And the starter is...........

This is the best and worst time of the year. Why? It's because at this time, it's when football season isn't, so that makes it the worst. But, it also lets anyone be an expert, right up until the season starts, because nobody is right or wrong on what's going to happen and who's going to be responsible for the good and bad of it all. One of the biggest issues this up-coming season isn't going to be the accomplishments, but who makes them as each position is apparently anyone's for the taking.

You are looking down the roster and speculating as to who is going to be where. You are even throwing a few in there off of this year's class of commitments, because they are either speculated to be just that good or the position they are playing in is just that shallow. Well, we here at HC (or I should say me) are not without our own opinions as to the battles at each position, who will get those slots and what the starting roster come the OSU game is going to look like. This is the breakdown of the offense.

The Position: Offensive Tackle

The Candidates: Dan Waldrop, Nick Povendo, Darin DeLone, Jemayel Phillips, Cory Timm, M.J. Flaum, Chris Loos, Nate Manley, Ryan Schuler

Question marks: Chris Loos, M.J. Flaum - health. The answer to this question dictates just what each could do for the Huskers this year. Both were touted very highly coming out of high school and much is still expected from each, but until health issues are put to rest for good, it's hard to argue their place as a starter.

50/50: Nate Manley, Dan Waldrop, Ryan Schuler - Waldrop has been the starter on the right side the last 2 years, but the pressure from some of the soon-to-be-named will find him working from the pine. Waldrop has been consistent, but not consistently good and if someone can just stand out or any group of linemen, Waldrop will be relegated to second string. Manley will just be going into his redshirt sophomore year and much like most Husker linemen throughout history, this is where he will either shine or diminish. Schuler is getting a lot of pub as being a kid that could do what only a smattering have ever done in the history of NU football and that is start as a true freshman on the offensive line at NU. Though I certainly respect his ability, looking at the competition, I think his shot, especially at this stage is going to be a tough one.

Biggest Battle: Darin Delone vs. Nick Povendo - Even with all the recent hub bub about Jemayel Phillips, I think the starting tackle position on the left side is his to lose. His weight issues are noted, but I think quite manageable for the "Big Smooth". The biggest battle should be between Povendo and DeLone for the RT position and I think this should be a good one. Povendo is a nasty customer. You will remember that everyone instantly fell in love with him when this Texas native said and I quote, "I hate Texas", obviously in his reference to the Longhorns. DeLone's JC experience is good, but Povendo's experience at the position, despite the lack of playing time behind Waldrop, it should give him a slight edge.

Starting Line-up: LT - Jemayel Phillips - RT - Nick Povendo

(It should be noted that if both Flaum and Loos figure into this mix completely healthy, I would still see Phillips winning the job at LT, but would figure Loos to make the hardest push on Povendo for the starting RT position, but would still have Povendo as the starter in the end)

The Position: Offensive Guard

The Candidates: Mike Erickson, Junior Tagoa'i, Brandon Koch, Jake Andersen, Jermaine Leslie, Brian Nelson, Tyler Rowe, Gary Pike, Carson Schott, Brett Byford, Greg Austin

Question Marks: Brian Nelson, Tyler Rowe, Gary Pike, Carson Schott, Brett Byford - Most of these guys, I attribute experience and in some cases, simply being not quite as good as some of the guys they are going against. For players like Gary Pike, I don't think talent, rather the lack of being truly physical at this time, equating to question marks around his possible contributions. Brett Byford is potentially very good, but I think strength alone will be the reason he redshirts, taking a year to get into the infamous weight room of NU to bulk up for his shot next year.

50/50: Greg Austin, Brandon Koch - Brandon sat 3rd on the depth chart at left guard behind Junior and Mike Erickson last season. Though I don't look at him to slide any, it's going to be hard for him to climb considering the competition. He's got the size and reports say that he is fundamentally sound, but it could be the little things that keep him out of the top two again this season. Greg will be a true freshman coming in, but he is not going to practice like it, nor play like it. He's got a real nasty streak to him and is extremely physical. He's got the strength and feet to get in there and at least make some noise, but in the end (like Koch), I think the competition gets him..............this year.

