November 22, 2011

Tuesday notebook: David earns national praise

While injuries have delivered several huge blows to Nebraska's defense this season, senior linebacker Lavonte David has been the bright spot everyone hoped he would be all year long.

A day after junior kicker/punter Brett Maher was somehow snubbed from the lists of
Lou Groza and Ray Guy award finalists, a Husker finally got some national recognition Tuesday when David was named one of six finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker.

David joined Alabama's Dont'a Hightower, Georgia's Jarvis Jones, Boston College Luke Kuechly, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw. The winner will be announced on or before Dec. 7.

David becomes just the fourth Husker ever to be named a Butkus Award finalist, joining Trev Alberts, NU's only winner of the award in 1993, Broderick Thomas (1988) and Ed Stewart (1994).

Head coach Bo Pelini has been singing David's praises since last season, so when he heard the news of the Miami, Fla., native's placement among the best linebackers in college football, it came as no surprise.

"We're proud of Lavonte and the way he's played," Pelini said. "I think he's had a heck of a year. He comes out every week and just plays his butt off. It's a great honor for him. I think it's well deserved.

"Like I've said, me personally, I wouldn't trade him for any linebacker in the country. I think he's had a great year, and he's leader on our football team and just shows up every week and plays one way. He's been a fun guy to coach."

Through 11 games, David leads the Huskers with 114 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and two interceptions. Last week against Michigan, David posted a season-high 17 tackles, marking his fifth double-digit tackle performance this season. He also became the fifth player in school history to record consecutive 100-tackle seasons.

Despite not even playing two full seasons, David ranks seventh on Nebraska's career tackles list with 226 and could move into the top five with at least eight tackles against Iowa on Friday.

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said he also wasn't surprised David was named a finalist. He also wasn't shy about his opinion on who should win the award outright.

"(David) is an amazing player, and in my opinion he deserves to win it," Carl Pelini said. "I don't understand the politics and all that, but he deserves to be a finalist and deserves to win it. I don't know if there could be any linebacker in college football that's had the kind of seasons back to back that he's had."

- Robin Washut

Teams avoiding Abdullah at all costs

For the first few games of his collegiate career, freshman Ameer Abdullah looked like a potential All-American kickoff returner.

Highlighted by his 100-yard kick return for a touchdown against Fresno State, Abdullah led the nation for the first half of the season with a return average over 30 yards per attempt.

As one could expect, all that success caught opponents' attention in recent weeks. In fact, it's almost as if kickoff teams are making it a clear point to kick to the other side of the field no matter which side he lines up.

"We try to position me from hash to hash to see where they're going to kick it, but we never know," Abdullah said. "Michigan, they did a pretty good job of doing it this past Saturday, and so have teams we played earlier this year. It's just something I have to deal with."

Abdullah has been dealing with teams kicking away from his since Nebraska's win over Ohio State, when he led the nation with 35.1 yards per return and had seven runbacks of 30 yards or more.

Since then, he has just four returns in his last five games.

Abdullah said NU's return team constantly makes adjustments during the game to try and line him up on the side where kickoffs will most likely end up. With teams always looking for where he is prior to each kick, those adjustments have generally been fairly pointless.

"We do that pretty much on the spot, just gauging what the kicker's been doing earlier in the game," Abdullah said. "From time to time we try to see how the kick angles the ball and try to get me on that side of the field, but like I said, the teams this year have done a pretty good job of kicking away."

There's been some thought of putting Abdullah back as the only returner instead of having two guys back, but special teams coach John Papuchis said Nebraska couldn't really do that even if it wanted to because they have faced so many kickers good enough to precisely angle their kicks.

"We've always have an off returner," Papuchis said. "The problem is when teams are good enough that they can kick it from numbers to numbers on the field makes it a little bit of a challenge. The way we look at it from our thought process is the other returners are pretty good players. If teams are going to kick it always away from Ameer, of course we've got to find ways to get him the football.

"However, there's a fine line of compromising all your integrity with the scheme that you are running versus whoever catches it has the opportunity to make a play. That's the line we are walking right now."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Junior running back Rex Burkhead was fully back in practice after being limited on Monday. He was one of the first guys on the field on Tuesday, and showed no signs of being slowed by his dinged up ankle.

***Another Blackshirt was awarded this week, as linebacker Alonzo Whaley joined the club with a new practice jersey.

***The Huskers were in half-pads again on Tuesday, meaning the team will not practice in full pads at all this week.

***Carl Pelini said Iowa's Marvin McNutt would be maybe the best wide receiver Nebraska will have faced this season. He said NU would try and match-up senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on McNutt as much as possible in the game, and the secondary would account for him on every single play with double coverage or a safety over the top.

***Dennard said he was excited to go up against McNutt, as he always thrives on the challenge of taking on the opposing team's best receiver.

***Carl Pelini compared Iowa running back Marcus Coker to some of the big, bruising downhill runners the Pittsburgh Steelers have had over the years. He said Iowa loves to use a zone running scheme with stretch plays to set up cutback runs for Coker, and with his size it would be crucial for the defense to wrap up and make tackles.

***Carl Pelini said Nebraska has three fully healthy defensive tackles at this point in Terrence Moore, Chase Rome and Baker Steinkuhler to go along with Justin Jackson, who Pelini said has made great improvements since moving back to defense. Pelini said Rome looks 100 percent again after dealing with a groin injury the past few weeks.

***Lastly, Carl Pelini said Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg was a great decision maker who rarely made bad throws. While he may seem like more of a pocket passer, Pelini said Vandenberg had the ability to elude pressure and make plays with his feet.

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