With all the recruiting hype now over and spring ball yet to start, let,s look at next year's position battles to see who could crack the starting lineup for the Huskers in 2009.
The obvious glaring hole that is staring Bo Pelini in the face is the QB race. This should shape up to be one of the most exciting races in the Big 12, if not the country. The Cornhuskers are coming off of a 9-4 year, lots of momentum from a Gator Bowl win, and should be favored to contend for a Big 12 North title and possibly for a BCS game berth.
Other position races of note will be at WR, DT, and LB. Starting at the WR position, Swift and Peterson graduating has left a huge hole. The other tackle position will be open on the defensive line and both outside linebackers have graduated.
Let's start where everyone in Nebraska will focus all of their attention—the quarterback position. The most likely scenerio here suggests that either Patrick Witt or Zac Lee will be the opening day starter. With both having knowledge of Shawn Watson's offense, they have a jump start on up-and-comer Kody Spano and highly touted new recruit Cody Green. Although everyone will want to see what Cody Green can do, a redshirt season will probably be the case.
I-back, or running back as they say in the rest of the country, has plenty of experience returning to the position, with last year's regular contributors Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille in the forefront. Unless there is an upstart who jumps into the mix and shows flashes of greatness (Burkhead?), expect these two to get the majority of the carries. Marcus Mendoza could also be a situational type back to showcase his speed.
Look for the fullback position to be a RBBC type of situation this year. It will most likely be a converted TE (H-back type) or some walk-on who steps up and contributes in running situations. Your guess is as good as mine on this one.
The receiving corp is one of the areas I mentioned earlier that could play a key role in the success of the Huskers in 2009. Losses (Swift, Peterson) will need to be filled by a bevy of players. Leading candidates are Niles Paul, Menelik Holt, Will Henry, Chris Brooks, and Curenski Gilleylan. Holt and Paul saw the most playing time last year and will be counted on to lead the group. Two who could emerge as playmakers are Khiry Cooper and JUCO transfer Brandon Kinnie. The group has talent, let's just hope they can display it on the field next year.
Tight end is another position that has a lot of returnees to claim. Mike McNeill, Dreu Young, and Ryan Hill are all back and all had playing time last year. There was some talk of Ben Cotton burning his redshirt last year to play, so be on the lookout for him to make the position ultra competitive for playing time in the fall.
The offensive line rotation lost only three players who saw regular time (Huff, Slauson, Murtha). The group returns six who saw considerable time, with at least one at each position: Mike Smith and Javario Burkes (LT), Keith Williams (LG), Jacob Hickman (C), DJ Jones (RG), and Marcel Jones (RT). Along with the addition of Ricky Henry and Mike Caputo and the return of Andy Christensen, don't look for this group to loose a step at all.
That takes care of the offensive side of the ball, now let's look at the defense and see which players will step up to carry on that Blackshirt tradition. We will start on the defensive line, where championship-caliber teams are really made. They are so valuable to a team and allow the coaches to really get creative when they know they don't have to blitz to create pressure.
When Barry Turner went down early last year, Pierre Allen stepped in and performed wonderfully. Assuming Turner gets his medical redshirt (no reason he shouldn't), the two will be nice bookends on the Huskers' defensive line. Potential backups will be Cameron Meridith, William Yancy, and Josh Williams, to name a few
The return of Ndamukong Suh (NU's best player) was HUGE. The potential All-American will anchor the middle of the line and make the job of whoever steps into the other DT position that much easier. Potential candidates include Baker Stienkuler, Terrence Moore, Quentin Toailoa, and Jared Crick. Haven't heard much buzz on who will step up in this case, so let's keep a close eye on this one.
Two of the three starting linebackers from last year are gone. Phillip Dillard will be the stalwart at middle linebacker. The open BUCK and WILL positions could be filled by a number of returnees. The best opportunities belong to Will Compton, Sean Fisher(described as a physical freak of nature), Alonzo Whaley, LaTravis Washington, Blake Lawrence, and Matt Holt. Lawrence saw time last year, but all posses the talent to thrive in the Blackshirt scheme.
Moving to the secondary, where a number of players could have a breakout season. Larry Asante will remain the starting SS. Ricky Thenarse or Major Culbert will more than likely start at the FS spot, and whoever wouldn't start would the first backup at both positions. Look for PJ Smith, Mason Wald, John Levorson, or Courtney Osborne to perhaps step into a contributing role.
Depth at the cornerback spot in the Big 12 is now more crucial than ever. With the highly potent spread offenses NU will face, they cannot afford to have a drop off in talent if their first stringers need a breather (hence the 5 DBs in this year's class). The departure of Armando Murillo should't hurt that badly with the returners that we have coming back.
There should be five CBs ready to start the 2009 season off with a bang: Eric Hagg, Anthony West, Prince Amukamara, Lance Thorell, and Alfonzo Dennard. All of these guys saw action last year and will use that experience to better themselves. Throw in Anthonly Blue, who's coming off a redshrit year for an ACL injury, and you have a secondary ready to thrive in '09.
The only special teams loss will be punter Dan Tinchner. I have heard no word on the possible replacement so far, but Nebraska usually has some unknown waiting in the wings to produce for us.
Kickoffs will continue to be handled by Adi Kunalic. Alex Henery will be the holdover for the place-kicking duties.
The electric Alfonzo Dennard and Niles Paul will more than likely return kickoffs again in 2009. Punt returns will be up for grabs with the departure of Nate Swift, with Paul and Dennard to get a crack at that duty as well. Dennard looked especially shifty last year, and I would like to see the ball in his hands more often.
Well, there you have it. The position battles for 2009 will start in spring ball and continue through the summer and into fall camp, and culminate with the opening kickoff on Sept. 5 against Florida Atlantic. Go Big Red in '09!!!