When it comes to evaluating players, Damon Benning has his share of experience. From watching players like Ahman Green, Terrell Farley, Grant Wistrom, Lawrence Phillips and Tommie Frazier to starting for a national championship team, he's qualified to make judgements about what he sees in a player, good or bad. As we did with Damon last year, he takes another look at the Spring Game this year and we'll try to summarize the conversation as best as possible.
Aside from the recent hype of Demorrio Williams, the largest concern this year has been the progression of Jamal Lord. Add to that the appearance of Curtis Dukes who's physical prowess has garnered him much attention, it was seeming to shape out as a possible quarterback controversy. Would the incumbent get the role or would NU start a freshman, something it hasn't done since Tommie Frazier took the reins? In Benning's mind, there isn't a controversy here. "I was happy that Jamal took good care of the ball", Damon said. "He had good pocket presence and showed good savvy. He was limited in what he did, but that just lets you know that Frank thinks he's the guy. He didn't give him too many series, got him , got him out and was worried about something happening to him."
And the battle for number two? "That's where the real battle will be", Benning stated. "I think that if Dukes could redshirt, I would, but what I couldn't believe is how Stuntz couldn't take care of the ball. I know he has particularly small hands, but he's a bright guy and I am surprised he couldn't pick up on that. As a quarterback, you have to adjust to those things and it seemed to be giving him fits most of the time."
What's going on with Damon?
Right now, Damon is the starting running back for the Lincoln Capitals, Lincoln's newest arean league team, replacing the now-defunct, Lincoln Lightning. The Caps are presently second in the division (behind Sioux City) with a 3-1 record.
With Lord secure at the starting spot in his mind, we moved on to the running backs, another hotly contested position, but one thought to be slightly more stable than quarterback. With both Diedrick and Collins coming back, not many were debating the ability of the backfield, rather who would be back there as the starter. You might be surprised though that when the running backs came up, it was neither that garnered Damon's attention as being possibly the best player for the job. "I said this the last time we talked, but the guy I think that really has a chance if he would make the commitment is Cory Ross", Damon stated. "He needs to still lose about ten pounds, but he shows the elusiveness and the slashing ability that I think you need."
"I don't think Nebraska is going to be able to just bang it with people this season, so it would be nice to see a guy with a little shake in his step." A back that Damon describes, many will debate we haven't seen since the time he played, when Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green wowed the fans and the competition with not just their speed, but their ability to move in and out of tackles. "You don't need that big play, but you have to be a difference maker", Benning said. "People associate being super-fleet of foot with big play potential and I am not sure that is the case, but you have to be creative. You have to be able to take something that doesn't appear to be there and you see it and make it happen. That's something I think they have been missing."
The Offensive Line
Much has been made of the loss of Toniu Fonoti. And why not? An All-American, a pile-driving force and a player that literally and physically dominated his competition. Fonoti's critics however say that his weakness wasn't being able to move beyond the initial point of impact, rather taking on one man, dominating him and the play going right on by. "That's kind of his knock", Damon said. "He's at-the point of attack, impact type of blocker and had a problem sustaining blocks and that works at Nebraska, but in the NFL, it's very different with all the drive-blocking that has to be done."
With the loss of their All-American and the savvy and experienced, Volk, this new offensive line has been (and will be) under major scrutiny, wondering just how they are going to do. Youth seems to be the key factor here and with an offense like Nebraska's, that sometimes doesn't bode well. "It is a very complicated offense to learn as an offensive front, because things change on the fly." With that being said, Damon thought that there was some improvement and he looked at one player in particular as a possible difference maker. "They made some strides and I really think that Incognito is going to be a very good player" Benning stated. "I don't know that I am shocking the press any with that, but I think he's going to be a guy that you can count on and the one that stands out right now."
We move to the other side of the ball and after the Spring Game, one Demorrio Williams was all people could talk about. Leading the team in tackles, terrorizing the offense and being a basic determined pain in the rear, Williams made a statement, one so loud that comparisons to Terrell Farley rose to an almost feverish pitch. This five-star JUCO transfer has everyone thinking of the possibilities, but Damon stated that caution might be better, at least right now. "People compare him to Farley and it's a little early for that", Damon said. "I would be a little leery of that right now."
"In the Spring, teams don't have a lot of depth and you get accustomed to going against guys extensively and you see the same offense a lot, so you have a chance to get people's tendencies down. I would wait and see how his knowledge of the game increases, because that's what it takes to play his position. He has to have a feel for the position."
