March 20, 2010

Defensive tackles ready for life after Suh

SPRING PREVIEWS: QB l RB I WR I TE is priming its subscribers for Nebraska's 2010 spring practice with a daily countdown of coverage.

Each day, will break down a different position and focus on what needs to be accomplished at that position over spring practice. We will also talk about other faces to watch at each position.

In addition, each day we'll feature one key veteran and one rising underclassman at all positions until spring practice gets underway. Today, we take a look at the defensive tackle position.

Defensive tackle
The contenders

The position coach:
Carl Pelini, third year at Nebraska

The frontrunner: Jared Crick

Class: Junior

Size: 6-6, 285

Early take: No player in college football has bigger shoes to fill than junior Jared Crick. His task this season is to try and make Nebraska get over the loss of all-everything defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who will likely be a top-3 NFL Draft pick next month.

The good news is that Crick flourished playing along side Suh, and learned as much as he possibly could from him along the way. To his credit, Crick's numbers last year got somewhat overshadowed because of Suh, as he ended the season with 70 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks - all second on the team next to Suh.

Crick will no longer have the luxury of getting primarily one-on-one blocking assignments, but with the gains he made over the course of one year as a sophomore, there's no telling just how good he could be this season.

The frontrunner: Baker Steinkuhler

Class: Sophomore

Size: 6-6, 290

Early take: After grooming his skills the past two years under coaches Bo and Carl Pelini, Baker Steinkuhler finally appears ready to display some of the potential many predicted for him coming in as a true freshman.

Steinkuhler played in 13 games last season, but he will be given every opportunity to establish himself as a full-time starter along side Crick. There was a reason he was billed as the highlight of the Huskers' 2008 recruiting class, and the odds are he won't disappoint.

In many ways, Steinkuhler resembles Crick in the way he blends his considerable size with good quickness and technique. Just like older brother Ty excelled in the Pelinis' system, Baker could be on his way to a long and successful career.

The challenger: Terrence Moore

Class: Junior

Size: 6-3, 285

Early take: Word around Nebraska camp is that junior Terrence Moore has had about as good of an offseason as anyone so far. Moore has steadily come into his own the past couple years, but this season will be his first chance to see some significant playing time.

If he can continue to progress this spring and summer the way he has reportedly done so far, there's no reason to believe Moore won't have as good of a chance as anyone to see the field or earn a starting role.

The challenger: Thaddeus Randle

Class: Redshirt freshman

Size: 6-1, 260

Early take: With a redshirt year under his belt, Thaddeus Randle comes into the spring as a player who could surprise some people. Though he's a bit undersized compared to his fellow defensive tackles, Randle makes up for it as a tenacious pass rusher with deceiving strength.

That could make him a nice option in third-and-long situations when the Huskers are looking to speed up their pass rush. However, it's not as if he can't play the run as well, as he racked up 70 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss as a senior at North Shore (Texas) High School two years ago.

Other contenders: Sophomore Justin Jackson and freshmen Chase Rome and Jay Guy.

Early take: Justin Jackson was on his way to potentially becoming a surprise addition to Nebraska's defensive tackle mix, but a shoulder injury last spring essentially shelved him for the season. This year, he'll be hoping to pick up where he left off a year ago.

Freshmen Chase Rome and Jay Guy both come in as highly touted prospects, but as has been shown in the past, the Pelinis prefer to make their players learn the system and their techniques for at least a year before putting them onto the field.

Spring prospectus: It's hard to imagine a position could actually be better the year after losing one of the great players of a generation, but that just might be the case for Nebraska's defensive tackles. Crick is well on his way to being NU's next All-American at the position, and the Huskers boast some promising young talent eager to show what it can do. That fight for playing time will only make everyone that much better.

What does the future hold?: While Crick has already proven himself, I'm excited to see what Steinkuhler can do now that he's been handed the keys to take over a starting job. He's been a player who has generated a lot of interest the past two years, and this could be the year where he starts to emerge as possibly the best Steinkuhler yet. Needless to say, along with Moore the rest of the young players behind them, NU's front four is once again looking like a major strength of the defense.

Key veteran
Roy Helu

Position: Running back

Class: Senior

Size: 6-0, 215

The skinny: Despite playing through injuries for most of last season, Roy Helu still managed to rush for more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns. Had he been able to stay healthy, there's no telling the numbers Helu could have put up, as he was the focal point for the offense in many games while the passing game struggled to find its rhythm until late in the year.

The final word: With guys like sophomores Rex Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson there to help shoulder the load, Helu should be able to stay fresher and healthier this season and provide more of the explosive running he showed during his breakout sophomore year. His carries might go down just a bit, but his impact should be much bigger and more consistent as a result.

Rising underclassmen
Taylor Martinez

Position: Quarterback

Class: Redshirt freshman

Size: 6-1, 185

The skinny: Though he has yet to take a single live collegiate snap, few players are coming into this spring with more excitement surrounding them than Taylor Martinez. Because of his impressive play on Nebraska's scout team, Martinez comes into spring practice as a dark horse to potentially compete for some snaps this season, if not steal the starting job.

The final word: It will take a pretty amazing offseason for Martinez to beat out senior Zac Lee and sophomore Cody Green for the starting quarterback spot, but this spring could be a perfect chance for him to make some big gains in that direction with Lee sitting out of spring ball. If nothing else, he could put himself in prime position to win the No. 2 job going into fall camp.

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