November 16, 2008

Redshirt freshman makes most of move to LB

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Matthew May didn't want to bother Nebraska's coaching staff with the suggestion of possibly switching from safety to linebacker, though he'd been thinking about it for weeks.

After Saturday, Nebraska's coaching staff was wishing the kid would've spoke up sooner.

Because injuries and a suspension had left the Huskers' linebacker corps depleted and desperately seeking depth, NU's defensive coaches decided to try out the redshirt freshman from Imperial, Neb., at linebacker, the position he played two years earlier at Chase Country High School.

At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, it wasn't that much of a stretch to move May up to linebacker. The fact that he was regarded as one of the top 400-meter dash runners in the state during high school didn't hurt, either. May originally came to Nebraska as a walk-on after turning down a full-ride to play at Nebraska-Omaha.

So after some deliberation, head coach Bo Pelini, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler decided last Sunday to move May to linebacker.

Judging from his performance Saturday against Kansas State after less than a week of practice at his new position, the move seems to have been a good one. May finished with three tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and a forced fumble to help lead the Huskers to a victory over the Wildcats.

"We watched him on special teams, and we knew he could run and he's very physical and we knew he's a great tackler, and we knew he could cover, too," Carl Pelini said. "You put all those things together, and again, we just wish would've made the move sooner. He had a good week of practice, and he picked it up quick. It was amazing.

"Honestly, that's going to be his position for good. He responded well. He's quick. He's got good instincts. We're kicking ourselves because it's probably a move we could've made sooner than this."

For Holt, last week's crash course in learning how to play linebacker in NU's defense was a daunting task at first, but with the hands-on help of his coaches and teammates, he was able learn enough to make a difference come game day.

"I had thought about (switching positions), but I know the coaches are busy, and I didn't want to at least make the move until the end of the season," May said. "If figured that if they saw me as a fit there, they'd ask me to move… When they did, I just said, 'All right. The coaches usually know what they're talking about.' So I kind of agreed and figured I'd try it out."

Despite learning on the fly all week, the coaches wasted no time in throwing May directly into the fire on Saturday. On his first play on Kansas State's third offensive series, the Huskers' dialed up a blitz that sent May right up the middle.

May was able to break through the line and get to KSU quarterback Josh Freeman in seconds. As he hit Freeman, the ball came loose and was eventually recovered by a Wildcat offensive lineman. As it turned out, May ended up recording his first tackle, sack, tackle for loss and forced fumble all on his first play ever as a collegiate linebacker.

On the play, Ekeler said May could've etched his name in Husker lore forever if he could have caught the ball as it slipped out of Freeman's hand and returned it for a touchdown.

"I said, 'You could've been an instant Husker legend. First play as a linebacker you could've had a pick six,'" Ekeler joked. "And he's like, 'Coach, I know.' First play he's in he could've had an interception. I told him, 'It could've been "The Catch" by Davison, and "The Interception" by May, but no, you blew it.'"

Though they put quite a bit on May's plate in his first game at linebacker, Ekeler said the staff made it a little easier on him my limiting his role specifically to the WILL linebacker in the Huskers' nickel defense.

When running their base defense with three linebackers, Ekeler said sophomore Blake Lawrence took over as the WILL.

All in all, May said he played about 15 snaps on Saturday. That's quite a step up for a kid who had previously only seen the field on the kickoff and punt return teams this season.

While Saturday's performance might not guarantee him the same amount of playing time the rest of the season, if nothing else it helped him find a home at a position where the Huskers definitely need depth.

If he keeps progressing at this rate, though, the coaching staff won't have any choice but to keep playing him.

"We gave him a shot, and he just had natural instincts," Ekeler said. "He played linebacker in high school, and I'll tell you what, he's one of the fastest guys on our team. He's 210 pounds, and the kid's physical. Before it's said and done, in the blink of an eye he's going to be a guy who's 225 and he can run. I can coach that. It'll make me look pretty good."

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