Does Nebraska Have the Tools to Compete within the Big 12 South This Year?

Mark BrunswigContributor IAugust 10, 2009

JACKSONVILLE, FL - JANUARY 1:  Larry Asante #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers celebrates a victory following the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl against the Clemson Tigers at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium January 1, 2009 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

The sun is still rising early and the heat index is nearing if not topping triple digits almost daily.  Time well spent walking through the full grown corn fields and gardens picking ears to strip and freeze for the winter.  Ah yes, it's Husker football time, and after a 9-4 year to start his career, things are really looking up in Big Red Country. 

Today we'll take a look at what the Cornhuskers must do, and if they have the tools to compete with the rest of the south and return to the top of the north.  We'll start with the offense, then defense, and then special teams.

The offense starts where the ball starts, the center and the OL.  Jacob Hickman appears to be the guy again in the middle of what should be a hard nosed, talent filled offensive line.  Mike Caputo seems to be a strong, fiery youngster with a tremendous upside. 

The guard position is probably the biggest question on the line heading into camp, Keith Williams returns as the starter at LG.  The question came on the right side where a whole was left by Matt Slausson, with even Hickman taking reps at the right guard in the spring (Oh yeah, and that's the side that lines up across from Suh).  Look to see Henry be the starter, but guys like Ricky Henry, Derek Myer, and Andy Christenson, are all guys with a lot to prove this fall.  Myer and Christenson both only have one season to make an impression, and with high expectations for Henry, we should see as much competition at this position as any on the field.

The tackles are big and athletic, the starters should be Mike Smith on the left and the monster Marcus Jones on the right side.  To me, I'd say all in all the line would seem to be at least good enough to open some running lanes and give Lee some time to find targets deep with a new found vertical game.  Depth looking at least two deep at all positions, mostly jr.'s and underclassmen.

There's loads of talent at all the skill positions.  Lets start with the QB: Zac Lee is by all means, barring a serious problem, the starter.  To me this sets up as if we were to get Ganz instead of Keler a couple years ago, in that a guy steps in who's been in the system for a couple years and knows the offense.

Having been throwing passes to this group during summer 7-on-7 drills, and even on the scout team, timing will come quickly as it does with a well managed offense.  Such is the offense under the eye of the best offensive coordinator in the country, Shawn Watson, who doubles as the QB coach.

Watson has shown a strong ability to build a offense to fit his talent at QB, and Lee's talent is, according to teammates, pretty good.  Behind Lee is a stable of capable back-ups I think, don't get me wrong, Lee going down for a few games is not a good thing but a couple quarters shouldn't hurt.

One of the most proven position on offense is the RB's: Roy Helu and Quinten Castille will head a group that could include five backs seeing time.  The offense should rely heavily on the run this season, not due to Lee's lack of ability, but the fact is ball control and defense win championships.

With Helu and Castille carrying the majority of the time, the depth behind them is a coral full of young talent.  The likes of Collins Okafor, Lester Ward, Rex Burkhead, and walk-on Austin Jones all look to make the most of what time they will get. 

As far as the two leaders of the group, after Helu added weight and Castille dropped his weight, it was tough to tell the difference, especially after the Gator Bowl (all that ACC speed burned by a power back).  Regardless of last season, by the end of this season, this duo could top OU's Murry and Brown as the best tandem in the Big 12.  That and they are both only juniors.

The other proven offensive position is the TE.  Everyone is talking about Mike McNeill and with good reason, he had an amazing '08' campaign.

After a record setting year, I look for McNeill's production to go down and only do to the depth and talent at all the skill positions including TE, which has at least five guys who could play at any school in the country, starting with Drue Young.  Young showed he is a solid blocker and his game improved all season last year. 

Along with him is sophomore Ryan Hill who appears to be a all around solid choice on any play.  Behind them is some more talented youth with Ben Cotton, the monster of the group.  He's 6'6" 250 pounds, and oh yeah, he has great hands with good agility and speed for a big man.

The guy I'm watching in this group is redshirt freshman Kyler Reed.  With his good size and unreal speed for a TE, he is a mismatch on every play for any defender. 

