March 25, 2009

Nebraska once again enters spring as contender

It's almost like old times in Nebraska. The Huskers are redshirting most of their recruiting classes, hoarding walk-ons, winning bowl games and the general population loves the football coach.

Nebraska improved by four victories and tied for first in the Big 12 North under first-year coach Bo Pelini. But taking the next step from improving program to championship contender will require beefing up the defense and finding a quarterback.

Here's a look at the Huskers as they prepare for spring drills.

nebraska AT-A-GLANCE
Bo Pelini enters his second season at Nebraska looking for a quarterback and help on defense.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bo Pelini
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 Big 12. Beat Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
Spring dates: March 25-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (4): C Jacob Hickman, TE Mike McNeill, T Mike Smith, G Keith Williams.
Defense (6): E Pierre Allen, SS Larry Asante, CB Eric Hagg, FS Matt O'Hanlon, NT Ndamukong Suh, CB Anthony West.
Special teams (1): K Alex Henery.
Positions of strength

The defensive line projects as solid with the potential to be tremendous. Ndamukong Suh has all-conference credentials, defensive end Barry Turner is coming back from injury and Pierre Allen is a returning starter. Add in highly regarded redshirt freshman Baker Steinkuhler, and the Huskers have the potential to be dominant up front. They will be strong in the offensive backfield, too. Roy Helu emerged from a backup role and took over as the starting I-back. He exceeded 100 yards in three of the final four regular-season games and led the Huskers with 803 rushing yards. Quentin Castille, who gained 467 yards, provides a solid backup.

Help is needed

Quarterback is an area of concern. Joe Ganz completed his eligibility after an impressive senior season. Then, Patrick Witt, who figured to enter spring as the top contender to replace Ganz, decided last month to transfer. That leaves the Huskers with junior Zac Lee, who threw two passes last season, redshirt freshman Kody Spano and heralded true freshman Cody Green vying for the starting job. Linebacker needs an upgrade, and two starting wide receivers are gone.

Keep an eye on

CB Anthony Blue: He saw some action as a true freshman in 2007 before an injured knee forced him to miss the '08 season. He has a chance to start, and it's not out of the question that he could emerge as the Huskers' top cornerback.

G Ricky Henry: He brings a touch of nastiness to the offensive line. Last season, he redshirted after two productive seasons in junior college. He's expected to barge into the starting lineup at guard.

DT Baker Steinkuhler: Don't be surprised if departed defensive tackle Ty Steinkuhler is replaced by his younger brother. Baker Steinkuhler was the gem of the '08 recruiting class and could make a significant impact after sitting out a redshirt year.

His time is now

Once a top-100 recruit, junior wide receiver Niles Paul has had his moments, but he hasn't been consistently effective. Last season as a backup, he had 23 catches for 214 yards. With '08 starters Nate Swift and Todd Peterson completing their eligibility, the Huskers need Paul to show this spring that he can be a reliable target.

The buzz

The quarterback competition among Lee, Spano and Green - who has enrolled early - clearly will draw the most attention. The Huskers made major strides in '08 and will need reliable play from an inexperienced quarterback to keep making progress. Overall, the Huskers will get an infusion of depth with 23 members of the '08 recruiting class coming off redshirt years.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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