Nebraska vs Western Kentucky

Check out our game preview as the top 10 Huskers host the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Vince Campisi's College Football Game Preview
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

--by Vince Campisi

September 4th, 2010
6:00 PM CDT
Memorial Stadium
Lincoln, NE
Television Coverage: FSN PPV

WESTERN KENTUCKY (0 - 0) (0 - 0)
#8 (AP)/#9 (C) NEBRASKA (0 - 0) (0 - 0)

Gametime Weather
Weather Report for Western Kentucky vs. Nebraska

Latest Line
Opening: Nebraska by 34.
Current: Nebraska by 37.5.


Western Kentucky
09/04/10 - at. Nebraska
09/11/10 - at. Kentucky
09/18/10 - vs. Indiana
09/25/10 - at. South Florida
10/09/10 - at. Florida International
10/16/10 - vs. Louisiana-Monroe
10/23/10 - at. Louisiana-Lafayette
10/30/10 - vs. North Texas
11/06/10 - vs. Florida Atlantic
11/13/10 - at. Arkansas State
11/20/10 - vs. Middle Tennessee State
11/27/10 - at. Troy

09/04/09 - vs. Western Kentucky
09/11/09 - vs. Idaho
09/18/09 - at. Washington
09/25/09 - vs. South Dakota State
10/07/09 - at. Kansas State
10/16/09 - vs. Texas
10/23/09 - at. Oklahoma State
10/30/09 - vs. Missouri
11/06/09 - at. Iowa State
11/13/09 - vs. Kansas
11/20/09 - at. Texas A&M
11/26/09 - vs. Colorado

Historically Speaking

Saturday marks the first ever meeting between Nebraska and Western Kentucky.  The Cornhuskers are 9-0 against current Sun Belt teams.  Last season, Nebraska hosted and defeated Florida Atlantic (49-3), Arkansas State (38-9), and Louisiana-Lafayette (55-0).  The Hilltoppers have faced Big XII opposition just 3 times prior, all against Kansas State.  Western Kentucky was 0-3 in those games, most recently a 13-27 loss on September 4th, 2004 in Manhattan, Kansas.  Nebraska has won a nation's best 24 consecutive season openers, and will look to extend that to 25 on Saturday.

Player Breakdowns


Western Kentucky Offense

After a very tough season with minimal success offensively, Western Kentucky will be making the switch to a West Coast style offense under new head coach Willie Taggart.  The Hilltoppers nearly won their final game of last season against Arkansas State, but a late fourth quarter fumble that was returned for a score gave the Red Wolves the game (24-20), sealing an 0-12 season for Western Kentucky.  The Hilltoppers finished the 2009 season ranked 101st nationally in total offense (320.75 ypg), 110th in passing (147.92 ypg), 107th in passing efficiency (109.37 rating), 37th in rushing (172.83 ypg), 104th in scoring offense (20.42 ppg), 51st in interceptions thrown (12), 115th in fumbles lost (16), and 99th in giveaways (28).  

QB: So. Kawaun Jakes (148 of 244, 1516 yds, 9 TDs, 9 INTs) has been named starting QB for the Hilltoppers heading into the first game.  Jakes started eight games last year after taking the reins in week four against Navy.  Jakes showed a pretty decent arm, but not a particularly strong one.  He'll make a lot of short to intermediate throws, but doesn't have the accuracy on deep throws.  Kawaun has good wheels and can escape the pocket, as well as make plays on designed runs.  Jakes rushed for 366 yards and 5 touchdowns on 124 carries (lost 241 yards) last season.  Behind Jakes is Jr. Matt Pelesasa.  Initially, Pelesasa came out of the spring as the top QB, as Jakes was slowed with an ankle injury.  However, Jakes won the job back in fall camp, while Pelesasa was limited with a sore arm.  Pelesasa was brought in this year from the JUCO ranks with some familiarity in the West Coast system.  He's got a strong arm and could see some snaps on Saturday.  It will be interesting to see how much of a leash Jakes will have, considering the back and forth nature of the off-season battle between him and Pelesasa.  TFr. Brandon Doughty has performed well enough since arriving in camp and worked his way up to #3 in the reps.  He isn't likely to play much this season, but expectations are for a bright future.

