Depth Chart Madness (Part II) The Offense

It's Depth Chart madness, take two. Yes, depth charts change, at least in the world of Bo Pelini, as we realize that this game of football isn't as static as some like to believe. It changes, and the new depth reflects that. So, like last time when we took you through the entire depth chart after Spring, we are going to look into the new one, just one week away from the season.

Quarterback

1 – Joe Ganz
2 – Patrick Witt
3 – Zac Lee

This hasn't changed, nor did we think it would. It's sad, though, as there is nothing which gets message boards going quite like a quarterback controversy. With so many questions on the defense, though, that's probably the last thing they needed, and Ganz didn't fail to respond in not just maintaining his lead as the incumbent, but cementing himself as a starter to the degree that Head Coach Bo Pelini said prior to this week that the only person who he knew would be the number one guy was Ganz.

As for Witt, his prowess at learning the offense and executing it in practice has made him a shoo-in for number two. The question remains, though, as it does for Lee, what will do in an actual game? There's actually a little bit of hope in Husker land that this game turns into a blowout for the Huskers by half if only to get Witt some actual time on the field. Right now, real-game reps would do him a world of good and it would give everyone a real idea of just what he has to work on for the future.

Lee's progression, especially coming off the knee-injury, probably isn't much of a surprise. The guy can run, and he ideally fits a Joe Ganz offense more than the more prototypical Lee. But this offense isn't about playmaking as it is managing, and there is no doubt Witt has a huge advantage over Lee as of right now. That's something which even throughout the course of a season, is going to be hard to make up. His chance will probably have to wait until next Spring.

Running Back

1 - Marlon Lucky –or-
Roy Helu Jr. –or-
Quentin Castille

Yes, the "Or" is back once again with the running backs, but with an addition, one which I am sure for Castille and even the coaches, was a welcome sight indeed. Castille got his ball-handling issues seemingly under control, and now he adds himself as just as viable to the game plan as either Helu or Lucky.

What's that mean?

It means, basically, that a one-time situational threat, someone who basically by coming into the game almost gave the play away, now becomes more of an all-purpose back, and don't his size fool you. Even with the weight loss Castille goes around 240, and he's a monster to deal with once he gets some momentum going down the field.

If you can remember back to the days of Dan Alexander, who competed for time with former Husker and current Philadelphia Eagle Correll Buckhalter, Alexander was his own kind of force one he could get turned up field. But it took a lot of time for that turn to happen. Defenses started to figure out that just due to Alexander's top-heavy stature, the 6-0 back going over 250 lbs., you could knock him off his  cleats, which was preferable to the somewhat suicidal notion of trying to take him on from the front.

Castille gives defensive players the same pause, but he adds athleticism Alexander simply didn't have, along with great feet. While I can't say whether or not Castille's straight-line speed can match Alexander's, which was actually quite impressive for his size, Quentin brings so much more versatility to the table.

Because you can't look at the depth chart and say for certain who is one, two or even three, you can figure that each is going to get their share of reps. Bank on that, as I would imagine that what dictates how much each gets on the field will do to the kind of rhythm they get into during the course of the game, actual performance, of course, and yes, who makes the fewest mistakes.

Last year that last category was what kept Quentin on the sideline. If all continues from this trend over the Fall, that won't happen nearly as much this season.

Wide Receiver (Z)

1 – Todd Peterson
2 - Niles Paul –or-
Curenski Gilleylen

There's no surprise that Peterson continues to hold down the top spot. With Paul going into just his second year of the offense, and with that offense being tweaked just a tad, Peterson's intimate knowledge of the system would work very well to his advantage. It's about mistakes or the lack thereof, that is, and while Peterson has had issues with being consistent in catching the ball, he knows this offense up and down.

What Paul will give Nebraska that perhaps they haven't had in years is that do-everything playmaking type of athlete.

If you could combine the sheer toughness of a Grant Mulkey-type, a former Husker wide receiver with a penchant for going over the middle and liking it, with the speed-threat and after-the-catch ability of a Terrence Nunn, you would have perhaps the most valuable receiver on the team. Paul fits that, because he's strong enough to be able to create separation just with his body, but he's fast enough to be a major threat to go deep.

