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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Nebraska's Position Breakdowns and DXP Expectations: QB, RB, WR, TE

With the spring game looming, it's a good time to pawn off a few lot of thoughts about the upcoming position battles. I'll try and hit as many impact players as I can at each position and make it down the roster all the way to Alex Henery by next Saturday.


With Patrick Witt's departure paving the way for Zac Lee, the Huskers have but one remaining QB on the roster with any game experience. Zac Lee's (6'2, 210 lbs.) career stats: 1/2 for 5 yards and 2 rushes for 17 yards. Lee has been on campus since January '07 and for that reason, knows Watson's offense well. He has a cannon for arm to go along with considerable quickness - according to his coaches.

Injury or not, it was a great decision for freshman QB Cody Green to arrive on campus in January in time for spring ball. I think Zac Lee and Kody Spano will be the first to tell you that you aren't going to pick up this offense up in a month and expect to play early next fall. Green (6'4, 220 lbs.) is tall, rangy, and quick with an awkward delivery - see here. To the naked eye, you can't help but think of a poor man's version of Terrelle Pryor, which isn't a bad thing.

The one thing that Kody Spano will always be able to claim is that he was Bo Pelini's first QB recruit. However, you can't argue that he will more than likely be the forgotten one in this Qb mix. Spano's problem isn't his athletic ability nor his improving arm strength and accuracy, but rather his spot on the roster. Spano is in a tough spot between a player with two years of experience and similar skills and a heralded freshman that will get his chance sooner than later.

When you thought it couldn't be any tougher for Spano to vie for playing time next fall, enter former linebacker LaTravis Washington (6'3, 225 lbs) - who steps in because of Witt's departure. Washington was primarily an option QB in high school who used his size and speed to dominate lesser high school players. Although he passed the ball in high school only a few times a game (ala Eric Crouch), Washington has been said to be throwing the ball so hard this spring that receivers are complaining that he is literally breaking their fingers. Regardless, Washington's move to QB is both baffling and intriguing to me at the same time. The one thing it does tell me, however, is that there isn't a whole lot of room for playing time at linebacker this season with the dynamic offenses we will see.

Final Thoughts
You're not going to get an argument from anyone that this is the most important position battle to come out of this spring. Therefore, for the good of the team, we need to see Zac Lee emerge as the clear #1 heading into fall camp. If Zac Lee can't emerge as the guy to beat, we have a problem. I like Spano, but he's a #2 or #3 guy at this level - at best. And surely, if I'm not comfortable with Spano, I'm less comfortable with Washington who hasn't played Qb on a competitive level since high school. That leaves Green. Green's injury surely set him back, but thankfully it's not serious enough to hinder his learning curve. Terrelle Pryor took the starting Qb job from the veteran and accomplished Todd Boeckmann in a little less than a month into the season and he didn't arrive on campus until fall. We have to hope Green is what he's said to be. If that's the case, let Lee start the season and give Green intermittent playing time as the #2 guy regardless of the situation early on. If he is better, he'll show it on the field. And if he looks AS GOOD AS if not better than Lee, then Cody Green should be the guy come start of Big XII play.

Running Back

Roy Helu Jr. rushed for 803 yards and 6.4 ypc last season and clearly became the best we had. This spring, Helu has powered up to 222 lbs. from last year's 205 lbs. and I'm not going to lie to you, this has me a bit worried. They say he is stronger and faster than ever. I surely hope so, but as DXP reader GFW pointed out, he has the summer to take it off if need be. Ahman Green's increase in weight over the summer between his freshman and sophomore year got him nothing besides less elusiveness, a turf-toe injury, and his worst season as a Husker. Let's hope what they say about Helu's improvement holds true.

Quentin Castille's breakout game as a Husker came at just the right time as he was the reason we beat Clemson in the Gator Bowl. His 125 yards and 6.9 ypc performance against an extremely quick defense showcased how effective he can be. However, like Helu, Castille hit up the team dietician during the offseason. Castille is at 235 lbs., which is 15 less than his freshman year, and it has me a bit worried. The difficulty Castille presented to defenders a year ago was his combination of power and speed - ask Clemson how hard it was to tackle him. Let's hope Castille still has the power to run through tacklers.

I'm a big fan of Marcus Mendoza (5'10, 185 lbs.) and I hope he will have a great spring game - again. Mendoza has been between the running back and wide receiver spots during spring ball, but I really would like to see Mendoza primarily at running back - even though he isn't an every down back. Mendoza accumulated stats in only 4 games last season with the most notable one being against Kansas State. Mendoza had a Helu-like 6.9 ypc, but that was also against lesser competition. I love his quickness and the ability to dodge tacklers and I hope we get to see more of what he can do this fall. R-Fr. Collins Okafor (6'1, 225 lbs.) and R-Fr. Lester Ward (6'3, 215 lbs.) will likely see quite a bit of action in the spring game and I really haven't heard much at all about their progress so I'll be anxious to see. Based on the way Pelini handled things last year, I expect him to redshirt Rex Burkhead (5'11, 200 lbs.) when he arrives on campus - that is if he doesn't excel as a slot receiver in Watson's spread offense - or whatever he expects us to call it. Jr. Justin Mackovicka (6'1, 235 lbs.) and Fr. CJ Zimmerer should see whatever playing time the offense calls for at the fullback position and hopefully one of them can emerge as a goaline back so I don't have to cringe everytime Ndamukong Suh trots on the field and risks a senseless injury.

