April 1, 2011

Friday notebook: Turner 'electrifying' at receiver

Jamal Turner only moved from quarterback to wide receiver on Monday, but he already has his coaches and teammates struggling to find enough words to properly describe just how good he's been.

With just three practices at his new position under his belt, Turner has already made as big of an impression as could be expected from a true freshman, not to mention for a player who technically should be finishing up the second semester of his senior year of high school.

"He looks good," senior wide out Brandon Kinnie said of his first impressions of Turner. "I think I told Stanley (Jean-Baptiste) yesterday, I said 'That's just an athlete.' We were doing just individual work, and it was his first time switching over, and he caught every ball. I know you have anybody guarding you, but still, to come straight from quarterback and be doing that, I was like, 'God! He maybe can do anything.'

"I'm excited about him. He's fast and he's quick in the slot. I've never seen a person - him and (redshirt freshman) Kenny (Bell) - they just work the slot position. I'm excited about it. That's a lot of speed in there."

While Turner broke the news that he had changed positions via Twitter following Wednesday's practice, Kinnie said Turner had been working at receiver since the team came back from break on Monday. In fact, Turner has also been working at punt returner since the Huskers began special teams work earlier this week.

With three practices to evaluate, offensive coordinator Tim Beck has been just as pleased with Turner's response to the position change. Beck even used some awfully high praise to describe what he's seen from the former four-star recruit so far.

"Electrifying," Beck said when asked what kind of receiver Turner has been the past three practices. "He's a very good athlete."

Beck went on to say that Turner could have stayed at quarterback, but it was obvious the Arlington, Texas, native was over his head in trying to grasp all of Nebraska's offense. Knowing Turner was simply too good of an athlete to keep on the sideline, Beck said the coaching staff wanted to find a way to get him on the field as quickly as possible.

Beck also said the staff wanted to ease up the pressure on Turner and put him at a position that was easier to learn as he adjusts to life of a collegiate student-athlete. The move wasn't that far of a stretch, either, as Turner played receiver in this year's Under Armour High School All-American game as well.

"I think with Jamal the one thing that you realize is he's a competitor and he wants to play," Beck said. "It's overwhelming and you are in college the first year. He's got his academics, he's got tutoring, he's got meeting time, he's got lifting time and he's doing all these types of things. It's different. His time is demanded a lot harder and sometime for a young guy he should be worrying about prom right now if you know what I mean.

"I just think (the move) has eased some of the pressure on him learning the stuff we are trying to do and it lets him just go out there and play and be allusive. I think he's been very responsive to it and he wants to play."

Beck said he still plans for Turner to continue to get reps at quarterback at some point down the road, but for now wants him to settle into the program and compete at receiver.

Kinnie said Turner has worked primarily as a slot receiver, noting that Turner told him during the second practice of the spring that he might be joining him at the position. While his small frame (6-1, 180) and youth might be a concern for some as he moves out from the protection of the pocket, Turner seems up for the challenge.

"He may be little, but he can take a licking and show some moves," Kinnie said.

- Robin Washut

Martin stepping it up at DE

Through two years at Nebraska, junior defensive end Eric Martin has basically been defined as a special teams player.

However, this spring defensive line coach John Papuchis said Martin has taken some big steps and is competing hard for a starting job. Papuchis also made a point to emphasize that Martin is more than just a third down pass rusher.

"I see him being an every down player for us," Papuchis said. "I don't see any reason to limit him to third down at this point. He's competing to start and he's right in the mix to be one of our starting defensive ends. To this point there's nothing he's done that tells me he can't do it."

You don't see a whole of defensive ends covering kickoffs, but Papuchis said Martin is an exception to that rule and the plan is to still play him on special teams.

"Some of the roles we are going to have to limit (Martin) in because of all the plays he's going to be playing on defense," Papuchis said. "He's a terror on kickoff and he's a good player on kickoff return and I don't see any reason why he can't be out there for those snaps."

-Sean Callahan

Gilleylen adjusting to new role

Turner wasn't the only player to find a new home in Nebraska's offense this week, as senior Curenski Gilleylen moved from receiver to running back on Wednesday to provide some more depth in the backfield and give him a better chance to make an impact.

On Monday, Gilleylen told reporters he was working with the first-team offense as a slot receiver and how he was excited to finally come into his own as one of the Huskers' top wide outs. Little did he know that the very next practice he'd be playing a completely different position.

Still, he said he has embraced the move and is eager to make the most of his new opportunity.

"I don't think they would have put me there if they were just trying to shuffle me in the back of the pack," Gilleylen said. "I think they were just trying to give me another look and an opportunity for me to get the ball in my hands. I don't have nay problems with that. I just think it's another opportunity to try and get me in the game."

Despite not having played running back full-time since he was in seventh grade and only playing roughly nine plays at the position during his senior year of high school, Gilleylen said the coaching staff told him they felt he was a natural fit in the backfield because of his speed and 215-pound frame.

"He's a big bodied guy that can probably help us back there with his speed when we get the ball in his hands," Beck said. "We wanted to give him a look and see if it might be something he wanted to help us with. Right now in the first two days he's done pretty good job."

Beck added that with the wealth of competition Nebraska has at receiver and the limited depth it has at running back this spring, he and the rest of the coaching staff felt Gilleylen's best chance to both see the field and help the team would be to make a position move.

