"We made a couple switches, and we may switch a couple more things before spring gets out,'' offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. "To be honest with you, I think you evaluate this thing up front until you get about a week before that first game.'' He's not kidding. On the defensive side, let's just say we're thinly loaded.
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Left Tackle: Jr. Mike Smith (6'6, 285 lbs.) has the position locked down heading into the fall. Smith started every game in 2008, but that doesn't mean that he didn't have his moments. To say that Clemson's DaQuan Bowers exposed Smith badly in the Gator Bowl might be the understatement of the year. However, with one full year as a starter behind him, I expect Smith to have two great years ahead.
Left Guard: Jr. Keith Williams (6'5, 305 lbs.) was a regular last season at the guard and from all accounts has a firm hold on the starting role here. Jr. Cruz Barret (6'4 310 lbs.) should be the likely back-up to Williams here on the left side.
Center: The emergence of (former walk-on) So. Mike Caputo (6'1, 275 lbs.) this spring as one of the top five lineman - according to Barney Cotton - has pushed Jacob Hickman to right guard and Hickman into the starting center position - for now. According to Cotton and Hickman, no player on the team has worked harder than Caputo during the offseason. And here's what Hickman had to say about the change, “He told me beforehand, ‘Hey, we’re just going to check this out for a couple of days, see how it goes. If it’s good, we’ll stick with it, if not, then we’ll go back. '
Right Guard: As just mentioned, Sr. Jacob Hickman (6'4, 290 lbs.) has moved to the right guard. Hickman should be fine with the move since he played the left side in 2007 and is a quick study. R-Jr. Ricky Henry (6' 4, 305 lbs.) was redshirted last season as the coaches wanted more time to develop him. Henry is one of the harder workers on the team and possesses a mean streak that makes him a nightmare to line up against in practice. D.J. Jones (6'5, 305 lbs.) remains practicing at right guard, but there are rumors that he might be on the move to left tackle.
Right Tackle: R-So. Marcel Jones (6'7, 310 lbs.) steps in to replace Lydon Murtha. Jones' size and athletic ability are a huge plus, and his work in the spring has solidified him as the starter here. With three years of eligibility left, I expect great things from Jones. Likely backing up Jones will be Kansas State transfer and Sr. Derek Meyer (6'5, 300 lbs.). Meyer sat out the 2008 season and had limited time on the field with the Wildcats due to injury. Jr. Jaivorio Burkes (6' 5 325 lbs) is one of the more talented lineman we have, but his health issues (blood pressure) have hindered him significantly. If healthy, Burkes could contend for playing time here but there has been little talk about him this spring.
Nebraska's offensive line is a young, talented group. Gone are Lydon Murtha and Matt Slauson on the right side of the ball and their 55 combined starts the last three years. Marcel Jones and Hickman should be able to fill their big shoes. Hickman's move to the right guard spot comes as a surprise, as this is now his third position move in three years. The LJS claims that Shawn Watson voiced his concern over the right guard position sometime last week. Regardless, Hickman - the undisputed leader of this group - is an intelligent and gifted player and will adjust fine if they decide to keep him there. Should DJ Jones move to a back-up role at left tackle he would simply be the victim of the domino effect Mike Caputo has created. With Burkes' health as a concern, I expect Derek Meyer to see time early at either tackle position. I truly have no idea about Sr. guard Andy Christensen, who was granted a surprising sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA in early March. All in all, give a big hat tip to offensive line guru Bill Callahan for keeping the cupboard full. What's even more encouraging here is that this is going to be your offensive line for the 2010 season minus Hickman.
Defensive Tackle: Expectations couldn't be higher for Sr. Ndamukong Suh. Suh's 76 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 2 INTs for touchdowns in 2008 are astronomical numbers for a defensive tackle, especially when you see nothing but double teams. Whether Suh can reach those numbers this season will depend heavily on who gets the duty of lining up next to him. It appears So. Jared Crick (6'6, 285 lbs.), who saw time in nine games last fall, will get the first chance. His main competition for the starting job will come from fellow So. Terrence Moore (6'3, 275 lbs.), who appeared in seven games last fall and is the more athletic of the two. But, don't sleep on R-Fr. Baker Steinkuhler (6'6, 290 lbs.), who was the prize recruit of the 2008 recruiting class and has had a year to ready himself.
Defensive End: Jr. Pierre Allen (6'5, 265 lbs.) and Sr. Barry Turner (6'3, 265 lbs.) will be the undisputed starters come fall camp. All that Pierre Allen did in replacing an injured Turner in the second game of the season last year was go on to record 52 tackles (21 solo) with 10 tackles for a loss and 5 sacks. Although Turner is still making his way back to his pre-injury form, expect him to be his old self by fall. Said Pelini, "it takes time to get your football legs back underneath you, and he is slowly but surely. He's done a lot of good things, but he doesn't feel quite like himself and that's to be expected. It takes a little time." Now, herein lies the problem - depth. R-Fr. Josh Williams and R-Fr. Cameron Meredith are going to be the likely back-ups. Williams and Meredith were both very highly touted out of high school and both have the physical tools to be all-conference someday. However, with only one year in the program and zero previous game experience, it's hard to know if they're prepared for the Big XII. Regardless, they will get playing time this fall if they're ready or not and the spring game is a great place for them to showcase what they have. Sr. David Harvey (6'4, 275 lbs.) moves over from the tackle position to provide some depth to this group.
Suh's decision to return to school (smart one) certainly didn't make everyone happy in the Big XII. Despite finishing the season with 76 tackles - 20 higher than the next defensive lineman in the conference - the Big XII coaches voted him Second-Team All-Big XII. Subsequently, Suh was left off of the 2009 Lombardi preseason watch list. I'm not sure Suh needed any more motivation, but he's got some. His presence will command double teams from opposing teams which should allow Allen and Turner to run wild on the ends. With Turner receiving his medical redshirt, it suddenly gives him an unexpected chance to line-up opposite of Allen, who he has mentored since he stepped on campus. Said Allen about Turner, "it feels really good to have him back. I mean, that's my right-hand man. He took me in when I was a freshman and getting an opportunity to play alongside him this year is going to be great. He's going to be a good senior leader for us this year." Hopefully, Allen and Turner will feed off each others energy much the same way Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter did. And regardless of who fills in that final spot next to Suh, this is without doubt the strongest unit of a defense that finished 2nd in the Big XII in total defense a year ago (7 yards/game behind Texas). The only thing that can possibly derail a stellar season is injury, so cheers to good health.