December 26, 2010

Sunday notebook: Dennard coming back

It was a fear that has kept an uneasy feeling in the guts of Nebraska coaches and fans for months now: Would the Huskers have to replace both cornerbacks Prince Amukmara and Alfonzo Dennard next season.

While the senior Amukamara has been a given to take his game on to the NFL since last year, the speculation of whether Dennard would forgo his senior season and enter the draft has been a lingering concern across Husker Nation.

On Sunday, Dennard put all those fears to rest.

Asked about whether he's put anymore thought into pursuing an NFL career next year, Dennard said he has already decided to return for his senior season.

"I had talked to my mom and stuff like that," Dennard said. "She just got a new job and her finances are going well. Her health is getting better, so there's no need for me to leave. I've got other things to work on now, so I'm going back to school and trying to get better for next year."

The Rochelle, Ga., native definitely would have had a future in the NFL next season had he decided to come out early, as his stock skyrocketed this year while opponents chose to throw at him and away from Amukamara.

He ended the regular season ranked second in the Big 12 Conference in interceptions with four and 12th with .83 passes defended per game.

In the end, though, the fact that his mother would be okay financially for another year without his help was the deciding factor, and earning his college degree remained the ultimate accomplishment.

"It was a big concern of what she wanted me to do, and she's better and everything, so I'm good," Dennard said. "My mom was getting on me to stay. She didn't want me leaving anyway, but I was just like, 'Mom, let me help you.' No matter where I go, or what round, I'm just going to try and help my mom no matter what. But she's doing well now, so I ain't going nowhere."

Nebraska defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders said the fact that Dennard had some recent role models to help show him the benefits of staying all four years helped make his decision.

"It's something where I think he's seen what's happened with guys like Ndamukong Suh and Prince, who come back and the success they had their senior year, and I think he's ready to have that kind of year and be that type of prospect," Sanders said.

"He's a talented young man, and I think it's important that he graduated . That's something he told his mom that he's going to do. You look at his grades, he's got a 3-point-something GPA this semester. We're really proud of the work he's done academically."

- Robin Washut

Gilmore not counting heavily on Paul

Senior wide receiver Niles Paul was out at Sunday's practice in San Diego, but he wasn't suited up with shoulder pads or a helmet.

Paul wasn't cleared for full practice yet on Sunday, and the little bit of practice that was open to watch, it was clear he's still trying to get his footing back.

Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore said he's not counting on Paul to be back at this point, but they are just going to play it day-to-day.

"Understand this, even if Niles can play he'll have a limited role," Gilmore said. "We are not going to put that young man out there to play every single play, because he's not in that kind of shape. There's not an expectation, it's just a bonus, it's just a plus if it happens. Right now I'm preparing not to have him."

Gilmore said it's still unknown if Paul will practice with the Huskers in a full contact role on Monday.

"We are going to rely on the doctors," Gilmore said. "We are going to do what they tell us to do. Each day he's trying to do a little bit more. What his production level is or what we'll be able to get out of him, I don't know…none if any. If we get him back at all, it's a plus. It's day-to-day right now."

Head coach Bo Pelini also remains optimistic on Paul's return at this point, but didn't say either way if he'll be ready for Thursday's Holiday Bowl.

"We are bringing him along slow and gauging what he can do and really seeing if there's anything he can't do. Today was a big step for him because he did a lot more and felt pretty good doing it."

-Sean Callahan

Crick's future still uncertain

The news regarding junior defensive tackle Jared Crick's NFL future wasn't quite as reassuring for Husker fans as Dennard's.

Also asked about whether he's looked into coming out early, Crick said he was interested in checking into where he might be projected in the draft.

"I might just see where I'd be (selected) and where I'm rated," Crick said, "but right now the only goal is winning this game.

With less than a week left until the Holiday Bowl, time is starting to run out for Crick to make his decision. Despite putting up much smaller numbers than he did a year ago, the Cozad native was still highly regarded on the national level this season, as he still earned second-team All-America honors and was a first-team All-Big 12 selection.

The good news for NU fans is that Crick said the pending NFL lockout has played into his decision somewhat, as the uncertain future of the league next season may ended up being enough to convince him to stick around for his senior season.

"A lot of things are going to factor into the decision, but right now I try to keep away from it and just not even think about it really," Crick said. "I'm just focused on winning this game and just playing the best I can."

- Robin Washut

Moore ready to step in

With the suspension of sophomore defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, one player who will be called on to step up this week against Washington in a starting role is junior Terrence Moore.

Moore said after Sunday's practice he's looking forward to getting his chance in the Holiday Bowl.

"I'm very ready," Moore said. "I've been preparing myself for this for a long time. Every week I approach practice and meetings as if I'm going to be the starter. I'm not taking a different approach than I do any other week. I bring the same intensity and same focus I bring any other day."

Moore said he also realizes a big part of NU's success on Thursday night will begin with the play of the defensive line up front.

"We have to set the tone," Moore said. "We have to set that mentality. That last game was in the beginning of the year when we were just getting started, but we feel like we are 10 times better than at that point of the season. We bring that mentality though to every game that we have to set the tone."

-Sean Callahan

NU keeping eye on Locker's mobility

A lot has obviously changed since Nebraska's convincing victory over Washington back in September, but there's one difference which the Huskers are already well aware.

