Nebraska Football: 10 Cornhuskers to Watch versus Western Kentucky
It's been a crazy off-season for Nebraska: basking in a 33-0 Holiday Bowl pasting of Arizona, watching Ndamukong Suh go No. 2 overall to the Lions, and preseason magazines proclaiming the Huskers as BCS National Championship dark horses.
The Cornhuskers know that 2010 isn’t about all of that, though. It’s not about the hype or where the Huskers want to be. This is Nebraska’s Big 12 Farewell Tour, and they want to make sure every team remembers that they played Nebraska the next morning.
This Saturday marks the beginning of one of the holiest of days on a Nebraska fan’s calendar:
The season opener.
No one envies the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, but 85,000+ screaming Cornhuskers will welcome them into Lincoln. While Nebraska’s sideline is packed full of players with their own storylines, here are 10 in particular to keep an eye on as the Cornhuskers open the season as a member of the Big 12 one last time.
Center Mike Caputo
It’d be easy to simply say, “The Entire Nebraska Offensive Line,” and move on, but Caputo anchors the unit with little depth behind him. He doesn’t have ideal size for his center position standing 6’1” and weighing 275 pounds.
Caputo has still earned the respect of his teammates for work in the weight room and for his ability to hold his own on the field in spite of this.
He will need to get an advantage against his man quickly to make up for his lack of size. Caputo’s lower center of gravity gives him the ability to do so, but the margin for error is small.
Western Kentucky will be an excellent workout for Caputo to see just how well he can adapt to the starting role, allowing him to get some solid reps in and perhaps work on some depth for his position should the unfortunate occur.
Wide Receiver Mike McNeill
Nebraska fans grew a bit curious as to why Mike McNeill was not utilized more last season given his natural ability. This year, McNeill switches to a sort of hybrid tight end/receiver. He is a receiver that can be used exceptionally well over the middle as he can bear the brunt of a linebacker’s hit.
His 6’4” 235-pound frame should give the senior all of the tools necessary to make his last year as a Cornhusker a memorable one. His especially gifted hands will also make him an excellent security blanket for a quarterback that will need some self-assurance early on.
Look for McNeill to top last year’s paltry 259-yard season total in receiving yardage quickly this year. A good chunk of his new total may very well come at the expense of the Hilltoppers.
Outside Linebacker LaVonte David
With Sean Fisher out for the year due to injury, David was originally thought of as a player who could easily see time in 2010 as the year wore on. Now, he may start against the Hilltoppers.
If David is meant to be a Blackshirt, baptism by fire may not be the worst idea in the world.
Western Kentucky doesn’t have a running back that David cannot contain and their receivers would be ideal for him to practice his coverage skills on. I doubt you’ll see him come on an initially-called quarterback blitz against WKU. There’s no need to unleash the hounds until, oh, Sept. 18.
WKU could be the beginning of big things for David in Nebraska’s defense. If he starts this weekend, he’ll likely play at least a full three quarters.
Wide Receiver Brandon Kinnie
Nebraska fans that showed up for a gorgeous Spring Game last April were treated to a beefed up Kinnie literally dragging defenders into the end zone. While the play in reference would’ve likely been blown dead in a legitimate game, “B.K.” has made no bones about wanting to compliment his fellow receivers.
“What the DBs don’t like this year is that the wide receivers have a little swagger about themselves. And they see that me and Niles like to be physical, and we like to put our hands on people. And that’s the big thing. We take big-time pride in that, in being physical and knowing that they’re going to feel us every play.”
If Kinnie and Paul can assist Nebraska’s passing game as its top two receiving threats, Nebraska’s offensive ranking should rise right along with eyebrows across the nation. Look for Kinnie to get just as many opportunities as Paul against WKU.
Wide Receiver Niles Paul
When the nation last saw Niles Paul, not only did they need two tickets to the Holiday Bowl (or maybe just an HDTV) but also two tickets to the gun show. “Do It All” Paul’s flexing did Arnold Schwarzenegger proud in a four-catch, 273-APY performance capped by a 74-yard touchdown catch.
