It is without a doubt the them of the entire spring. The players have been beating on each other more than they have during any other segment of seasonal practices since Bill Callahan arrived. And one thing I think is particularly of note is that unlike last year, when the coaches backed off a lot when players started to go down, this staff saw players get bumps and bruises and they threw them all right back into the mix.
Pick a running back and they have gotten sidelined at least once with various nicks that you get during a lot of living scrimmaging. And most of those came from none other than junior linebacker Steve Octavien. If you were to grade a player's worth just on how physically they play the game, the former William Rainey Harper standout would be sporting straight As across the board.
|Lucky hasn't been lucky this spring when|
it comes to staying upright. But he's
managed to make it through all of spring.
The offensive line has been more physical and that's a necessity, because last year they were anything but. I wouldn't say they are where you want them, because there are still a wide range of issues, especially in regard to opening lanes between the tackles. Most of the running backs have been bouncing a lot of their runs outside, because this line still isn't managing a great push up the middle.
I would say the pass protection has improved greatly, along with the backs picking up the blitz considerably better than they did last year. The only problem here is and I think this is relevant to the overall perception of this group's success, they aren't facing a cupcake defense. When the offensive line has to face off against the likes of Adam Carriker, it's not pretty. The guy didn't lead every one at his position in the conference based on just his size. The guy can play and as any of those offensive linemen will tell you, even the budding star Matt Slauson, you lapse for even a second, Carriker will put you flat on your back.
Prior to the spring head coach Bill Callahan commented about the offensive line and how they will actually look like a Big 12 line, implying that they haven't looked the part since he's been the head of the Huskers. I would take that a couple of ways, but the one being a reference as to how physical they were at the point of attack. They have improved in that aspect a good deal and this is once again a very young group. I think that between the spring and all, you will see even more improvement as some of these players that need to bulk up even more, do just that.
Running the ball was almost humorous at times last season. Well, not for the coaches or players, of course. And one of the biggest reasons attributed to that lack of success was the fact that the group simply wasn't being physical enough in not just beating their man but beating them up a little too. That was a staple of the old Nebraska teams, wearing an opponent out and when the latter parts of the game arrived, the defense was all but spent.
You won't see that out of this group, because this offense isn't predicated on putting defenders on their back. It's more about just keeping them at bay.
All that taken into consideration, though, this team will physically wear on the other guy much more than it did before. They have better size, even better speed and there is an aggressive attitude, that was sprinkled amongst the team last year, but certainly finds itself more pervasive this year.
They are definitely ready to get more physical with the opponent. Just ask anyone who has tried to tackle sophomore running back Cody Glenn. They will tell you how physical this offense has become.
NOTHING BUT NET
It's a basketball term, of course, but it implies a perfect shot to the basket. While not totally correct, metaphorically speaking, Zac Taylor's passing has been very similar in its progression.
Basically, the kid has been on fire all spring
He's matured in being able to read the defenses, has excelled at reading the blitz and his accuracy has been pretty darn impressive.
One of the passes, which I believed was a weakness of his was the "out", ranging between 10 to 20 yards. He hits that pass almost blindfolded anymore and the best thing is, unlike last year, where I questioned the velocity on the ball, he throws that ball like he means it. Good speed and right on target almost every single time he throws it. Like all great players, he's turned a weakness into a strength.
With his increased efficiency, the receivers haven't fell behind, relying on his accuracy to get them the ball. If it's off, every receiver has made very nice efforts in going out and getting it.
The label "receiver" refers to someone that is a capable pass-catcher, but I don't look at them the same. A receiver is a label, a pass-catcher is a description and I think this group has proven itself to be full of the latter. They go out and get balls and while very few are going to be those types that will give you a lot of yards after the catch, they will almost always get you that catch.
|Lance Brandenburgh has helped to|
make this group of linebackers one
of the deepest, along with being
potentially one of the best in the
As we saw with Cory Ross last year, the importance of the running back as a receiver can't be understated. To that end, the running backs have gotten a force feeding of sorts, the coaches obviously trying to see just what each can do in that department.