RB: The Hilltoppers' running game will be led by Jr. Bobby Rainey (144 carries, 939 yds, 6 TDs).  Rainey is one of the top backs in the Sun Belt conference and should have a great season, provided the blocking up-front will be there for him (and it should).  He is a small (5'7") runner that packs quite a burst of speed when he sees a hole open.  He also has quick cutting ability that makes him hard to bring down in the open field.  His number of carries should increase dramatically this season, as many of the backs he shared time with last season graduated.  Rainey wore a yellow "no contact" jersey in practice this fall.  One has to wonder if an issue with fumbling could arise when he takes his first contact on Saturday.  Jr. Braxston Miller (3 carries, 8 yds) is the only other returning back that carried the football last year.  Miller is more of a power runner, but has been slowed recently by a knee injury.  The injury is not serious, and he is expected to be ready to go by Saturday.  RFr. Keshawn Simpson is also likely to get his share of carries this year.  The 218 pound back should be an asset in short yardage situations for the Hilltoppers.  The backs should be used more in the passing game this season, as their move to the West Coast attack should be driven by many short passes.  Rainey (13 catches, 83 yds, 1 TD) is the only returning back that caught passes a season ago.  He will be a very dangerous weapon this year coming out of the backfield.  At fullback is Sr. Rod Johnson (1 catch, 29 yds, 1 TD), with RFr. Nick Baisch backing him up.  Johnson hasn't been used as much more than a blocker in his career, but depending on the type of West Coast attack the Hilltoppers employ, he could see his production increase.  

WR/TE: The Hilltoppers' receiving corps is going to see increased production as the team begins their West Coast attack.  While this group has not shown itself to be particularly dangerous in the past, with a new offensive era brings an opportunity to change that perception.  One of the biggest problems in fall camp has been receivers dropping passes.  That will need to be remedied quickly if they are to improve upon last season.  Starting at the receiver positions are Sr. Quinterrance Cooper (20 catches, 151 yds) at "X" and So. Marcus Vasquez (19 catches, 176 yds, 2 TDs) at "Z".  Cooper is a 5'11" speedster with typically nice hands that will have to step up this year as last season's top receiver Jake Gaebler (43 catches, 494 yds, 4 TDs) has graduated.  Vasquez size (6'1") and speed will make him the best deep threat for the Hilltoppers this season.  He is also a reserve quarterback, but isn't likely to see much, if any action there this season.  Reserves in the rotation at receiver include Sr. Dustin Boyer (4 catches, 31 yds), RFr. Willie McNeal, Sr. Seth Tamme (8 catches, 63 yds, 1 TD), and Jr. Clark Jeter (1 catch, 8 yds).  McNeal, at just 5'10", 160 lbs. isn't going to bowl over potential tacklers, but is very elusive.  At tight end is So. Jack Doyle (37 catches, 365 yds, 1 TD), with Jr. Tristan Jones (4 catches, 61 yds) backing him up.  Doyle is the best of the entire group of receivers with next-level skills shown last season as a freshman.  He's going to be the steady workhorse that this West Coast offense will desperately need.

OL: Western Kentucky's offensive line returns a wealth of experience and should be the best unit of the offense this season, despite their giving up 39 sacks last year.  Starting at tackle is Jr. Wes Jeffries (6'4", 306 lbs) on the left and Sr. Preston King (6'5", 299 lbs) on the right.  Both returning starters from a season ago, this is a very good pair of Sun Belt tackles.  They have not been great against better competition, however, struggling against the quicker ends they have come up against.  The top reserves at tackle are So. Ed Hazelett (6'8", 305 lbs) and So. Seth White (6'5", 289 lbs).  Hazelett is a huge blocker that has quite a bit of athleticism to match; he should evolve into a very solid Sun Belt tackle.  White is a versatile lineman, and could also spend time at guard this season.  Starting at guard is Sr. Mychal Patterson (6'3", 291 lbs) on the left and So. Adam Smith (6'5", 327 lbs) on the right.  Patterson, a better run blocker than pass blocker, is the most consistent performer on the line.  Smith is a powerful run blocker that has the talent to play tackle on the line as well, if need be.  Top back-ups at guard include So. Luke Stansfield (6'4", 298 lbs) and So. Cody Widelski (6'2", 283 lbs).  Starting at center is RFr. Sean Conway (6'3", 294 lbs), with RFr. Luis Polanco (6'2", 280 lbs) backing him up.  Conway was put into a starting role after the career ending series of injuries to Sr. Derrick Elder forced him to end his career last month.  

