One of the big story lines over the Spring was senior Cody Glenn and his move from running back to linebacker. Yes, he had the athleticism to make the move, but there's more to the position than just being able to get from point A to point B really fast.
What was beneficial in showing just where Glenn was at happened to be the performance of senior linebacker Tyler Wortman.
Here's a young man in his last year at Nebraska, but unlike Glenn, he's been a linebacker the entire time and that was one of the positions he played dating back to his prep days. While Glenn has shown all Spring that he has the athleticism for the position, there are certain things he just shouldn't be expected to know right now.
Take for example a commonly taught technique on defense, where you learn to engage the blocker with one arm, while trying to keep the other arm free. Kids have been taught that to some extent since they got into high school ball. But Wortman knows that technique, and it is as instinctive to him as running with the ball was to Glenn.
Because of those kinds of obvious differences, what we have seen from Glenn over this Spring is a whole lot of potential, but something that just three weeks into his changeover, you can't expect him to have down.
What Glenn can do now is follow the ball and he has the explosiveness to cut the distance between himself and the ball-carrier very quickly. He's strong enough to bust up blockers and disrupt things from the point of attack.
When it comes to shooting gaps, however, or even more important, instantly recognizing where those gaps are, there's no way he can have that down quite yet. It could be well into the season before we get to see what Glenn can really do, because right now he's surviving and thriving off sheer physical ability and an eagerness to put his nose in a pile.
Glenn will be good, but he's going to need some time to turn things he's thinking about right now, into things he can do without hesitation.
Another story line was sophomore running back Roy Helu, and he didn't disappoint whenever we had a chance to see him play. At 215, he plays bigger than he looks, but his quickness is also a frustrating illusion for defensive players. Helu comes off as the all-around back and I haven't seen anything from him which would suggest otherwise.
What we haven't seen much of from Helu, though, is how he can be utilized in the passing game. Senior running back Marlon Lucky's success is keyed from his impressive ability to be able to be as effective catching the ball as he is running with it, perhaps even more.
I don't have a doubt as to Helu's ability and he's certainly shown enough thus far this Spring and dating back to the end of last season, whether or not Lucky gets the start come the season-opener really isn't going to matter. I'd be willing to bet you will see just as much of Helu as him in the end.
Also at the running back position is sophomore Quentin Castille, and the Spring game was a microcosm of this Texas standout's brief career:
He'll show you how physical he is as he runs someone over as he did yesterday, running through and over junior safety Rickey Thenarse. Then he will show you how uncommon his feet are for someone his size, as he shows good burst and movement in being able to bounce a ball outside. Then he'll show you yet another aspect of his game, which is the one I am sure the coaches would just as soon not see anymore, as Castille once again coughs up the ball.
For the Spring game, it was a strip, but not even a good strip as Castille had the ball away from his body, and had he held it high and tight as he was taught, it's doubtful that knock out from behind would have even worked.
There's no doubting his physical ability, but it will mean nothing unless he can hold onto the ball.
You could say that as well for wide receiver Curenski Gilleylen, but this in respect to catching versus holding onto it once he has it in his mitts.
The first quarter 77-yard strike from quarterback Joe Ganz, showed in one fell swoop the kind of athleticism Gilleylen has after the catch and the kind of speed he has to create separation from the defender, in this case cornerback Antony West But prior to that it was a couple of drops which weren't passes that should have given him any problems. It goes without saying that what you can do to get yourself open for the catch is good. What you can do after the catch is great. But if you can't make the catch, you are not going to see a lot of time on the field.
One aspect of the receiving corps which was stellar, in my opinion, was the ability to run block on the perimeter game. That seemed to be the direction of the running attack, many runs going to the outside of the tackles. Senior wideout Nathan Swift and sophomore wideout Niles Paul were two who really stood out to me in that regard. They not only engaged their guys, but in a couple of cases, exhibited great hands in being able to maneuver some right out of the play.
Back to catching the ball, redshirt freshman Marcus Mendoza is probably still having nightmares about his two first attempts at returns, the first going through his hands and the other bouncing off his face mask. That cut his duty in the return game short, which wasn't all bad, because we got to see a little of what he could do coming out of the backfield as both a running back and as a receiver.
When it comes to speed, he's got it. When it comes to open field moves, he's got that and then some. From one perimeter run he had where he streaked to the left side for a 15-yard game to the 24-yard touchdown pass from Ganz, this young man doesn't have size, but he's got just about everything else. It's hard to see him as an every down kind of back, but as a situational back, he could be a solid weapon for the big red.
Speaking of the quarterbacks, Joe Ganz cemented himself one more time as the starting quarterback while it was up to redshirt freshman Patrick Witt and sophomore Zac Lee to fight it out for number two. And when it comes to not only knowing the offense, but executing it, it would seem that the job, at least right now, belongs to Witt.