Biggest Battles: Junior Tagoa'i,vs. Mike Erickson and Jake Andersen vs. Jermaine Leslie - Mike has the starting experience edge over Junior, but not by much and what Junior has shown in his time on the field (which increased as the year went along) is some very physical play and as you would expect from Tagoa'i, he plays with a purpose. Junior can be flat out mean when he wants to be, thus some rather welcome intensity on the field. Mike is going to have his hands full fighting of his Hawaiian. The battle between Andersen and Leslie is going to be a good one I think. When it comes to sheer potential, I think Leslie takes the position, but Jake is a fighter and won't go quietly. Jermaine is coming off the ankle surgery and there still is some question as to whether he should be good to go soon enough to make a serious stab at the starting spot, but if he's healthy, Jake may be a bulldog, but I think in this case, he's the one that gets bit.

Starting Line-Up: LG - Junior Tagoa'i - RG - Jermaine Leslie

The Position: Center

The Candidates: Richie Incognito, Greg Austin, Josh Sewell, Kurt Mann, Brandon Koch, Jack Limbaugh

Question Marks: Brandon Koch, Jack Limbaugh, Greg Austin - Whether Brandon is even listed at this position this coming year is the biggest question for me. Though listed on the roster as a center, with the move of Richie to the position and the return of once-upon-a-time, heir apparent to the throne at center, Josh Sewell, it could be realistic to assume that Brandon will simply vie for his time at one of the guard positions. Jack is a perennial contributor, but I don't see him moving up beyond third string with the principles that are in place right now. As for Greg, I think he also will take his battle to the guard position and even if that doesn't work out, considering who the new starter is going to be at center, I would think that's where Greg will stay.

Biggest Battles: I omitted the 50/50 for a simple reason, this battle for the second slot on center is where the biggest issue is. There is no question as to who will be starting for NU come this year. That was sewn up the instant Richie Incognito was moved to that position. Kurt Mann and Josh Sewell will be battling it out for this position and I think it should be a really good one at that. Josh has got the edge on Kurt in experience, but considering both are true sophomores to be, that's only marginal. Josh is certainly the most stout of the two, weighing in at almost 300 lbs. at only 6'2", but some are talking quite loudly as to just what this young "Mann" can do. It may be a battle for second place, but it's going to be one of the better battles on the line, but I think Mann's all-around game and slightly bigger frame if not body, to push him over the top.

Starting Line-Up: Richie Incognito

The Position: Tight End

The Candidates: Matt Herian, Phil Peetz, Matthew Woodward, Alex Shada, Chris Septak, John Knopp, Dusty Keiser, J.B. Phillips, Josh Mueller, Trevor Neeman

Queston Marks: Matthew Woodward, Alex Shada, Chris Septak, John Knopp, Dusty Keiser, Trevor Neeman - The questions behind once-highly-touted Septak are obvious. Is he going to be healthy and will he stay that way? There's no question as to his potential, but it has followed the path that DeAntae Grixby took for what seemed like an eternity to fans, much longer I am sure to Grixby. Such must be the frustration for Chris as he has battled one injury after another. If he's healthy, he's a factor. He just needs to be healthy first. John, Dusty, Alex and Matthew, all potentially solid players, but amongst those currently listed at the position and potentially at the position, they look to fill a needed role, but not THE role. The biggest question I have about Trevor is whether he will be a tight end at all as there is a chance he could see the other side of the ball. How that plays out will determine much of the depth chart, but I don't believe the top two positions would change regardless.

50/50: Josh Mueller, Phil Peetz, J.B. Phillips - With the immediate contributions of Matt Herian, a guy that fits his mold like Josh Mueller can't be counted out as to what he could offer, even in his first year. He's got all the numbers to say he can do what he is capable, but even with the loss of so many tight ends, I think this will ultimately end up being a very deep position. I think either Mueller finds himself as a top two guy or he gets redshirted and I don't think top two is realistic, but some probably said that about Herian, so who knows. Phil Peetz has all the experience, but his size is what kills him here. Though he's got the hands, the metamorphosis at this position is lending itself to more of a size-first mentality, but speed running a very close second. In that area, Peetz is a contributor, but he's getting overshadowed, at least from a strictly measurable standpoint. J.B. Phillips, believe it or not could be the one guy that could come in right now and compete. His speed won't blow you away, but physically, he's closer than anyone else of his grade status to being a prototypical NU tight end and best of all, he's an accomplished blocker, which some tight ends can't say coming in. I figure J.B. to make a lot of noise, simply because he will be able to physically get in there along with running routes, but the starting spot (in my estimation) is all but locked up.

Starting Line-Up: Matt Herian

(Footnote: In the ever-common two-tight end sets NU uses, I do expect to see J.B. Phillips in there his first year and though I believe if Mueller doesn't hit the top two, I would expect a redshirt, he might go the route of a Mark LeFlore and forego that, just wanting to get on the field)

The Position: Wingback

The Candidates: Kiffen Wigert, Mike McLaughlin, Jack O'Holleran, Ryan Ommart, Dusty Stamer, DeWayne Long, Joel Jackson, Adam Hassebroek, Ronnie Smith

Question Marks: Joel Jackson, Dusty Stamer, Jack O'Holleran, Adam Hassebroek - Some of the questions come in the form of guys that are on the roster that aren't on this list. NU always manages to pull athletes from across the roster into this position, if they fit the mold of someone athletic enough to contribute to the position. As it is though, we'll take the current candidates into account and one other, that being Dusty Stamer. Dusty is a question, because when it comes to speed, this kid beat everyone else on the team. He is a burner, pure and simple. That kind of speed usually gets you on the field, but his size has always been yet another issue. I just expect him to see some kind of action though, because with that kind of speed, if his hands are any good at all, he could be a very deceptive weapon, at least until the opponents get burned by him enough to know better. Jack and Joel are both juniors to be and they are going to have some stout competition trying to get some real solid playing time. While Troy departed, his brother (Adam) comes in as a redshirt Sophomore. I honestly don't expect him to contribute this year, but his size and speed are going to be heard from, however, not in the 2003-04 season. Ronnie Smith should be trying for a position at running back, but if that doesn't work out to his liking, don't be surprised if you don't see him spelling the defense at times, at this position and if that's the case, he could get in the mix real fast.

50/50: Ryan Ommart, DeWayne Long - Ryan is a real toss-up for competing for starting time or at the very least, a considerable amount of time on the field. I do think NU will platoon at the position this year like they have every other giving Ryan some solid chances to the field, but making the top two, it's going to be tough, even with his experience. As for DeWayne, I don't know about you, but I have been waiting for this name to pop up since he got here. The first year, I just expected him on special teams, returning balls for certain if not already cementing himself as a wingback star, waiting to happen. Injuries or just over-expectations have not made that happen for Long, at least not yet. With his athleticism, I still think he's a bet to get in there, but it's a bet I have lost every year I have made it thus far, so for now, I'm just hedging a bit on him.

Biggest Battles: Kiffen Wigert vs. Mike McLaughlin - The heir apparent vs. the man who would be a quarterback. Mike has a lot of things going for him in this position, the best thing being speed. He's got that and then some. Mike also has some success in developing this receiving game of his, fully expecting to play the position from the day he got here, if he didn't make the top three at QB. Mike has a little more size than Kiffen and more speed, which gives him an edge, even if it didn't last year. I think Mike finds himself as a starter, just not at the position he wants. He should make a very good weapon for NU though.

