November 1, 2011

Tuesday notebook: Fitzgerald praises Huskers

During his weekly press conference on Monday, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini had nothing but praise and respect for Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats.

On Tuesday, Fitzgerald returned the compliments during his interview on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference.

Asked his initial impressions of the Huskers from what he'd seen on film thus far, the sixth-year coach and former star linebacker for the Wildcats said he's been nothing impressed with what Pelini's squad has done through the first eight games of the season.

"After studying Nebraska on tape, they're an outstanding program, a very well coached team and very, very talented," Fitzgerald said. "It's one of the most historically successful programs in college football history for a reason, so their addition (to the Big Ten) has raised the bar, obviously."

One area of which Fitzgerald especially took notice was Nebraska's running game, which comes into Saturday's game against Northwestern ranked second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally at 252.1 yards per game. He said the combination of sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez and junior running back Rex Burkhead was as good as any in the conference.

"You pop in the tape and you see Taylor Martinez, who every time he touches the ball, he can score," Fitzgerald said. "Then he's got in my opinion one of the toughest guys in this conference in Rex Burkhead standing right next to him. He's just tough, man. He's a throwback from a standpoint of toughness. You just don't see guys who are built with the skills of all the superstars that you've seen come through this league at tailback.

"It's a really impressive one-two punch, and then Bo's rolling through those young guys in the backfield too."

The praise didn't stop there, either, as Fitzgerald said he's also been very impressed with the play of Nebraska's defense. While most have taken notice of the Blackshirts' play over the past two and a half games, Fitzgerald said he's seen good things from the unit in every game he's watched this season.

In particular, he said there might not be a better linebacker in the country than NU senior Lavonte David.

"I've been impressed with them the whole season," Fitzgerald said. "No. 1, it starts with the guys up front. They've got a wave of guys playing, and they got after the quarterback last week. I mean, they were very, very active. You look at the second level, everybody can run there. I mean Lavonte, he's got to be a Butkus Award finalist if not going to be the guy that wins it. He's athletic, and he's a lot of fun to watch.

"Then their secondary is as good of press-man guys as we've seen, and their safeties are very well schooled in what they are trying to do. What I see from Nebraska's defense is they're very well coached, fundamentally very sound, they understand what you're doing and how you're trying to run your offense, so they can go out and execute and make you play left handed if you're right handed. They do a very nice job."

- Robin Washut

Evans and Reed expect to play

After suffering a head injury in the Michigan State game this past Saturday, sophomore cornerback Ciante Evans has been backed down from contact the last two days.

Evans wore a protective green jersey on Tuesday, and said he doesn't know if he'll have a Blackshirt when he returns. However, senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said on Monday that Evans received a Blackshirt.

"(A Michigan State player's) knee hit my head and I blacked out for a minute," Evans said. "I'm going to play though."

As for junior tight end Kyler Reed, he said his hamstring continues to be a nagging injury, but it hasn't limited him at all this week in practice.

"Basically if I was needed I could've gone back in on Saturday, but basically Jake Long was doing a good job run blocking, so I wasn't really needed back in at the time," Reed said. "It was just precautionary stuff.

"Hamstrings kind of suck though, because it's such a big muscle. I'm up there with the training staff doing as much as I can - icing, stretching it and getting it stronger by doing certain exercises. You just have to play it by ear. Some guys come back off it quicker than others. You just have to be real careful not to try to do it again."

- Sean Callahan

Competition will continue at No. 2 cornerback spot

Just when it looked like Nebraska had settled on sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste as its starting No. 2 cornerback opposite senior Alfonzo Dennard, the coaching staff mixed it up again last week by giving sophomore Andrew Green the start.

Part of it was due to Jean-Baptiste dealing with tendonitis in his knee that slowed him up for much of the week, but it was mostly a result of Green simply having a stellar week of practice.

