October 24, 2011

Monday notebook: Burkhead overlooked nationally?

Around Nebraska, junior running back Rex Burkhead has become a true fan favorite and is regarded as not only one of the best players on the entire team, but as one of the best backs to play for the Huskers in the past decade.

Outside of Husker Nation, however, Burkhead has flown relatively under the radar.

Despite ranking fourth in the Big Ten Conference and 17th nationally with 107.4 rushing yards per game and 10 touchdowns, the Plano, Texas, native's name rarely comes up nationally in discussions of the best running backs in college football.

Head coach Bo Pelini said he absolutely thinks Burkhead is being overlooked by the rest of the country, saying his humble and low-key demeanor might be the biggest reason than anything he's done on the field.

"I don't think there is any question," Pelini said. "I think the coaches that play against him and watch him on film have a real appreciation for him. Nationally, I don't know, maybe he isn't flashy enough or doesn't talk enough. I think it is pretty obvious how good of a football player he is. He has a long career ahead of him."

Burkhead has already rushed for 100 or more yards four times and has scored a touchdown in every game this season. Most recently, he racked up 117 yards on 23 carries in Saturday's 41-14 win over Minnesota despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter.

With his performance against the Gophers, Burkhead moved up to No. 26 on Nebraska's career rushing list at 2,049, and he's now just 156 yards from breaking into the top 20. At this pace, he's well on track to end his career as one of the Huskers' top-10 all-time leading rushers.

Like Pelini, Burkhead's teammates say there's no question that he's not getting the recognition he deserves for what he brings to the team every game and every day in practice.

Freshman running back Ameer Abdullah, who grew up watching great backs his whole life in the heart of SEC country in Alabama, said he would rank Burkhead right up with some of the great runners Alabama and Auburn have produced in recent years.

"I feel like he's one of, if not the best running back in the country," Abdullah said. "I grew up in SEC country, and I grew up watching Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram and Ben Tate, all those running backs from Alabama and Auburn. I've seen those guys, and the same thing they had, I see in Rex every day.

"He's such a great mentor for me. Just playing under him, I'm really learning a lot. Hopefully when he leaves, I can keep up the good tradition that he's brought to Nebraska."

Abdullah said what impresses him the most about Burkhead on the field is the way he hardly ever gets stopped for a loss. Just when it looks as if he's going to be stuffed behind the line, Burkhead somehow finds a hole and turns it into a gain.

On 130 rushing attempts this season, Burkhead has lost just 17 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Even more impressively, he's picked up a first down or scored a touchdown on 37 percent of his carries this year

"Just how physical he is," Abdullah said. "He never goes down. He probably has the most YAC yards in the country. He never goes down on the first tackle, because he's so strong off the initial contact. That's why I really like about his running style."

Burkhead, of course, was his usual humble self when asked if he felt he's been overlooked at the national level.

"My main focus is on the team right now and how far we can come along this year and being able to play in that Big Ten Championship hopefully," Burkhead said. "It's whatever they want to feel like. I just go out there and play like I know I can."

- Robin Washut

Reed back in action on Monday

One unreported bit of news from Saturday's win over Minnesota was that junior tight end Kyler Reed did not play at all in the game.

On Monday, Reed said he has been dealing with a minor hamstring injury that he suffered against Ohio State and then re-aggravated during the bye week. Reed had been limited in practice all last week, and the coaching staff decided to rest him against the Gophers to prevent further injury.

Sophomore Jake Long saw playing time in Reed's place on Saturday, while junior Ben Cotton started and played the bulk of the game. The good news was Reed was back out at practice on Monday and is fully expected to play this week against Michigan State.

"What they told me was, 'we're going to go with Jake, and just stay warm on the sideline and we'll let you know,'" Reed said. "They never told me exact reasons. They just didn't need to use me, I suppose… This is the most I've done for the last week."

Pelini said Reed could have played in the game if the Huskers needed him, but with the game going the way it did there was no reason to put him out there and risk tweaking his hamstring and setting back his recovery.

"He was available last Saturday," Pelini said. "We could have played him but we weren't going to unless we thought we needed him."
After playing 31 games in his career, including the past 20 for the Huskers, Reed said it was a bit strange not being on the field with his teammates on Saturday.

"It's a different perspective," Reed said. "It's a little hard to see stuff obviously from the sideline. It was different. I haven't watched in a couple years."

While the Huskers were able to get by without him, they could certainly use his presence in the passing game this week against the Spartans. Reed's receiving numbers have been down compared to his breakout year last season, as he only has eight catches for 165 yards and no touchdowns.

He's still averaging 20.6 yards per catch, though, including a 53-yarder against Fresno State that stands as the second-longest reception for NU this season. That's why Pelini said having Reed on the field makes teams account for him on every play.

"I would assume defenses know where he is," Pelini said. "He is a good football player but I don't think they're doing anything out of the ordinary to try to stop him. Kyler has made some big plays for us and will continue. He is an explosive player."

- Robin Washut

Leaner, stronger Guy on the rise

Defensive tackle Jay Guy enrolled at Nebraska a semester early in the spring of 2010 to get a jump on both school and his college football career. As far as his football conditioning was concerned, he definitely needed the jumpstart on that as well.

A three-star recruit out of Aldine, Texas, Guy came to Lincoln weighing in at more than 330 pounds, which he admitted was not all good weight. After a year and a half of work with Nebraska's strength and conditioning coaches, Guy has worked his way into solid playing shape.

Now down to a much leaner 292 pounds, Guy has finally started to show the ability in practice that the NU coaching staff hoped to get when they recruited him. His play has been so good over the past few weeks that he jumped all the way from scout team defense to the Huskers' 70-man travel last week against Minnesota.