Western Kentucky Defense

Western Kentucky will see a new 4-3 look this year on defense with new coordinator Clint Bowen in charge.  Bowen had been Kansas' DC since 2006 before coming to Western Kentucky.  The Hilltoppers hope that Bowen can bring a positive change after having little success since moving up to the FBS level just a few years ago.  The Hilltoppers finished 2009 ranked 118th nationally in total defense (478.25 ypg), 81st in pass defense (233.42 ypg), 120th in pass efficiency defense (169.55 rating), 118th in rush defense (244.83 ypg), 119th in scoring defense (39.58 ppg), 111th in interceptions forced (6), 58th in fumbles recovered (10), and 105th in total takeaways (16).  

DL: The Hilltoppers' defensive line should see plenty of rotation this year, given the youth and size of the line.  Starting at defensive end is Jr. Jared Clendenin (40 tackles, 1 sack, 3 PBU) on the left and So. Quanterus Smith (12 tackles) on the right.  Clendenin is a solid end that does a nice job in rush support, and gets his hands up into throwing lanes.  Smith will be working as the LEO, a hybrid linebacker/end, but will spend a majority of his time as a down lineman.  He's a good athlete with quick burst, and should give a nice jolt to the Hilltopper pass rush.  Top reserves at end include Jr. Bo Adebayo (14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 QBH) and So. Ketler Calixte.  Adebayo should see almost as much action as the starters.  His strength and ability to get into the backfield will get him on the field quickly.  Starting at defensive tackle is So. Kenny Martin (21 tackles, 1 FF, 1 QBH), with So. James Hervey (5 tackles, 1 sack) backing him up.  Martin doesn't have a great first step, and tends to get lost in the middle, but is a sure tackler.  Hervey will see plenty of snaps, and can play nose effectively as a space eater.  So. Jamarcus Allen (6 tackles) starts at nose tackle, with So. Cole Tischer (9 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 FR) serving as his top back-up.  Allen, at just 5'11", is the smallest of the linemen and is heading for his 5th career start on Saturday.  Tischer is moving from an end spot in last year's 3-4 to the nose in the 4-3 defense.  

LB: The Hilltoppers' linebacking corps should be the best unit of the defense.  Starting at middle linebacker is Sr. Thomas Majors (101 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 QBH, 2 PBU), with TFr. Bar'ee Boyd backing him up.  Majors is one the best linebacker in the Sun Belt Conference.  He's a tackling machine that wraps up well and doesn't let go.  He'll be the sole interior linebacker in this year's defense, so there will be increased responsibility.  Boyd has made noise in fall camp and earned an opportunity to play as a true freshman.  At weakside linebacker is Sr. Orlando Misaalefua (48 tackles, 1 FF), while Jr. Tenerio Davis backs him up.  Misaalefua was the starting strong safety a season ago, and will now inject his athleticism into the linebacking corps.  His speed will allow a legitimate pass rush off the edge, and his tackling ability should keep many plays from reaching the third level of the defense.  Davis is a JUCO transfer that captained Dean College last season.  Sr. Chris Bullard (46 tackles, 1 PBU) starts at strongside linebacker, with Jr. Ben Duvall (17 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF) backing him up.  Bullard is a versatile linebacker and a heavy hitter.  He has decent quickness, but not great straight-line speed.  He's a solid Sun Belt linebacker.    

DB: The Hilltoppers' defensive backfield has to be much better than they were a year ago if they want to win football games.  It's a small group that has plenty of youth behind the starters eager to show what they can do.  Starting at cornerback is Jr. Derrius Brooks at left corner and So. Jamal Forrest (32 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU) at right corner.  Brooks is a converted wide receiver that will be interesting to watch.  He's got great speed and athleticism that should help out the secondary.  Forrest is just 5'9", 160 lbs. and was exposed often as a freshman starter last season.  He has good wheels, but he will still struggle against big receivers because of his small stature.  Players in the reserve rotation include TFr. Arius Wright and TFr. Tyree Robinson.  Both true freshmen played both sides of the ball in high school and should see plenty of rotation this season.  Starting at strong safety is Jr. Mark Santoro (91 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 PBU), with RFr. Kiante Young backing him up.  Santoro is probably the best of the secondary, playing well in rush support and has the ability to do well in coverage.  He's a sure tackler, and covers a lot of space with his good speed.  So. Kareem Peterson (57 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR) starts at free safety, with Jr. Ryan Beard (7 tackles) serving as the top back-up.  Peterson earned the starting spot, despite Beard making a lot of noise in fall camp.  Peterson was a pleasant surprise as a freshman last season and will need to build upon that to strengthen the secondary.

