Things Seen and Unseen

There were plenty of questions going into the spring game and, thankfully, the skies opened up just in time for some football to be played at Memorial Stadium this afternoon. While some of the questions are showing signs of being answered, others remain. All parts of things seen and unseen today at the Spring Game.

What a day for football in Lincoln.  Cold and rainy to start off the day turned to slightly overcast and at other points sunny and almost hot at others.  Those in the South endzone might have some redness on their necks.

Bigger than that, the 2009-2010 Nebraska Cornhusker team was on display.  All spring the story lines about Zac Lee being the heir apparent, the depth at quarterback, who will emerge at the wide receiver position, the veteran defensive line as well and the promise of the younger defensive players, particularly those across the defensive line and at linebacker, and what they had to show.

Here are my views from the cheap seats as to what Nebraska has going into summer/fall and the areas that still need some help:

SUPRISINGLY O.K.?

I don't think that I could have imagined what I would be saying this, but the quarterback position and the depth might be O.K. going into fall.  While Zac Lee and the Red Offense had only 4 total yards at the end of the first quarter, it was the performance of LaTravis Washington that really caught my eye early and continued to impress throughout the game.

Washington's first drive took up a majority of the first quarter as well as led to the White team getting a scoring opportunity when he took them into field goal range and got them out to a 3-0 lead, early.  I am not sure what I am most surprised of here.  Was it Washington's not too shabby mechanics at the quarterback position with not having played the position since high school?  His pretty remarkable arm strength?  Some quick feet?  How about going through a progression and finding a secondary receiver?

Regardless, the development of Washington so quickly after just a spring playing the quarterback position is pretty incredible.  More than that, it might be a revival of a career at Nebraska that might have been lost for him had he stayed at the linebacker position.

Cody Green also played well.  All three of the quarterbacks demonstrated some management of the game which, to me, was the biggest question mark going into this spring.  I thought that there were some passes which were complete that were probably not real well thrown balls for either making the wrong read or throwing into coverage.  I think that some of that will improve as these three continue to develop.  It's clear though that things at the quarterback position are better than what I thought they might be mostly because it seemed that LaTravis Washington and his desire to stay at quarterback isn't a bad idea.  He showed tremendous promise.

 

MANY OPTIONS, BUT STILL NEED MORE CONSISTENCY

I think that Nebraska has plenty of players to get the ball too.  This is the second year that Chris Brooks has had a huge spring game only to have nothing really follow in the fall in terms of productivity.  Beyond Brooks, Antonio Bell is definitely deserving of a lot of credit and will be a player that Nebraska will need to lean on this fall.  Other players that stood out here were Menolik Holt and Marcus Mendoza.  I had heard up to the legal issues of Niles Paul that he had really stepped up this spring.

However, the position that might be the most loaded on the offensive side of the ball, at least today anyway, might be the tight end position.  Mike McNeil is likely the most consistent and best receiving option that Nebraska has to offer.  However, the Huskers might go four deep here with players like Dreu Young, Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed.

Still, there were passes that were dropped that should have been caught today.  There were also some names that I didn't hear today and there had to be a reason.  I didn't hear anything from Khiry Cooper, could have been a baseball game/series that he was taking part in, and I didn't hear anything from Curenski Gilleylen.

A player like Brandon Kinnie, who I saw today and is an impressive looking specimen, could be leaned on heavily too to help out a wide receiving corps that is struggling for an identity and some consistency.

WHAT MAKES YOU LAUGH, MAKES YOU CRY

I couldn't help but be impressed with the defensive lines on both the White and Red squads which also means that I think that the offensive lines on the two-deep have some shoring up to do as well.

I think that the defense is going to be the strength of the team this year, particularly across the defensive line, but I thought that they really took it to the offensive line today.  I just didn't see a dominant performance up-front by the offensive line when it came to run or pass blocking.

Sometimes the offensive line takes a hit during spring games with the combinations of players that they have to "throw together" to make two squads.  Chemistry isn't there.  Comfort isn't there.  Throw those in with having a stout defensive line, two deep, and that is probably going to equal some problems.

Ndamukong Suh looks like he is ready to pick up where he left off last season.  However, I was interested in seeing what Jared Crick could do to replace Ty Steinkuhler who, in my mind, deserved a lot more credit for his play last year than what he received.  Nebraska needs a strong, chaotic three-technique to really take the attention off of Suh at the one.