And to the comparisons to Farley? "Terrell had a sixth sense in understanding what the offense was doing and believe me, he was not the most physically gifted player. He never ran better than a 4.7, he was 5'11" and he was 200 pounds, but if you asked him to find the football, he could sift through the garbage and that's what Demorrio is going to have to do."
One thing did stand out for Benning as he watched this potential Husker star. "One thing I did notice about him is that his motor never stops running", Benning stated. "He's a guy you are going to have to account for all the time and Nebraska really needs someone like that."
As we stay with the defense, I commented about the conversation and Damon and I had about the team last year. During a time when the press and fans alike were predominately talking about the offense due to their domination of the defense throughout most of the scrimmages before Fall, it was Damon that said it was going to be the defense that was going to make the most noise.
Indeed, the defense (for most of the year) made the largest impact, had the most to do with NU's success and (at times) carried the Huskers to victories. Considering what he saw that many didn't last year, I asked what his thoughts on the defense were this season. "They've got a lot of work to do right now", Damon stated. "I think that if LeKevin Smith stays healthy, he will be playing on Sundays and I like Bingham. I am going to reserve judgement on Seppo and I know he has been a hot topic to talk about. I have to watch him to see if I like the way his motor runs. I'm not quite so sure yet."
We concentrated on the defensive line some, because it was (and still is) a rather sore spot when talking to Nebraska fans. Either it was not having the players at all to make the defense work, or some speculated that a seniority system kept the best talent off the field, most pointing to Manaia Brown as the largest reason for that argument. Though Benning agreed on Manaia and his wanting to see him on the field more last season, he retorted that people don't really understand everything that coaches must take into account when deciding who plays and when. "I think the one thing that people have to remember is that the coaches are a very disciplined staff, have been together for awhile and they like for you to do things a certain way", Damon stated.
"I think that with Manaia Brown didn't always approach practice that way that he should and I think that bothered a few of the coaches. He got results, but you have to be leery about rewarding a guy that you don't feel is maximizing his potential daily, because what kind of standard that sets. One of the things that McBride was brilliant with was getting a feel for those guys and in Jamrog's defense, he's trying to play some of that by ear and he's trying to set a precedent and a standard. That takes some time and people have to be patient with that."
A position that has great demands within any system, but in the 4-3, a linebacker finds himself not just as field general, but a blitzer, a run-stopper and even a corner back. Going back (again) to when Benning played, this was just one of the many strengths of NU as Williams and Farley made life for their team very nice and for the opponent, quite miserable. You can just ask Danny Wuerffel about that.
So many new faces, speculation runs rampant on every single position in the linebacking core as nobody really has a grasp on who will not just play, but start. Damon gave his thoughts on this almost-fledgling unit. "It will be interesting, but one thing they will have, is depth", Damon stated. "Shanle is an incumbent, he knows the game and isn't going to make a lot of mistakes. He's improved a lot with his athleticism and he's always a guy that has been smart, so if he can incorporates some of those physical tools, he's not going to be a guy that's going to hurt you." With that being said though in reference to Shanle's progression, Damon saw the possible starting unit this way. "If I would have to go out on a limb, I would say Demorrio, Hollowell and Ruud, but it's going to be interesting."
Last year, Shanle was indeed tested, but not so much with his tackling ability as his prowess at covering the tight end. It's almost frightening how many times the opponents seemed to exploit this part of the defense of NU, seemingly much more than in year's past. In Benning's eyes, this was inevitable and it has forced NU to embrace this new "zone" philosophy even more than in very recent years. "Nebraska is going to have to deal with that (passing to the tight end)." Damon said. "Until you show that you can adjust, that's what people are going to do. If you want to stay in the 4-3 and use linebackers to cover tight ends and running backs, you are going to have to be able to run."
The Colorado game sits as a sore spot with any NU fan. It's poison to the mouth, almost unspeakable to the tongue and the defensive line and linebackers took most of the blame for what turned out to be the most points ever allowed by a Nebraska football team.
As the game reached the third quarter and NU went to a 5-2, it seemed to work, but people will argue that when the other team is already up by a billion points, they aren't going to run the same offense as they did when the game might still have been in doubt. Was the breakdown due to players, coaches or CU being just that better of a team? "I think it will always boil down to personnel in the long run." Benning stated. "I thought that was the case last year and I don't know that it was the scheme but the players running it. If you are going to play the 4-3, you do that based on a couple of premises. You have to have players on the edge that can get to the quarterback and you have to have guys in the middle that can run. If you don't' have that, you are going to have problems. That's just fact. You can ask any coach that tries to run this defense."
