March 22, 2010

Competition is hot for Husker linebackers

SPRING PREVIEWS: QB l RB I WR I TE is priming its subscribers for Nebraska's 2010 spring practice with a daily countdown of coverage.

Each day, will break down a different position and focus on what needs to be accomplished at that position over spring practice. We will also talk about other faces to watch at each position.

In addition, each day we'll feature one key veteran and one rising underclassman at all positions until spring practice gets underway. Today, we take a look at the linebacker position.

The contenders

The position coach:
Mike Ekeler, third year at Nebraska

The frontrunner: Will Compton

Class: Sophomore

Size: 6-2, 225

Early take: Last year as a redshirt freshman, Will Compton got thrown into the fire right away, playing in 13 games and making eight starts in place of senior Phillip Dillard.

Compton held his own with 40 tackles, but his inexperience showed at times, especially in pass coverage against the speedy receivers and tight ends of the Big 12 Conference.

However, with a full season under his belt, Compton should enter spring practice as the No. 1 Mike linebacker and be far more confident in his coverage responsibilities, which will in turn make him play faster on the field.

The frontrunner: Sean Fisher

Class: Sophomore

Size: 6-6, 230

Early take: After an impressive fall camp, Sean Fisher won the starting Buck linebacker job last season as redshirt freshman. Because of the spread offenses of the Big 12, though, Fisher's production went quite at the start of conference play.

If the league's offensive trend stays the same this year, Nebraska will continue to use the nickel defense as its base package, meaning it will only feature two linebackers, and Fisher would be the odd man out.

However, I have a feeling more and more teams are going to start to shift back to more run-oriented offenses with the success Alabama had last season and the lack of experienced quarterbacks in the Big 12, and Fisher could see the field far more often as a result.

The frontrunner: Eric Martin

Class: sophomore

Size: 6-2, 215

Early take: As far as energy is concerned, no player brought more to the table last season than Eric Martin.

Though he rarely saw the field outside of special teams, Martin showed a knack for coming up with big hits and big plays on Nebraska's kick coverage units.

With his recent move over to Will linebacker, Martin looks to be the leading candidate to replace Dillard. Considering Martin and Dillard's similarities in size and speed, he seems like a perfect fit.

The challenger: Matthew May

Class: Junior

Size: 6-1, 215

Early take: After moving from safety to linebacker for the final three games of the 2008 season, Mathew May was one of the favorites to win the starting Will linebacker job heading into last season, but he was slowed with groin and shoulder injuries.

With his speed and coverage skills, May could make a strong case to see some considerable playing time, if not start, by the time the Huskers open up Big 12 play.

The challenger: Matt Holt

Class: Junior

Size: 6-0, 200

Early take: Like May, Holt's progress was halted due to a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the majority of last season. Also like May, he has the potential to play a big role on Nebraska's defense this year because of his speed.

In particular, Holt could be the lone linebacker in the Huskers' dime package like he was for two Big 12 starts as a true freshman in 2008 before suffering his first season-ending shoulder injury.

Other contenders: Sophomores Alonzo Whaley, Micah Kreikemeier and Graham Stoddard.

Early take: Despite being hyped up by linebacker coach Mike Ekeler during his redshirt season two years ago, Alonzo Whaley has yet to live up to expectations many have had for him. With the recent shift to making the nickel package as the base defense, Whaley might have trouble seeing much playing time if he doesn't have a breakout off-season.

Micah Kreikemeier and Graham Stoddard have both seen sparse playing time on special teams, but either one could make a run for more reps this spring.

Spring prospectus: No player has more to gain this spring than Martin, as his attitude and aggressive playing style have already made him one of the coaching staff's favorites. As long as he can pick up the schemes of the defense mentally, there's no reason he couldn't become a three-year starter at linebacker for the Huskers. Also, look for Compton to really step up and fill Dillard's shoes as a leader of the defense.

What does the future hold?: Since there are only really two starting linebacker spots, the competition this spring and summer is going to be hotter than ever. No player has really put himself that much above the rest of the pack, so don't surprised if Nebraska doesn't rotate its linebackers heavily until two or three guys really step up and solidify themselves at the top of the depth chart.

Key veteran
Marcel Jones

Position: Offensive tackle

Class: Junior

Size: 6-7, 310

The skinny: Junior Marcel Jones had to learn on the run last year after becoming the starter when Jaivorio Burkes was lost for the season due to a medical condition. By the end of the year, Jones proved a more than capable replacement. With a surge of redshirt freshman talent coming into the mix on the offensive line, he is one guy who looks to have his starting job more secure than others heading into spring practice.

The final word: With 12 starts now under his belt, inexperience should no longer be an issue for Jones. While he may have had some growing pains at times last season, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has openly said that Jones could very well be Nebraska's best offensive linemen coming into spring ball.

Rising underclassmen
Thaddeus Randle

Position: Quarterback

Class: Redshirt freshman

Size: 6-1, 260

The skinny: He may not hold a candle to Ndamukong Suh or Jared Crick on an eyeball test, but that doesn't mean Thaddeus Randle can't be come close to matching their production on the field. After making some big strides last season, Randle comes in as a player ready to challenge for playing time on a deep defensive line.

The final word: Though he is a bit undersized, Randle brings an element of speed, quickness and strength that make him a dangerous threat in the pass rush. He's fast enough to run by big, lumbering lineman and get to the quarterback, as he posted 11.5 sacks as a high school senior two years ago. He's also strong enough to play against the run if need be.

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