Western Kentucky Special Teams

Western Kentucky's special teams units were decent a year ago, and should be improved this year with more experienced and better talent replacing outgoing veterans.  The Hilltoppers finished 2009 ranked 44th in net punting (36.65 yd avg), 51st in kickoff returns (22.19 yd avg), 78th in punt returns (7.50 yd avg), 80th in kickoff coverage (22.34 yd avg), and 68th in punt coverage (9.50 yd avg).  

K: Jr. Casey Tinius made 14 of his 19 field goal attempts with a long of 47 last season.  Tinius only recently returned to practice following a groin injury that caused him to miss Fall camp.  He RFr. Hendrix Brakefield is expected to be working as the kickoff specialist.  Tinius was the kickoff specialist a season ago, pushing just 2 of his 37 kickoffs for a touchback, with a 59.2 yard average, kicking between the 10 and 11 yard line.  5 of his 37 kickoffs were sent out of bounds.

P: RFr. Hendrix Brakefield won punting duties over Jr. Casey Tinius, although it wasn't much of a competition with Tinius out of camp with injury.  Brakefield has a very strong leg, and will need to be accurate as well to try and flip the field on the opposition.  

KR/PR: The top kickoff return unit for the Hilltoppers will consist of RFr. Willie McNeal and Jr. Derrius Brooks (9 kick returns, 29 yd avg, 81 yd long).  Both have excellent speed and will help out with field position this season.  McNeal and Brooks will also work as the top punt return options, although TFr. Donald Campbell and TFr. Will Adams are also possibilities.  Last season, Jr. Bobby Rainey was the star of the return game (44 kick returns, 23.9 yd avg, 52 yd long), but is expected to focus solely on running back duties this Fall.

Coverage: The Hilltoppers' kick and punt coverage units were very mediocre last season, typically missing a tackle or two, allowing a few extra yards per return than necessary.  Last season, the kick coverage unit allowed an average of 22.3 yards on 44 kickoff return attempts with a long of 74.  22.9 may not seem like much of a gaffe, but when the kicker is only getting the ball to the 11 yard line, that's a chunk of yards to give up.  The punt coverage unit allowed an average of 9.5 yards on 30 punt return attempts with a long of 33.    


Nebraska Offense

Nebraska's offense finished 2009 as one of the worst groups in the country.  Difficulties at quarterback, receiver, and offensive line severely hindered the Huskers' output.  Nebraska did look good in the Holiday Bowl against a very good Arizona defense, however, gaining nearly 400 yards of offense and scoring 33 points.  Expectations are for the Huskers' offense to be much better this season with nearly everyone returning from last year.  Nebraska finished their 2009 campaign ranked 99th nationally in total offense (322.79 ypg), 101st in passing (175.71 ypg), 79th in pass efficiency (122.38 rating), 62nd in rushing (147.07 ypg), 75th in scoring offense (25.14 ppg), 51st in interceptions thrown (12), 60th in fumbles lost (11), and 57th in giveaways (23).  

QB: Nebraska's much publicized QB race in the Spring and Fall camps came to a head this week when a decision would finally be made public - or not.  The coaching staff has decided to delay announcement until the first snap on Saturday.  What that means is that Sr. Zac Lee (177 for 302, 2143 yds, 14 TDs, 10 INTs), RFr. Taylor Martinez, or So. Cody Green (33 for 62, 317 yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) could take that first snap.  Lee and Green each registered starts a season ago, with Lee starting 12 of the 14 games.  Lee looked great against Nebraska's Sun Belt opposition early last year, but his game fell off the map as soon as they started facing teams from BCS conferences.  He doesn't have great pocket presence, and when pressured chooses to run to the perimeter instead of stepping up into the pocket.  This has been an issue because he just isn't great throwing on the run.  Even though he seems hesitant to run. Lee has decent speed and rushed for 171 yards on 103 attempts (lost about 144 yards on sacks).  Green didn't provide the spark many had hoped, but has potential to be a big-time dual-threat QB at some point down the road.  He can run pretty well and has shown a very strong arm, but he just hasn't put it all together mentally yet.  He carried the ball 31 times for 158 yards and 2 touchdowns (lost 11 yards on sacks).  Martinez, despite being the only QB of the three without game experience, could be the most likely starter come Saturday.  He's the fastest of the QB's and has a decent enough arm to whatever style of offense Nebraska wants to call themselves.  The coaching staff wants to move to a more run-oriented offense, and that could mean Martinez would be the best fit.  

RB: Nebraska returns their entire group of running backs from a season ago, likely the deepest pool in the Big XII conference.  They are led by Sr. Roy Helu Jr. (220 carries, 1147 yds, 10 TDs).  Helu Jr. has a great combination of hard running, leaping, and cutting ability.  He can beat defenders by running around them, by them, and over them.  He has transformed himself into a complete back in his time at Nebraska.  The top back-up to Helu Jr. is So. Rex Burkhead (81 carries, 346 yds, 3 TDs), an impressive young back that does a very nice job running between the tackles.  He hits the hole quickly and breaks tackles well.  One weakness, though, is that he tends to run into his blockers, slowing his momentum.  So. Dontrayevous Robinson (39 carries, 165 yds, 2 TDs) is the third option and has shown a lot of potential in his limited carries, running with a good amount of power and quickness.  These top three backs should all contribute a lot to the offense this season.  Jr. Austin Jones (7 carries, 18 yds), So. Lester Ward (10 carries, 38 yds), and So. Collins Okafor (1 rush, 9 yds) are backs that will likely only see action in blow outs or due to injury.  In the passing game, Helu Jr. (19 catches, 149 yds), Burkhead (13 catches, 90 yds, 1 TD), Robinson (4 catches, 26 yds), and Jones (1 catch, 2 yds) each contributed last season.  Nebraska's backs caught less passes last year than usual, but that could have been due to Nebraska's offense seemingly shutting it down mid-year.  At fullback, Jr. Tyler Legate (3 catches, 27 yds, 1 TD) is the top guy but hasn't really seen much time on the field.  He's a good blocker, but hasn't had many opportunities to show what he can do with the ball in his hands.

WR/TE: Nebraska's receivers suffered from consistency problems last year.  There were a number of dropped passes as well as lazily run routes throughout the season.  There should be improvement in the group, and there is great potential in this unit - but they need to reach it on the field if Nebraska is going to live up to this season's lofty expectations.  Starting at "Z" is Sr. Niles Paul (40 catches, 796 yds, 4 TDs).  He has a great combination of size, quickness, and route running skills.  He has been very inconsistent, though, as it seems for every great catch he makes, he'll drop just as many easy ones.  He had a fantastic Holiday Bowl, with over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown.  Starting at "X" is Jr. Brandon Kinnie (15 catches, 141 yds).  Kinnie has great measurables (6'3, 220 lbs) and seemed to really turn it on down the stretch last year.  He's got the ability to be a big time playmaker for the Nebraska offense.  Sr. Mike McNeill (28 catches, 259 yds, 4 TDs) will be the top receiver in the slot this year after switching from tight end.  McNeill does a nice job of picking up yards after catch, as well as getting open in the endzone.  Reserves at receiver include Jr. Curenski Gilleylen (17 catches, 302 yds, 1 TD), TFr. Quincy Enunwa, So. Khiry Cooper (13 catches, 80 yds, 1 TD), and Sr. Will Henry (1 catch, 1 yd).  Gilleylen is a speedster that can be a dangerous deep threat if he stops dropping so many passes.  Enunwa shined in Fall camp and will see action as a true Freshman.  Cooper has plenty of upside, but needs to be more physical and work to get open.  Henry is a big body (6'5") but has yet to make an impact in his career.  Nebraska's top TE's will likely be So. Ben Cotton (5 catches, 43 yds, 1 TD) and So. Kyler Reed (6 catches, 54 yds).  A possible season ending back injury to Sr. Dreu Young (5 catches, 78 yds) could force McNeill back to tight end if Cotton and Reed can't get the job done.  

