Five Burning Questions: Nebraska Spring Game

With Nebraska playing host their spring game this weekend, Darren Carlson from Big Red Network stopped by to answer a few questions for Crystal Ball Run.

How will the Cornhuskers match up in Year 2 in the Big Ten?

Let’s take a look.

1. From the outside looking in, the offense in year one under Tim Beck didn’t appear much better than what we saw when it was Shawn Watson’s barbeque. What have been the points of emphasis on that side of the ball this spring?

The short answer is balance. Beck has not been shy about saying that they want to be closer to 50/50 in terms of run-pass balance. Last year – similar to Watson’s final year – NU was decidedly run heavy. Getting to more offensive balance puts the burden squarely on Taylor Martinez’s ability to develop as a more consistent passer. The coaches feel very good about the pass-catching weapons they have – talented wide outs, two senior tight ends and backs good at catching the ball. So, can Martinez deliver it? That’s the critical part. Pelini keeps referring to Martinez’s mental development and improved mechanics as a “night and day” difference or improvement from last season.

It’s obvious that Nebraska can and will run the ball. If they can take to the air more effectively and efficiently, they will be able to put significantly more pressure on a defense.

2. After his brother Carl left for Florida Atlantic, Bo Pelini eventually decided to elevate defensive line coach John Papuchis to defensive coordinator. Given that Papuchis is a Pelini disciple, I can’t imagine that he’ll be tweaking the defensive schemes too much, but has he changed anything up?

No, not really. That starts with the fact that Pelini himself is the ultimate architect of the defensive scheme. That’s not to imply that Papuchis is some kind of glorified clipboard holder. As you said, he is a Pelini disciple. He’s proven to be one of the best recruiters on the Husker staff. And, reports from the practice field make it clear that he will get after it and turn up the intensity. But, he won’t be bringing any radical shifts to what the Huskers do on defense.

Perhaps more interesting is the man replacing Papuchis coaching the defensive line. Rick Kaczenski joins the Husker staff from Iowa. He had a good track record for developing NFL-worthy talent for the Hawkeyes. There was turnover in the defensive backfield, too. Terry Joseph (another “Pelini guy”) came in from Tennessee to replace coach Raymond. This may be an upgrade for the staff, really. Both of them will need to be a success in his first year for NU’s defense to be

3. Tackling machine Lavonte David is gone. Give us some insight on how the competition is shaping up among the linebackers to replace him?

You can’t clone Lavonte David. It’s interesting to hear how the NFL talent scouts and analysts are starting to realize that this guy was the best linebacker in college last year. He just made big play after big play all year long. He was special and will be missed.

That said, they will attempt to replace him collectively. Frankly, having more people making plays is the sign of a healthier defense overall. Nebraska’s first unit of linebackers should all be seniors. That’s a very encouraging sign. Will Compton in the middle had a solid season as a junior, and will be the “bell cow” for the defense this year. The two others – Alonzo Whaley at weakside and Sean Fisher at strongside – were delayed in their development for various reason. Whaley didn’t do things right off the field and ended up in the doghouse with coaches. He also didn’t grasp the defense. Now that he is more switched on and locked in, his talent may shine through the way Phil Dillard’s did in 2009. Fisher is a great athlete who suffered a gruesome injury two years ago. He played last year, but wasn’t really ready or 100% and was a liability at times. Now, fully healed, the coaches say he’s playing his best football.

So, David will be missed. But, any time you can put three seniors out there to start, I don’t think it is a bad thing. Compton is the known quantity. Whaley and Fisher are the x factors. After those three, the most likely candidates for good playing time are David Santos – a great recruit who redshirted last season – and Zaire Anderson, who was arguably one of the top junior college linebackers in America last year.

4. If you had to single out one key area that you’ll be focused on Saturday, what would it be?

Stay healthy. Is that too plain or simple? The reality is that NU is going to show very little in terms of scheme on Saturday. They will be vanilla on both sides of the ball. They will mix and match personnel to get a good evaluation. Star players like Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez will see limited action.

Like pretty much all coaches, Pelini is not at all interested in putting a bunch or interesting or useful material on film for his opponents. So, it’s great for out-of-state fans that the Big Ten Network will record and re-air the scrimmage, it basically guarantees a bland football.

The Spring Game is an exhibition for fans. It’s fun. The coaches learned everything they know from the practices and major scrimmage that weren’t shown to the public. The goals Saturday are to play hard, stay healthy and have fun.

5. Higher: Attendence at Saturday’s spring game or the crowd at Doc Sadler’s final home game?

The Spring Game, by a very wide margin. In Nebraska, there is football and then everything else. As of last week, they had sold 47,000 advance tickets for the spring game. They expect a big walk-up crowd on the day of the scrimmage too. So, I’d say the over/under line is about 60,000 people. The University should be commended for making the spring game a real fan festival and a good way to take your kids to a Husker experience for much lower costs. The administration and the coaches understand what a recruiting tool it can be when you have tens of thousands of people show up for a scrimmage. Expect NU to try and load up on official visitors. It’s a quasi-game day environment, and that always seems to help them get in to the hearts and minds of young prospects.

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