Saturday, January 17, 2009

An early look ahead to 2009 for Nebraska football

The 2008 Nebraska football season is in our rearview mirror. With a strong finish that included a season-closing four-game winning streak, I think it’s fair to say that the Huskers are back on solid ground. Granted, the 9-4 record is not the be and all end all. Keep in mind, Nebraska has had many nine-win seasons but none may have been timelier than this one.

The overall health of the program is in much better shape. So what will 2009 bring? Who knows but we can safely say that going from 5-7 in 2007 to 9-4 in 2008 was the easy part. Going from 9-4 to say 11-2 will be the hard part.

While Bo Pelini has changed the vibe and attitude in the program, he will still be dealing with some (albeit less) of the residual effects of the Bill Callahan era such as continuing to coach the veterans out of bad habits and continuing to develop the underclassmen his way. Just looking at the position by position outlook, here’s an early look at 2009:

Quarterback: Losing Joe Ganz is a big blow not just statistically (285-of-420 for 3,568 yards, 25 TD, 11 INT) but the leadership he brought. Granted, the Huskers have had more talented players line up under center but Ganz had the respect of the coaches and teammates and you simply cannot quantity that virtue. I’ve got to think that freshman Cody Green will redshirt but we will not know anything about returners Patrick Witt, Zac Lee and Kody Spano until September. Spano did not play at all in 2008 while Witt and Lee only played in mop-up duty, save for Witt’s lone play in the Gator Bowl in relief of an injured Ganz.

Running back: The Huskers are once again loaded at this position. Marlon Lucky and Thomas Lawson (if you include fullback) are the only losses of note at this position. Neither player, however, was much of a factor by season’s end. Lucky was limited late in the season because of a turf-toe injury while Lawson was not utilized as much after Nebraska went to a more Spread-oriented look, thus de-emphasizing the fullback position. The Huskers, however, return Roy Helu, Quentin Castille and Marcus Mendoza plus there’s the inclusion of Collins Okafor and Lester Ward. Helu asserted himself in the second half of the season while Castille’s strong Gator Bowl performance opened some eyes. If he can just hang on to the ball.

Wide receiver: Nebraska takes a hit at this position in losing Nate Swift (63-941-10) and Todd Peterson (62-786-4) not just statistically but because they were such clutch receivers -- but the news isn‘t all bad. The good news is that Menelik Holt and Niles Paul got some meaningful snaps and so did Curenski Gillelyn and Chris Brooks to a lesser extent.
Tight end: The tight end is back as a viable weapon in the Husker offense, thank you very much. Mike McNeill and Dreu Young figure to get that much better. Bring in redshirt freshman Ben Cotton and things look very promising. We know this group can catch. It’s just a matter of position coach Ron Brown developing a physical mindset with these guys in the running game.
Offensive line: Despite losing Matt Slauson and Lydon Murtha, the line appears to be in good shape with the return and continued development of Jacob Hickman, Javairo Burkes, Marcel Jones, DJ Jones and Keith Williams. Perhaps, the best news is the return of Hickman at center because that position is the quarterback of the offensive line.

Defensive line: If you can’t beat ‘em, then Suh ‘em! Suffice it to say, Ndamukong Suh opting to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft is reason to breath a huge sigh of relief. Suh’s return softens the blow of losing Zach Potter and Ty Steinkuhler. From a football standpoint, dominant defensive tackles like Suh don’t just fall off a truck. If there is a plus side of Barry Turner’s season-ending knee injury, Pierre Allen got his chance to develop. Allen comes back and so does Turner but how effect will the latter be? The fact that Jared Crick and Terrance Moore also got meaningful snaps should be a plus.

This position was woefully thin on depth chart to enter the 2008 season and the Huskers lost Phillip Dillard (ankle injury) and Cody Glenn (suspension) late in the season. Glenn and Tyler Wortman are the only losses but with the return of a healthy Dillard, LaTravis Washington, Blake Lawrence, Matt Holt, Matthew May and Colton Koehler to go along with the emergence of redshirt freshman, the Huskers should be in solid shape for the foreseeable future.

Secondary: This position should be very strong as Armando Murrillo is the only loss of significance. The return of Larry Asante, Rickey Thenarse, Alfonso Dennard, Prince Amukamara, Major Culbert, and Anthony Blue should make for a solid group. Special teams: How can one not be excited about the return of Alex Henery after he booted a 57-yard field goal to defeat Colorado. The Huskers lose punter Dan Titchner but they generally seem to find a good replacement. Paul gave the return game a decent weapon in the return game but the punt and kickoff coverage definitely regressed as the season went forward.

Coaches: The Huskers came a long way this season with a coaching staff that started from scratch. The players buy into the system and philosophy the coaches are teaching. Most importantly, the staff galvanized the team to a 9-4 finish.

What lies ahead: It’s a little early but I see six slamdunk wins (Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor), two slamdunk losses (probably Oklahoma and either Kansas or Texas Tech) and four bubble games (Virginia Tech, Missouri, Colorado and Kansas or Texas Tech). The X-factor is how many bubble games dies this team win? Keep in mind; the Huskers were a few plays away from being 11-2. How many mistakes can they correct to turn those close losses into wins? The defense should continue to get better if for no other reason than they’ll play more instinctively and having another year in the system will allow Pelini to install more intracacies of the scheme. Breaking in an inexperienced quarterback will probably cost them one or two bubble games. The good news is that the health of the program is in enormously better shape.

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