OL: Nebraska's offensive line seems to always draw high praise in the off-season before settling into an inconsistent mess when the real games begin.  They have had problems with injuries, which doesn't help with continuity.  The injury bug continued to this year as Sr. Mike Smith (6'6", 285 lbs) broke his leg in Fall camp and will be out for the season.  Last season the line had drives where they looked unstoppable, but then followed it up with costly penalties and getting beat by quick opposing linemen.  This year, starting at left tackle could be either RFr. Jeremiah Sirles (6'6", 310 lbs) or Jr. Jermarcus Hardrick (6'7", 320 lbs).  Sirles and Hardrick each had a very good Fall camp.  Sirles has picked up the offense quickly, and should turn into a solid lineman, while Hardrick is a JUCO transfer that has the potential to be a force this season.  Jr. Marcel Jones (6'7", 315 lbs) will start at right tackle with Sr. D.J. Jones (6'5", 310 lbs) backing him up.  Marcel has the potential to be a rock on the right side, however, he has shown a difficulty against athletic defensive ends.  D.J. doesn't have great torque in his hips and also will get beat often by athletic linemen.  Starting at left guard is Sr. Keith Williams (6'5", 310 lbs), while Sr. Ricky Henry (6'4", 305 lbs) starts at right guard.  Williams is a solid blocker that has had trouble staying healthy during his career.  He does very well as the pulling guard, plowing through his man and opening holes.  Henry is a player known for his strength and his nasty streak, which has sometimes gotten the better of him, drawing flags.  So. Brandon Thompson (6'6", 290 lbs) and RFr. Brent Qvale (6'7", 320 lbs), and TFr. Andrew Rodriguez (6'6", 325 lbs) are Nebraska's top reserves at guard.  Jr. Mike Caputo (6'1", 275 lbs) starts at center, with RFr. Cole Pensick (6'2", 270 lbs) backing him up.  Caputo isn't a prototypically sized center, but he has very good technique and use of leverage.

Nebraska Defense

Nebraska's defense was one of the best in nation last season, shutting down nearly every offense that opposed them.  In the Holiday Bowl, the Husker defense held Arizona's offense to a paltry 109 total yards and pitched a shutout.  They will have to replace the heart of their defense, from nose tackle, to middle linebacker, to both safety spots.  While that is going to be a tall order, Nebraska's coaching staff believes they will have just as good of a defense as last season, if not better.  The Huskers finished the 2009 season ranked 7th nationally in total defense (272.00 ypg), 18th in pass defense (178.86 ypg), 1st in pass efficiency defense (87.28 rating), 9th in rush defense (93.14 ypg), 1st in scoring defense (10.43 ppg), 7th in interceptions (20), 85th in fumbles recovered (8), and 21st in total takeaways (28).

DL: Nebraska's defensive line is hoping to continue being one of the nation's best, despite losing Ndamukong Suh and Barry Turner from last year's squad.  The group returning is deep and talented, but it will be interesting to see how much they miss Suh.  Starting at defensive end is Sr. Pierre Allen (51 tackles, 5 sacks, 8 QBH, 5 PBU) on the right, with So. Cameron Meredith (21 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 FR, 2 QBH, 1 PBU) on the left.  Allen is a great athlete that does well against the run and also as a pass rusher.  He picked up a pair of sacks in the Holiday Bowl and will build upon that this season.  Meredith was impressive as a reserve last year and is definitely ready to take over.  He has a good first step and enough strength to power by opposing tackles.  RFr. Jason Ankrah and So. Josh Williams (3 tackles) are the top reserves at defensive end.  Both were outstanding high school players, and each possesses excellent athleticism and the ability to become great pass rushers.  Both should see a lot of snaps this year.  Jr. Jared Crick (73 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 2 FR, 16 QBH, 4 PBU, 1 BK) starts at defensive tackle, with RFr. Thaddeus Randle providing back-up.  Crick turned into a big time d-tackle last season and should compete for All-American honors this season.  He's big, strong, and has good speed to get into the backfield and cause problems for opposing offenses.  Randle has shown a great motor in camp, and has a very good first step.  Starting at nose tackle will be either So. Baker Steinkuhler (17 tackles, 2 PBU) or Jr. Terrence Moore (2 tackles).  It has been a very close race throughout camp and both will see the field a lot.  The shoes to fill, Ndamukong Suh's, are large, so it is important for these guys to be up to the task.