Starting Line-Up: Mike McLaughlin


The Position: Split End

The Candidates: Ross Pilkington, Mark LeFlore, Isaiah Fluellen, Ben Zajicek, Tim Liley, Brandon Biodrowski, Andy Birkel

Question Marks: Brandon Biodrowski, Andy Birkel, Ben Zajicek - First thing is first. I believe that under most circumstances, under the usual criteria, there isn't a guy on the Candidate list that wouldn't have a decent shot at the top three. These aren't the usual circumstances though as NU finds itself unusually stacked at this position and stacked with some serious players. I think the cream will rise to the top, but we've already seen much of that last year. Andy Birkel could try for a spot early, but like the others on this list of question marks, I just don't see him breaking into the line-up this season.

50/50: Isaiah Fluellen - Considering his vaunted speed numbers coming out of Germany, many (myself included) expected Nebraska to find this kid a spot..........somewhere. He's not the only guy with speed, but, you put that on a 6'1" frame and it gets even more formidable. Yes, he was pretty light and maybe that's the reason, but my curiosity isn't satisfied. I expect to see him out there this year, but I thought that last season as well.

Biggest Battles: Ross Pilkington vs. Mark LeFlore - Tim Liley figures into this mix as one of the top three, but I think with Ross and Mark, here's where you got a serious battle. Both have speed, but Mark can jump a mile in the air. Ross seems to be pretty good at creating separation, but more physically than with sheer speed. Mark is the kind that will simply beat you as I think Ross can beat you, but could beat you up as well. This is a toss-up for me, because I look at each as equal, but both being different in exactly how they get things done. I will ultimately go with the guy I think that will be the most consistent playmaker though and in this case, this year, I think the guy with the vertical gets the nod.

Starting Line-Up: Mark LeFlore

(Footnote: Much like any other position, NU has had the platoon philosophy in full effect, so regardless of who starts, you could see any one of these two and even three in there with consistency.)

The Position: Fullback

The Candidates: Judd Davies, Steve Kriewald, Andy Wingender, Phillip Kniep, Zach Giesselmann, Tim Weltmer, Dane Todd, Grant Miller, DeAntae Grixby

Question Marks: Andy Wingender, Phillip Kniep, Zach Giesselmann, Tim Weltmer, DeAntae Grixby - The question with all of these candidates save one is if they can truly make a stab at a position that not only brings back the starter, but two others that were all listed ahead of them last season. The one being Grixby of course, the question being exactly what position will he be listed at this year. Personally, I have never seen this guy as a fullback. Not a Nebraska fullback anyway. He may run physical, but that isn't a good thing either as I think that was a bad habit he picked up in the Alexander and "Buck" days of being here. He's already got a decent size deficit to fight against at this position, but I just think he should be an I-back or at the very least, a position more fitting to what he can do.

50/50: Dane Todd, Grant Miller - To me, Dane Todd is one of the few that could stand out before this is all said and done. I don't think he's great at any one thing, but he's solid from top to bottom. He's an all-around kind of guy that gives you a little versatility in every direction and that's always a plus for any team. Out of the "youngins", I think he's the best to at least breathe down the neck of whoever is sitting at number two. Grant Miller is a guy that certainly had the hype coming in and he's definitely a physical specimen. About the only thing stopping him is , well...........him. Can he be physical enough? Can he sustain that at this level of play over a game and a season? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, look out, the rotation at FB could look entirely different this season.

Biggest Battles: Judd Davies vs. Steve Kriewald - Based on what Judd did earlier in the season, this job should have been Steve's even before this season started. Based on what Judd did later in the season, NU looks like they knew what they were doing, sticking with Davies throughout. What Davies isn't, is not a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. He just isn't that type of fullback, but again, as the season wore on, he proved to do what he was designed for, better and better each week. Running, blocking and doing both at the same time, Judd dramatically improved his game from where he started at the beginning of the 2002 season. What Steve gives you is much of what I believe Dane Todd gives you, only with a lot more experience. He's just a solid all-around fullback and with the time to get acclimated to playing in real games, I think he proves to be the best all-around threat NU has at this position, at least right now. Given that though, ultimately, I think the experience of Davies wins the day, if not the season on this one.