All the former Omaha North standout needs now is time going against actual teams and getting used to how teams will try to play him both at the line and down the field.

What Gilleylen gives you is that pure speed threat, but unlike his predecessor, former Husker Frantz Hardy, he's got the thickness and sheer strength to get off the line consistently. If there is an issue with him, it's one where he has to catch the ball first before he starts thinking about what he'll do after that. If he can get solid consistency in that pretty important aspect, what you saw in the Spring Game from the 77-yard TD completion from Ganz, could only be the beginning of what could be a stellar playmaking year.

Wide Receiver (X)

1 -  Nathan Swift
2 – Menelik Holt
3 – Will Henry
4 -  Chris Brooks Sr.

No surprise to see Swift hold down the top spot, but Holt has made some serious noise over the Fall to the point that you would expect to see him get as many reps during the course of a game as Swift himself.

The questions surrounding Holt, though, haven't been so much about can he be a receiver, but can he be THE receiver who replaces the valuable,  but seldom used Maurice Purify. I say seldom used, because Purify was easily the biggest game breaker Nebraska had, but he never started a single game. Did he not know enough about the offense? Was he a weapon only to be used during certain situations of the game? Whatever the answer Holt is now physically similar to where Purify was, and there are no such questions about his knowledge of this West Coast style of play. This could be his year to shine.

In regard to Henry and Brooks, while we heard a lot about Brooks early on during the Fall, that talk has died down somewhat, making one wonder if he'll be a presence this year, his fourth year with the team. Henry is such a tall player, just putting enough weight on seems to have been a chore, but he seems to be on his way. It's obvious that at 6-5 he's a solid mismatch opportunity for the offense, but like many have learned, if you can't get off the line you aren't going to do much good. That  could be his biggest challenge of the season.

Tight End

1 - Michael McNeill
2 – Dreu Young
3 – Ryan Hill
4 -  Ben Cotton

He's healthy.

Consider that a welcome sight for McNeill, especially after a tweaked hamstring had him sidelined for a few days over the Fall camp. Healthy McNeill could be just the kind of weapon Nebraska has sorely needed since this offense arrived in Lincoln.

When Bill Callahan arrived with his eight and a half pound playbook, he had Matt Herian, who coming off a broken leg, never really got back to form. McNeill's potential gives him just the kind of form most were hoping Herian would show once this offense was put into place.

What Young represents is what McNeill looked like his first year; a great frame, but in need of a little more size. But Young has all the athleticism and instincts of a good ball-catcher, that all he needs is a little more time to develop physically into his role. Listing him at second makes sense to me, because while I do expect the tight ends to have a lot of blocking assignments in this seemingly flash-to-the-past emphasis on the run, their role as weapons on the passing game will be where I believe much more will be expected.

Hill doesn't have the height of the aforementioned duo, but he's very athletic, similar to that of Hunter Teafatiller, but with a little more speed. He will also have to develop into his role as a run-blocker, but he's a gritty route runner who, like any tight end worth his salt, is going to be able to go over the middle with as much confidence as they have when running a mid to deep post.

Cotton is a young man who looks the part, is already expectedly ahead of the curve when it comes to knowing the fundamentals of blocking (Thanks Dad-Cotton) and he's got a little grit as well. With the expected litany of plays involving two tight end sets, it's realistic to think that Cotton could see time as early as the non-conference schedule. Would that be ideal? It's hard to say at this time, and hindsight is the only thing that will tell you if he should have redshirted or not, if he does happen to play in an actual game. But the kid has upside, and a lot of it. He's got a bright future with the big red.

Fullback

1 – Thomas Lawson
2 – Justin Makovicka

OK, so we aren't likely to see the fullback running the ball as neither Lawson or Makovicka indicated in any way that all this new emphasis on running the ball was going to steer opportunities their way. But they have to block, of course, and like Lawson did on more than a few occasions, they will be asked to contribute significantly in the passing game.

But tell me it isn't nice to see the Makovicka name in the backfield once again.