The ultimate crap-shoot. Recruiting can be described as such as for anyone to assume they know what a high school player will do in college is somewhat ridiculous and the thought that they can (with accuracy) determine how a teenager reacts to a variety of situations is also equally absurd. It's a compilation of a person taking their experience, evaluating players and making the best decision they can based on their needs at any particular position. It's not a science, nor will it ever be, but schools like NU are judged quite strictly on their ability to get those budding "stars" in anyway. Damon thought that if there is any criticism towards NU warranted to any degree, it could be in this area, but still, NU is not completely at fault.
"If anybody is going to criticize anything that Nebraska has done over the last four or five years, it's in recruiting and there's an art to that", Benning stated. "People have to factor in however that the athlete's mindset has changed in recent years. It's high risk, high reward, go where I can play now and they're not as much into tradition. With this evolution of the athlete though, the coaches have to change as well."
As the athlete has changed, so to has our opinion of their role on a team. With "specialists" abound, getting players that are just good athletes is becoming more of a luxury, as everyone is choosing a position no matter how obscure. "Guys specialize too much", Damon said. "You are either a cover corner, a tackling safety or you are a cover linebacker. They have gotten away from doing a lot of things well. 8 or 9 years ago, Emmit Smith didn't come off the field and now, you have a third down back. You lose a lot of what it is to be a well-rounded player and lose what they can do."
As players have became more singular in their mindset if not their ability, Damon stated that it's easier for offenses now to game-plan for just those kinds of players. "If you see a guy like Demoine Adams as a strictly pass-rushing end, you think they are not going to try and run the ball right at him? The difference between Grant Wistrom and Demoine, aside from a little bit of ability is that Grant could stop the run and he could get after the passer. Nebraska hasn't had guys that are as multi-faceted as they were in the past. You could play Ed Stewart at Safety and move him to linebacker, or Jamel Williams at free safety and move him to linebacker, Eric Stokes who could play rover or corner or Mike Minter who could play rover or corner as well. That's everywhere though in all sports. It's almost taboo now to be called an athlete. If we can't call you something, we don't know what to do with you."
As Damon put so well, when you constrain each individual to a smaller task per say, you force yourself to recruit more and with the greater need in number, you substantially decrease your effectiveness, hampering yourself with great players in a few positions rather than solid players throughout. Recruiting is and will always be a crap-shoot, but with this specialization, if you don't have 30 scholarships to give every year, classes like what NU's had this last recruiting year might end up being simply the best they could do.
Nebraska wasn't supposed to be there. A cry heard across the country as the Huskers faced Miami for the national title. Hindsight might say they were right, but alas, Nebraska has taken the brunt of the criticism despite the fact that it was a system, not a team that put them there.
With this season holding so many question marks, experts and fans alike wonder about NU's potential and some have said that NU could lose as many as seven games. Seven games? A team that hasn't lost more than four games in a season since...........well, it's been a very long time. The polls have and will most undoubtedly agree and are expected to reflect that Nebraska is supposed to fall the way that FSU fell last season. It's a rebuilding year, it's a year of youth, it's a year coming off a pair of very bitter defeats. Nebraska rarely plays from the underdog role, but this year squarely puts them in that category. 7 losses though? How about 4? Damon gave his thoughts on a season of anticipation.
Team to watch
"Right now, everyone better pay attention to what Iowa State is doing. Offensively, this team will be as good as any team in the Big Twelve and Seneca Wallace will be the best offensive player in the conference."
"If Seneca was 6'4", they would be using him in the same sentence as Donovan McNabb. He's that good."
"Be wary of the game in Aimes."
"Absolutely, unequivocally, will Nebraska not lose seven games", Benning stated. I think four is a reach, but we'll play it by ear. Don't think that players don't' share that same sentiment though. We haven't seen NU motivated fired up for any other reason than being Nebraska for a long, long time. We will see what happens, they have to cultivate a lot of young talent and this is the reason why coaches love to coach."
I want to thank Damon for taking the time to talk to us and I want thank you for taking the time to read this. It's another season worth seeing, yet more drama to unfold and a year that will have people wondering about outcomes rather than expecting the obvious. A season to remember.