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Nebraska’s spring football practices start today. This is a great time to shake the rust off, put last season in the rearview mirror, and lay the foundation for a great season.
But unless you have been drinking the Big Red kool-aid by the gallon, you likely know there is much work to be done over the 15 spring practices. Sure, Nebraska can definitely defend their Legends Division title in 2013, but let’s just say there is room for improvement across the board. Here are my position-by-position suggestions on things to clean up during spring drills:
- Quarterback: There are two equally important priorities, which fortunately go hand-in-hand: 1) Keep Taylor Martinez healthy, 2) Identify a legitimate backup, and get him ready to start. I’m shocked (and quite impressed) that Taylor Martinez made it through the 2012 season without missing snaps due to injury – especially given his many carries and the inconsistency of the O-Line. Tim Beck absolutely, positively must get a true #2 ready to go before fall. I’m not yet convinced that Ron Kellogg III is the that guy, but I like his experience versus the raw potential of Tommy Armstrong. Love him or loathe him, Martinez is a known quantity, and I’m not sure there is a big leap of improvement for him to take this spring. A true competition for backup – with tons of reps – will likely pay off this fall.
- Running Back: This is a great opportunity for Imani Cross to earn playing time away from short yardage, goal line, and garbage time. I think Cross definitely has a role, but with two talented freshmen coming in (and Braylon Heard going out) the door is wide open for Cross to make a statement. Ameer Abdullah needs to follow the Martinez advice above (stay healthy) while also focusing on ball security.
- Fullback: The good news is there is an abundance of talent with Mike Marrow, C.J. Zimmerer, and Andy Janovich all getting significant playing time in 2012. The bad new is that Tim Beck’s offense doesn’t have a ton of opportunities for fullbacks, which creates a log jam. Therefore, I’m not sure playing three deep is necessary. With Marrow and Zimmerer both seniors (who have used their redshirt season), I’d strongly consider sitting Janovich to maintain a year of eligibility for down the road. Regardless, the focus here – as always – is on blocking and making the most of their limited touches.
- Tight End: The search for a replacement for Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton is on. I’m not blown away by Jake Long, and my expectations are low for pretty much everybody else on the TE roster. I’ve heard message board/talk radio scuttlebutt about moving Quincy Enunwa to TE, and I would support that move. There isn’t much of a size difference between the two (the 2012 roster says Reed is an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier), and I’ve always felt that Enunwa was a better blocker than Reed – even against bigger guys. While Enunwa isn’t as fast as Reed, I’m put money on him being faster than Ben Cotton. Try it, what do you have to lose?
- Wide Receivers: Another reason why I’m in favor of moving Quincy Enunwa to TE is the depth at receiver. Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner are sure-fire starters (and will likely become the best receiving duo in school history). Tariq Allen and Tyler Wullenwaber will miss the spring with injuries, but should compete this fall. And let’s not forget redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp, who probably would have played last year if the position was not so deep. He is full of potential and should benefit from spring reps with the 1s and 2s.
- Offensive Line: I’m curious to see if what (if any) changes are made now that John Garrison has full control of the line. I don’t expect a lot of shake-ups this spring, but I wouldn’t be shocked if a small, subtle move (such as a position change or technical tweak) pays big dividends in the fall. Otherwise, the priorities here are the same as always: 1) establish/improve depth, 2) eliminate penalties and mental errors, and 3) keep Martinez healthy. I’m curious to see if the younger guys can take some playing time away from a few inconsistent upperclassmen.
- Defensive Line: All eyes are going to be on this group, as their weakness and lack of depth really hurt the team in several games. I’m glad Thad Randle is sitting out the spring. He is a known quantity, and the time is now for him to get 100% healthy. Plus, it opens up more opportunity for guys who haven’t contributed a whole lot. Memo to Jay Guy and Tobi Okuyemi: as juniors, the time is now to step up or let the next generation (i.e. Vincent Valentine and Aaron Curry) take over. The choice is yours. I’ll be interested to see how Jason Ankrah does on the interior. Frankly, I think he should have moved inside last year instead of Cam Meredith. Regardless, Coach Rich Kaczenski is going to earn his paycheck this year. Either that or the Barney bashers will switch their focus to the other side of the line.
