Pelini left a defense at LSU that in their past three seasons were not rated lower than third. They are also just coming off of a National Championship and there is work to be done in Lincoln on the defensive side of the ball. The good news is there is only one way to go from where Nebraska ended last year: up.
On offense, Nebraska is looking to replace four, senior wide receivers and is still looking for a tight end to really emerge. What about the health of Cody Glenn who played in only a handful of games or even Kenny Wilson who red-shirted following a staff infection in his knee and then breaking his leg.
So what should you be listening for in the coach's comments or reading about in the practice reports this spring? What are a couple of things that you should be watching for in the spring game on April 19th? Well, here are the top five things that I want to keep tabs on:
1. SPRING GAME FORMAT - This is going to be a key indicator to me about actual change. In previous years under Bill Callahan, the format has changed from a #1 offense and #2 defense versus the #2 offense and #1 defense that goes back as far as Tom Osborne and carried through the Frank Solich days. For a coach that preached competition, the spring game with him as the head coach was anything but competitive. It's no secret that the top two teams usually got 90+% of all the reps while lower units were relegated to a few snaps and mostly standing around. Depth is not developed with this approach and when injuries occur you become vulnerable by needing inexperienced players to take the field. Maybe this isn't a great indicator to how practices will be handled if it's 1's versus "The World" again this year, but you hope to hear about more players getting more reps to promote player development.
2. QUARTERBACK - Speaking of player development, Nebraska needs to find out what they have at quarterback. Call me skeptical, but I am not sold on some things about Joe Ganz. However, I am a believer now that time in this system of the West Coast Offense means more than being "prototypical". That is clearly evident of the results last year where Sam Keller was named the starter, gets hurt and then Ganz takes over and puts up some huge numbers. Ganz isn't prototypical, he's a long ways from it, but neither is Colt McCoy or Todd Reesing when it comes to other quarterbacks nationally who have had success. Looking at the depth chart, you would like to see more of a race between Ganz, Patrick Witt and Zach Lee than a concession of the #1 spot. Witt had the highest completion percentage of all the quarterbacks last spring and Zach Lee was named the scout team player of the year in 2007 on offense. Witt has run the offense and Lee has ran the opposing team's offense. If you look at the roster there is really only one "prototypical" quarterback who might be less mobile than the other top quarterbacks, but might have the most upside. Even if Ganz is the starter this year, Nebraska needs to know what they have in the stable to prepare for years to come.
3. LINEBACKER - Nebraska is looking to replace four senior linebackers with players of limited experience, but with potential. One of the players that might benefit the most from Bo Pelini bringing his defense to Lincoln could be Phillip Dillard. Dillard, a celebrated recruit of the 2004 class, is big and physical and has had to sit behind two upper-classmen and battle injury to get on the field. With two years to play, Dillard is in prime position to emerge as one of the strengths of this defense. At the BUCK spot, Nebraska will return Tyler Wortman, a walk-on linebacker, and Blake Lawrence, who saw mostly special teams time last year and battled some injuries of his own. LaTravis Washington could also figure in at this position. At WILL, one of the players you might see could be Major Culbert although Culbert could move back into the secondary to safety potentially. The Huskers could also move Larry Asante down from his strong safety spot where some people think he is more naturally suited to play. There are also players like Austin Stafford, a red shirt freshman, and Thomas Grove, a walk-on sophomore who played special teams last year, that could figure into the mix. There are also question marks like Nick Covey and if he could put together a solid year after battling shoulder and knee injuries since he came to Lincoln. There are more questions about linebacker than there are certainties. If there are any certainties, I would bet that there will be a lot people getting rotated in and out to see what Nebraska has for personnel at the linebacker positions.
4. WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END - Maurice Purify, Terrence Nunn and Frantz Hardy have all graduated and names like Menolik Holt, Will Henry and Niles Paul need to fill in some big shoes. The cupboard is definitely not bare at this position, in fact it might be one of the strongest on the team, but like linebacker there is a relative lack of experience that is concerning. Of course, Nebraska will have veteran leadership in Todd Peterson and Nate Swift that will be nice to rely on, but these players were typically more effective as #2 or #3 options on routes with the likes of Purify, Nunn and Hardy around. Holt and Henry have the taller frame like Purify and Paul and Paul could remind some like Nunn did. Curenski Gilleylen, a red shirt freshman, might be a key part to stretching a defense this spring with his 10.22/100m time that he has. There is talent, but the Huskers need to find an identity and a role for a lot of these new faces that look to fill in some big holes. At tight end, the Huskers will inject Tyson Hetzer into the offense looking for that missing piece at tight end. Keep an eye on Michael McNeil who, if he's healthy, could be one of the best receiving targets that Nebraska has. Nebraska is benefited by Hunter Teafatiller coming back for his senior season this year, not because of his receiving prowess, but because of his ability to block from the tight end position. A big of a dark horse to keep things interesting this year might be Dreu Young. Young has an impressive frame and good speed for his size. He has also built up a relationship with some of the quarterbacks of the lower units and could be a favorite target to some.
5. SECONDARY - Anthony Blue will miss the spring following a knee injury and there is hope that he will be ready at least to see some time next season. The flexibility that Nebraska might have thought that they could enjoy this year with quality depth at the cornerback spot may be over before it began this spring. The cornerback position will still have Armando Murillo, Anthony West and Prince Amukamara returning with experience from last season. However, there were thoughts about supplementing a somewhat weak group of safeties with a player like West or maybe red shirt freshman Shawn Sullivan, but now expect Nebraska to just deal with the lack of depth until the fall arrives. At safety, Larry Asante, if he stays at safety, and Ricky Thenarse should be excited knowing that when Bo Pelini was the defensive coordinator at Nebraska in 2003 that Josh Bullocks had 10 interceptions and eventually went on to become a second round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2005. They could see a simplification of their positions freeing them up to make more plays. West might have been a player that you could have seen get some time at safety, but with the injury to Blue I am not anticipating it anymore. Eric Hagg could figure into the mix this spring, especially if Thenarse moves, and Hagg is one of the strongest players, pound for pound, on the whole team.