March 31, 2011

Wide receiver picture starting to clear up

When you look down the line at Nebraska's wide receivers, senior Brandon Kinnie stands head and shoulders above the pack as the true leader of the unit.


The big question is, though, who's after him?


Following the departures of receiver Niles Paul and adjuster Mike McNeill, the Huskers were left with a wealth of talented but unproven wide outs when they kicked off spring practice earlier this month.


Two weeks ago, no one really knew what to expect from the unit. But now, things are starting to get a little clearer at the position.


In particular, it appears two players are emerging as the top candidates to replace Paul as the Z receiver opposite Kinnie at the X. Those two would be junior Tim Marlowe and sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who have been splitting reps as the No. 1 Z receiver through the first week and a half of spring practice.


Even though Marlowe is five inches and 45 pounds smaller than Jean-Baptiste, word is he's been getting the majority of the work with the first-team offense so far, but Marlowe is by no means considering himself the early favorite.


"Coach (Rich) Fisher said everything is up for grabs, because he's new here and doesn't know any of us," Marlowe said. "So we have some great competition."


Regardless of who ends up getting the starting Z spot, there's little question that a number of NU's young receivers will get their shots at playing time this season. With the Huskers expected to use a lot of four-receiver sets in new offensive coordinator Tim Beck's offense, Marlowe said all of the receivers have been getting reps at both the outside and inside receiver spots this spring.


The idea, which Marlowe said has been preached by Fisher all spring, is to get all the receivers comfortable at each of the four spots to allow for a number of different looks and personnel packages.


Along with Marlowe and Jean-Baptiste, redshirt freshman Kenny Bell has also gotten significant reps at the Z and is widely expected to make an immediate impact as one of NU's slot receivers. Additionally, junior tight end Kyler Reed said he's also been working as a slot receiver, as his blend of size and speed could cause some major mismatches for opposing defenses.


While the Huskers seem to have the tools necessary to be as good as ever at wide receiver, the biggest hurdle will be getting them mentally ready to play and become immediate factors in the passing game.


That's where Kinnie comes in.


"We're competing everyday, and we're getting that in our unit, and I think that's big," Kinnie said. "I think they're understanding it now. Me and Niles competed in everything. I don't care what we did, we competed. They're starting to learn that now. I'm trying to tell them there's no difference between me and them, I'm just older. That's it."


The Huskers also have a bit more experienced players at the position who could be poised to finally come into their own this season. One wide out in particular who is determined to make an impact is senior Curenski Gilleylen, who went from a big play machine in the first half of the 2008 season to not catching a single pass last year.


With a new position coach and competition as open as it's ever been, Gilleylen is looking at this spring as the start of his climb back into the mix.


"I look at it as a great opportunity, a fresh start for me to be able to go out there and show what I did before, because I've played before and I made plays whenever I was out there," Gilleylen said. "So I know I can do it, I just have to go out there and step up and show every day in practice that I can."


While the potential for Nebraska's receivers seems to be there in bunches, their collective inexperience remains impossible to ignore.


Aside from Kinnie, who led NU with 44 catches for 494 yards and five touchdowns last year, only Gilleylen (19) and junior Khiry Cooper (13) have recorded more than one career reception coming into the season. Cooper is not with the team this spring because he's playing baseball.


So while the rest of the unit continues to grow throughout the spring and on into fall camp, it will be up to Kinnie, the only receiver who has gone through the grind of a full season as a starter before, to lead the way.


From the sound of things, that shouldn't be a problem.


"I don't want to fail at anything I do, and I also don't want to fail as a leader and have those young guys follow me," Kinnie said. "That's the biggest thing in the spring for me, to come out and be a better person, leader and a football player."

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