- Defensive Ends: Another critical position with a bunch of holes. Eric Martin and Cam Meredith are gone. Jason Ankrah is likely to take his space-filler talents to tackle. Other than that? Hmm….There’s Avery Moss, a couple of other guys who haven’t done much, and the hope that new guys like JUCO transfer Randy Gregory will be ready to step in and play.
- Linebackers: I’m trying to remember a time when the anxiety over Nebraska replacing all three starting linebackers was this low. Granted, that anxiety is mostly low by comparison since the D Line is such a rebuilding effort. But I think there is a lot of optimism around the young guys returning like David Santos and Zaire Anderson, who both flashed potential, as well as redshirt freshmen Michael Rose, Jared Afalava, and Thomas Brown. I think Bo Pelini has decided that at linebacker speed trumps size, even in the Big Ten, so we’ll see which athletes are ready to contribute.
- Cornerbacks: In my mind, there is Ciante Evans, and there is everybody else who needs to earn consistent playing time. And that second group contains guys who have started a number of games like Andrew Green and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, as well as guys like Josh Mitchell, Charles Jackson, Daniel Davie, and Mohammed Seisay. All of these guys are competing to play opposite of Jonathan Rose, who I’m thinking will have a big, big year.
- Safeties: Another interesting position group with starting jobs there for the taking. I think most people expect Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson to grab those spots, but they will each need to make some big strides this spring. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Bo continue his habit of giving lots of playing time to a more unheralded player. I’m talking about the fifth year senior who knows the defense and has been a special teams standout. Guys like Matt O’Hanlon, Austin Cassidy, and Justin Blatchford. This year’s version? Wil Richards. Don’t be surprised if he gets a lot of playing time this year over guys who may be considered more talented.
What needs to happen on special teams in the spring? How much time do you have? I’ll try to keep the list short:
- Replace your long snapper. Last month, Nebraska gave a scholarship to long snapper Gabe Miller. But since he’s not here, some guy named Joseph Rotherham will likely handle the long snapping. No pressure, you just have to fill in for a guy whose worst snaps came in a biblical Missouri monsoon.
- Replace your holder. I’m not too worried about this, as there is always a guy who held in high school with the necessary hands, touch, and athleticism if things go south (especially with a new long snapper).
- Replace your place kicker. Assuming the snap is made, is caught and cleanly placed, this should be easiest aspect, as Mauro Bondi should be ready to step in. If not, then expect to see the Red and White teams going to for two after every score.
- Find a new punter. Maybe I’m missing it, but the Huskers.com roster does not show a punter who is currently on campus. Maybe incoming freshman Jordan Bellar will come down from Norfolk Catholic to punt in the Spring Scrimmage, but it seems like a big hole – especially for a team that could use some practice catching punts.
- Learn to catch a punt. You may think that is snarky, mean, or unfair. I would direct you towards the Northwestern game film.
- Establish a punt return game. Here is a startling stat worth repeating: In the first quarter of the Ohio State game, Ameer Abdullah returned a punt 43 yards. The rest of the season (eight full games, 35 quarters of football) Nebraska had a TOTAL of 22 yards on punt returns, with a long return of 19 yards by Tim Marlowe in the Michigan State game. Get it fixed.
- Improve the kick return & kickoff coverage teams. These weren’t bad units, but they definitely were not outstanding. With a new kicker and a bunch of new defensive starters, controlling field position through good kickoff coverage is essential.
We’re all in this together:
- First and foremost – get out to the Spring Scrimmage. It is a big day for recruiting, so replicating the game day experience is huge. I know it will be aired on BTN this year, but this is a great (and reasonably priced) way to take the kids, your wife, or buddies to a Husker event.
- And as always, I’ll remind you to take anything you see during the Spring Scrimmage with a big grain of salt. Don’t get too high and don’t freak out over what happens in a glorified practice.