The area that people say is the most concern is WR; this group I see as being something we haven't seen in Nebraska since a guy named Fryar.  Senior Menelik Holt and Junior Niles Paul will be the starters to begin the year.  Both lack stellar numbers but have all the talent to be very good. 

What I'm excited about in this group is the guys behind them.  Senior Chris Brooks has as much talent as almost any receiver in the country, but can he put it together under the Pelini system and live up to the hype?

The only other senior is Wes Commack of Dewitt, NE, former home of the "Vice Grip."  He's not a big guy, but he's explosive and has very solid hands.

Junior Will Henery could see some jump balls as one of the tallest Nebraska wide-outs, and I foresee a solid junior year for Henery. Then you look at the younger guys, Curenski Gilleylen, Marcus Mendoza, Tim Marlowe, Antonio Bell, and Khiry Cooper all have low 4.4 if not 4.3 speed with good hands to match.

The other side of the youngsters is the size group, and JC transfer Kinney, who actually could be one of the fastest, is also a big body guy at the same time.  He's bigger and faster then both Michael Crabbtree and Jeremy Macklin.  He'll have four years to play three seasons at Nebraska. 

The other player garnering praise from coaches is redshirt freshman Steven Osborne, and at 6'4" and over 200 pounds, you can already look for a new tradition of solid WR play at Nebraska.  One big question, can they block downfield?

Given this year's upgrade in depth, development, and speed, look for the Huskers to improve numbers that landed them in the Top 15 in yards/game.  Overall, the offense should have all it needs to control the clock, go deep, and an be all-around solid group.

If the timing between Lee and his receivers works out and the line can produce, this could be a Top 10 offense this year.  So we have to say that with good coaching, the Huskers have what it takes to compete with the south on offense.  Now we can turn our attention to the defense.

The blackshirt's defense has plenty of size, speed, and talent. 

It all starts up front with the D-line.  One plus this group has is the same as the QB's on offense, with Carl Pelini serving as the defensive coordinator and D-line coach.  In the middle it all starts with big Ndamukong Suh and a slew of double teams leaving single blocking across the line and blitzes isolated on RB's.

Around and behind Suh is a group of young talent, as sophomores Jared Crick and Terrance Moore played solid last year, showing great improvement over the season.   If those two can continue to develop it could leave Baker playing behind Suh, or even a 4 man rotation. The one with probably the most upside of the three underclassmen is the redshirt freshman Baker Steinkhuler. 

The group that could reap the most benefits from the Suh double team is the DE spot.  With Barry Turner back to form, as all reports say he is, and upstart junior Piere Allen on the other side, we again could be looking at a top Big 12 duo.

Behind them is a more young talent in Cameron Meredith and Josh Williams, bringing depth to the end, and possibly even true freshman Jason Ankrah. Don't be surprised if you see LB Sean Fisher down in a 3 point stance a few times this year also.  As I stated, this group is poised to be a top tier group, top to bottom.

There are many questions about the LB's.  I don't worry as much about that with coach Pelini and his staff's methods and motto's.

Returning seniors Phillip Dillard and Colton Koehler will have to work hard to fight off a push from redshirt freshman Will Compton in the middle.  The outside 'backers are big, fast, talented, and tough to say who's going to line up where and when.  With talent like Sean Fisher, Matthew May, Blake Lawrence, Alanzo Whaley, and Micah Kreikemeire, there's plenty of ability at least with speed and size. 

I'd say May is a lock for at least one of the nickel spots, and possibly the dime 'backer as well. With his size and versatility, Sean Fisher could be a wildcard for coach Pelini and his staff.  Black Lawrence is a great player, but he could be one of the casualties of the high powered offenses of the Big 12.

Incoming freshmen Eric Martin and Chris Williams could compete for time, but if anything, it will likely come on special teams.

The defensive backfield is full of unproven talent as we look at the DB's.  DB's coach Marvin Sanders has went back to the basics in spring ball to get a handle on the size, speed, and talent he has in backfield. 

