March 24, 2009

NU Notes: Defense ready to take next step

For probably the first time since coming to Nebraska, head coach Bo Pelini finally feels comfortable to open things up a bit defensively.

After spending his first season last year simply trying to install his system with a cast of players we hardly even knew yet, Pelini said he and his staff are finally getting to the point where they can expand the defensive playbook and get more creative with their packages.

Now with a full year in Lincoln under his belt, he said next season's defense should be much closer to the type of unit he's become accustomed to during his previous coaching stints at Oklahoma and LSU.

"I have high expectations," Pelini said during his spring practice press conference on Tuesday. "They're extremely high. We made a jump last year from where they were the year before, but they're nowhere near where I want us to play defensively. I expect to get there this year."

One of the biggest reasons for Pelini's optimism is the amount of depth and athleticism the Huskers will add to the defense this season. With a cast of talented redshirt freshmen and junior college newcomers, Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini will have far more to work with at essentially every position on the defense.

Along with another strong defensive line led by senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska enters the spring with an abundance of young players with potential and game experience at both linebacker and in the secondary.

Pelini also said he and his staff took some time this offseason to re-evaluate their coaching styles and methods. With a more simplified approach, the hope is that players won't be nearly as overwhelmed with the variety of looks the Huskers want to show defensively.

"We did some things that just hurt ourselves just by doing some undisciplined football," Pelini said. "Just doing things that aren't characteristic of defenses that I want to be around. To me, that's coaching, and there are some things we need to fix. We know how to do it. We've got the right guys to do it."

While he was obviously excited about his defense taking the next step, Pelini admitted that the unit is still a long way off from his ultimate goal. As they did last season and will hopefully do on into spring practice, though, the Huskers should only continue to get closer to it with every practice.

"Until we're at the top, we're not satisfied," Pelini said. "We're not there yet. Like I said, I expect to make a huge jump defensively. That's the way I see it, and it's going to start here in the next 15 practices."

- Robin Washut

Helu adds 15 pounds over the off-season

When junior running back Roy Helu walked into the interview room on Tuesday, it was pretty clear he added a significant amount of weight to his frame.

Helu said on Tuesday he tipped the scale this week at 222 pounds, 15 pounds heavier than the 207 pounds he weighed at the end of the 2008 season.

In fact, Helu said he actually weighed 198 pounds at the start of last season, mainly because of the shoulder injury he suffered in fall camp. Helu feels like the added weight he's put on this winter should help his body be able to handle more of the beating required to play running back in the Big 12 Conference.

Helu credited his recent weight gain to eating a diet that consisted mostly of fish.

"It's kind of blessing and a curse," Helu said of his added weight. "Every time I walk by a mirror, I always look at myself now. I feel faster now though. There's a lot more muscle than fat."

-Sean Callahan

Pelini changes up spring practice schedule

For the first time in recent memory, Nebraska will hold spring practices on Sunday's, meaning NU will actually have two weeks where they'll practice for three consecutive days in a row.

Pelini said a big reason why he decided to have practices on two different Sunday's this spring was due large in part to class conflicts. Pelini said several different key players have Monday classes required for their degrees. The only Sunday NU won't practice on this spring is Easter Sunday on April 12.

"It's kind of an unfortunate situation that we have to deal with," Pelini said. "We have some class conflicts. Some situations that there are some certain classes only offered one time a year at a certain time. It kind of handcuffs us. There are only certain times of the day you can have your whole team.

"We were going to go on Monday, but we were going to be without our starting center and you are trying to break in some new quarterbacks. Then big Suh would've been missing from practice, so we decided to go on Sunday when we'd have everybody out there and we'd be rolling. It's not ideal for us going Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but it's better than not having those guys out at practice. It's really a situation we face sometimes in the fall."

Because of the crammed practice schedule, Helu said it's going to make the competition that much more intense.

"We have a lot more practices back-to-back this spring, so it's going to have more of a (fall) camp type of feeling," Helu said. "Me personally, it's going to be pretty exciting."

-Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Freshman quarterback Cody Green will sit out at least through the first weekend of spring drills due to a hip injury he suffered while lifting during the winter. Pelini said the injury wasn't serious at all, as it was just a soft tissue injury that doctor's said would be rated a 1 on a scale of 1-to-10. Pelini said he expects Green to join practice fairly soon, but the staff is making sure they don't rush him back too early and aggravate the injury.

"It's not a very serious injury," he said. "It's just something that needs a little bit of time to make sure it heals properly… He'll be out there pretty quick."

***Pelini said at this point, he's not sure how much contact he'll put his quarterbacks through this spring.

"We haven't really talked about that, but obviously we'll be in green the first part," Pelini said. "How we'll handle it in the scrimmages, I'm not sure."

***Junior Latravis Washington will work at quarterback this spring after playing at linebacker his first two seasons. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder played quarterback at Bayshore (Fla.) High School before moving to defense when he came to Lincoln.

Pelini said the move was a mutual decision between Washington and the staff, and said Washington possess a strong arm and good mobility. How long he stays at quarterback will depend on his performance during the spring, but it was something Pelini said the staff wanted to at least try out.

***While junior Zac Lee is the consensus frontrunner to take over as the starting quarterback, Pelini said he isn't giving Lee any extra reps this spring than any other quarterback on the roster.

***Junior offensive tackle Jaivorio Burkes will not practice to start the spring because of an undisclosed issue. While Pelini wouldn't specify what the issue was, he did say that it was not a continuation of the high blood pressure issues that held him out of all of fall camp last season.

***Senior David Harvey has moved from defensive end to defensive tackle.

***Pelini said cornerbacks John Levorson and Justin Rodgers, safety Major Culbert and linebacker Austin Stafford are all off of the team heading into spring practice.

***When asked about his level of interest in potentially adding former Miami quarterback Robert Marve to the mix through a transfer this offseason, Pelini didn't rule it out as a possibility. He said with the departure of Patrick Witt, NU's depth a quarterback took a hit and, if everything fell into place, it would be something the staff would be interested in.

"With Patrick leaving that kind of leaves a hole in the class, so if it was the right guy in the right situation, the right kid, it would be something that we'd be interested… possibly," Pelini said. "We'd have to see how it plays out. Specifically (Marve), I don't know. We'd have to see how it plays out."

***Fifth-year senior Nick Covey's career appears to be over as well, as he is as out for the season due to injury. Though he's still on the roster, Covey is no longer scholarship, and his eligibility expires at the end of the season.

***Pelini said junior tackle Jaivorio Burkes will sit out at least the beginning of spring practice with an illness, though it had nothing to do with the high blood pressure issues that kept him out of fall camp last season.

"That's just something we're monitoring week to week," Pelini said. "It's a whole different thing."

***Guard Andy Christensen has been granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all of last season because of off-the-field issues and not being in good enough shape to see the field. Pelini said Christensen has vastly improved during the off-season, and while he's still not quite where he needs to be yet physically, he's much closer than he was a year ago.

"He's getting better," Pelini said. "He's made a lot of progress. He's not exactly where he wants to be or where we want him to be yet, but that takes time. He was out for over a year. He's done a good job of getting himself back in shape and back to where we want him to be, and he's getting closer. I think this spring will be big for him."

***After missing all of last season with an ACL injury, sophomore cornerback Anthony Blue is apparently back to 100 percent physically. The problem, Pelini said, has been getting him to the same level mentally.

"I think his confidence in that knee is getting better," Pelini said. "The more reps he gets, the better he's going to be. He's a talented kid. It just takes time. I think he's 100 percent physically, but the mental aspect of that injury is what you've got to overcome. That just takes time."

***While talking about improvements the team has made in the weight room this off-season, Suh threw out a few numbers he's put up since the end of last season. Suh said he's currently maxing out at 465 pounds on the bench press, 520 on squats and 375 on hang cleans, which is up from 325 last season.

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