Neither was blowing anyone away, but Witt, along with having a couple of nice throws, showed that he could run this offense effectively. With Lee, he didn't seem all that far off, but in the midst of his 6-for-11 day, which included a touchdown strike, he had a couple of balls you might be hard pressed to figure out just who the intended receiver was. He's got the arm and he's definitely got the mobility. But from an all around standpoint, even though Witt is obviously not going to be running much of the zone read option anytime soon, he seems to be the best option at number two right now.
In addition, give true freshman Kody Spano some credit in mop up duty with a running clock. He only had six attempts, but completed four of them, a couple of them very nice balls. This isn't any early speculation about number three, but for his first time out he wasn't shabby at all.
I'm going to skip the offensive line, because that brings up one of the overriding issues as to why I think this game was a lot uglier than it could have been. Ganz had worked most of the Spring with junior Jacob Hickman, but due to the draft Ganz found himself working with redshirt freshman Mike Caputo.
I don't want to take anything away from Caputo, but on the offensive line and especially at center, chemistry is a major key in a team's success or failure, if there is a lack of it. That is what we get with this mish-mosh of players, all drafted so that the team might be even.
That's where you give head coach Bo Pelini, because he could have stuck his first unit out there as had been done under the previous regime, roll up points and at least for the offense, everyone would have been feeling good about the future.
The intermingling of first-teamers amongst others, though, meant that you were going to have an issue with chemistry. For the offensive line, that's huge.
With all that being said, though, the offensive line has such good depth, that I think if they wanted to run the ball inside on the rebuilding defense, they probably could have. They didn't, and I could easily see that as at least partially by design.
The one thing that stands out about this defensive line, at least on the interior, is that you have athleticism, but not a whole lot of size. It's ironic when you think about it and the philosophies about physiques just a year ago, but it's true. Senior defensive tackle Kevin Dixon showed how athletic he was in backside pursuit play where he notched a tackle for loss. But could he have stood up to a team intent on pushing it right down his throat?
The loss of Ndamukong Suh for this Spring was huge, because you lost not only a lot of talent and athleticism, but you lost a lot of size. I have no doubt this unit will be fast enough on the inside and able to get up the field effectively at times. But that wasn't their problem last year. Last year they simply got gashed up the middle on the way to Nebraska being statistically one of the worst defenses in the country. And right now I don't know that they have a clear cut answer to that problem up front.
The loss of sophomore cornerback Anthony Blue was significant as well, because in a very short time toward the end of the season, he showed that while he didn't always know what he was doing, his impressive athleticism could make up for a lot. His absence gave others opportunities, specifically sophomore Anthony West.
West has been shuffled about from safety to corner and as of right now I am not sold that corner is where he should stay. In a straight line I think he's more than athletic enough, but it's in the backpedal and in turning his hips I wonder if he'll be able to do the job. Now, don't think that the touchdown pass he gave up to Gilleylen was any sort of confirmation. There probably aren't many on this team who could keep up with that particular wide receiver in a straight-line race. It's just everything which leads up to the race where West could be helping himself more at another position than I think he is as of right now.
He's a great athlete and he might be more than ideal at safety, but with the apparent log jam behind Rickey Thenarse and Larry Asante, that doesn't seem likely right now. And cornerback is just one of those positions where if you could have 20 on the roster who could play it, you'd keep all 20 there. It's just that difficult a position to master. In zone coverages I think West will be fine and could excel as he has the quickness to really close on the ball. But in press coverage he's got a ways to go.
Back to the defensive line, Terrence Moore is another who looks the part and has athleticism to burn, it would seem. But he's going to need to get a lot stronger if he's going to do his best work on the inside. If you are asking Moore to explode off the ball, he can do that. If you are asking him to pursue laterally, he can do that just fine. When it comes to shooting the gaps, he may not have the instincts to do that right now, but he's got the quickness and feet to be dangerous. But he's getting pushed around a lot more than he should, and while this offensive line is indeed big, it won't be the only big one he'll face all year. The Summer is going to be hard for him, because that's not traditionally where you want to put on a lot of size or spend hours on end trying to get as strong as you can be. He's going to have to do that, though, at some point, to be not just a three-technique guy who can give you some penetration up the middle, but someone who could easily be seen on the nose, getting push or being able to wall off the inside running game of the other team.
Overall, there were some good things and some things which need a bit of work, which, of course, is something you expect even midway through a season, much less during the Spring with a brand new defensive philosophy installed. And then there is the issue that the Spring game wasn't one which any coach game planned for what the other side of the ball was going to do.
It was technique, effort and all the things which go into making the foundation of a good team, without throwing all of the specifics which are meant to address each team they face down the road.
That equates to some not-so-stellar football and some of it could be downright ugly. But hey, Nebraska won.
I think it's relatively clear, though, that while there is a certain amount of potential with this defense, and you can certainly expect that they won't be nearly as bad as they were last year, this group has a steep road to climb and not a lot of experience to get them there…