Let's start with the corner spot.  There are loads of capable players to put in at either spot.  Going into the season most think Prince Amukamara and Anthony West will get the starting nod, and that's not a bad assumption, but don't overlook the depth behind them. 

Guys like JC standout Dejon Gomes, Alfonzo Denard, and Anthony Blue all have the tools needed to compete for significant playing time.  True freshmen Dijon Washington and Lazzari Middleton could vie for time, but are likely to be special teams guys if not redshirting. 

The safety position is on solid ground with Larry Asante showing maturity.  Matt O'Hanlon and Ricky Thenarse also return and with newly added athlete Eric Hagg.  Redshirt freshmen P.J. Smith and Courtney Osborne have shown a ton of promise.  Going into the fall, I look for Pelini to put the best guys at each spot regardless of title (Strong or Free).

So with another year under the Pelini Brothers and Co., the defense should be much improved, and riding momentum from a strong finish to the '08 season.  We will need to see more turnovers if the Huskers hope to compete with the rest of the South.  All the players are there to make this the beginning of a magical run for the blackshirts.

The special teams is a question mark in my eyes.  Most would say I'm crazy with Alex Henry and Adi Kunalic coming back, and that is great don't get me wrong.  The things we are looking at are the departures of T.J. Olery's and Jake Welsch, the snapper and holder for Henry, and also the punt snapper.

The Huskers look to walk on snappers P.J. Mangieri or Sam Meginnis, and I would look for sure-handed senior Wes Commack to do the holding this year. 

The return game loses a lot of stability in Nate Swift and gains a ton of young speed.  Tim Marlowe, Antonio Bell, Khiry Cooper, Niles Paul, or even Rex Burkhead could all line up to bring back punts.The KO returners are yet to be determined, but look for the same candidates and maybe a couple others like Marcus Mendoza or speedy walk-on Taylor Dixon.

Coverage teams should benefit from the large redshirt class and maybe even a few incoming freshman adding speed to both coverage teams, specially KO coverage.

The final thing I want to look at is coaching. 

Head man Bo Pelini has put together one of the best young group of coaches in the country, well, maybe not young on average age but young in togetherness.  Nonetheless, we all know of Bo's defensive resume and brother Carl's is nothing to laugh at either.

So let's start on offense with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who brings a chilled vibe to the Huskers, and oh yeah, he's proven he's one of the best in the nation.  We should all feel extremely happy he hasn't been swayed away yet, so thanks Shawn.

Tim Beck is a accomplished RB's coach with good ties to Texas recruiting, i.e. Rex Burkhead and Dontravious Robinson.  Showing he can coach as well, look at the RB's and how they developed last season.

Ron Brown coaches the TEs, and is a proven recruiter and coach. Ted Gilmore coaches the WRs and has done a great job creating relationships as the recruiting coordinator. Barney Cotton will have the microscope on him this season as Nebraska looks for a pipeline to form. 

The defense is manned by Carl Pelini, but I'm sure it's a team effort with younger brother Bo, and it seems to be working.  Assisting the Pelini's is secondary coach—the elder statesman of the staff—Marvin Sanders. 

Followed by one of the two young men with great a future in coaching.  Mike Ekeler, who oversees the LBs and could be the KSU defensive coordinator in three to five years. He's a young man who brings a ton of energy to the game and shows a passion that can only be found in Nebraska.

He's flanked by DEs and likely special teams coach John Papuchis.  Both the latter two came to Nebraska to fill their first full time coaching jobs.  They met up with HC Bo Pelini in LSU as GAs (Hmmm how'd they have such a great defense?), and followed him to Nebraska.  The big thing about this, they were all here last year too!!! 

As you can see, I had a little time this weekend.  I'm gonna go ahead and say with OU at home and Tech at home, Baylor may be the toughest of the three south games because it's in Waco. I hope for a sweep of the south, but is it possible? Yes, if the players continue to develop in the system, by that point of the season the Big Red is rolling. Nebraska finally wins the north outright and plays Oklahoma State in Dallas.

Well thanks for reading, let me know what you think.


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