R-Fr. Baker Steinkuhler (6’6, 290 lbs.), who was the prize recruit of the 2008 recruiting class and has had a year to ready himself.

Defensive End: Jr. Pierre Allen (6’5, 265 lbs.) and Sr. Barry Turner (6’3, 265 lbs.) will be the undisputed starters come fall camp. All that Pierre Allen did in replacing an injured Turner in the second game of the season last year was go on to record 52 tackles (21 solo) with 10 tackles for a loss and 5 sacks. Although Turner is still making his way back to his pre-injury form, expect him to be his old self by fall. Said Pelini, “it takes time to get your football legs back underneath you, and he is slowly but surely. He’s done a lot of good things, but he doesn’t feel quite like himself and that’s to be expected. It takes a little time.” Now, herein lies the problem – depth. R-Fr. Josh Williams and R-Fr. Cameron Meredith are going to be the likely back-ups. Williams and Meredith were both very highly touted out of high school and both have the physical tools to be all-conference someday. However, with only one year in the program and zero previous game experience, it’s hard to know if they’re prepared for the Big XII. Regardless, they will get playing time this fall if they’re ready or not and the spring game is a great place for them to showcase what they have. Sr. David Harvey (6’4, 275 lbs.) moves over from the tackle position to provide some depth to this group.

Final Thoughts
Suh’s decision to return to school (smart one) certainly didn’t make everyone happy in the Big XII. Despite finishing the season with 76 tackles – 20 higher than the next defensive lineman in the conference – the Big XII coaches voted him Second-Team All-Big XII. Subsequently, Suh was left off of the 2009 Lombardi preseason watch list. I’m not sure Suh needed any more motivation, but he’s got some. His presence will command double teams from opposing teams which should allow Allen and Turner to run wild on the ends. With Turner receiving his medical redshirt, it suddenly gives him an unexpected chance to line-up opposite of Allen, who he has mentored since he stepped on campus. Said Allen about Turner, “it feels really good to have him back. I mean, that’s my right-hand man. He took me in when I was a freshman and getting an opportunity to play alongside him this year is going to be great. He’s going to be a good senior leader for us this year.” Hopefully, Allen and Turner will feed off each others energy much the same way Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter did. And regardless of who fills in that final spot next to Suh, this is without doubt the strongest unit of a defense that finished 2nd in the Big XII in total defense a year ago (7 yards/game behind Texas). The only thing that can possibly derail a stellar season is injury, so cheers to good health.

Nebraska’s Position Breakdowns and DXP Expectations: QB, RB, WR, TE

April 9, 2009

With the spring game looming, it’s a good time to pawn off a few lot of thoughts about the upcoming position battles. I’ll try and hit as many impact players as I can at each position and make it down the roster all the way to Alex Henery by next Saturday.


With Patrick Witt’s departure paving the way for Zac Lee, the Huskers have but one remaining QB on the roster with any game experience. Zac Lee’s (6’2, 210 lbs.) career stats: 1/2 for 5 yards and 2 rushes for 17 yards. Lee has been on campus since January ’07 and for that reason, knows Watson’s offense well. He has a cannon for arm to go along with considerable quickness – according to his coaches.

Injury or not, it was a great decision for freshman QB Cody Green to arrive on campus in January in time for spring ball. I think Zac Lee and Kody Spano will be the first to tell you that you aren’t going to pick up this offense up in a month and expect to play early next fall. Green (6’4, 220 lbs.) is tall, rangy, and quick with an awkward delivery – see here. To the naked eye, you can’t help but think of a poor man’s version of Terrelle Pryor, which isn’t a bad thing.

The one thing that Kody Spano will always be able to claim is that he was Bo Pelini’s first QB recruit. However, you can’t argue that he will more than likely be the forgotten one in this Qb mix. Spano’s problem isn’t his athletic ability nor his improving arm strength and accuracy, but rather his spot on the roster. Spano is in a tough spot between a player with two years of experience and similar skills and a heralded freshman that will get his chance sooner than later.

When you thought it couldn’t be any tougher for Spano to vie for playing time next fall, enter former linebacker LaTravis Washington (6’3, 225 lbs) – who steps in because of Witt’s departure. Washington was primarily an option QB in high school who used his size and speed to dominate lesser high school players. Although he passed the ball in high school only a few times a game (ala Eric Crouch), Washington has been said to be throwing the ball so hard this spring that receivers are complaining that he is literally breaking their fingers. Regardless, Washington’s move to QB is both baffling and intriguing to me at the same time. The one thing it does tell me, however, is that there isn’t a whole lot of room for playing time at linebacker this season with the dynamic offenses we will see.

