October 4, 2010

Monday notebook: Lee taking it all in stride

Zac Lee could have easily given up.

Upon finally learning that he had lost his job as Nebraska's starting quarterback to a redshirt freshman and also been demoted to third string at the end of fall camp, the senior could have turned his jersey and taken his talents somewhere he could actually see the field in his final year of collegiate eligibility.

Lee could have given up, and no one would have blamed him. That is, except for himself.

Though the past two months have been some of the most stressful of his football life, Lee has somehow been able to take one of the most surprising demotions in recent Husker memory completely in stride.

Instead of resenting his coaches for naming Taylor Martinez the starter less than a year after he helped lead NU to a Holiday Bowl victory, Lee has rolled with the punches and maintained as positive of an attitude as could be expected.

"I'm preparing the same way that I did before," Lee said while speaking to media for the just the second time since the start of fall camp. "You've got to be ready. I mean, it's football. Life is about 20 percent of what actually happens to you and 80 percent how you react to it. I'm just trying to do the best I can, improve myself and just be there for my teammates.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said he couldn't be happier with the way Lee has handled himself throughout the process, saying Lee's attitude has been a wonderful example of commitment and unselfishness to his younger teammates.

In fact, Watson said Lee has progressed into a much better player this fall from he was a year ago despite missing all of spring practice after undergoing surgery on his throwing arm.

Though Lee has only played seven snaps of mop-up duty in the opener against Western Kentucky, completing 3-of-4 passes for 45 yards and rushing three times for 21 yards, Watson said he wouldn't hesitate to turn the offense over to Lee if the situation called for it.

"We just told him really the options are you can become a negative and you can really let it hurt you and let it really take away from your senior season, or you can be ready and be a positive force on the team," Watson said. "He's been an unbelievable leader. I'm telling you, he's been great. If the opportunity comes where we need Zac, he's going to walk in and do a great job."

Lee reflected on his decision to have surgery on his arm in the spring and what it may have done to his chances to reclaiming his starting job, saying the reps he missed during spring ball definitely put him behind the other two quarterbacks coming into fall camp.

Still, Lee said he takes pride in helping Martinez and sophomore Cody Green develop both in practice and in games. However, he's still preparing himself as if he's going to start each week, just in case the opportunity presents itself.

"Being a quarterback isn't necessarily always being the front man," he said. "You're a quarterback on a team, being a senior on a team, it all kind of goes together where you just have to be a good teammate, you have to work as hard as you can and still got to lead and show the young guys how it's done."

Few players in Lee's situation would have handled such a demotion as well as he has thus far, a characteristic Watson described as "unbelievable."

While this definitely wasn't what Lee had planned for his senior season, he's been able to keep it all in perspective and not let his misfortune get the best of him. After all, he's well aware that there is much more to life than just football.

"After going through last year and now this, I don't think there's any situation - I could walk into a (job) interview and know nothing is going to happen in this business that's going to be necessarily as bad as anything I've experienced," Lee said.

"I imagine in this time I'll learn a lot about myself and that I can persevere through a lot. There's never any reason to give up. You just have to keep moving forward."

- Robin Washut

Monday practice takes
NU loving ESPN: Thursday's Big 12 Conference opener against Kansas State will be nationally televised on ESPN, and if past history holds true, that is very good news for Nebraska. Of the five Thursday night ESPN broadcasts the Huskers have played in, they are a perfect 5-0 since their first Thursday night appearance in 1992 against Oklahoma State. Not only that, all five of the games were played on the road, including last year's 27-12 win over Missouri. Nebraska's other wins came at Texas Tech (1993), again at Oklahoma State (1995) and at Southern Miss (2003). Overall, the Huskers are 29-8-1 in ESPN games, with the most recent being last year's Holiday Bowl win over Arizona.

Tough road to Big 12 title: Though Nebraska was pretty much the unanimous pick to win the Big 12 North Division and play for the conference championship heading into this season, it's looking more and more like the road to Dallas might be a bit tougher than originally expected. Starting with Thursday's showdown with the 4-0 Wildcats, the Huskers will also have to go through No. 24 Missouri, also boasting a perfect 4-0 record, and a Colorado team that's rebounded from an early loss to Cal with a 3-1 start.

Injury report: Head coach Bo Pelini said junior offensive tackle Marcel Jones (back) returned to practice on Saturday, and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said he expects Jones to see is first action of the season on Thursday. Pelini also said sophomore linebacker Will Compton (foot) was ahead of schedule in his recovery and started doing "weight-bearing" exercises this past week.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced in full pads inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Monday. With the short week, the Huskers will hold their final full practice on Tuesday and a brief walk-thru on Wednesday before heading down to Manhattan, Kan., on Thursday.