Sophomore running backs Leon Jackson and Marlon Lucky are proven pass catchers from their prep days. So when you see one of them make a grab behind the line of scrimmage, turn quickly up field and automatically go at the defense like a seasoned receiver, that's not much of a surprise. The surprise has been Glenn, and though he hasn't been given the opportunities the other two have when it comes to the sheer amount of balls that has been thrown his way, he has managed to look pretty darn good with his chances.
When you are talking about nothing but net, I would expand on that a little to apply it to the defense, especially when it comes to overall defensive pursuit of the ball. Now, I realize that the hat-on-hat philosophy seems to relate more to physical play, I look at the gang tackle philosophy as much finesse as I do as brute capability.
Players flow to the ball and in bunches. You won't see a whole lot of solo tackles this year, because this group pursues the ball as well as they have and not just in the Callahan years, but I would say since the defense was led by linebackers Terrell Farley and Jamelle Williams. That group of defenders flowed to the ball and when a player on the offense got tackled, it was by a committee.
This group does that. They bring not one, two or even a few. When the ball carrier is getting off the field, he's usually having to wait for four or even more Husker defenders to get off of him.
Just a couple of years ago we got very used to seeing Barrett Ruud spearhead a lot of the tackles and everyone else followed suit. Now you can't pick just who will be that particular player. I think that says as much for the overall intelligence of this group as it does the speed, which is definitely a swish over a bank.
RUN FOREST RUN!!!
Along the lines of being physical, there's a reason for that outside of the fact that you want to dominate your opponents at the line.
You also want to run
This spring could be called the run-laden spring as they have emphasized it over and over again. It's not hard to understand the urgency in trying to find out where they are at in that area, because they lost their most dependable running back to graduation in Cory Ross.
And with all the issues this group had with blitz pick ups last season, they were for the most part, almost completely untested, except for Glenn in mostly short yardage situations.
|Not having Brandon Jackson hurt this|
group this spring
With any running back, they need to see the line of scrimmage. That sounds obvious, but there are many running backs that expect a lane to be there and once they get the ball, it's head down and blast through where that hole is supposed to be.
This group does a good job at keeping their eyes up, scanning the field, knowing either from experience or simply from teaching, the hole won't always be there. That gives the quicker backs like Luck and Jackson a chance to use their quickness and adjust the play to the outside. But the biggest surprise to be has been Glenn and how he's managed to do exactly the same thing.
I will be the first to admit this: I thought Glenn would eventually move to fullback.
Caught up in the wonderful films from their prep days, Lucky was the all-everything, Jackson was that Eric Dickerson-like strider, using speed and gracefulness to get outside and make his impact there. And Glenn was the brute force back, who would be restricted to situational duty his entire career.
What do you know, the kid has proven himself to be everything and a bag of chips.
He's not in possession of the sheer cutting ability of Lucky. And he won't give you that flat out burner speed like Jackson. But he takes everything those players do, applies a generous helping of that to his game and compliments it all with an in-your-face-try-and-stop-me mentality, that makes him easily the most physical back on the team, but with everything else he can do, perhaps the most lethal.
When junior running back Brandon Jackson returns, that will make this the most talent-lade backfield since the late 90s. Now I am not ready to dub them as the heir apparent to that group in perception, but there are a lot of things these backs bring to the table, which will give defenses fits.
I don't see any one of the backs as being that Ahman Green or Lawrence Phillips, but overall, this group is solid, figuratively and literally and they have a little finesse as well.
All of them should have their time to shine this year
IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN
The kickers and punters get very little respect because, well, they are kickers and punters. However, I doubt anyone will forget anytime soon how important Jordan Congdon was against Kansas State and how good the now departed Sam Koch was against basically everyone.
Congdon will only be better this year, but the punters who have the daunting task of taking over for Sam are not waiting around either, ready to do just ok. Sophmores Dan Titchener, Jake Wesch and Tyler Kester have all looked at the opportunity as just that and have taken the proverbial bull by the horns.
