Nebraska Cornhuskers Spring Football: Five Position Battles to Watch
Spring Football is almost upon us, and people around here haven't been this excited in years! With the Blackshirts fully restored in only Bo Pelini's second season as head coach, he will have his work cut out for him heading into 2010.
The Huskers' strong finish to 2009 has brought in some national hype, which had been lacking for most of the previous decade. The heartbreak of the Big 12 Championship game versus Texas and the complete domination of a respectable Arizona team in the Pacific Life Holiday bowl has most national pundits calling for a preseason top 10 ranking for the Huskers heading into 2010.
To go along with the national hype, Bo has gone on record saying that he expects his defense to be "at least five times better than 2009's defense". Since his arrival in December of 2007, no one's had a better grasp of the program better than Bo. With the loss of Larry Asante, Matt O'Hanlon, Phillip Dillard, and of course, Ndamukong Suh, younger players in the program need to step up to meet Bo's expectations.
Let's not forget about that offense either, Husker fans. There were enough problems there in 2009 to keep us talking for days, but we've all been down that road before. With Zac Lee more than likely missing the entire spring practice, now is the time for Cody Green to step up and prove he's worth the hype that was put on him early in 2009. Other than that, I'm going to show you five position battles for you to keep an eye on during Spring ball, and into the Spring Game April 17.
Left Tackle: Jermarcus "Yoshii" Hardrick vs. Mike Smith
Nebraska has 10 returning starters on offense from 2009, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all 10 of those players will be starting in 2010. Much of the blame that was put on Nebraska's offense was a result of the offensive line, and left tackle is the most glaring spot on that line.
Mike Smith struggled in 2009, and he didn't finish off the season well either. You might recall the Huskers going for a fourth-down conversion versus Arizona in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, only to have Mike Smith be flagged for a false start. What followed was a vicious tongue lashing from offensive line coach Barney Cotton, which the ESPN cameras didn't shy away from.
"Yoshii" is ready to start from day one, and he brings plenty of hype with him. Formerly an LSU commit, Bo was able to sway his commitment from his former school. Hardrick could be the Huskers' biggest sign of the 2010 recruiting class. I fully expect Hardrick to come out on top of this battle, and improve the left side of the offensive line.
Slot WR: Antonio Bell vs. Curenski Gilleylen
After Brandon Kinnie's emergence late last season, I assume it's safe to say that he is the Huskers No. 2 receiver behind Niles Paul. Outside of those two, there's really quite a logjam at receiver for playing time.
Khiry Cooper started at receiver midway through the year, but he won't be participating in spring practice as he will be playing for the Huskers baseball team. The two names that stick out most to me for the Huskers' primary slot receiver are Currenski Gilleylen and Antonio Bell.
Gilleylen excited Husker fans with his play early on in 2009, but struggled heavily midway through the year, as he was benched and even got put on the scout team. The last time we saw Gilleylen, he had a hard time keeping his footing during the Holiday Bowl versus Arizona, as he slipped on the grass making his breaks on routes at least 3 separate times.
Antonio Bell had a great spring in 2009, and I even expected him to receive a good amount of playing time his Freshman year. He looked awfully good returning punts and made the play of the day in last year's Spring Game, making a very impressive acrobatic catch. We must also remember that Niles Paul didn't participate in the 2009 Spring Game, although Bell filled in quite nicely. The clock is ticking on Gilleylen, as Antonio Bell should impress Husker fans for a second consecutive spring.
Defensive End: Jason Ankrah vs. Cameron Meredith
Bo Pelini was not shy about his praise for Cameron Meredith during the 2009 season, as the redshirt freshman backed up senior Barry Turner. Meredith appeared in all fourteen games, recording five tackles for losses, and 1.5 sacks. Meredith is known as a great pass rusher, and looks to earn the starting gig left open by Barry Turner's graduation.
However, Jason Ankrah's redshirt will be coming off in 2010, and Husker fans have been waiting to see this kid play. This should be the most intriguing battle that goes on this spring, as Carl Pelini looks to reload his defensive line. Husker fans have no need to be concerned here, as these two should anchor the outside pass rush for the next few years.
I'm going to have to wait and see with Ankrah before I can proclaim Meredith as the starter at defensive end opposite Pierre Allen. Husker fans will get a heavy dose of both players in 2010, no matter who gets the start.
Safety: PJ Smith vs. Ricky Thenarse vs. Austin Cassidy vs. Eric Hagg
Eric Hagg is the biggest X-factor of the Husker secondary. He's proven to be a key contributor as the nickel back in Bo's system, and moving him from his nickel back position to safety might be giving up too much for this defense.
Nebraska needs to find replacements for Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon, as this position battle will have a big microscope all spring. Ricky Thenarse is returning from a big knee injury in which he suffered versus Louisiana Lafayette. Ricky has always been a great special teams player, but has been known to give up the big play as a safety. He needs to develop a better understanding of Bo's system if he wants to have a starting role on this defense.
P.J. Smith is almost a lock as the starting free safety. P.J. backed up both Asante and O'Hanlon last year, and had valuable playing time. He made a great play by deflecting a pass versus Arizona in the Holiday Bowl to preserve the shut out, as Bo sent him on a safety blitz on fourth down. Other than P.J. Smith, the battle is between Thenarse, Lincoln native Austin Cassidy, and possibly Eric Hagg (if the coach's move him from his nickel back position).
WILL Linebacker: Matt May vs. Eric Martin
Phillip Dillard proved to be Nebraska's strongest linebacker in 2009 during conference play, when the Huskers rarely had more than one linebacker on the field. Will Compton started out 2009 as the starting MIKE linebacker, with Sean Fisher starting at the BUCK linebacker. Those two look to fill the same positions heading into 2010, with the only question mark at linebacker being at the WILL position.
Matt May figured to have a prominent role in the Huskers' linebacker core in 2009 before he suffered a shoulder injury. Eric Martin quickly became a fan favorite during his freshman year as an outstanding special teams player. Martin's story is similar to Ricky Thenarse, as he too needs to get a better understanding of the defensive system before he can make a serious run at a starting linebacker job. Martin is an athletic freak, and once he gets the system, there's no doubt he will be a starting linebacker under Bo Pelini.