While part of that was due to the loss of senior Jared Crick for the season, Guy said he's starting to get into the flow of the college game now as a redshirt freshman.

"It was real difficult," Guy said of losing 40 pounds of extra weight. "I can see the difference between myself then, and it's a lot different now. Running is a lot easier for me. I don't get tired as quick. It just helps me having more muscle put on my body."

Guy is still having some typical early struggles learning the defensive playbook and perfecting his technique, but he said working with the scout team all of last year and part of this season helped him adjust to the speed of the game by going up against Nebraska's starting offensive line every day in practice. Though he's only been working with the defensive two-deep for a week, he said he's already starting to grasp the defense better.

In time, it's not far off to think Guy could eventually become a big part of the d-line considering how quickly he's already ascended.

"Just stick in there and work hard," Guy said. "You never know, anything could happen. Just be ready. I got snaps on Saturday, and hopefully that continues. If it doesn't, I'm not going to be mad about it. It's just a patience thing in college."

He's still a ways off from becoming a fixture in Nebraska's front four rotation, but he took a huge step on Saturday by playing the entire fourth quarter. It may have only been mop-up duty, but for all of his family back home watching him on national television, it was the highlight of his young and promising career.

"It was a great feeling, man," Guy said. "My family got a chance to see it (because) it was on national TV, and after the game everybody hit me up. It was the best football moment I've ever had."

- Robin Washut

Huskers have their own Hail Mary play ready

Michigan State made arguably the play of the year in college football on Saturday night with its Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired to upset No. 6 Wisconsin.

On the play, Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins rolled out to his right and heaved a pass 44 yards to the end zone as the game clock hit zero. The ball ended up bouncing off receiver B.J. Cunningham and right into the hands of Keith Nichol, who somehow muscled his way past the goal line for the winning score.

Senior Nebraska wide receiver Brandon Kinnie watched the play at home on TV, as the Huskers got back to Lincoln just in time to catch the end of the game. For him, that play was every receiver's dream.

As it turns out, the Huskers have a Hail Mary play of their own that they work on every day in practice. On the play, sophomore Quincy Enunwa is the player primarily responsible for jumping up and tipping the pass into the air. Kinnie said he's the "tip man" responsible for going after the ball after it's been deflected.

"We work on that all the time," Kinnie said. "I'm the tip man, so I'm the person that's on the outside waiting for the tips. It's crazy, you work on stuff like all the time, and to see that stuff work, it's crazy."

Nebraska hasn't had much need for any Hail Mary's this season, though they did get to run it once at the end of the first half against Fresno State. With four seconds left before halftime and the ball at the FSU 45-yard line, the Huskers heaved one up into the end zone for one last shot.

The play didn't quite go as planned, though, as Kinnie said everyone jumped for the ball and no one stayed back to catch the tip. As a result, Fresno State intercepted the pass in the end zone.

"I remember when we ran it against Fresno, we all jumped," Kinnie said. "That wasn't right at all. It's just so hard being a wide receiver, you see the ball in the air, and I'm just like, 'forget it. I'm going to get it.'"

Just as any receiver would, Kinnie said he hoped he would someday get a chance to make a game-winning catch like Nichol did for the Spartans on Saturday night. If he were in Nichol's shoes on that play, Kinnie knows exactly what would have happened.

"I would've caught it too," he said.

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Michigan State's front seven would be a one of the toughest challenges of the season for Nebraska's offensive line. Not only do the Spartans have one of the best defensive lines in the Big Ten, he said they also have a very aggressive blitz scheme that puts a lot of pressure on pass protection.

***Freshman wide receiver Jamal Turner said he felt Nebraska had the fastest and most athletic wide receivers in the Big Ten.

***Senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins was a great player, but the fact that he was more of a pocket passer should allow the Huskers to get blitz better and more often than they have in previous weeks. Obviously a better pass rush makes life much easier for defensive backs like Dennard.

***Beck said NU's cast of young offensive players have all made big strides with the heavy amount of playing time they've seen so far this season. He said he's especially been happy with the development of his three freshmen running backs and receivers like Turner, Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa.

***Michigan State's defense was able to shut down Michigan star quarterback Denard Robinson two weeks ago, especially on the ground. With a dual-threat quarterback of their own, Beck said Nebraska's offense was different enough from Michigan's to where MSU couldn't use the same game plan against them.

***Nebraska had some good success using primarily its nickel defensive package against Minnesota, but Pelini said it would depend on the opponent each week what base defense Nebraska would run.

"Everything can be week-to-week personnel-wise," Pelini said. "We will do what we need to do to win the game."

***Senior defensive back Lance Thorell was one player who benefited the most from the heavy use of the nickel, as he saw extensive playing time for much of the game against the Gophers.

"I think Lance is a good football player," Pelini said. "He adds something to us when he is in there. It is as simple as that. We have been doing some mixing around playing to guys' strengths. We thought he could add something, and he played well the other day."

***Asked if he's seen opposing offenses tend to throw away from senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard since his return four games ago, Pelini said he wouldn't blame quarterbacks if they were.

"Probably to a certain extent," Pelini said. "He is a good player, so I wouldn't go over there too much. I've seen decent teams throw at him."

***Nebraska is a perfect 5-0 against Michigan State all-time, including 3-0 at Memorial Stadium. Pelini is also 1-0 as a head coach against the Spartans, as he was the interim coach in place of Frank Solich during the last victory in the 2003 Alamo Bowl.

***Michigan State has played just two road games this season, losing to Notre Dame 31-14 and then edging out Ohio State 10-7. Since head coach Mark Dantonio took over in 2007, the Spartans are just 1-5 on the road against top-25 opponents, with their one win coming over Michigan last year.

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