The States of College Football: Nebraska
Posted By:Russ James - Firth, NE Tags:
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With a 2007 campaign that ended with Nebraska going 5-7 with no post season bowl appearance, a confused and downright angry Husker nation looked to the past to secure its future. NU hired as its athletic director legendary former head coach Tom Osborne, a man who’s saint-hood in the state is cast in stone. Osborne, in turn, turned to the hard nosed blue-collar work ethic of LSU defensive coordinator - and one time NU defensive coordinator - Bo Pelini, as his choice to lead the Cornhuskers. And the crowd goes wild.
Bo Pelini’s first year as NU’s head coach has to be considered by Husker fans a success beyond even what most in the state dared to hope for. Coach Pelini won over his team, and they have fully bought into what he and his older brother Carl, NU’s defensive coordinator, simply call “the process”. With a 9-4 mark capped off by a hard fought win over an extremely talented Clemson squad on New Year’s Day, Husker Nation now believes in “the process” as well. But make no mistake, Pelini doesn’t consider his program to be any where near where it should be, at least not yet. So the goal for 2009 is a simple one; keep moving forward.
Graduation will make moving forward in ’09 a challenge. NU was hit the hardest on the offensive side of the ball, most notably at QB, with the departure of senior Joe Ganz. Also leaving were wide-outs Todd Peterson and Nate Swift, running back Marlon Lucky and veteran linemen Matt Slauson , Lydon Murtha and Mike Huff. To understand how big of a hole this leaves for Shawn Watson’s offense this coming season, consider this: Swift is NU’s all-time - yes ever - leading receiver, while Peterson ranks a mere 5th, again, ever. Swift also finished ’08 ranked 17th nationally in punt returns. Joe Ganz ranks third in all-time passing, while Lucky is number four in all-purpose yards in the school’s history. Pretty heady stuff when you consider these three have eclipsed the likes of Johnny Rogers, Tommy Frazier and Irving Fryar on various all-time lists at Nebraska. One Heisman and two runner-ups in that trio.
On Defense, the Black shirts lose Ty Steikuhler and Zac Potter off the line, LBs Tyler Wortman and Cody Green along with CB Armando Murillo. Ganz, Potter, Steinkuhler and Swift were the Cornhusker’s captains of last year‘s team.
What ever will Bo do?
A Sea of Red (shirts).
In a nearly unprecedented move Coach Pelini and his staff red-shirted over 50 scholarship and walk-on players from the ‘08 class. A tough move considering how thin Nebraska was all over the board in Pelini’s first year, but a move that in the end was something of a no-brainer. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini explained, “we hadn’t had enough time to spend with the older guys to know which of those guys could have helped us anyway. So in that regard, it wasn’t difficult. It was scary. Because, truthfully, we were thin all year. We didn’t have a lot of depth anywhere on defense.”. So what did Nebraska gain with the gamble? According to linebacker coach Mike Ekeler: “It’s fantastic, the year of experience that those guys got, they’re getting stronger. (Strength coach) James Dobson’s doing just a great job with them. Alonzo Whaley looks like a new guy since he’s got here. Dobson’s just creating a monster there. Same with Will (Wil Compton). He’s got them a lot looser in the hips and Fish (Sean Fisher) is up to 230 pounds right now and can run like a deer.”
No starting spot is guaranteed, so when you couple this bumper crop of red shirts with the handful of returning starters, add into the mix those who saw playing time last year in back-up roles, and who proved they have the potential, you wind up with a competition this spring that should keep the momentum moving forward.
Coming into 09 this was one of the positions that seemed fairly sewn up; sophomore Patrick Witt seemed to have the keys to the castle, having only to beat out junior Zac Lee in spring ball. Funny thing happened on the way to spring ball though; Patrick and his father decided that the QB competition in the spring should be to see who would be his back-up, and requested from the coaching staff that he be named the starter - prior to the spring game - or he would like to be released from his scholarship. Neither happened, so he quit. This pretty much guarantees that Lee will be NU’s starting QB, as the only other legitimate QB currently on campus is Texas high school phenom Cody Green. Green in all likelihood has the potential to re-write the record books at Nebraska. This kid is the real deal. He is, however, a true freshman (not a red shirt) and has a long way to go before he settles in as the number one guy. So look for Lee this fall. One side note to the QB non-controversy; one of college football’s most sought after free agents, former Miami QB Robert Marve says he has narrowed his choices down to six schools, Nebraska being one of the front runners… stay tuned.
Ndamukong Suh was, and still is, the spirit of the re-born black shirts. Forgoing the money of the NFL for one more season the consensus all Big 12 tackle chose to stay in Lincoln for his senior year. He will anchor a defensive line that entered into the ’08 campaign as a question mark, and ended the season as a sledge hammer of an exclamation point, holding an explosive Clemson running attack to 4 total yards rushing in the season finale. In ’09 Suh will be toeing the line without Potter and Steinkuhler (Ty) but will be aided by the aforementioned red shirt class - most of whom play on the defensive side of the ball - and the younger but much larger Baker Steinkuhler. Look for the front seven to be the rock Coach Pelini builds his D around. ‘09 will see the re-emergence of a tough, physical, ‘die with your boots on’ mentality that was the hallmark of NU’s defenses through the ‘90s. All other question marks aside, the black shirts will be the strength of the ‘09 Huskers.
And Yes, a Kicker
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention junior Alex Henery, place kicker. Henery went 18-21 in field goals and hit 56 of 57 PAT attempts. His field goals included a jaw-dropping 57 yarder to take the lead with 1:37 in the fourth quarter against Colorado. Alex could very well be the difference maker in the close ones in ‘09. He has been in the past.
When looking at the upcoming season the Cornhuskers have some of their toughest games on the road: Va Tech, Missouri and Baylor - yes Baylor. They will prove in ‘09 that they are no longer the gimme of the Big 12. Prior to those two Big 12 match-ups the Big Red will have to travel to Blacksburg to take on Va. Tech on Sept. 19th for their third game. This will not be a make or break game for Pelini‘s Huskers, it will however be a good yard stick to see where the ‘09 team is. Assuming that NU gets a win from the Hokies, and I think they will, I look for a 4-0 Nebraska team to roll into Columbia and beat a Missouri team who has lost as much to graduation as Nebraska did, but doesn’t have the same ammo to reload with. I think this game could quite possibly decide the North. Nebraska also faces Oklahoma and Texas Tech at home and Kansas - another potential North Champion - on the road late in the season, so nothing will be given to them.
Interestingly we could quite probably see Nebraska and Oklahoma play each other twice this year, once for a regularly scheduled game on Nov. 7th and again in the Big 12 Championship game. Will NU come out as Big 12 Champs? I would guess probably not, but then again, it’s a funny game with a really odd shaped ball, so who knows where it will bounce. I do however think the Huskers will be good for 10 wins and find themselves in another marquee bowl match-up…and moving forward.
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