Final Thoughts
Expectations are extremely high for this group. In fact, Husker fans are already talking Heisman for Helu in the future. Uh, no. However, I do expect a 1,500 yard season from Helu, and I do expect Castille to be as productive as Helu when he hits the field. These fluctuations in weight have me worried a tad - Helu more than Castille - and I hope it's all for naught. Expect great things from Mendoza (3rd down back?) as he will be a nice change of pace with his agility and bursts of speed against some of the quicker defenses -Va. Tech and Oklahoma to name a few - provided he is at the running back spot. As for the rest of the group, there's always 2011.

Wide Receivers

It's easy to assume that Menelik Holt and Niles Paul are going to step in and replace the Swift and Peterson. Holt had 30 receptions for 355 yards and Paul had 23 receptions for 214 yards a season ago. However, it's safe to say that both players have hardly lived up to their lofty expectations. Although I can't pinpoint why, I get the feeling that neither of these receivers has "it." Both seem to suffer from a case of the dropsies and both seem lost on the field at times. However, the potential and the opportunity is definitely there for one, if not both of these guys to produce big on the field this season.

Then there's the highly touted Chris Brooks, who is already a senior. Last season, Brooks was able to haul in 2 passes for 27 yards. I don't think anyone could possibly tell you for sure where Brooks' career all went wrong, but it did. Whether he can finally live up to some of his potential or not, I still wouldn't count on Brooks for much at all this season.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise to everyone this spring is none other than true freshman Antonio Bell , who took a detour to Lincoln a year ago because of academics. Bell has good size at 6'2, 180 lbs., but it's his speed and playmaking ability that have coaches impressed. The most promising thing about Bell came from Watson. "He's a big surprise. I mean, we knew he was fast, but we didn't know he was this fast. Not only that, he's instinctual. He's a natural at the position. Natural route runner. Good ball catcher. Physical player. He just needs to grow in our offense." The most damning thing said about Bell came from Niles Paul. "I'm liking Antonio Bell a lot. He reminds me of a Frantz Hardy. We all say that. He looks like him and he runs like him, too. He's fast." Easy there Niles.

Another pleasant surprise coming from this spring is the emergence of big Will Henry (6'5, 215 lbs.) Henry will be a junior this season and I'm quite surprised we haven't seen or heard much about him the past few seasons. According to Ted Gilmore, Henry is more than earning his shot at significant playing time and "was practicing as well as any NU wideout" at the end of last season.

Curenski Gilleylen (6'0, 210 lbs.) is entering his sophomore season with only 2 receptions but will be asked to play a much larger role this season. In high school, Gilleylen clocked in at 10.22 in the 100 meter dash. Now that we have a quarterback who can throw the ball longer than 20 yards down the field, expect the coaches to utilize Gilleylen's blazing speed more effectively this season.

Don't sleep on incoming juco star Brandon Kinnie (6'3, 218 lbs., 4.37) who will be a sophomore when he finally gets to Lincoln this summer. Kinnie was a big play receiver in junior college and was recruited by several BCS schools, but the late start will surely hurt his chances at significant playing time as would anyone just stepping into this offensive scheme on such short notice. R-Fr. Khiry Cooper (6'2, 180 lbs.) is currently part of the spiraling out of control Nebraska baseball program and won't be with the team until the end of the season - which should come sooner than later. Cooper should have a decent grasp on the offense by now, and if all goes well, should get his chance early.

Final Thoughts
There is no bigger question mark anywhere on the field for the 2009 Huskers than at wide receiver. Gone are Nate Swift, Todd Peterson, and running back Marlon Lucky, who all combined for over 55% of the total receiving yards from last season. Clearly, Paul and Holt are going to get the first opportunity to step in and both have every opportunity in the world to achieve great things this fall. Spring football is always a great time for players to understand and step into their roles and hopefully these two will. Expect Brooks to be Brooks - whatever that is. All eyes will be on Bell and Henry at the spring game as many, many great things have been said from both coaches and teammates alike. Gilleylen should be a great situation receiver as he poses Nebraska's best deep threat now that we have a Qb who can deliver him the ball 50 yards down field (yes, I said it again and I'll say it over and over again this fall). Kinnie and Cooper will surely have some catching up to do. Athletically, this group is far beyond anything we've had in a long, long time. Unfortunately, experience isn't something you can teach and if I was any of these 8 aforementioned receivers, I'd feel like I'd have a real chance to be great next season.

Tight Ends

I'll admit that Mike McNeill had me worried at the beginning of last season with his countless penalties and faulty routes. However, as the season progressed McNeill stepped up as a more than capable receiver with 32 receptions for 442 yards and 6 TDs. I fully expect even greater things from McNeill as he is the most accomplished returning receiver on the team. When watching McNeill, I can't help think of former Husker Matt Herian in his prime.

Jr. Dreu Young had 9 receptions last season and showed some real potential. He's not the quickest guy on the team by any means, but he has good size at 6'4, 250 lbs. and should play a larger role this season. Also possessing great size is So. Ryan Hill, who will be relied upon for his blocking abilities. R-Fr. Ben Cotton, son of Barney, was highly recruited and should be mentioned here as a candidate for early playing time as he stands 6'6 and is said to have great hands, which could make him the best receiving option outside McNeill.

Final Thoughts
No doubt this is going to be a strong spot this fall for the Huskers. McNeill poses the best receiving option of the group and should be poised for a big year. Young and Hill's blocking abilities will help the running game immensely and both have the tools to be relied upon at times in the passing game if needed.