April 3, 2011

HuskerOnline.com's spring midterm review

Nebraska wrapped up its second week of spring practice on Saturday. As NU catches its breath, HuskerOnline.com decided to slice and dice the first two weeks of spring practice.

Here is a quick summary and breakdown of all the trends and storylines thus far through seven spring practices. What have been the biggest surprises and disappointments thus far?

Things we expected

It's Martinez's job to lose

Even after his breakout freshman season ended with a complete collapse last year, there's been little question that the starting quarterback job is sophomore Taylor Martinez's for the taking.

With almost unanimous reports from teammates and coaches that Martinez has been a much more vocal and assertive leader this offseason, there's no reason to believe the Carona, Calif., native won't take some big strides and look like a much more confident QB when the season opener finally rolls along.

While he certainly had his share of freshman issues on the field, one of the biggest knocks on Martinez was his apparent ambivalence on the sideline during games and refusal speak with any media for the latter portion of the season. Earlier this week, he talked with reporters for the first time since last November, and it appears Martinez is at least making an effort to embrace all that comes with the role of Nebraska's starting quarterback.

After Burkhead, there's not much depth at RB

Everyone knows by now that junior running back Rex Burkhead is an absolute stud and the unquestioned leader of the offense. In fact, Burkhead has already proven himself so much over the past two seasons that the coaching staff doesn't even see the need to work him much at all during drills this spring.

As assuring as it is to know he will be leading the way in the backfield, though, it's just as concerning that no one behind him has done much to prove there's any sort of reliable depth at the position.

Nebraska's coaches must feel the same way, as they've gone to some fairly extreme measures to get a few more capable bodies in the mix at running back this spring. After moving former receiver Ty Kildow to running back heading into the start of spring ball, the Huskers also just switched senior wide out Curenski Gilleylen to the backfield on Wednesday. Needless to say, those three heralded freshman backs can't join the mix soon enough.

Blackshirt star power will lead the way

There was a reason Nebraska's defensive Big Three of defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard got so much publicity prior to the start of spring practice, and they've done nothing but live up to it through the first two weeks.

Even though Crick was sidelined for the rest of the spring after suffering a minor injury in the first week, there might not be a player on the Huskers' roster along with Burkhead who needed to practice this spring less than Crick. David, who has been getting some preseason All-American hype since last year's Holiday Bowl, has bulked up to roughly 220 pounds and is still as fast as ever.

Then there's Dennard, who just might be on pace to end his senior year as the best cornerback in all of college football by the time the season is done. Watching him in practice, Dennard has been the definition of a lockdown corner, and like Prince Amukamara did with Niles Paul last season, Dennard makes it a point to match-up with No. 1 receiver Brandon Kinnie on as many reps as he can.

Things we didn't expect

Just how aggressive Beck's offense would be

New offensive coordinator Tim Beck stressed to reporters during Nebraska's spring press conference last month that his offensive scheme would be both simplified and aggressive. Little did anyone know just how aggressive Beck actually meant.

From talking with players over the first two weeks of spring ball, it's clear that the Huskers' new offense is a fast-paced, attacking style that can at times feature the same run up to the line and get the play call from the sideline to prevent defenses from making substitutions.

It only seems fitting that Nebraska would adapt the one offensive style that gave head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini fits the past three years. Said sophomore defensive end Jason Ankrah about the offense on Friday: "It's going to work, that's all I know. It fits everybody on the offense. They spread the ball out, it's speed, it's hurry-up and Taylor (Martinez) gets to use his technique. It's going to work, that's all I know."

Injuries to Crick, Meredith open up competition on D-line

It's never good news when your two best defensive linemen are forced to sit of spring practice due to injuries, but in the case of Crick and junior defensive end Cameron Meredith (shoulder surgery), their absence hasn't been a total negative.

In fact, having those two on the sideline has actually created some golden opportunities for Nebraska's younger defensive linemen to show what they can do while working with the first-string defensive unit.

Guys like Ankrah, junior defensive end Josh Williams and defensive tackle Thaddeus Randle have all taken full advantage of their time in the spotlight this spring. If nothing else, Crick and Meredith's injuries will only end up creating more depth along the defensive line and allow the Huskers to rotate their front four more often if needed.

Turner already at new home

While it was suspected that true freshman quarterback Jamal Turner could eventually move from quarterback to wide receiver, few people expected it to happen this quickly. Not even two weeks into his first spring at Nebraska, Turner made the move to wide out on Monday and has been working there the past four practices.

