It's big news in Husker land: There's a depth chart in the media guide. You remember depth charts, don't you? Well, maybe not, but head coach Bo Pelini hasn't shied away from saying who was on top. And now we can look at the official list of who will start where for the Huskers, this time on offense.
Fans love lists. Whether it's rankings or just stats, they love it. It's a way to put a little order to the common disorder that goes into being a rabid sports fan.
Well, depth charts are just another list, but it lets fans start daydreaming about who could do what, thus allowing them to speculate with at least some sort of foundation.
The have had to guess for the last few years.
Former head coach Bill Callahan was adamant in saying that he didn't like depth charts. One of the most comical things was during the pre-game in Lincoln when the video board would flash the starters at each position, when the running backs came up you saw them all. Brandon Jackson, Cody Glenn, Marlon Lucky, Leon Jackson – it was 1A, 1B and so on.
That can't be avoided at times when there is stiff competition at a position. But to list every running back who could potentially take a single snap?
Yeah, a little ridiculous
Not Bo Pelini. He would, of course, always remind everyone that competition was always open, that nobody was guaranteed a spot and that at any moment something could possibly change. But he said senior quarterback Joe Ganz was his guy following the Spring. He said that senior linebacker Tyler Wortman was not just number one at the "BUCK" position, but number two in the middle. So, how does this post-Sping/pre-Fall chart look right now?
Let's take a look at the offense:
1 – Joe Ganz
2 – Patrick Witt
3 – Zac Lee
Kind of a no-brainer here, but going into the Spring there was a lot of attention toward the number two spot behind Ganz. After all, Ganz is one hit away from not playing the rest of a game or maybe even a season. Try to stay calm, though, as that's a worst case scenario for the big red.
Someone would have to step up to take his spot.
Over the Spring Lee was the most like Ganz in what he brought to the table, physically, the junior college transfer sporting a wealth of mobility, good speed and a great arm. But it was Witt who managed to do what is perhaps the most essential thing in this complicated system and that was understand the system itself.
The checks, reads and audibles – Witt's noted intelligence paid huge dividends and he made consistently good decisions where as Lee had trouble at times. Don't think that Witt isn't physically capable either. He may not be running a lot of zone read plays where he tucks and goes down the field, but the drop back style QB has good movement in the pocket and he has perhaps the strongest arm on the team.
1 – Marlon Lucky OR Roy Helu Jr.
2 – Quentin Castille
Yes, it's the dreaded "OR." That word which seems to be a failsafe in regard to not wanting to commit to just who is the number one and number two guy. Unlike previous years, though, it isn't some ploy used to keep players happy, but simply a recognition of what Helu has done to rocket himself to being considered a co-starter type of player.
Going back to last year and throughout the Spring, Helu showed everything from having excellent burst to the corner, great elusiveness in the open field to being able to put his head down and make a hole where there wasn't one or hit the hole that was there with amazing quickness. His versatility in catching the ball out of the backfield proved just as potent, which is perhaps the most important aspect for a running back trying to fit in this type of system.
Marlon Lucky has the experience, and you can't take away from his ability to catch the ball, make that quick turn up field and being able to make that first player miss. But Helu could be just a bit better in every facet out of the area of receiving. In that sense Lucky is a proven commodity.
Sitting in the third spot is Quentin Castille, and honestly, considering the issues he has continued to have handling the football, he'll more than likely be on a very short leash early on, expected to be in on very predictable down and distance situations.
The kid is a very gifted player, far more athletic and elusive than his size would indicate. But his issues with holding onto the football will keep him limited in time until he can show through one rep here and there that he has a potentially costly problem under control.
Player to Watch: While Marcus Mendoza can be a great situational threat for the Huskers coming out of the backfield, with his intelligence and all-around ability, don't rule out Collins Okafor from seeing time his first year with the big red. Right now it's not certain that the staff would want to take him out of his redshirt if they don't feel they need to. But on paper, Okafor has all the tools to get it done.
1 – Nathan Swift
2 – Menelik Holt OR
No surprises here, Swift inching his way toward Husker fame, approximately 40 receptions away from surpassing the legendary Johnny Rodgers in career pass receptions. His knowledge of the offense and consistency during a season cement him at this spot. But if we have learned anything about this position, it's that while there is a depth chart, so many other players will receive so much time and see the field in a variety of down and distance situations, the chart itself is almost a moot point.
Battling for time behind Swift will be Holt and Brooks. People are still waiting for Brooks to do do something which resembles the kind of expectations many had of him as he came to Nebraska ranked as one of the top 25 receivers in the country. Some of the issues have been with injuries and some have simply come from not being physical enough for wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore's liking.
Holt is someone who has definitely gotten more physical, looking now more like Maurice Purify, which is good, because that's who he is expected to replace.
That's a horrible thing, really, to think that you have to try and match some of the game-breaking types of plays that the standout Husker once made. But even with this slightly revamped style of the West Coast offense, that big-bodied wideout is a must. Can Holt be that guy? He needs to be, because there might not be anyone else that at least right now who can step up to do what Purify made look almost routine.
Player to Watch: Khiry Cooper's athleticism is obviously impressive. As of right now we are still waiting to find out officially if he'll be a Husker or playing in the minor league system of the Anaheim Angels. If Nebraska gets him Cooper gives you an all-around threat capable of being someone who could go over the middle (though I wouldn't advise it at this early stage of his physical development) or someone that can definitely stretch the field. Oh, and those fade patterns into the end zone which Purify almost made a staple of the Husker offense, throw it up to this young man and watch what he can do.
1 – Todd Peterson
2 – Niles Paul OR
One might not argue who is going to know this offense better between offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and Todd Peterson. But if you listen to some of the other offensive players, Peterson is just like a coach out there with just his sheer knowledge of the system and every nuance contained therein. That along with his decent consistency as a wide receiver make him an easy choice for the top spot. But again, with this position the guys behind him could see just as much time as he does when it's all said and done.
In both Paul and Gilleylen you have the potential heir apparent to now graduated Terrance Nunn. A receiver who might not be a lot smaller than most of the other wideouts, but he's definitely someone who brings a lot of "after-the-catch" potential to the field.
Both Paul and Gilleylen have that and then some, both with track backgrounds in high school and each is a legit option for return duties on special teams. What Nebraska needs out of this position which they didn't get all the time with Nunn is consistency after the catch and someone who doesn't have a lot of issues holding onto the ball.
Nebraska had another deep threat in Frantz Hardy who is graduated as well, but he had considerable difficulty just getting off the line of scrimmage. That won't be an issue for either Paul or Gilleylen as both may not be big-bodies in terms of height, but they certainly are in terms of thickness. They will be physically ready to compete.
1 – Mike McNeil
2 – Ryan Hill
McNeil is a no brainer here, but the question with him as it has always been, can he stay healthy for a season. Injury issues have plagued him since he arrived, but there's no doubting his ability if he is.
He's an automatic mismatch at the line of scrimmage, McNeil a much bigger kid now physically, making it a difficult prospect for even the most stout linebackers to cover him one-on-one. The Missouri native also has a tenacity to go out and get the ball, which is something that Nebraska hasn't really seen consistently dating back to perhaps before former Husker Matt Herian arrived.
Ryan Hill is a bit of a surprise at number two. He certainly has all the physical gifts, being rangy when it comes to being a mid-field threat as a receiver to someone who could potentially stretch the field against certain positions. He's also very good at getting off the line and showed solid feet throughout the Spring.
My questions point toward Dreu Young, who I was particularly impressed with, and if you look at his height and his frame, he is definitely someone you see looking like McNeil does in perhaps just a year.
The questions about this position mainly point to just how it will be utilized. Will it be a two tight end set focused more on establishing the line of scrimmage for the running game? Or will it be a versatile front, giving the tight ends the flexibility to show what they can do as receivers, and not solye in gimmick-play situations?
This is a year where if all of these players stay healthy, we might see just what this group can do and what Watson will do with them if he has the confidence they can get it done consistently throughout a game and a season.
1 - Thomas Lawson
2 – Justin Makovicka
Not a lot of drama here, but for Husker fans it does have to be nice to see another Makovicka once again grace the depth chart at the fullback spot. While Lawson will be their obvious go-to guy as both a tenacious blocker and opportunistic receiver, Makovicka's athleticism will keep him steadily going to the field. Much like the tight end position, though, there's a question as to just what this offense will do with the fullback and if there will be any changes to their role within the team.
Will a Makovicka once again carry the ball from the position directly behind the QB? Will any fullback? Only time will tell.
