After being the heart and soul of Nebraska's defense the past two seasons, Lavonte David will almost certainly be taking his game on to the next level when his name gets called during the NFL Draft this April.
Back in Lincoln, though, the Huskers are going to have to figure out a way to fill the huge void he leaves behind.
During a pre-spring practice press conference at Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, head coach Bo Pelini and new defensive coordinator John Papuchis talked about the task of replacing a player of David's caliber.
As of now, it looks as if senior Alonzo Whaley and redshirt freshman David Santos are the top two candidates to take over as the starting Will linebacker.
While no one expects either player to immediately come in and replicate David's production on the field and leadership in the locker room, both Pelini and Papuchis said they were confident NU's defense would survive just fine without him.
"To sit there and say we're going to replace Lavonte - yeah, you're going to put somebody at that spot, but everybody has different strengths and weaknesses," Pelini said. "Lavonte was obviously a pretty special football player
he was different than the guys who played that spot before and he was different than the guys that are going to play that spot this year.
"They can all be effective. It's just a matter of us playing to their strengths and putting them in position to make plays. To sit there and say we're going to clone Lavonte David and get the exact same production and same type of player out of that spot, it doesn't work that way."
Both Pelini and Papuchis raved about Whaley in particular, saying he's taken some big steps in doing all the right things on and off the field. After being left of the 105-man roster last fall for academic reasons, the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder has gotten back on track and is making quite the impression on his coaches.
"Zo's grown up," Pelini said. "I think he's a lot more confident than he's ever been. He's become a leader on our team. I think he's matured and really grown as a football player. I'm hoping that continues and he continues to make the strides he did during last year. I think you're going to see him become a really good football player."
Papuchis said Whaley's size would bring a different element to the Will spot than what David had. The Madisonville, Texas, native played in all 13 games at Buck linebacker and special teams for the Huskers last season, including one start, and had 11 tackles and two tackles for loss.
"It's a different position for Alonzo, so it's probably going to take a little bit of time for him to be comfortable there," Papuchis said. "But at the same time, I think as much as anyone on our football team, Alonzo's evolution from his younger days to now has been tremendous. He's a lot more of a leader now, not only on the defensive side, but across the team. I think he's a guy who's really matured over the last couple years and really grown into a guy we count on and I think has to play a pretty significant role on our football team."
While Whaley may be the front-runner to win the starting role, don't count out Santos. After redshirting last season, Pelini said the 6-1, 205, Spring, Texas, native has a chance to be a special player in Nebraska's defense if he continues to play like he has been.
"I think he's a talented guy, a physically talented guy who can play multiple spots," Pelini said. "He's athletic, he has nice size - bigger on the surface probably than Lavonte was, especially when Lavonte got here. I think he has tremendous potential. Everything that we thought he was when we recruited him, he has that potential. He's obviously not the finished product. He's got a lot to learn, but I think the potential is there."
- Robin Washut
Joseph a natural fit
While he still hasn't been officially announced as the latest member of Nebraska's coaching staff, Terry Joseph is already fitting right in as the Huskers' new defensive backs coach.
Pelini and Papuchis couldn't get into too much detail regarding Joseph on Tuesday, but they did explain why he was one of their top choices all along to replace former secondary coach Corey Raymond, who left to take the same job at LSU last month.
"If everything happens the way we think it's going to happen, I think he'll be a tremendous addition to the staff," Pelini said. "He's a guy I've known for a long time, worked with him. He's about as perfect of a fit as you could have. Like I said, if everything goes through like we think it's going to, it'll be a steal. He's a good football coach, great person, and he'll bring a lot to this staff."
Joseph obviously worked with both Pelini and Papuchis before at LSU, and he established a great relationship with both coaches that remained strong even after they parted ways.
When word first broke that Raymond was considering taking the LSU job, Papuchis said he and Pelini got together and went over a list of potential replacements. One of the first names they wrote down was Joseph's.
"I consider him a friend," Papuchis said, "but I also consider him a very good football coach, a good teacher, good communicator, good leader, good recruiter. In every way, if it all works out, I feel very good about Terry being a part of what we're doing if it plays out that way."
Joseph obviously helps soften the loss of Raymond with his recruiting ties in the South, particularly in Louisiana, but Papuchis said it was Joseph's ability as a teacher that made him such a desirable candidate.
When Joseph finally does take over the job, he'll be eased into things this spring while Papuchis will be more involved in coaching the secondary.
"I think it would be pretty unrealistic to ask Terry to come in, if Terry comes in, a week before spring ball and be able to teach every aspect of our defense," Papuchis said. "That's unrealistic and it wouldn't be fair to him. So yeah, I will have a more hands-on approach to the secondary than maybe I would otherwise."
- Robin Washut
Injury and roster news
Nebraska will be without a few players for at least the start of spring practice, and some will likely miss all of spring ball due to injury.
Pelini said defensive tackles Chase Rome (undisclosed injury) and Todd Peat (back) and offensive lineman Jake Cotton (knee) would all likely be out the entire spring session.
