Key to Huskers' '09 Season Will Be To Replace Several Starters

Jeremy LaSeurContributor IMarch 27, 2009

After a 2008 season that saw major strides made by Bo Pelini's Nebraska squad, which ended a disastrous 2007 campaign at 5-7, the Huskers look to build on the momentum of last year's 9-4 record this fall. 

To do that, they will first need to have a number of players at key positions step in to fill the shoes of several departed starters on both sides of the ball. 

Certain areas appear to be of less concern, with significant experience returning.  Among those positions are a solid offensive line, highlighted by players like Jacob Hickman, Jaivorio Burkes, Marcel Jones, Ricky Henry, and D.J. Jones, and a D-line that should include Ndamukong Suh, Baker Steinkuhler, Barry Turner, and Pierre Allen. 

The stable of running backs looks solid too, with Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille likely to see the bulk of the carries, along with Marcus Mendoza and Collins Okafor.

A few areas of concern include quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, and punter, all of which saw hits due to graduation or players leaving the program.

What appeared to be a two-horse race at quarterback coming into spring camp between Patrick Witt and Zac Lee has changed dramatically with Witt's decision to transfer. 

Lee, a 6'2", 210-pound JUCO transfer from California now seems to be the front runner, after a strong showing to start the spring.

Also in the mix, however, are a glut of other choices at the position, including redshirt freshman Kody Spano, a 6'2", 215-pound dual threat quarterback who spent last year learning the offense, Cody Green, a 6'4", 215-pound stud fresh off of leading his Dayton, Texas high school team to a state championship, and Latravis Washington, a 6'3", 225-pound converted linebacker with a cannon for an arm.

Look for Lee to emerge from spring ball slightly ahead of the pack, mainly due to his experience advantage, with Spano and Green close behind. Washington could surprise some people with his sheer size and athletic ability, but with his inexperience at the position he would be a longshot to start in the season opener. 

Whoever lands the spot of starting quarterback will be throwing passes to a young and relatively inexperienced group of receivers. 

Three of the top targets figure to be 6'4", 220-pound senior Menelik Holt, who displayed good hands and physicality in limited action last year, along with 6'1", 215-pound junior Niles Paul, who saw a great deal of action on special teams as a return man, and 6'0", 220-pound sophomore Curenski Gilleylen, who could very well emerge as the go-to possession receiver on the team. 

Other receivers who will be competing with each other for playing time include redhirt freshman Khiry Cooper, junior Will Henry, senior Chris Brooks, and sophomore Ben Lester, a Nebraska native from Tecumseh.

With the departure of Tyler Wortman and Cody Glenn and the chance to have Phillip Dillard for a full healthy season, the linebacker corps will have a new look this fall as well. 

Even though several linebackers who saw limited game action last year should see more this year, they have the advantage of playing behind what should be a strength for Nebraska: its defensive line. 

Look for Dillard, sophomore Matt Holt, and redshirt freshman Will Compton, a highly touted recruit coming in last fall, to see extended on-field time.

Don't be surprised to see linebackers dropping into pass coverage even more this season than last to provide added support to the secondary in a pass happy conference that features a number of capable tight ends as receivers.

And finally, with solid starter Dan Titchener having graduated, the punting duties are probably going to fall to either sophomore Jonathon Damkroger or junior Alex Henery, the placekicker who was the hero in last year's game against Colorado when he nailed a 57-yarder in the waning moments to lead Nebraska to the win. 

Though an often overlooked position, punter can be crucial in the field position game, a game Nebraska will look to key on this season, particularly early on when the defense will likely be ahead of the offense in terms of effectiveness.

The bottom line is, no matter who starts the first game of the season, every player in the starting lineup knows that he has to prove himself as the best option every day in practice if he wants to continue to start. 

Because with Bo Pelini, every day is a new competition, and nothing is going to be handed to anyone. Just ask Patrick Witt.