LB: Nebraska's linebacking corps will have their work cut out for them replacing last year's weakside linebacker Phillip Dillard, now in the NFL.  The unit took a big hit during Fall camp as well with returning starter So. Sean Fisher (35 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 3 QBH) suffering a broken leg, ending his season before it began.  So. Will Compton (40 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 FF, 2 QBH, 2 PBU) was expected to Returning to start at middle linebacker, but on Thursday, Compton injured his foot in practice.  The severity is unknown, but it appears he won't be in the line-up for some time.  Compton works hard to get after the ball carrier, and should make fewer mistakes this season with another year in the system.  Starting at weakside linebacker could be any of Jr. Lavonte David, So. Eric Martin (15 tackles, 2 BK), or Jr. Matt May (10 tackles).  David is a JUCO transfer that didn't arrive in Lincoln until the Summer, yet has quickly shown himself to be a player.  Martin is a special teams dynamo and has the ability to be a force at LB if he can get the mental aspect of his game down to match his physicality.  May did not play much linebacker last season, mostly limited to special teams action.  With Compton's injury it is likely 2 of these 3 will start.  RFr. Alonzo Whaley is a reserve to watch for, especially now that Compton is out with injury.  Nebraska is calling their hybrid strongside linebacker/defensive back the "Peso", and starting at that spot will be Sr. Eric Hagg (40 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 3 QBH, 4 PBU), with Jr. Austin Cassidy (9 tackles, 1 PBU) backing him up.  Hagg is a great athlete and gets into the backfield quickly on the blitz and making tackles in the open field.  He has been fairly weak in coverage over the course of his career, however, this move to a hybrid LB position could be a perfect fit for him.  Cassidy is a walk-on that was just awarded a scholarship after putting in years of hard work.  He has worked himself into the lineup and should see the field a lot this year.   

DB: Nebraska's defensive backfield should be one of the best in the nation this season on the edges, the real concern is replacing multi-year starters at safety, Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon.  Sr. Prince Amukamara (64 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 INTs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 11 PBU) starts at LCB, with So. Jase Dean (4 tackles, 1 FF) and RFr. Lazarri Middleton as possible top reserves.  Amukamara is a great athlete and an outstanding cover corner.  He'll be one of the nation's best corners again this year, making it tough on opposing receivers.  Dean has shot up the depth chart after playing exclusively on special teams before a season ending injury last season.  Middleton is a very good athlete that needs to get more consistent before he sees much of the field.  Jr. Alfonzo Dennard (31 tackles, 8 PBU) took over the role as starting RCB in the middle of last season and showed to be a star in the making.  He's a physical corner that makes plays on the football and is a very solid tackler.  Behind Dennard will be RFr. Andrew Green.  Jr. Anthony Blue (4 tackles) likely would have been the top reserve, but suffered a season ended knee injury during Fall camp.  Starting at free safety could be any one of So. P.J. Smith (15 tackles, 1 PBU), Sr. Anthony West (11 tackles, 4 PBU), or Sr. Rickey Thenarse (11 tackles, 1 FF).  Smith played sparingly last season and looked like a redshirt-Freshman, raw.  West is a former starter at corner, but fell down the depth chart due to lackluster play.  He has only been average in his career, and a switch to safety isn't easy.  Thenarse missed most of last season with a knee injury and brings back his hard nosed, big hitting ability back for his final season.  He hasn't done much in the defensive backfield, but did struggle with coverage when he played.  At strong safety will be Sr. Dejon Gomes (46 tackles, 4 INTs, 3 FF, 3 QBH, 5 PBU), with West likely being his top back-up, unless he takes the free safety spot.  Gomes was solid in coverage last year, showed great ball-hawking ability, but needs to be better at taking down physical running backs.  Gomes works as Nebraska's top dime back and will shift there when the play calls for it.

Nebraska Special Teams

Nebraska's special teams units were some of the best last season and should get better with everyone returning.  They have some of the best kickers in the nation, and the returnmen have the ability to break free on any given return.  The Huskers finished 2009 ranked 81st in net punting (34.67 yd avg), 19th in kickoff returns (24.09 yd avg), 30th in punt returns (11.59 yd avg), 15th in kickoff coverage (19.41 yd avg), and 97th in punt coverage (11.81 yd avg).

K: Sr. Alex Henery possesses one of the strongest and most accurate legs in the nation.  He made 24 of his 28 attempts last season, with a long of 52.  He has made 35 of his last 36 kicks from under 50 yards.  Sr. Adi Kunalic has a booming leg and has been the best kickoff specialist in the nation throughout his first 3 seasons.  Kunalic pushed 29 of 78 kickoffs for touchback last season, with an excellent 68.2 yard average, kicking between the 1 and 2 yard line.

P: Sr. Alex Henery averaged 41.4 yards on his 77 punts with a long of 76 last season.  30 of his 77 punts were been downed inside the opponents' 20, nearly 40%.  He added punting duties to his repertoire last season, and was been a key weapon for the Huskers.  When directional punting or attempting to get the ball downed inside the 10, he was nothing short of phenomenal.