He also said defensive tackles Kevin Williams (knee) and Thaddeus Randle (knee) would miss at least the first couple days of practice.
Pelini touched on some roster moves as well, including Braylon Heard's move from running back to cornerback. Pelini said he and Heard had several discussions about where the sophomore-to-be wanted to play this season, and Heard decided that cornerback gave him the best chance to succeed going forward.
"He's real sudden, he's strong, he's tough, he has all the skills and footwork to be really good there," Pelini said. "I've talked to him a number of times. It's not something where you just say 'hey, we're moving you.' We talked to him about it and laid it out for him. In fact, I even double-checked with him last week and said 'at the end of the day, where do you want to play?' Now he's one of those guys that could play at a number of different spots and help our football team, and he wants to give corner a go."
Pelini also said senior-to-be wide receiver Khiry Cooper was no longer with the program, as he hopes to enroll in grad school and finish up his final year of eligibility elsewhere, similar to former Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.
Partly because of the depth issues Nebraska has at defensive tackle this spring, Pelini announced that Tobi Okuyemi will move inside from defensive end.
- Robin Washut
Plenty of competition for starting fullback spot
Last season, Tyler Legate demonstrated that the fullback position has its role in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system.
The since-departed senior averaged 6.8 yards on his eight carries and had two receiving touchdowns, forcing the defense to account for him.
In the second year of the new offense, the position could offer even more. Beck listed juniors Mike Marrow and C.J. Zimmerer and senior Graham Stoddard as candidates to fill Legate's role.
Marrow, who sat out last season after transferring from Eastern Michigan after beginning his college career with a redshirt season at Alabama in 2009, appears to be the early favorite. At 6-foot-2 and 250 lbs., Marrow is a big body and has experience running the ball from his days playing tailback.
"Mike is a guy who can do a lot of different things for us," Pelini said. "He'll primarily line up in the fullback spot, but he's a guy who's a big back who can run. He can be a good short-yardage, between-the-tackles kind of runner."
Zimmerer, a graduate from Omaha Gross, has seen limited snaps at fullback the past two seasons after redshirting in 2009.
Stoddard has played primarily at linebacker and special teams during his first four seasons, but the coaching staff, looking for depth at fullback, decided to switch him this winter.
"Graham is a physical player that can run," Beck said. "It's a need for our offense. You've got to have some depth there. We thought we needed to find somebody, and we thought Graham was a guy who could come over."
- Dan Hoppen
Huskers searching for Caputo's replacement
There will be no shortage of candidates to compete for the center position this spring. Mike Caputo's graduation leaves a large gap in the middle of the line, a hole at least four players have a chance to fill.
Pelini and Beck said senior Justin Jackson, junior Cole Pensick, sophomore Mark Pelini and redshirt freshman Ryne Reeves as players in competition to take the spot.
With the most experience at the position, Pensick appears to be the early favorite. He's been around longer than Pelini and Reeves and unlike Jackson, who's spent time at both guard and defensive tackle, he's been working with the interior line his entire career.
"Cole Pensick is a guy who's just worked his butt off since he's been here," Beck said. "Sometimes you don't really find the maturity level or the leadership level of a player until you put him in that position. We've been really pleased with Cole's offseason."
One rumor that likely won't come to fruition is the talk that Spencer Long, who started at guard last season and was a second-team All-Big Ten pick by the media, would make the move to center.
"I like where Spencer is right now," Pelini said. "I think taking an all-conference performer and moving him isn't something we want to do right now. I like the way we have it set up right now."
- Dan Hoppen
***Another roster move Pelini announced on Tuesday was Bronson Marsh moving to quarterback from safety.
"I kind of laid it out for Bronson," Pelini said. "He showed some talent when he was over there for the bowl game when he played a lot of scout team quarterback for us. I laid it out to him. I said, 'this is how I see it. What do you want to do?' He wants to take the spring and give it a shot. He said, 'I've always dreamed of playing quarterback at Nebraska. I think I can do it, and I'd like a shot at it.' He goes, 'If I didn't give it this one chance, I'd think I'd always been kicking myself.' I said, 'that's fine. Let's do it.'"
***One name that seemed to keep coming up when coaches and players were talking about the leadership on the team was Justin Jackson. After moving across the line of scrimmage from defensive line to offensive line last season, Jackson has apparently emerged as one of Nebraska's more vocal leaders over the offseason.
***Pelini and Beck said quarterback Taylor Martinez should be able to make a big jump this offseason now that he's in his second year in Beck's system and third year as a starter. Pelini said the big focus for Martinez this spring and fall would be to refine his skills and focus on the details, which he said Martinez didn't have a chance to do last year.
***Pelini and Beck said Jamal Turner wouldn't get many reps at quarterback this spring. That was mostly due to how much more comfortable they feel with the depth at quarterback and that they want Turner to get as much work in at receiver as possible.
***The projected two-deeps for the other two linebacker spots are Sean Fisher and Max Pirman as the top two Bucks, and Will Compton and Trevor Roach as the top two Mikes.
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