Crick showed today that I think that he is ready to step up.  For a big man, and he is taller than most three-techniques, he moves very well.  Also, he seems to have a very good motor and runs the hill line very well from his defensive tackle position and pursue from the backside.

I am also fired up to see the redshirt freshman defensive line has to offer next year in terms of depth as well as how they continue to develop as teammates over the next four years.  Both Cameron Meredith and Josh Williams look "skinny" at their current weight, which is around 245 or a little heavier for both, and it looks like Quentin Toeialoa is healthy and is a nice compliment to Baker Steinkuhler.  Both are huge defensive tackles who can also move from their interior spots.

WORK IN PROGRESS

I think that the linebackers will be improved this year even if Nebraska decides to go with an entire redshirt freshman starting team in the fall of Alonzo Whaley, Will Compton and Sean Fisher with compliments of Matt Holt and Matthew May because of the huge upgrade in athleticism.  Yes, they are young.  Yes, they are raw.  However, the best thing about this group might be the veteran group they will have in front of them along the defensive line.

The thing is, they are young, all the way across even with throwing Blake Lawrence back into the mix and adding recruits like Eric Martin and possibly Chris Williams if he can get ready in time for the fall coming off of a serious knee injury last year.  Regardless, there is promise here.  A lot of it.  There will be flashes of greatness and there will be breakdowns.  Take the good with the bad here this year and know that the future looks bright.

SIGNS OF IMPROVENT

The biggest Achilles heal, to me at least last year, on the defensive side of the ball was the play of the safeties.  Nebraska lacked consistency.  They lacked some athleticism.  They lacked play makers.  In his third year in Lincoln, Larry Asante, is looking more comfortable at the strong position spot.

The player that I thought might have been one of the biggest stars on defensive was P.J. Smith.  Another redshirt freshman, Smith brings more athleticism, some demeanor at the safety position to stick his nose into some crowds to make plays, but also doesn't forget what the safety position is all about.

I think that the safety position is better.  I think that the cornerbacks played well today and really had pretty good coverage for most of the day and go two deep finally at the cornerback spots with players like Anthony Blue, Prince Amukamura, Anthony West, DeJon Gomes among others.

The safety position looks to be more athletic.  Bigger.  And more disciplined with players there like Ricky Thenarse, Eric Hagg and Mason Wald to go a long with previously mentioned Asante and Smith.

LIGHTNING AND…LIGHTING?

I thought that Quentin Castille's best game last year was obviously the Gator Bowl.  He has continued to improve.  While Castille's strength last year seemed to be able to hit a seem between the tackles at full speed and take on the second and third level defenders running down hill while his weakness was turning the corner.

Today, Castille seemed to be able to hit that edge and get up field.  Castile looked 10 pounds lighter, again, and seemed to gain another step or two.  All of this to go along with the word that Roy Helu had put some impressive weight on and seemed to put his mark the starting spot.  This is a legit one-two combination that will cause problems for defensive coordinators this fall.

OVERALL…

I was impressed.  I think that Nebraska is heading in the right direction, generally speaking, but is in need of some identity across the offensive line and the wide receiver position.  When I really look down at the offensive side, I don't see leaders.  Maybe that is Niles Paul and Roy Helu who were held out of action today?  Either way, it's not a guarantee that either of those players will be on the field at all times.  I would like to see someone across the line or even a guy like McNeil take the offense and put it up on his shoulders as kind of that "leader".

There is still a need that I can see that I think will get addressed with one of the incoming recruits this summer.  It seemed that there really isn't that returner that can turn it loose, get outside of the kick or punt coverage, hit the sideline and hit the jets.  Tim Marlowe looks like he is crafty with the ball, but is lacking a step or two.  It seems that the door is open to really allow a player like Rex Burkhead to really walk through this summer to put his claim on being the returner for next season.

Also, on a personal note, I have had a chance to develop some relationships with players as friends through this business.  They have opened their lives up to me personally and they know that I keep the personal side confidential.  However, it's extended out now to the parents of these players and these parents seeking me out on game weekends to see how things are with travel, work and the family.  Now they are also as equally interested to see my wife and son who are some of their biggest fans.  It's things like this that I saw over and over again this weekend that indicate to me that Nebraska is going in the right direction.  This team is tight from the players all the way up to the parents who are almost a catalyst and extensions of the coaching staff that have the best interests of these players at heart whether it's their own son or any of their team mates.  It's refreshing to see and is one of those things that people won't talk about or pick up on, but to me is one of the main indicators to me that this team and program is marching back in the right direction.

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