In the first meeting, Washington went with the strategy to keep senior quarterback Jake Locker in the pocket more often than not. While he led the Huskies with 51 rushing yards, we all know how that plan worked out.

Still, the Huskers say they've seen a change in the way the Huskies have used Locker as the season went along, saying he's become far more of a running threat than he was a three months ago.

"He was always a threat," Sanders said. "Even when we played them I thought, 'Hey, we've got to make sure we contain him, because if he can get out (of the pocket) he can run.' He's really made some big plays with his feet lately."

The good news is the Blackshirts say they are no strangers to preparing for Locker's mobility. Heading into the first meeting, NU spent the entire game week working towards containing Locker as a runner.

Though he barely showed his scrambling ability in Seattle, Nebraska is confident it will see a far more two-dimensional Locker on Thursday.

"He's a good runner," sophomore linebacker Will Compton said. "We've been watching film on recent games and there's been a few where's he's flashed. It will be a threat, but scheme-wise we'll put in the right preparation. We'll be ready."

- Robin Washut

Exploring San Diego

Since a majority of the NU roster has already experienced everything San Diego has to offer, a lot of players are taking a different approach to the trip during their off time.

Some players will do everything again and other will mix and match their time and explore new things San Diego has to offer.

Sophomore running back Rex Burkhead said he won't go to the zoo on Sunday with the team, but he still plans to make it to Sea World on Monday.

"Last year I wasn't prepared to go to the shows and making all the times at Sea World," Burkhead said. "I think I'm going to go do that again and check out the Navy Seals training too. I will maybe try and go to the beach and go kayaking as well."

For junior linebacker Lavonte David, this is his first ever bowl experience, so he said on Sunday he'll do everything they have to offer.

"I'm looking forward to everything," David said. "It's just a great experience and I'm going to try and take advantage of everything. My plan is to do everything right now."

With Pelini's practice schedule, the one nice thing for the players is everything is done by noon, which gives the players time to do whatever they want in the afternoon.

Sophomore tight end Ben Cotton said the team started the day on Sunday with breakfast at 6 am and meetings at 7:10 am, followed by practice at 9:30 am. With that being said, Cotton had a different afternoon plan after a long day of work.

"The first thing I'm going to do is take a nap," Cotton said. "It's been a long morning with meetings and practice and all of that stuff. I'll probably go out and see the town a little bit, but more importantly I'll find time to get off my feet a little bit and relax."

- Sean Callahan

Players ready for Best Buy shopping spree

One of the perks for this year's bowl trip is each player received a $365 Best Buy gift card on Sunday to spend on whatever they would like.

According to NCAA rules, each player is allowed to receive a total of $500 in bowl gifts, and the Best Buy gift card was the featured item this year.

"They have this Bose system thing I want to buy," senior defensive back Eric Hagg said when asked what he's going to spend his gift card on. "I think I'm going to go get that."

Cotton said he's still trying to figure out what he'll buy.

"I haven't really decided yet what I'll spend mine on," Cotton said. "I've been doing a little bit of research on the Best Buy website, but I'm still trying to figure out what exactly I'm going to get."

- Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Asked about linebackers coach Mike Ekeler accepting the co-defensive coordinator position at Miami of Ohio, Compton admitted it would be hard to see his position coach go.

"I'm happy for him, but on a personal level, it's tough," Compton said. "He was like a father. We've been around each other for three years, and he's been awesome. He's awesome. I can't say enough about him. It's awesome that he's moving up, and I know he's excited. We're excited for him. I know it's tough on him. He was pretty emotional telling us about it, and so were we, but I'm happy for him."

***There was a somewhat surprising sight when the Huskers opened Sunday's practice, as senior safety Rickey Thenarse and sophomore defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler both suited up and practiced with the team despite being suspended for DUI arrests this month.

"They're still a part of the team, they're just not playing in the game," Pelini said. "That's just how we choose to go about it."

***Crick admitted that it would be strange not having Steinkuhler lined up along side of him on the defensive line for the bowl game.

"Just the chemistry he and I had going through the season," Crick said. "But Terrence (Moore) and I have been playing together for four years here, so we've still got a feel for each other. It's really not from the performance aspect. (Steinkuhler) is our best friend. He's a warrior with us, and not having him out there is going to be a little different."

Overall, Crick said Steinkuhler has handled his situation as well as could be expected.

"He's great," Crick said. "He's still got great character, he's still upbeat. He knows that he made a bad decision, but we all forgave him for it. He's moving on, which is the biggest thing for him."

***Crick said one of the more underrated aspects of Washington's offense is running back Chris Polk, who ranked second in the Pac-10 Conference in rushing this season. He said NU would have to shut down the UW running game to put Locker in passing situations.

"He's a good back," Crick said. "He's quick, he's smart, he's shifty. That's their offense. They want to run the football and establish the run game, and you saw last year when we started stopping the run and they had to go to the pass, nobody can pass on our secondary.

"We've just got to take the same mindset to stop the run game early and force them to pass. We like our chances when they're backed up with their backs against the wall."

***Hagg said Thursday's Holiday Bowl will be the first ever Husker game his mother has ever been able to attend, since San Diego is so close to his home town of Phoenix.

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