Whenever the first game week of the season rolls around, I always think of a line Morgan Freeman said when he left town to Mexico to reunite with Andy in The Shawshank Redemption:
"I find that I'm so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the feeling only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a journey whose conclusion is uncertain."
I feel that quote fits with the uncertainty and optimism that is prevalent for every college football fan before the season starts. Nobody is sure what the season might hold, but the prospect of fall afternoons spent in front of a TV with friends nearby, and a beer in hand, brings a smile to the face and the warmth that comes with waves of nostalgia.
That said, this season is one of great uncertainty for Husker fans. Our optimism, a result of having the players in the 2nd year of the system, is tempered by the fact that the Big Red is trotting out one of it's youngest teams in recent memory. Eighty of the 142 players on Nebraska's roster are either true or red-shirt freshmen, including 38 of the 85 scholarship players.
On top of the youth, there are so many questions that we don't have answers to at this point.
Can Zac Lee pull a Joe Ganz and instantly be a difference maker? Can Niles Paul and a yet-to-be-determined wide receiver replace Nate Swift and Todd Peterson; as well as Swift and Peterson replaced Mo Purify and Terrence Nunn a year ago? Can Rex Burkhead make us forget about the loss of Quentin Castille? And why on earth do people watch VH1 reality shows like Real Chance at Love?
Ok, that last one is just a question that I ask myself all the time. Seriously, those shows are just awful.
But getting back to the Huskers, the answers to those questions will go a long way in determining whether or not we build on last year's 9-4 record or if we take a step back.
This week, I'm going to do my season preview for both the offense and the defense; then probably do a Hot Routes column covering the national scene before the season kicks off (including my Top 25); and then finishing up Friday with a game-by-game breakdown of Nebraska's schedule and my final win-loss prediction.
Today: the offense.
We've all known since the day that Pat Witt took off for the Ivy League, that Zac Lee would be the guy under center on September 5th. From all accounts, Lee has become the leader every team hopes their quarterback will be, and he has earned the respect of not only his teammates and coaches, but from many fans as well.
Obviously, we're going to wait to see how he plays before we get too excited, but his demeanor and business-like approach to practice bodes well for the Huskers.
In addition to his intangibles, it sound as if he has all the physical tools as well, including what Niles Paul referred to as "a legit 70 yard arm." This quote, perhaps more than any other, stoked my enthusiasm for NU's offense this season to an entirely new level.
Joe Ganz won games despite a lack of physical arm strength because he stuck to the script and played within the offense. If Zac Lee can do the same, but still unleash the cannon when we go play-action, we may see the deep ball become a deadly weapon in Shawn Watson's already-sizable arsenal. Oh, and did I mention that he was timed at a 4.6 in the 40? Which means that we may see even more option coming back to Memorial Stadium this fall.
Behind Lee, it really hurt to lose Kody Spano to another season-ending injury. Not only because he was making strides in fall camp and was going to be a good No. 2, but that now assures that Cody Green won't be taking that red-shirt year after all. True, it wasn't a sure thing that it was going to happen, but there was still a chance. Now, Green has no choice but to use a year of eligibility sitting on the bench.
The question is, considering he won't be red-shirted, will Watson use him in any situational duty to present mismatches for defenses (and to get Green some seasoning)? Or do you leave him on the bench at all times unless there's a rout? It'll be interesting to see what the season holds for Green, who according to Watson, is "a natural-born leader."
Behind Green sits Latravis Washington, the cousin of former Husker and current NFL cornerback Fabian Washington. Latravis was a highly-sought prep quarterback (he had an offer from Ohio State to play QB) who came here to play linebacker, but was then converted to QB this past spring due to Nebraska's lack of depth.
According to media reports, he has all the physical tools, but has not been as sharp with his throws or the playbook as Green has. A red-shirt year may be in the cards for Washington, which wouldn't be a bad thing because it would give him a year to continue working off whatever rust lingered from playing defense the past couple of years.
Like Lee at QB, the running back position has had a No. 1 throughout the entire offseason, and Roy Helu is still manning that spot.
In my opinion, Helu has a legitimate opportunity to rush for around 1200 yards or more this year, and that's not counting what he'll get as a receiver coming out of the backfield. It seems everyone, myself included, is expecting a breakout year from Roy this season.
While the well-publicized dismissal of Quentin Castille certainly hurts, the breakout newcomer of camp has been Rex Burkhead, the Plano, Texas schoolboy legend who became the new No. 2. While one can never be sure how high school feats will translate to the college game, having seen his YouTube highlights, I'm definitely optimistic that this kid will be a factor for the Huskers for years to come.