Not only has he been working at his new position, he's been taking the unit by storm if you listen to the reactions of his coaches and fellow receivers. On Friday, both Beck and Kinnie raved about Turner's performance at receiver so far, going as far as to describe him as "electric" and "fun to watch."

There is still a chance Turner could move back to quarterback once he gets settled in to life as a college football player - he should technically be wrapping up his second semester of his senior year of high school right now. Until then, though, it looks like NU has found the perfect place for him to learn the ropes while also be a potentially instant playmaker.

Three questions left to answer

Who will provide depth at linebacker?

Following Saturday's practice, Bo Pelini said he was a little bit concerned about Nebraska's lack of depth at linebacker behind David and juniors Will Compton and Sean Fisher.

He said after the first two weeks of spring practice there was still a noticeable drop-off from the first-string to second-string units at the position, and added that finding some players to step up and provide that depth would be one of the major tasks for the rest of the offseason.

As of now, the back-up Mike linebacker is Alonzo Whaley, the back-up Buck is Graham Stoddard and both Mathew May and Jim Ebke are working behind David at the Will. Unless those players show something to Pelini soon, though, they may not hold that place on the depth chart much longer.

How good is Kenny Bell?

Few players who have yet to play a single down at Nebraska have gotten as much praise as redshirt freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell has this spring. If coaches and teammates aren't raving about his blazing speed, they're talking about the mismatches he's been causing when lineup against slower safeties and linebackers as a slot receiver.

Until we finally get to see him play against a live defense, though, no one outside of the Huskers' locker room will know just how good he really is. One thing we do know is that Bell has added a noticeable amount of bulk to his frame since he first came to Lincoln a year ago. If we were to guess, we'd say he's put on at least 20 pounds of muscle.

How well that new size and speed translates into catching passes, running the right routes and doing all the other little things that go along with being a Division I wide receiver, though, won't be known until the fall.

How much will o-line improve?

On paper, Nebraska appears to have more than a few potential playmakers at the offensive skill positions. The big question that still lingers is will the offensive line be able to give them enough time to actually make those plays?

After losing three starters from last year's line, the Huskers will be putting some new faces to the test in the starting lineup this season, including two new starting guards. Not to mention that right tackle Marcel Jones has been dealing with a sore back, left tackle Jeremiah Sirles is out for the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Fellow left tackle Jermarcus Hardrick also still has a lot to prove this spring in the way of establishing himself as a full-time starter.

Nebraska maybe recognized all these issues when they promoted John Garrison to assistant offensive coach and also brought in guys like Brenden Stai (albeit in a very limited capacity per NCAA rules) as an intern and Vince Marrow as a graduate assistant to help coach the guys up front.


***True freshman Jamal Turner moved from quarterback to wide receiver on Monday in an effort to give him a better chance to seeing the field as quickly as possible. There's still a chance he could move back to quarterback, so the move might just be temporary.

***Senior Curenski Gilleylen moved from receiver to running back on Wednesday to help provide depth at running back this spring. The coaches said they made the move to give him a better shot to play this season and because they liked his combination of size (215 pounds) and speed.

***Word broke on Friday that redshirt freshman kicker Jason Dann has left the program. No reason was given as to why Dann left NU, but his departure leaves junior Brett Maher as the leading candidate to win the starting place kicker job coming out of the spring.


***The biggest injury news of the week was when senior defensive tackle Jared Crick suffered an injury during Monday's practice that forced him to miss the rest of spring ball. The type of injury was not disclosed, but it was said to not be serious and Nebraska expects Crick to be back practicing with the team for the start of fall camp.

***Junior running back Rex Burkhead continues to practice on a very limited basis, as the coaches are being very careful with him and not putting him in any position to endure any unnecessary contact. Burkhead even sat out of Saturday's first full scrimmage of the spring.

***Junior cornerback Jase Dean suffered an injury during Saturday's scrimmage, and his status for the rest of spring practice is said to be questionable.

***Freshman running back Yusef Wade also remains out with a leg injury he suffered during the first week of spring practice.


"He's a moderately wealthy man's Alex Henery."

- Defensive line and special teams coach John Papuchis after being asked if Brett Maher could be described as a poor man's version of legendary Husker kicker Alex Henery.


Check out all of HuskerOnline.com's coverage of spring practice on our Spring Football HQ, a daily reference page linking all of our related content items.

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