Final Thoughts
You’re not going to get an argument from anyone that this is the most important position battle to come out of this spring. Therefore, for the good of the team, we need to see Zac Lee emerge as the clear #1 heading into fall camp. If Zac Lee can’t emerge as the guy to beat, we have a problem. I like Spano, but he’s a #2 or #3 guy at this level – at best. And surely, if I’m not comfortable with Spano, I’m less comfortable with Washington who hasn’t played Qb on a competitive level since high school. That leaves Green. Green’s injury surely set him back, but thankfully it’s not serious enough to hinder his learning curve. Terrelle Pryor took the starting Qb job from the veteran and accomplished Todd Boeckmann in a little less than a month into the season and he didn’t arrive on campus until fall. We have to hope Green is what he’s said to be. If that’s the case, let Lee start the season and give Green intermittent playing time as the #2 guy regardless of the situation early on. If he is better, he’ll show it on the field. And if he looks AS GOOD AS if not better than Lee, then Cody Green should be the guy come start of Big XII play.

Running Back

Roy Helu Jr. rushed for 803 yards and 6.4 ypc last season and clearly became the best we had. This spring, Helu has powered up to 222 lbs. from last year’s 205 lbs. and I’m not going to lie to you, this has me a bit worried. They say he is stronger and faster than ever. I surely hope so, but as DXP reader GFW pointed out, he has the summer to take it off if need be. Ahman Green’s increase in weight over the summer between his freshman and sophomore year got him nothing besides less elusiveness, a turf-toe injury, and his worst season as a Husker. Let’s hope what they say about Helu’s improvement holds true.

Quentin Castille‘s breakout game as a Husker came at just the right time as he was the reason we beat Clemson in the Gator Bowl. His 125 yards and 6.9 ypc performance against an extremely quick defense showcased how effective he can be. However, like Helu, Castille hit up the team dietician during the offseason. Castille is at 235 lbs., which is 15 less than his freshman year, and it has me a bit worried. The difficulty Castille presented to defenders a year ago was his combination of power and speed – ask Clemson how hard it was to tackle him. Let’s hope Castille still has the power to run through tacklers.

I’m a big fan of Marcus Mendoza (5’10, 185 lbs.) and I hope he will have a great spring game – again. Mendoza has been between the running back and wide receiver spots during spring ball, but I really would like to see Mendoza primarily at running back – even though he isn’t an every down back. Mendoza accumulated stats in only 4 games last season with the most notable one being against Kansas State. Mendoza had a Helu-like 6.9 ypc, but that was also against lesser competition. I love his quickness and the ability to dodge tacklers and I hope we get to see more of what he can do this fall. R-Fr. Collins Okafor (6’1, 225 lbs.) and R-Fr. Lester Ward (6’3, 215 lbs.) will likely see quite a bit of action in the spring game and I really haven’t heard much at all about their progress so I’ll be anxious to see. Based on the way Pelini handled things last year, I expect him to redshirt Rex Burkhead (5’11, 200 lbs.) when he arrives on campus – that is if he doesn’t excel as a slot receiver in Watson’s spread offense – or whatever he expects us to call it. Jr. Justin Mackovicka (6’1, 235 lbs.) and Fr. CJ Zimmerer should see whatever playing time the offense calls for at the fullback position and hopefully one of them can emerge as a goaline back so I don’t have to cringe everytime Ndamukong Suh trots on the field and risks a senseless injury.

Final Thoughts
Expectations are extremely high for this group. In fact, Husker fans are already talking Heisman for Helu in the future. Uh, no. However, I do expect a 1,500 yard season from Helu, and I do expect Castille to be as productive as Helu when he hits the field. These fluctuations in weight have me worried a tad – Helu more than Castille – and I hope it’s all for naught. Expect great things from Mendoza (3rd down back?) as he will be a nice change of pace with his agility and bursts of speed against some of the quicker defenses -Va. Tech and Oklahoma to name a few – provided he is at the running back spot. As for the rest of the group, there’s always 2011.

Wide Receivers

It’s easy to assume that Menelik Holt and Niles Paul are going to step in and replace the Swift and Peterson. Holt had 30 receptions for 355 yards and Paul had 23 receptions for 214 yards a season ago. However, it’s safe to say that both players have hardly lived up to their lofty expectations. Although I can’t pinpoint why, I get the feeling that neither of these receivers has “it.” Both seem to suffer from a case of the dropsies and both seem lost on the field at times. However, the potential and the opportunity is definitely there for one, if not both of these guys to produce big on the field this season.