I don't know if it's a Makovicka-gene thing, but Justin, while bigger than his older brothers his first year at Nebraska, wasn't what you would consider huge. Look at him now, though, and just like his older brothers, he's gone from being seen as a potential contributor to someone who is physically ready for the job.

We can always lament the loss of the fullback as a legit running threat, but the value of their ability to run-block may find itself to be more significant in helping others to get TDs versus the ones fullbacks used to score for the Huskers, at times.

Either way, Nebraska has solid experience and intensity with Lawson, and with Makovicka, hey, he's a Makovicka. He'll work out just fine and next year for sure or perhaps even this year at some point you will again be able to wax nostalgic as you'll hear that now famous last name as a starter for the Huskers once again.

Left Tackle

1 – Mike Smith
2 – Jaivorio Burkes

The late move of Burkes over to left tackle makes complete sense, and it's probably only due to what he was able to accomplish last year in the last quarter of the season, that cemented him as a legit star at the position for the future. After all, if you did have a sure-fire number one tackle on that line, where would you want him to line up?

On the blind side of the quarterback, of course.

That's where Burkes is now, and it's my feeling that while Smith has been a very pleasant surprise at the position, showing nothing to say that he won't be a solid contributor at the position down the line, once Burkes is considered all the way back and in game shape following his long layoff with issues regarding his blood pressure, the number one spot is all his for the taking.

Yes, he's that good, and now that he's around 40 pounds slimmer, the already quick Burkes will now be an impressively athletic Burkes who is still big enough to flat out stop most any type of defensive end he's likely to face.

But don't count out Smith, because with the kind of rotation that I think we can expect on this line this year, you could very well see as much of Smith as you do Burkes, but just not in a starting role.

Right Guard

1 – Matt Slauson
2 – D.J. Jones

Who would have ever thought that one of the most athletic looking one-two punches on the offensive line would be anywhere close to where Slauson would be slotted in to play? But hey, the new lean-mean machine that is the senior offensive lineman has lost a ton of weight, rediscovered he has feet and is using them along with his hands to pave the way for the new and improved Husker rushing attack.

It would almost be unfair to call Slauson the undiscovered country now, because he isn't big enough to be one, but you might find it ironic now in that there is less of him to find, but you will see a lot more of him this year.

He can get off the ball faster than he ever has while at Nebraska. He's quicker side-to-side than he's ever been while at Nebraska. Add to that the nasty streak he's always had, but when you weigh that much, you can only show it in brief instances or maybe you can't show it at all. Now, I'm not expecting him to go Dean Steinkuhler for a year, but I think the difference you will see in him this year versus last year will have you thinking that it's a completely different guy on the field.

As for Jones, he's there for the future. I expect him to contribute heavily this year, and I also expect him to do very well. He's always had great athleticism and some guys just look like they can play. He does, and I figure he will show that he can, and I don't think you will have to wait any longer than game one before you get to see a nice glimpse of what's to come down the road for a young man who has a bright future indeed.

Right Tackle

1 – Lydon Murtha
2 – Marcel Jones

Just like the move of Burkes to the left side made so much sense, moving Murtha to the right was equally logical. He's one of your most experienced linemen by starts, and if not for health issues which have followed him his entire Husker career, who is to say how many more games he could have started versus always seemingly being in the middle of a heated battle for a job.

When healthy he's athletic, obviously big and he has the long arms and big hands offensive line coaches love to see in their guys trying to protect the integrity of the outer edges of the pocket. You had to figure he was going to start, but some even say that Murtha enjoys this side more than he does the left. A marriage made in heaven, and perhaps Murtha, even if it is his last year, has finally found a stable home.

Jones has all the potential in the world to do what Murtha can do and perhaps more, but he's obviously not been able to apply that in an actual game. As much as many might want to argue potential, you can't even think about throwing a tackle into game one of a season as a starter when they have never even taken a snap in an actual game. Once Jones' ankle become 100 percent, we'll see a lot of him, and like Murtha, he's got the long arms, the big hands and Jones probably has better feet at this point in time. He'll be fun to watch, but it will be sporadic at the start, just like it should.

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