Mar 22

Nebraska Cornhuskers Spring Report

Posted By:Josh Morse - Kearney, NE  Tags:

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Quarterbacks
Who's No. 1? Patrick Witt and Zac Lee, evenly matched contenders for the starting job, were supposed to extend the team's most important position battle into fall camp. But Witt's February decision to transfer settled the debate before pads could be strapped on. All of a sudden, the unquestioned frontrunner is Lee, who will be a junior. He gained nearly all of his on-field collegiate experience in 2006 at San Francisco City College.

Call for backup: Early arriving freshman Cody Green possesses the physical tools to be a playmaker. But his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame won't help him much when he's trying to learn the playbook. That's where the edge goes to scout-team QB Kody Spano, who arrived for last year's spring practices.

Who's out/in: Team MVP Joe Ganz took advantage of his final opportunity, setting school season records in passing yards, completions and total offense. And his primary backup, Witt, is gone. If anything, it gives Green, the touted dual-threat quarterback who enrolled in January, extra reps and a better chance to make an early impact.

Spring things: Creating game-like situations will likely be a focal point for the coaches, who'll be working with an inexperienced group. Lee's the only Husker quarterback with Division I playing time, and even his appearances were minimal. Lee completed one pass last season.

Running Backs
Who's No. 1? Even though the coaches emphasized the importance of sticking with a multi-back system in 2008, Roy Helu eventually emerged as the most dangerous weapon. During the final four regular-season games, Helu recorded more than half of his total carries for the year and about two-thirds of his rushing yards. Justin Makovicka is likely the primary fullback, following the path of brothers Jeff and Joel.

Call for backup: Nebraska found its No. 2 I-back in the Gator Bowl when Helu was sidelined with a knee injury. Quentin Castille ran for 125 yards on 18 carries against a strong Clemson defense, displaying an appropriate mix of bullish power and breakaway speed. At fullback, if Makovicka slips up, the offensive coaches could always call defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh over. He wasn't criticized for his work as a short-yardage blocker last year.

Who's out/in: NU will miss the pass-catching and big-play ability of the agile Marlon Lucky, but his departure will provide speedster Marcus Mendoza with more opportunities. Mendoza, who played at the end of blowouts last year, has the quickness to spread defenses out. Omaha Westside product Collins Okafor redshirted last year.

Spring things: Castille has fumbled eight times in two years, though he may have corrected the bothersome problem. Heading into the fall, he owns a streak of 44 touches without a fumble.

Wide Receivers
Who's No. 1? Senior Menelik Holt missed nearly four games with a knee injury but still managed to end up as the team's fourth-leading receiver with 30 catches. He prides himself on bringing a physical presence to the position, rarely shying away from over-the-middle contact. Niles Paul, who had a reception in all but two games in 2008, also should start.

Call for backup: Holt and Paul are the early favorites, but there are plenty of receivers who'll be fighting for more playing time. Chris Brooks, Curenski Gilleylen, Will Henry and Wes Cammack saw glimpses of action last year, though none had more than two catches.

Who's out/in: Nate Swift, the program's all-time leading receiver, and Todd Peterson, a sure-handed veteran, will be missed. Tim Marlowe and Steven Osborne were impressive during redshirt years. Academic complications kept Antonio Bell from joining the program until January, but the 6-foot-2, 180-pound receiver is poised to help.

Spring things: Khiry Cooper, the freshman who sat out 2008 as a redshirt, is playing baseball this spring. ... Nebraska wide receivers combined for 16 of the team's 27 touchdown receptions last year. Swift and Peterson had 14 of those. ... Cammack has caught Zac Lee's only completion - a 5-yard play on fourth down in the final minutes of a 38-7 win against New Mexico State.

Tight Ends
Who's No. 1? After an explosive sophomore year, Mike McNeill enters spring practice as the top tight end. The junior set the NU season reception record for a tight end, catching 32 passes in 2008. He also had six touchdown receptions. McNeill ran deceptive routes and used his quickness to separate from linebackers and safeties, making him a match-up problem for most defenses.

Call for backup: Dreu Young turned out to be a valuable secondary option behind McNeill. He caught nine passes and averaged 15.6 yards per reception, NU's highest receiving average. Also returning is Ryan Hill.

Who's out/in: Hunter Teafatiller contributed more at fullback and on special teams than at tight end during his final season. He caught three passes but played in all 12 games. Nebraska also confirmed in January that Tyson Hetzer left the program. But coaches and teammates spent all fall complimenting two redshirts - Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton.

Spring things: Tight ends coach Ron Brown, now in his second year with this group, will continue to emphasize run and pass-blocking techniques first, an aspect of the position that's sometimes underappreciated. ... With two years to go, McNeill looks on pace to break Matt Herian's career TE reception record (65 catches). McNeill, at 33, is already halfway there.

Linemen
Who's No. 1? It's wide open on the right side of the line, where Nebraska will need a guard and a tackle to replace seniors Matt Slauson and Lydon Murtha. Marcel Jones and Jaivorio Burkes could trade reps all spring at right tackle, while junior college transfer Ricky Henry may be the leading candidate at right guard. Center Jacob Hickman, guard Keith Williams and tackle Mike Smith were starters last season.

Call for backup: All spring at right guard, Andy Christensen and D.J. Jones will battle for playing time with Henry, a tenacious junior who redshirted last season. Although undersized, Mike Caputo spent all season backing up Hickman. Kansas State transfer Derek Meyer, the co-MVP of the offense's scout team, will provide depth.

Who's out/in: Slauson and Murtha, potential NFL draft picks, combined for 58 starts. Veteran Mike Huff also graduated. But the departures may be enough to motivate Cruz Barrett, a junior whose contributions have been minimal. Brandon Thompson is one of several freshmen coming off a redshirt year.

Spring things: Christensen is awaiting word from the NCAA on whether he'll be granted a sixth year of eligibility. He suffered a shoulder injury during fall camp as a redshirt freshman and didn't play in 2005. ... Of the returning linemen, Hickman and Smith are the only ones with more than 10 career starts.

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