The Holiday Bowl is long gone, and Paul is now the vocal leader of the 2010 receivers. A highly ranked prospect out of Omaha North High School, Paul has all of the momentum and appears to be poised for a potential record-breaking season.
The eyes of the Husker Nation will be on Paul to see if he can torch Western Kentucky’s defensive backs as well as he did in his last performance.
Running Back Rex Burkhead
Rex Burkhead made his presence felt in Nebraska’s post-season as well. Shifting around in the popular “Wildcat” formation, Burkhead put his fingerprint on Nebraska’s 33-0 rout of the Arizona Wildcats with a five-yard touchdown run.
In 2010, Burkhead is Nebraska’s “Swiss Army Knife.” A terror toting the ball, Burkhead can also catch out of the backfield as well as any back in recent memory. He also has experience throwing the football, which makes his actions out of the Wildcat even more difficult to predict.
Sadly, for fans of the formation, expect things to remain rather vanilla against the ‘Toppers. Likely Burkhead will work off some rust between the tackles while aiding his offensive linemen gain some much-needed confidence.
Defensive Tackle Jared Crick
Ndamukong who? Ever since Big No. 93 walked off the field as a Cornhusker for the last time in San Diego, Cornhusker fans have been asking, “What now?” Crick, Suh’s accomplice in mayhem on the gridiron last season, looks to silence both critics and worrywarts by stepping up and filling his predecessor’s gigantic shoes to the best of his ability.
You’re not going to lose a player like Suh and not see some manner of shift in play. Where offensive coordinators had to account for Ndamukong and then see to the remaining 10 men, the point of attack will need to be far more varied for Nebraska in 2010.
Crick impressed last year amassing 73 TKL (15 TFL), 9.5 QBS, 16 QBH, 4 PBU, 2 FR, and 2 BLK. All of this while playing next to Suh who had even more impressive numbers.
Running Back Roy Helu Jr.
Helu Jr. suffered a shoulder injury early in 2009 and admirably played through the pain. Leading the team with 1,147 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, Helu Jr. is back and in peak physical condition from all reports.
His production slipped as his shoulder took more damage. He was simply unable to grasp the ball properly resulting in costly fumbles.
He will be looked to for his amazing agility, vision and quickness to be the “lightning” to the Cornhuskers’ rushing “thunder” this year. Much like Burkhead, look for Helu to get plenty of carries against Western Kentucky, if not the majority and to be officially named the starter (not that this means much).
Cornerback Prince Amukamara
Several have Amukamara as a Top 10 NFL Draft pick. Some fans (a severe minority) call him the third-best cornerback on the team. Amukamara will put that idea to bed quickly as every WKU receiver lining up against him is going to realize that every yard gained against No. 21 will be truly earned.
Amazing speed, power, and vertical leap make Amukamara one of the most dangerous defensive backs in the country. He leads a secondary of athletes all given the nod as top defenders in the Big 12 and one of the best units in the nation by several publications and analysts.
Vanilla packages against Western Kentucky will leave things up to Prince to make his own plays. Should a route be ran sloppily or a pass be thrown poorly, not only will Amukamara have an interception to his name, but he likely will add six points to his scoring total.
Whoever takes snaps from under center and out of the shotgun this Saturday is also going to be under one of the largest microscopes in Nebraska outside of a nearby science lab. Between Zac Lee, Cody Green, and Taylor Martinez, there is no one who can name the starter with one hundred percent certainty. Regardless of who does, there’s no guarantee that they will see the most action, either.
It’s a guessing game across the board. Will Nebraska’s coaches try to get all three players reps versus the Hilltoppers in what appears to be an organized scrimmage? Is the “real” starter known or is the battle that has been raging since the beginning of August still on?
Just a friendly reminder for the lucky person who gets his number called first: