April 23, 2009

NU's 5 biggest strengths coming out of spring ball

Though there are still plenty of questions left to be answered before Nebraska's season opener in September, spring practice at least gave some hints as to what will make up the backbone of Nebraska's squad under second-year head coach Bo Pelini.

While NU's incoming crop of freshmen could shake things up in the fall, HuskersIllustrated.com decided to take a look at the Huskers' five biggest strengths that emerged over the course of 15 practices and last weekend's Spring Game.

A dominant front four

As was already expected heading into the spring, Nebraska's defensive line proved that it was far and away the team's biggest strength during the previous four weeks. Led by senior defensive tackle and All-America candidate Ndamukong Suh, the front four will serve as the starting point for everything NU's defense does.

Even with the starting unit divided in half for the Red-White game, the d-line showed its depth with the likes of redshirt freshman Baker Steinkuhler and sophomore Terrence Moore, who filled in at defensive tackle for the White and Red teams, respectively, and helped hold both teams to a combined total of 168 rushing yards.

Add in the likes of redshirt freshmen Cameron Meredith and Josh Williams, who both made major strides of this spring, to an already talented front four of Suh, Pierre Allen, Jared Crick and Barry Turner, and there's little question which unit will be leading the way for NU's defense this season.

A two-headed monster at running back

Even though junior Roy Helu sat out the Spring Game with a hamstring injury, there was still little question which unit was the strong point for Nebraska's offense coming out of spring ball. Along with junior Quentin Castille, the Huskers are deep and loaded in the backfield at running back, and the unit will undoubtedly carry the offense all season, especially early on.

While both Helu and Castille were more than productive last year, both players put in significant work during the offseason in the weight room and in their conditioning. Helu bulked up big time, making him far more of a threat between the tackles while still possessing the ability to break it outside for big runs. Castille on the other hand shed some weight to make himself quicker and more agile, though he still can lower the pads and deliver one of his punishing trademark blows on defenders if necessary.

Behind them, younger players like redshirt freshmen Lester Ward and Austin Jones both had solid springs to help give some depth to an already talented position. But unless a worst-case scenario happens, expect Helu and Castille to shoulder the bulk - if not all - of the load in the running game.

One of the best tight end groups yet

If it wasn't apparent by the end of the spring that Nebraska's tight ends were a special group this season, one only had to watch the Spring Game to get a pretty good idea. All together, the unit combined for 15 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by a 24-yard touchdown catch by redshirt freshman Ben Cotton and a late 71-yard score by fellow redshirt freshman Kyler Reed.

Nebraska's tight ends have been so good this spring that offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said he just might roll out packages featuring as many as four or five tight ends this season. The leader is undoubtedly junior Mike McNeill, but guys like junior Dreu Young and a cast of talented redshirt freshmen have shown more than capable of stepping up big.

With a receiving corps that's still weeding itself out and trying to find its clear cut starters, the Huskers just might have to lean on their tight ends a bit more than usual to help pick up the slack in the passing game. After watching their performance on Saturday, though, that might not be that bad of an idea.

An ace at kicker

This just in: Alex Henery is good. Really good. A near shoo-in to earn preseason All-Big 12 honors, the junior should give Nebraska a legitimate, consistent threat at kicker this season, something it hasn't had in years. On the heels of a breakout year last season, Henery has shown all the makings of being even better this season, as his leg strength and accuracy have looked as good as ever this spring.

Though he only connected on one of his two field goals in the Spring Game, his miss came from 50 yards and was still somewhat close given the bad snap and rough hold he had to kick off of. Nebraska must find a way to shore up its long-snapper and holder situation by the start of the season, but after the Spring Game, Henery said he had no concerns that everything would get worked out by the end of fall camp.

Oh, and did we mention Henery can punt, too. Early reports out of spring practice said Henery was out-punting redshirt freshmen Brett Maher and Jonathon Damkroger by at an average of at least 10 yards in practice. In the Spring Game, Henery's first punt sailed 55 yards, and would've gone further had it not been for a nice catch by returner Antonio Bell.

Watson's ability to groom quarterbacks

Let's face it, none of us really knew what to expect after Patrick Witt transferred and redshirt freshman Kody Spano was lost for the spring with a knee injury. Suddenly, Nebraska was left to work with a true freshman and a converted linebacker at quarterback behind starter Zac Lee.

But even with a relatively dry cupboard, Shawn Watson was able to help ease the fears of some Husker fans by helping junior Latravis Washington re-adjust to quarterback after playing linebacker his entire collegiate career and getting freshman Cody Green up to par despite missing the first part of spring practice with a hip injury.

In his debut as Nebraska's starting quarterback, Lee was nearly flawless, completing 15-of-18 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns in the Spring Game. However, Washington's performance despite limited preparation was almost equally as impressive. Washington completed 13-of-21 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns while leading an arguably limited White team offense.

Green wasn't exactly impressive in his NU debut (8 of 15 for 81 yards), but considering he had less practices in the Huskers' offensive system than even Washington, he wasn't all that bad. Yes, all the quarterbacks still have a long way to go before any of them are ready to be successful in the Big 12, but all things considered, Watson has played the cards he's been dealt like a pro.

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