March 22, 2011

This spring could be now or never for five Huskers

While Nebraska took a break spring practice this week, there are a few players who have too much riding on this spring to just relax in the sun.

Today we take a look at players who need to bring their A game the most over the course of the remaining three weeks in our list of the five Huskers facing Now Or Never situations this spring.

Cody Green, QB, 6-4, 235, Jr.

At least with how it was portrayed to the public, few players had as even of a chance to win a starting job outright than quarterback Cody Green had last year. With senior Zac Lee sitting out of spring ball and still recovering from offseason surgery in the fall, Green's only true competition was a redshirt freshman in Taylor Martinez, who the year before was a scout team receiver. Despite being one of the favorites to earn the starting role, Green spent most of the year as Martinez's back-up and seemingly only saw the field in worst-case scenarios. This spring, Martinez is the favorite to reclaim his starting spot, but once again Nebraska's coaches say the position is completely open for competition. Already a junior, now is essentially Green's last chance to make his case, as it will be all but impossible to beat out Martinez - who would be a two-year starter - or one of NU's newcomers this year like Jamal Turner or (potentially) Bubba Starling.
Collins Okafor, RB, 6-1, 225, Jr.

As far as the eyeball test goes, it's hard to find a player who looks more the part of the big, fast running back than junior Collins Okafor. Unfortunately, he hasn't quite been able to translate that into playing time over the past three seasons. With Rex Burkhead the clear leader at the position and a slew of talented newcomers joining the mix at running back in the fall, this spring is really the last chance for Okafor to show he belongs in the conversation. The good news for him is that Ron Brown, who moved over to running backs coach this spring, has already said he's challenged Okafor to step up and fill the role of the bruising short-yardage, goal line back currently missing from the Huskers' backfield. Add in the fact that his old position coach in Tim Beck is now running the offense, and Okafor definitely has the right coaches in his corner to make a big jump up the depth chart heading into fall camp. The question is can he take advantage of the opportunity?

Alonzo Whaley, LB, 6-1, 235, Jr.

Nebraska fans have been waiting three years now for Alonzo Whaley to live up to the potential many thought he had coming in as a three-star linebacker recruit in 2008. Last year seemed like the perfect chance, as Whaley was thrust into the starting lineup for the season opener after injuries to Sean Fisher and Will Compton. Partly because of Nebraska's peso and dime defensive packages that used just one and two linebackers and then after the return of Compton, though, Whaley's role quickly diminished back to sparse playing time on special teams and goal line situations. This year, however, the Huskers are going back to the 4-3 as their base defensive package, meaning linebackers will be much more involved in the defense than the past two seasons. With NU's lack of proven depth at the position, if Whaley can't become a fixture in the lineup this year, he might never at all.

P.J. Smith, S, 6-2, 215, Jr.

Junior safety P.J. Smith is unique on this list in the sense that he already earned his way into the starting lineup last offseason. The only problem was he couldn't stay there. After two straight dismal performances against Texas and Oklahoma State, Smith and fellow safety Rickey Thenarse were both pulled as starters in place of Courtney Osborne and Austin Cassidy, and they never started a game after that. Both Osborne and Cassidy are back this spring looking to keep their starting jobs, and the Huskers also have a pair of redshirt freshmen who could make a serious push for playing time in Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson. Smith already knows what it takes to make it as a starting safety at NU, but it will be a much steeper climb to get back there this time around.
The Kickers

There may have never been a time when the kicker position has been as huge of a void to fill at Nebraska as it is this offseason in trying to replace the legendary Alex Henery. As of now, the leading candidates to fill those shoes are junior Brett Maher and redshirt freshman Jason Dann. However, the dynamic of the position battle could change completely this fall. The Huskers already have incoming freshman Mauro Bondi coming to Lincoln this fall, and things could get really interesting if NU is able to snag former Nebraska-Omaha All-American kicker Greg Zuerlein after the Mavericks dropped their football program earlier this month. Needless to say, this spring will be huge for both Maher and Dann to make their case before a potential ton of new talent joins the mix in a few months.

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