Staring Line-Up: Judd Davies

The Position: Running Back

The Candidates: David Horne, Cory Ross, Josh Davis, Marques Simmons, Ronnie Smith, Robin Miller, DeAntae Grixby, Tierre Green

Question Marks: Tierre Green, Ronnie Smith, Robin Miller, DeAntae Grixby - Tierre, well, he's going to redshirt, because this depth chart isn't favorable to anyone just coming in. DeAntae, well you know what the question here is from above. Ronnie, the depth chart is one consideration, plus who knows, he may move to another position, at least for now. And as for Robin Miller, as anyone that knows me or has known me over the last few years, this is a kid I was high on from the get-go. I swore by him, but mostly swore quite profusely either because I didn't think he was doing what I speculated he was capable or of course, I was complaining that the coaches wouldn't give him a shot. Well, his performance index tests were off the meter this year, he's always a good Spring Game RB, but what happens come Fall will determine if Miller ever realizes just some (or maybe all) of what this person (that means me) thinks he has in the tank for his final season as a Husker.

50/50: David Horne, Marques Simmons - Yeah, that's right. I said David Horne and I will give you one word to explain why - size. It matters. Especially when you are talking about Horne. Granted, he carried the ball over 20 times in a game, but can he do that all season long. My thing with Horne is, if he is 10 pounds heavier and it's a "good" heavier, he's going to be hard to beat for the spot, but if he hasn't put on that weight, can he really last all year is Cotton or whoever decides they want that one-sure RB that will shoulder the brunt of the load. His weight determines everything in my opinion. Come into Fall with 10 more pounds of muscle and he could enter the OSU game as the starter. If not, he could find himself fourth string real fast, because the competition is stout to say the least. As for Marques, he could be the guy replacing Groce on punt returns and who wouldn't want someone with his wheels back there doing that. He's got the speed and can turn the corner fairly well, but does he have what it takes to break the top two? The issues with fumbles are old, but can be used in a pinch. To me though, the bottom line isn't if Marques is good enough, because I think he is. I just think that being good doesn't always mean you are the starter.

Biggest Battles: Josh Davis vs. Cory Ross - This one has all the makings of a "tale-of-the-tape" and yes, there is some partially amusing reference to the uppercut thrown by Davis on the sidelines at the Aggie game after a kickoff return. With all that being said though, you got two very different styles of runner here. One who's got a great all-around game and one who has some seriously ankle-breaking moves and a good burst to boot. The pros for each are many, but let's look at one thing each has to overcome to a certain extent to be that "complete" back for NU.

For Josh, it's just a matter of using that amazing open-field ability of his to elude people and not run them over. Much like his dad, he's got the attitude that he's going to flatten anyone that gets in his way. The problem is though, his dad had the strength and physique Josh doesn't and Josh has wheels I don't think anyone on NU had when the elder Davis played. When he has the choice to go around and by them or through them, I think his more productive choice would be in doing what he does even better than knocking them out and that's just smoking them to the end zone. For Ross, it's a simple matter of North/South vs. East/West.

Ross needs to be more of the former and less of the latter. It's great having moves like he does, but sometimes, especially in an offense like this, it's all about just going forward. Ross is one heck of a running back and his potential is great. He just needs to work on going forward instead of so much side-to-side.

The differences in styles may be vast, but I think this one is a nail-biter in the end. Again, I look to Horne's ability to put on about ten pounds of lean mass to put a hitch in all of this, but if that doesn't happen, man, what a battle this is going to be. I think though that discipline will rule out in the end and right now, believe it or not, I think Josh's all-around effectiveness takes it by a nose hair.

Starting Line-Up: Josh Davis

The Position: Quarterback

The Candidates: Mike Stuntz, Jammal Lord, Curt Dukes, Joe Dailey

Question Marks: Curt Dukes - The ONLY reason he is here is because of his current health status. Granted, that should be a non-issue by Fall and some would say, even by this Spring game. We'll see about that and I will give you my take on him if his health issues prove to be just a matter of historical data.