While both players saw the field and both played well, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the starting spot would be opened up for competition again this week in practice. In fact, he said that would likely be the case every week for the rest of the season.

"It's competition every day," Pelini said. "I hope they keep pushing each other. Andrew played a heck of a football game. Big man Stanley played a good game against Minnesota. He had a sore knee, and Andrew stepped up. Now the spot's on the table for this week. We'll see how they practice. I would imagine probably seeing both of them in the ball game on Saturday."

Jean-Baptiste said Monday that his knee was already feeling much better than it did towards the end of last week, and he even could have started on Saturday had his knee felt comfortable enough.

He actually made his way onto the field following the opening kickoff for Nebraska's first defensive series, but shortly after going out there he decided his knee didn't feel quite right. He came back to the sidelines, and Green took the field in his place.

"It wasn't feeling right," Jean-Baptiste said. "I thought I was going to go out there, but Drew Green was ready. They gave Drew Green the green light, and he went out there and played hard."

Jean-Baptiste said he was ready to go out and win back his starting job, but said the direct competition with Green wouldn't be anything new from what the two have been doing ever since he moved to cornerback from receiver after the Washington game.

"It don't change nothing," Jean-Baptiste said. "Everyday we've got to go out there and work hard, so by me and Drew competing, it won't change nothing. It's just the best man has to come out every day and work hard."

- Robin Washut

David continues to put up numbers

After racking up 13 tackles this past Saturday, senior linebacker Lavonte David pushed his career tackle total to 229, which is the highest number ever for a two-year player in program history.

The previous record of 220 tackles was held by current Kansas City Chief Demorrio Williams who set the mark in 2002-2003. David also moved to 16th all-time in tackles and needs just 19 more tackles to crack the all-time top 10 in school history.

Even with all the accolades and numbers David has put up the last two years, he continues to keep a business as usual attitude.

"I heard the last guy that had the record was Demorrio Williams," David said. "It's an honor, because he's a great football player. I just had to work hard for it and keep doing what I'm doing."

With the most critical stretch of the season still ahead for Nebraska, David knows he'll once again have his work cut out for him, but he's ready for the challenge.

"They expect me to do the best that I can and they expect that out of everybody on the field," David said. "You expect everybody to go all out for the team and go all out for the guys."

- Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said freshman receiver Jamal Turner, who did not play at all against the Spartans, just needed more experience to avoid making the mental mistakes in practice that cut back his playing time.

Beck said Turner needed to realize it's not just about talent, and that there was much more to playing the receiver position than catching passes. Beck said Turner was struggling to pick up on the weekly adjustments the offense makes for each opponent, which he said has made Turner play slower the past few weeks.

***Part of the reason Turner isn't getting on the field is because of the player of guys like junior wide out Tim Marlowe, who Beck said was a very disciplined player who gives full effort every day in practice. Beck said that's what has really been separating him from some of NU's younger receivers at this point in the season.

***Beck said the Huskers had a pretty good day of practice, particularly the overall tempo and the effort.

***Beck called Northwestern's defense a very sound and opportunistic defense that didn't make a lot of mistakes. He said they forced offenses to make bad plays, and Nebraska would have to be patient and not try to force things.

***Talking about Martinez being able to reduce the number of hits he takes each game from earlier in the season, Beck said it was mostly due to Martinez being smarter on the field and doing things like sliding and throwing the ball away to avoid unnecessary hits.

***Carl Pelini talked about the similarities between Northwestern's spread offensive attack and those Nebraska saw last season as members of the Big 12 Conference.

"The zone-read game, the quarterback run game, the spread attack, a lot of what we saw," Pelini said. "But they go beyond. They've got some same-sided stuff. They've got the veer option in there, things that we haven't seen yet. So there is some carry over to some of the offenses we faced a year ago, but Northwestern's been running it for a long time.

"They were one of the first teams to run the spread. They do it well and they know what they're doing and they put you in difficult positions. You've got to be smart about how you defend them."

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