May 9, 2009

Spring grade out: Safeties

As the Nebraska football team moves closer to the start of summer conditioning, HuskersIllustrated.com will begin our daily position grade outs of where things are at out of spring ball. Today we breakdown the safety position and the positives and the negatives that happened during the four weeks of spring practice, and we also preview what lies ahead.






















Overall spring grade: B-
Though Nebraska returns three players with starting experience, few positions carried quite as much uncertainty at the end of spring practice than safety. The Huskers return senior Larry Asante at strong safety and seniors Matt O'Hanlon and Rickey Thenarse at free safety, who both started games last season. However, as cast of talented underclassmen makes holding onto to those starting jobs this fall anything but guaranteed. The most notable players to make a run at sneaking their way onto the first team defense are junior Eric Hagg and redshirt freshman P.J. Smith. Hagg flourished at free safety this spring after moving over from cornerback, and Smith seemingly continues to get better and better every time he steps on the field.
Spring surprise: Hagg's transition
Prior to the start of spring practice, Nebraska's coaching staff decided to move Hagg from cornerback to safety to provide some depth at safety and also give Hagg a better chance at seeing more playing time. After starting 10 games as the nickel back last season, Hagg appears to be picking up at safety right where he left off, though he still worked at nickel as well during the spring. While he admittedly still has a long way to go in fully grasping NU's coverage schemes at his new position, Hagg has all the physical tools to make a serious push at the starting free safety job this fall. There was a reason his coaches decided to try him out at safety, and with his performance over the course of the spring, it appears they were definitely on to something.

Question that still needs answered: Have the mistakes been corrected?
The amount of competition going on at both safety spots was definitely an encouraging sign during spring ball, but one play during the Spring Game brought back many of the uneasy feelings fans felt all too often last season. Early in the third quarter, Zac Lee connected with Wes Cammack on a 40-yard touchdown pass in which Asante got beat deep and was unable to make the tackle, allowing Cammack to walk into the end zone. While the play wasn't solely Asante's fault, it looked eerily familiar to many of the big pass plays opponents were able to put up on the Huskers last year. After the game, defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders said he too was disturbed by the play, and said mistakes like that can't happen they way they did last season. Hopefully Sanders can get NU's safeties to play the deep ball better by the season opener, because - no offense - the receivers they'll see in the Big 12 this year will be a little better than guys like Cammack.
What does the future hold at safety?
If everything keeps going the way it has been, Hagg and Smith will likely take over as Nebraska's starting safeties next season. However, redshirt freshman Courtney Osborne had a very good spring could also make a case for some playing time down the road. In the fall, incoming freshman Dijon Washington joins the mix and should provide even more competition. Fellow true freshman Andrew Green could play either safety or cornerback, but he'll likely start out at corner.




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