KR/PR: Nebraska's top kickoff return unit should once again be made up of Sr. Niles Paul (16 kick returns, 27.9 yd avg, 49 yd long), and one of So. Tim Marlowe (12 kick returns, 23.7 yd avg, 40 yd long) or So. Rex Burkhead (1 kick return, 15 yds).  At punt returner is Sr. Niles Paul (38 punt returns, 10.7 yd avg, 1 TD, 59 yd long).  These units were very good at times last season, but also very inconsistent.  As the season went on, however, Paul looked more and more dangerous.  He had his season long kickoff return (49 yards), in the Holiday Bowl against Arizona.

Coverage: Nebraska's coverage teams were pretty good last season, but did struggle with occasional tackling problems.  Because of that, a few large returns were allowed that shouldn't have been.  The kick coverage unit allowed an average of 19.4 yards on 49 kickoff returns (76 yd long), while the punt coverage unit allowed an average of 11.8 yards on 31 punt returns (62 yd long).  

Position Advantages
QBs:  Nebraska ++
RBs: Nebraska ++
WR/TE's: Nebraska ++
OL: Nebraska ++
DL: Nebraska +++
LB: Nebraska ++
DB: Nebraska +++
Special Teams: Nebraska +++
Coaching: Nebraska +++
+ = Slight
++ = Moderate
+++ = Large

Injury Report

Western Kentucky:
RB - Braxston Miller - Knee - Probable
WR - Courtney Dalcourt - Knee - Out Indefinitely
C - Derrick Elder - Back - Career Ended
LB - Mike Gothard - Concussions - Career Ended

LG - Keith Williams - Hip - Probable
LB - Will Compton - Foot - Out Indefinitely
LG - Brandon Thompson - Injury - Out Saturday
DT - Chase Rome - Injury - Out Saturday
TE - Dreu Young - Back - Out Indefinitely
LB - Sean Fisher - Leg - Out for Season
RT - Mike Smith - Leg - Out for Season
CB - Anthony Blue - Knee - Out for Season

Keys to the Game

Western Kentucky:
1.) Can't Have Any Breakdowns - Mistake-free football is the only way to make this a game.
2.) Be Opportunistic - Will have to find ways to force turnovers and make the most of those opportunities.
3.) Have Plenty of Good Fortune - The Hilltoppers are vastly out-talented here, lots of good fortune will be needed to keep this game close, let alone pull out a victory.

1.) Avoid a Disaster - As long as the game doesn't resemble 2009 Iowa State (8 turnovers), things should go smoothly.
2.) QB Steps Up as True #1 - Not necessarily needed for Saturday, but for going forward.  A two quarterback system is difficult enough...but three?  
3.) Just Get It Done - Go out and do what you should do and everything will take care of itself.

Final Outlook

Western Kentucky is hoping that new head coach Willie Taggart can reinvigorate the program to the level they were at when they won a 1-AA title back in 2002.  Unfortunately, the talent level just isn't there this season and it will likely be another long year for Hilltopper fans.  They'll be in position to win a few Sun Belt games, but against their first four opponents, it probably won't be close.

Saturday, the Hilltoppers step into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska to face a team that many believe could contend for a national championship this season.  Nebraska has plenty of questions of their own to answer.  No matter which QB starts Saturday, given how close all 3 were in Fall camp, it may not be settled for some time.  All three should each take at least a few series, and the evaluation will be ongoing.  The Huskers have suffered a number of injuries in camp that have taken their toll on the depth chart.  Linebacker was hit the hardest, with both probable starters going down with injury.  It shouldn't make much difference going into this week's game, but they definitely don't want to be short handed heading into conference play.  

Going into this game, there are many unknowns for both teams, including exactly how each offense will be run starting this season off.  Despite Nebraska's lackluster offense from a season ago, they still managed to handle their Sun Belt opposition with ease by an average score of 47-4.  Nebraska should have a great ground game this season, and if they can put together a decent air attack, this game could easily be out of hand by halftime.  New WKU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen held the same position at Kansas last season, a team Nebraska's anemic offense hung 31 points on.  Western Kentucky does not have the talent of Kansas, which would lead you to believe the scoreboard will be busy Saturday night.

With Western Kentucky changing to a West Coast offensive attack, there will be growing pains, and Nebraska's defense is still going to be stifling.  With all of the injuries to the LB corps, it may allow some extra yards or points for the Hilltoppers, but ultimately this game won't be close.  All three Nebraska QB's will play, all lead their offense to scoring drives, and Nebraska cruises to a decisive victory.  Nebraska by 6+ touchdowns.

Western Kentucky - 6
Nebraska - 55

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