1 – Lydon Murtha
2 – Mike Smith
This was kind of an easy decision, Murtha with a wealth of knowledge about this system which Smith couldn't possibly have at this point. But can he be more physical? The Minnesota native has always been seen as an athletic specimen – really a sight to behold, but not the most aggressive player at the line. With the laid back style of Barney Cotton, it's not certain whether or not that will change this year, but there's no question from an experience standpoint just how much Murtha brings to the table.
Smith will be a valuable addition to this side of the ball as he showed in limited duty last year, both quick off the line and physical at the point of attack. He just needs reps, but he'll have a capable teacher in the person in front of them.
1 – Mike Huff
2 – Keith Williams
This could be the hottest battle on the line even going into the season, Williams a gargantuan kid with deceptively impressive athleticism. But he'll be challenged to try and conquer the system to the extent that it can override Huff's four years of learning every nuance of this attack.
Both are physical players, so there's no problem there, and when Huff is healthy he's shown himself to be good moving laterally and getting of one block and moving to another. There's just a lot of God-given stuff Williams has, though, which could be the difference. Consistency will be the key.
1 - Jacob Hickman
2 – Mike Caputo
One might think I am nuts, but when it comes to pure execution, hands and feet, this young man might be the best lineman on the team. He's just so sound at everything, just getting him on the field, whatever position, was key. He has to make sure he stays on it, though, because while Caputo proved eager to compete and capable of working within the system, he might be about 20 pounds from being ready to play Division 1-A ball.
The center is arguably one of the most important positions on the field. Hickman will prove good to those expectations in executing the offense. Now the question is, can he physically dominate at the point of attack? That's perhaps the only thing we just don't know for sure right now.
Player to Watch: Mike Caputo may not have the size right now but Nebraska native and junior collete transfer Ricky Henry certainly does. Oh, and if you want mean streaks out of your offensive linemen, Henry has a long enough one for the entire depth chart.
He's tenacious, ferocious and relentless, but still he manages to work within a system effectively and more often than not, his uber-physical style of play doesn't draw unnecessary attention from the zebras on the field.
But center is going to be a bit of an adjustment for him along with all the responsibility that position demands when it comes to running this system. But don't worry about physical ability, strength, size, speed, etc. He's got it, and he uses it with almost unparalleled "passion."
1 - Matt Slauson
2 - D.J. Jones
Had Slauson not gone Jenny Craig over the off-season this depth chart would probably not look the way it does. But he has and a position he once held tenuously, he now has a firm grip on for the year. It's going to be exciting to see what a trimmed down-fired up version of Slauson looks like, because I am not totally sure that we have seen it during his entire career with the Huskers. But he's powerful without a doubt. He's also quicker than most think and he does have a bit of a mean streak which is always nice to see in the trenches.
As for Jones you don't have to worry about him contributing, because he will. Depth on the O-line is simply too important and guys will be shuffled in and out consistently to keep players fresh and the running game churning down the field. Jones brings outstanding athleticism, great strength and a little tenaciousness as well.
1 – Jaivorio Burkes
2 - Marcel Jones
It's almost unfortunate that both Burkes and Jones are playing the same position. It almost reminds you of 2002 when linebackers T.J. Hollowell and Demorrio Williams occupied the same spot on defense. Both are potentially incredible players, but with Burkes you have already seen just a little of his incredible potential.
First and foremost, just like most of the rest of this unit, Burkes played too heavy. You can say that he was still too heavy during the Spring. Even with that extra weight, though, Burkes got off the line effective enough to halt the attack of talented former prep all-everything defensive linemen from Texas, including former Longhorn Frank Okam.
That was his first start of his collegiate career.
I'm not an offensive line coach, so I can't detail what "IT" is, but this young man has it and in bunches. He's one of those types who once he gets his hands on you, it's more than likely over. That's the kind of dominance at one of the tackle-spots Nebraska needs.
Jones comes out of the prep ranks with similar potential, but he actually has had to throw on weight versus take some off to be effective. He got a little bigger before Spring and he's certainly a lot leaner than he was before arriving in Lincoln last year. Like Burkes Jones has a lot of athleticism and with his long arms and huge hands, he could also be a "lock down"-lineman, if there is such a thing. His run blocking is what will be the most interesting thing to watch. Jones doesn't look like he's built to pave the way just yet, but if Burkes can surprise with his quickness, Jones has the potential to surprise with just how physical he can be.