We have only seen a little of them outside, one day in fact, but the consistency by both Wesch and Titchener has been impressive.
It's funny when you look at when these kids first came in and how they used to punt along side the various veterans on the team. You'd see Koch boom one 50 yards and then a Titchener would hit a dribbler for 30.
As the year progressed, dribblers turned into legit punts. As the seasons progressed, legit punts turned into boomers and suddenly, while the task of replacing the statistically second best punter in the nation last year is still daunting, maybe impossible, all of these guys show that while there could be some drop off, it won't be much and it might not last for an entire season.
|Cortney Grixby will be one of the |
most electric return men in the
country this year
On the other side, the return game is looking as sharp as ever and why wouldn't with all of your starting return-men coming back. Both in punt and kick return, a department they improved greatly last year from the previous season, they are running well and far.
In stopping the run, though, that's where facing yourself kind of stinks, because in Cortney Grixby and Terrence Nunn, you have two of the best return men in the nation last year. And you as a coverage team have to go against them almost every single day, trying to hold down a couple of players not many could do last season with any great measure of success.
But don't think the field goal blocking team is going to go backward, because like the return game, all of the major players except for linebacker Adam Ickes, are back for another round and you can't hardly keep track of all the players who have blocked field goal attempts this spring.
Whether it's senior safety Brandon Rigoni on the outside coming in like Barron Miles used to do so successfully, or it's Adam Carriker actually shooting the gap at almost 300 pounds, actually blocking a kick with his chest – this group is going to be even better than it was last year.
That's scary when you think about it
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
You can't talk scary without mentioning this group of linebackers, realistically one of the top units in the country heading into the fall. Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said of this group that when it comes to the overall ability, size, speed and ferocity, this is the best he's been around in his long career.
Over the spring we didn't get to see anything significant from junior Bo Ruud or senior Stewart Bradley, because they were limited due to a cautiousness regarding old injuries healing up properly, but that's only let us see this depth mature.
And it has, but it's been highlighted by junior linebacker Steve Octavien, who has shown that his brief shimmer in the first quarter of the game against Maine, wasn't a fluke and point of fact, it could be nothing to what you'll see if he can go a full year.
He hits nobody softly, has actually put out all three running backs in one day of practice and ask Leon Jackson what it's like to block this Florida native when he's coming up on the blitz.
Octavien would tell you that he's a running back playing linebacker, because that's the position he so loved to play from his high school days in Florida. I'd say what he's done is pretty darn impressive, especially for what he considers his secondary position.
The one player who won't say he's anything other than what he is, is Matt Slauson, an offensive tackle with more nicknames than Apollo Creed from Rocky. They call him Slausburger, The Slausinator and his favorite, the Pain Train.
Not sure about the burger, but the other two certainly apply
When this staff is almost desperate to find two solid tackles, who give better than they get, they definitely have found at least one. This kid is legit and I mean legit in that I think before the end of his Husker career, he'll have the word "Outland" by his name, either as a candidate or winner.
Yeah, he's that good and he hasn't even come close to reaching his full potential
THINGS ARE NEVER WHAT THEY SEEM
There's a good reason for the optimism as spring winds down and we get ready for the long calm before fall arrives and these players can go at it again, joined by a crop of incoming commits.
With that being said, though, what we have seen is simply the culmination of a few years of frustration.
It's been an arduous process for the coaches and players to finally get to the point where the conversations aren't anymore about continuity, because there seem to be none – acceptance, because nobody seemed to have any of this new staff and about how optimistic about where this team was going.
Now, it's just a team like any other, coaches in place, confident with how they do things. The players are in place, confident with how they do things and what they are being taught. And the fans are now not lamenting over the past, because like anyone else eventually has to, they have given it up, because the future is all that matters.
But that's what it is and for all the good that has come out of this spring, the optimism going into the fall should be cautious to a degree.
This team is better, there's no doubt about it. They have proven that all spring. How much better is the question and unfortunately, you probably won't know the real answer to that question until the next season is over.
But from what I have seen over the last few weeks, they are off to one helluva start.