"We are just trying to get our athletes on the field," Beck said. "Right now we are trying to look for some older guys at the running back position. I thought Curenski, who's a big body guy with speed, could help us and create some big plays."

- Robin Washut

Maher a 'jack of all trades'

Junior Brett Maher has emerged as the front runner to win Nebraska's place kicking job and punter at this point.

Papuchis said he really likes what he's seen out of Maher this spring.

"Brett (Maher) is a great athlete and he's a competitor," Papuchis said. "He's one of those guys that's still learning how to do everything he needs to do, but he's getting better every day. If Brett goes into it as our kicker at the beginning of the year I'll be very confident in him."

In some ways Maher is very similar to former All-American kicker Alex Henery in that he punts, kicks and does kickoffs. When asked if he's a "poor man's version of Henery," Papuchis said he's a little bit more than that.

"He's a moderately wealthy man's Alex Henery," Papuchis joked

-Sean Callahan

Ankrah coming into his own at DE

No one has ever questioned Jason Ankrah's athletic ability, as he's been one of Nebraska's most impressive physical specimens since the day he first set foot on campus.

Even so, the sophomore defensive end only managed to see spot playing time last year as a redshirt freshman. In his opinion, the biggest reason was because he still hadn't figured out that he couldn't just get by on his athleticism alone.

"I thought I was just going to go to college and do the same thing I did in high school, but it's a whole different world over here," Ankrah said. "It was pretty frustrating at the beginning. When you want to just come out and play, and that's holding you back, it's like you get mad at yourself because you're not getting it down. But it's not easy. You've just got to come get your mind right every day, be humble, and just do it every day."

This spring, though, Ankrah says he feels far more comfortable with his grasp of the defense and his technique than he did a year ago, when he said he probably only felt 75- to 80-percent comfortable by the end of the season.

With junior defensive end Cameron Meredith out for the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, Ankrah said he's doing his best to capitalize on the increased reps with the top defense by focusing solely on perfecting his technique and learning the playbook.

As long as he can do that, he says, there's no reason he can't be ready to compete for a starting job by the time fall camp rolls around.

"If I just stick to what I do: come to practice and get my job done everyday, hopefully that will happen," he said.

- Robin Washut

New offense impressing NU's defensive players

Through six spring practices it's starting to get to the point where Nebraska's defensive players are getting a pretty good handle of what exactly Beck's new system looks like on offense.

Ankrah said he's very impressed with what he's seen from Beck's crew thus far.

"It's going to work, that's all I know," Ankrah said of the new offense. "It fits everybody on the offense. They spread the ball out, it's speed, it's hurry-up and Taylor (Martinez) gets to use his technique. It's going to work, that's all I know."

Ankrah said he feels like the new offense really allows NU to feature the strengths of several different players.

"Last year (the offense) wasn't as fast and side to side," Ankrah said. "It was more spread and straight on. Now the offense is just spread and speed and they really spread the ball out."

- Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Beck was not happy with the flow of Friday's practice for the offense, but overall he feels like this spring has been very strong.

"Today wasn't a great day by us by any means," Beck said. "It's not what I'm used to and even from our players standpoint it's not what I'm used to. I love our effort, I love our toughness, I love the way we're competing, we just made some dumb mistakes today. It's practice six and that's why we are practicing. We keep trying to build a little bit on the offense. You can't stay stale forever. I've been very pleased."

***Like Turner, Beck referred to redshirt freshman Kenny Bell as "electrifying" following Friday's practice.

"He's an electrifying player at the receiver position," Beck said. "He's very fast with great hands. I love what he's been doing right now."

***Papuchis said he's giving a number of different young players a look as punt returners this spring, including Bell, Turner and Josh Mitchell. Papuchis said Khiry Cooper will also get a look at punt returner when he joins the team after baseball season.

***If there were still any lingering worries from fans that junior quarterback Cody Green might still be considering transferring, Green put them to rest on Friday when asked about his commitment to the team. He said Nebraska's tradition and his bond with this teammates and coaches were more than enough to assure him that he was where he needed to be.

"Tradition is a huge factor," Green said. "I've always said since I got here that tradition was one of big reasons why I was here. Tradition, the people, the family - that's what we are here, we're a big family. We'll fight and we'll die for each other. You love that factor, and you don't want to leave that, because hey, it's you. That's one of the main reasons why I'm here."

***Though he may be a bit undersized for a defensive tackle at 6-1, 300, sophomore Thaddeus Randle explained how being shorter than most players at his position can actually work to his advantage.

"I can get under (offensive linemen) quicker, and I've got speed," Randle said. "They don't know how to handle that."

***Running backs coach Ron Brown talked about the recent position moves by Turner and Gilleylen after Friday's practice. He brought up former NU standout Bobby Newcombe, who played receiver as a true freshman and then took over for an injured Eric Crouch as the starting quarterback before then moving back to receiver.

Brown said that while Turner and Newcombe's situations were much different, it shows that a player can be successful even after one or more position moves.

"Sometimes you have be able to risk and use and athlete in a variety of different positions to see what he's like," Brown said. "It's not always east to tell… You have to be willing to experiment sometimes, and spring ball is a good time to do that."

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