Then there’s the highly touted Chris Brooks, who is already a senior. Last season, Brooks was able to haul in 2 passes for 27 yards. I don’t think anyone could possibly tell you for sure where Brooks’ career all went wrong, but it did. Whether he can finally live up to some of his potential or not, I still wouldn’t count on Brooks for much at all this season.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise to everyone this spring is none other than true freshman Antonio Bell , who took a detour to Lincoln a year ago because of academics. Bell has good size at 6’2, 180 lbs., but it’s his speed and playmaking ability that have coaches impressed. The most promising thing about Bell came from Watson. “He’s a big surprise. I mean, we knew he was fast, but we didn’t know he was this fast. Not only that, he’s instinctual. He’s a natural at the position. Natural route runner. Good ball catcher. Physical player. He just needs to grow in our offense.” The most damning thing said about Bell came from Niles Paul. “I’m liking Antonio Bell a lot. He reminds me of a Frantz Hardy. We all say that. He looks like him and he runs like him, too. He’s fast.” Easy there Niles.

Another pleasant surprise coming from this spring is the emergence of big Will Henry (6’5, 215 lbs.) Henry will be a junior this season and I’m quite surprised we haven’t seen or heard much about him the past few seasons. According to Ted Gilmore, Henry is more than earning his shot at significant playing time and “was practicing as well as any NU wideout” at the end of last season.

Curenski Gilleylen (6’0, 210 lbs.) is entering his sophomore season with only 2 receptions but will be asked to play a much larger role this season. In high school, Gilleylen clocked in at 10.22 in the 100 meter dash. Now that we have a quarterback who can throw the ball longer than 20 yards down the field, expect the coaches to utilize Gilleylen’s blazing speed more effectively this season.

Don’t sleep on incoming juco star Brandon Kinnie (6’3, 218 lbs., 4.37) who will be a sophomore when he finally gets to Lincoln this summer. Kinnie was a big play receiver in junior college and was recruited by several BCS schools, but the late start will surely hurt his chances at significant playing time as would anyone just stepping into this offensive scheme on such short notice. R-Fr. Khiry Cooper (6’2, 180 lbs.) is currently part of the spiraling out of control Nebraska baseball program and won’t be with the team until the end of the season – which should come sooner than later. Cooper should have a decent grasp on the offense by now, and if all goes well, should get his chance early.

Final Thoughts
There is no bigger question mark anywhere on the field for the 2009 Huskers than at wide receiver. Gone are Nate Swift, Todd Peterson, and running back Marlon Lucky, who all combined for over 55% of the total receiving yards from last season. Clearly, Paul and Holt are going to get the first opportunity to step in and both have every opportunity in the world to achieve great things this fall. Spring football is always a great time for players to understand and step into their roles and hopefully these two will. Expect Brooks to be Brooks – whatever that is. All eyes will be on Bell and Henry at the spring game as many, many great things have been said from both coaches and teammates alike. Gilleylen should be a great situation receiver as he poses Nebraska’s best deep threat now that we have a Qb who can deliver him the ball 50 yards down field (yes, I said it again and I’ll say it over and over again this fall). Kinnie and Cooper will surely have some catching up to do. Athletically, this group is far beyond anything we’ve had in a long, long time. Unfortunately, experience isn’t something you can teach and if I was any of these 8 aforementioned receivers, I’d feel like I’d have a real chance to be great next season.

Tight Ends

I’ll admit that Mike McNeill had me worried at the beginning of last season with his countless penalties and faulty routes. However, as the season progressed McNeill stepped up as a more than capable receiver with 32 receptions for 442 yards and 6 TDs. I fully expect even greater things from McNeill as he is the most accomplished returning receiver on the team. When watching McNeill, I can’t help think of former Husker Matt Herian in his prime.

Jr. Dreu Young had 9 receptions last season and showed some real potential. He’s not the quickest guy on the team by any means, but he has good size at 6’4, 250 lbs. and should play a larger role this season. Also possessing great size is So. Ryan Hill, who will be relied upon for his blocking abilities. R-Fr. Ben Cotton, son of Barney, was highly recruited and should be mentioned here as a candidate for early playing time as he stands 6’6 and is said to have great hands, which could make him the best receiving option outside McNeill.

Final Thoughts
No doubt this is going to be a strong spot this fall for the Huskers. McNeill poses the best receiving option of the group and should be poised for a big year. Young and Hill’s blocking abilities will help the running game immensely and both have the tools to be relied upon at times in the passing game if needed.