KSU will take some shots downfield

While running back Daniel Thomas may get all the attention when talking about Kansas State's offense, the Wildcats are definitely not afraid to test defenses with a few deep passes here and there as well.

After watching film of KSU this past week, Nebraska's defense is well aware that Thomas is far from the only weapon they'll need to worry about on Thursday night.

"They don't throw as much as they did back before they got Bill Snyder (back), but when they throw, they're throwing deep and trying to make the long balls count," senior safety DeJon Gomes said. "We just have to be awake at all times."

In particular, Gomes said the Wildcats like to use Thomas to lure defenses up to the line of scrimmage and then take shots downfield via the play-action pass. Of KSU quarterback Carson Coffman's five touchdown passes this season, three were of at least 23 yards, and he also had another 73-yard bomb that set up another touchdown.

"That benefits them a lot, having a good running back to open up the play-action pass," Gomes said, "but as long as you read your keys then everything should be OK."

Head coach Bo Pelini said he expects Kansas State to break out a few new wrinkles on Thursday that it hasn't shown yet this season. As a result, he said the Huskers would have to be prepared for everything and not solely focused on shutting down Thomas.

"I expect to see something different than we've seen," Pelini said. "Like every week, we'll just need to adjust. You can't panic in a situation like that. You see what they're doing, you kind of get an idea of how they're trying to attack you and you make your adjustments accordingly."

- Robin Washut

Offense eager to get back on track

There's little arguing Nebraska's offense looked downright sluggish in last week's win over South Dakota State. That's why Thursday night can't come soon enough for every player on the unit.

After nine days of having the cloud of their 17-point, three-turnover performance against the Jackrabbits hovering over their heads, the Huskers say they can't wait to go out and play the way they know they're capable of against the Wildcats.

"The offense's biggest thing is we just want to bounce back from that South Dakota State game," junior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "That wasn't good. That wasn't Nebraska football. We didn't execute or play well. That wasn't us, and I think that's our biggest thing, just come back poised on a roll on a Thursday night game and just play Nebraska football."

Following last week's win, the consensus from NU's offensive players was they would definitely be able to correct the mistakes made in that game before Thursday night's Big 12 opener. Kinnie said he's been happy with the way the unit has responded the past week of practice.

"We all have (responded well)," he said. "We're our biggest critics, and we should be. I know I was. I know I didn't play up to par like I should."

- Robin Washut

Kinnie ready for Fort Scott reunion

When Nebraska takes the field on against Kansas State, it will be a reunion of sorts for Kinnie.

Having spent two years at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College before coming to NU, Kinnie will be meeting up with four former Fort Scott teammates who went on to play for the Wildcats in defensive back David Garrett, wide receiver Zach McFall, tight end Jeremy Sutton and defensive lineman Josh Sutton.

Kinnie, a native of Kansas City, Mo., will also be facing off with a pair of fellow Kansas City products in linebacker Jarell Childs and defensive back Roman Fields.

"I've got a lot of (friends) down there, about five or six guys down there that I played with," Kinnie said. "They called me this week asking what we're scouting about and what we're talking about. I told them 'Shut up. Don't worry about it.' But it's fun.

"We all played with each other, and we all know each other and know each other well. We been through a lot together, so it's fun. Good competition."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Watson said Nebraska hasn't been able to establish a set rotation on the offensive line because junior right tackle Marcel Jones hasn't been able to play yet due to his sore back. With Jones now expected to return to the lineup on Thursday, Watson said the rotation would look much different from what it's been the past four games.

"With Marcel back, we're able to evolve," Watson said. "We'll see how much he's ready to go, but he looks good in practice. It's been our plan to get him ready for the Big 12 season, so you'll probably see us have a little bit more rotation at both those tackle spots now, and (redshirt freshman tackle Jeremiah Sirles) won't have to play both (left and right tackle) spots."

***Even though Nebraska has allowed two 100-yard rushers in four games this season, Pelini said he was confident in his run defense going up against a back as talented as Thomas.

"I feel good about our run defense," Pelini said. "We play a lot different than some people do. There is some give and take that we live with. It's kind of in what we call and what we play. A lot of our issues were communication issues, alignment issues and that type of thing that I think we've gotten figured out."

***Gomes talked about the play of junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, saying Dennard has handled the pressure of playing opposite senior Prince Amukamara as well and anyone could have expected.

"A lot of preseason stuff had Prince ranked pretty high, so we knew going into the season that (teams) would probably throw at Alfonzo more," Gomes said. "He's really stepped up. I mean, last year he was always there, and I knew he was a really good corner. We have two of the best corners in the nation, but this year he's really elevated his game."

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