Huskers running backs coach Tim Beck has reiterated several times that he likes to have three guys who will carry the ball, which means that the third guy should get around five to ten touches a game, probably in situations where Watson feels that whoever it is can create a mismatch.
The favorite here is Marcus Mendoza. The re-converted running back, who had spent the first part of camp at wide receiver, has experience in the offense at the position. In addition to the seasoning he has, Mendoza also possesses blazing speed, and you have to think that Watson would love to utilize him in zone-read and screen pass situations.
This unit, much like it's defensive counterpart, is one of the true strengths of the team.
It seems that Nebraska is finally getting back to the level where it has a decent pipeline of hogmollies up front, led this year by center Jacob Hickman, who is on the Rimington Award watch list. At right guard, it seems that Ricky Henry, a player long lauded for his nasty streak, has finally mastered the playbook to the level where the staff is comfortable starting him.
I know some people don't find watching the offensive line all that fun, but if you want to see some people put on their ass, keep your eye on Ricky. He's going to turn some heads. Returning at left guard is Keith Williams, and the good thing is that both sides can be backed up by senior transfer Derek Meyer.
Junior Mike Smith will start at the left tackle position, though he had a few nagging bumps and bruises in camp that might cause Marcel Jones (the starter at right tackle) to move over if need be, and D.J. Jones to step into right tackle while Smith heals up.
Either way, it's safe to say that there will be a decent amount of rotating by the Husker staff, as it seems they are confident they have the horses up front to switch around a bit and not see much of a drop-off.
What bodes well for this unit is that if there are injuries later in the season, it seems that all the younger guys, including some of this year's true freshmen (particularly Jeremiah Sirles ) could potentially step in and at least be serviceable. That said, hopefully that won't have to happen.
Wide Receiver/ Tight End
At wide receiver, the only sure thing right now, at least according to the coaching staff, is Niles Paul.
The junior has been the breakout offensive star of fall camp, and the word coming out of practice is that he is going to be a legitimate game-breaker and deep threat this fall. Paul, who seems to have had an epiphany after his off-the-field troubles this spring, has re-dedicated himself to the game and seems intent on being a game changer.
After Paul though, the wide receiver position gets murkier. Pelini himself said this past week that it's going to be a committee approach for the first few games, to see who responds and steps up to become the other starters.
Even after that happens though, expect to see lots of shuffling at the position. Ted Gilmore, the Huskers' wide receivers coach, has said he'd like to find six or seven guys he can count on.
One logical choice is Menelik Holt, who at 6'4" and 225 pounds, possesses all the physical tools, but has yet to break out and become the player many predicted he would be.
Brandon Kinnie, a sophomore who arrived in Lincoln via the junior college route, is someone to keep an eye on. He's been turning heads since he arrived for summer conditioning, and though he's still mastering the ins and outs of the playbook, I wouldn't be surprised to see him getting on the field early to take advantage of his speed and athleticism in the vertical game.
Another player that I would like to see finally make an impact is Will Henry, the 6'6" junior. Someone that tall with that kind of range would have to at least get some looks on some end zone fades, one would think.
The tight end position, in my opinion, is going to be one of the best positions on the entire football team.
Obviously that's not exactly a bold statement, as almost everyone who follows the team knows that we have some excellent talent at that position. Mike McNeill is a legitimate threat to win the Mackey Award, and I would actually predict it occurring if there weren't so many other people on this team to throw the ball to. McNeill will end up as one of the all-time Husker greats at tight end by the time he's done here if last season was any indication.
When talking about tight ends in Watson's offense, one has to remember that while they still come out of a three-point stance regularly and block off the edge, they are still being asked a great deal of the time to play in the slot in an H-back role, which is what makes this position a real exciting one to watch this season. The Huskers have legitimate speed at tight end this year, led of course by McNeill, but also including Dreu Young and Ryan Hill.
The most interesting addition to the corps are the freshmen, Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. With the frame he has, you'll likely see Cotton develop into the more standard edge-type tight end who is working on the end of the offensive line, whereas Reed posseses some fleet feet, and you'll likely see more of him in the aforementioned H-back role.
The question is, how do you utilize all these guys? But that's certainly a fantastic problem to have.
The overriding theme of the Husker offense this year, much like the rest of the team, is youth.
Can the guys with little or no college experience step in and play well, particularly once we get into the conference schedule? Their response will determine the difference between an eight win season and a potential ten win campaign.
Let's hope it's the latter.
Photo: Chris Christen/OWH