The Nebraska Cornhuskers’ spring practices are right around the corner and shaping up to be an athletic rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
On one hand, Bo Pelini will return his most veteran corps of offensive players since arriving in Lincoln. Despite losing a couple key contributors like Rex Burkhead and Kyler Reed, the Big Red offense’s primary focus this spring will be developing its starters already in place. Dr. Jekyll has it together.
But on defense, the Huskers’ spring practices will be more similar to Mr. Hyde. After losing so many graduating seniors, it is going to be a little scary as a series of brutal contests will take place to determine who will lead the Blackshirts into 2013.
So let’s take a look at the position battles this spring that will be most important due to crucial vacancies and the vitality of that role in Nebraska’s playing style.
The battle for the starting fullback position will be the least important position battle this spring for all the right reasons. Nebraska simply has a wealth of quality options at the position.
Truth be told, this battle will only be a continuation of that which was bubbling all through the fall as well. While Mike Marrow and C.J. Zimmerer have risen through the ranks and finally earned their playing time, young gun Andy Janovich proved this season that this was no two-horse race.
Surprising many with his power and athleticism at a position usually dominated by veteran players, Janovich drew an impressed gaze from Coach Pelini and even evoked comparisons to the great Joel Makovicka.
Thanks to the talent of these three great backs, this battle likely will not have a true winner. Yet that only means that the Huskers will enjoy another fullback-by-committee approach in 2013 that will prove just as effective as it was in 2012.
No offensive position was depleted more by the latest graduating class than tight end. For years, Reed and Ben Cotton have had a stranglehold on the playing time at the position, and for good reason.
Their combination of size and athleticism spoiled Husker fans with blocking prowess as well as the ability to stretch defenses vertically in the passing game.
But now they are gone. And beyond Jake Long, the only tight end left on the roster with significant game experience, there is a large void that must be filled in multiple tight end sets.
Despite recruiting well to this deficiency in the 2013 class, the Huskers will need someone like David Sutton or Sam Cotton to emerge from the shadows of the depth chart to provide some quality play as second and third options at tight end.
Everyone knew this day would come, the day when the 40-yard line was no longer considered “field goal range” and Nebraska did not possess one man capable of all-conference honors in punting and place kicking.
But the Huskers must now come to grips with the fact that Alex Henery is a Philadelphia Eagle and Brett Maher will soon be taking his talents to the National Football League.
And in their absences has arisen a large opening at a position and the shoes to fill could not be larger.
The favorite at this point may be sophomore Mauro Bondi. But rest assured Spencer Lindsay will push him in spring practice as they battle to become the latest professional prospect to come out of Place Kicker U (although maybe that is not such an esteemed school nickname).
The biggest headache for the Nebraska coaching staff entering 2013 may reside at the safety position. The Huskers graduated three significant contributors from a year ago and have few obvious players to whom they can turn.
Corey Cooper will certainly be considered to fill the vacancies. Despite making an unfortunate first impression when he was slotted in as a cornerback against Wyoming in 2011 and was exploited frequently by the Cowboys’ passing attack, Cooper is much more natural at safety and could provide some quality production.
Beyond that however, it is quite open. Early enrollee D.J. Singleton may very well make a splash in this position battle. But no matter what, prepare yourself for some names you have seldom heard before to emerge from this battle.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Huskers in early fall will resurface once spring practices begin. Nine months ago, Justin Jackson emerged as the starting center after a heated competition with Mark Pelini and Cole Pensick.
And following Jackson’s graduation, Pelini and Pensick will once again take center stage. Both received spotty playing time in 2012, but one would have to give the edge to Pelini who filled in for Jackson when he came down with an injury late last season.
No matter who comes out on top, the winner should not struggle in 2013. The Huskers will enjoy a rather veteran offensive line. And lining up beside the likes of Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale should certainly help make for a smoother transition for the Big Red’s new center.
This was a no-brainer at the No. 1 spot. Due to the mass exodus of starters at linebacker and the wealth of legitimate contenders to take their places, the linebacker battle will be the most fun and most important to watch this spring.
Alonzo Whaley, Will Compton and Sean Fisher formed the backbone of the Nebraska linebacking corps in 2012. And they are gone. Every one of them.
And while numerous players received limited playing time behind those three, there are no certainties when it comes to the Blackshirts’ linebackers this fall.
Zaire Anderson seems to be the crowd favorite at this point, but keep your eye on David Santos, Thomas Brown, Michael Rose, Jared Afalava and even early enrollee Courtney Love because any one of them could make a push for a starting job this spring.