50/50: Joe Dailey - Everything I have heard, all that I have seen and based on all the information that I have been supplied, Joe Dailey has a shot (even if it's an outside one) of doing something nobody has done since the one and only Tommie Frazier. His passing stats coming out of high school are thought to be the best since some guy named Turner Gill and his athleticism, speed, size, character and just about everything else, well, it has everyone drooling at the possibility. Let's look at reality though and yes, I realize Jammal didn't have a great year and yes, Dukes is still on the injured list and yes, Mike Stuntz has never been given the opportunity to do ...............anything, but Joe is a true freshman that won't step on campus until this Summer. It may happen, but even saying it's "50/50", well, let's just wait and see.

Biggest Battles: Jammal Lord vs. Curt Dukes vs. Mike Stuntz - Yes, a 3-way battle and of course, this possibility goes back to Curt being healthy, but for the sake of putting this all into perspective, we will say he is, but also, look at the chance of that not being the case.

Jammal Lord vs. Curt Dukes - Jammal has every move in the book. He's got good speed and at times, has showed the ability to pass out of play-action with some effectiveness. Also, to his credit, he was doing a lot of running, because the offensive line wasn't doing a lot of blocking, Jammal getting out of his "comfort zone" and for the rest of the game, dancing around as if he was about to get smacked. Curt, well, he was the second-coming when he got here, was still the man throughout the season even though he didn't take a snap and whamo, he redshirted and the hype seemed to fall away. Injury issues aside, I think Dukes is a heady, VERY physical and even somewhat speedy type of player that I believe could remind people of that person they are comparing him to already, Scott Frost. His style, his size, just about everything reminds you of him and oh, how the fans remember how he ran the option to near-perfection in 1997. Curt would appear to have that kind of mental toughness, something that has been questioned pertaining to Lord. Jammal is talented. Ok, he's incredibly talented, but when it comes to throwing, I think he fits the normal description of NU signal callers in that, he's a RB playing QB. Healthy, I think Curt Dukes takes the starting job from Lord.

Jammal Lord vs. Mike Stuntz - Don't even think of laughing at this battle, because you shouldn't. This is a new offense everyone will be seeing and it actually caters more to Stuntz than it does to Lord. Nebraska's attack, regardless of how run-oriented has always depended on the efficiency of the passing game. Granted, in some years, NU could have ran the ball almost exclusively and still throttled opponents, but this is reality and reality says, you need to do both well to win. What Mike hasn't had is a realistic shot to show just what he can do and what he can offer in both aspects of the game, running and throwing. Everyone is convinced that with some reps behind center, you could see him for the touted thrower he was coming out of high school, but can he run the option. A lot of quarterbacks that weren't really deemed "option" quarterbacks have managed to run the system effectively and there's no reason to think Stuntz can't as well. Stuntz would have the edge in the passing game, I don't think that's a question here, but how well can he run. Not as well as Jammal, but Dukes can't run like Jammal either. Only, it's not always about being spectacular, it's just about being good and not making mistakes. With the simplified offense that we are expecting to see from NU, Lord will have an easier time grasping everything, which evens the field a bit in regards to Stuntz. So, the biggest difference again comes down to running and as good of an athlete as Mike is, no QB has ever run quite like Lord. That puts it away from Jammal in the end.

Final Starting Line-Up: (Dukes healthy) Curt Dukes (Dukes not healthy) - Jammal Lord

Well, that's it for the offense and soon, we'll take a spin down the defensive side of the ball. Yes, I know that some of you whole-heartedly disagree with just about everything I have said, but hey, that's quite ok. You know what though? Right now, this time of year, I'm not right, but I'm not wrong either.

That's why this truly is the best and worst time of year.

Steve Ryan can be reached at or 402-730-5619

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