Big 12 spring practice preview: Nebraska
2009: 10-4 (6-2)
Nebraska opened spring practice on Wednesday in Lincoln with competition beginning at quite a few important positions. But after last season’s struggle to score points, the primary concern is the state of the Cornhuskers’ offense.
While there are plenty of intriguing position battles, just make sure not to ask head coach Bo Pelini about depth charts at this point in the offseason. His only focus is developing the new talent and making sure the returnees continue to get better.
“The depth chart isn't worth the paper that it’s on,” Pelini told reporters at his spring press conference, per Omaha.com. “We're not going to ask depth-chart questions. The only person that will answer depth-chart questions is myself.
“We have depth in a lot of different positions. There's going to be competition at all those positions. And that's going to go well beyond spring. You guys can talk about it all you want. As a staff, I'll talk about it. No one else will talk about it.”
Regardless of who’s in front of whom on the depth chart for the Red-White game on April 17, the question remains: Can the offense produce consistently to take enough pressure off of a stout defense? Remember, Nebraska had Texas beat in the Big 12 championship game. The offense just didn’t do its part — again. In eight conference games last season, the Huskers ranked last in the Big 12 in total offense and 11th in scoring. While some fans have cited scheme as the major problem, Pelini believes the lack of execution had more to do with injuries and the many young players in the system.
Nonetheless, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was criticized throughout the regular season before the offense finally put together a worthy showing in a 33-0 win over Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. When injuries affected the running game and offensive line at midseason, Pelini admitted that he wanted Watson to take a more conservative approach in play calling, believing that the defense was good enough to win games. After the performance in the bowl victory, one has to wonder if the Huskers actually underachieved at 10-4, especially after the offense looked formidable in the 9-4 campaign in 2008 — when Watson was considered a solution and not a problem.
The strength of the offense this season will be in the backfield, where senior Roy Helu Jr. — who finished fourth in the Big 12 with 1,147 rushing yards — and sophomore Rex Burkhead will cause problems all season long for the best of Big 12 defenses. Both will get plenty of carries no matter who’s considered the starter, especially with a shaky situation at quarterback. It will be interesting to see if the offensive staff even utilizes a little wildcat in the fall, with Burkhead taking snaps and having Helu Jr. as a pitch option. Any way the Huskers can utilize these two talents can only help keep the defense honest.
The question mark under center comes in the form of Cody Green and senior Zac Lee, who combined to place Nebraska 11th in the league in completion percentage. Lee managed to toss 14 touchdowns but also threw 10 picks. The 6-4 Green only attempted 62 passes in very sporadic play, throwing for two scores against two interceptions — but he also didn’t struggle in some of Nebraska’s biggest games like Lee. Plus, he was just a freshman in ’09.
One could argue — despite Pelini’s dislike of spring depth charts — that Lee is already behind in the quarterback derby; he’s not expected to practice this spring as he recovers from January surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right arm. Pelini said on Tuesday that while Lee is progressing, he’s unlikely to make a spring appearance. In addition to Green, Latravis Washington, Kody Spano, Taylor Martinez and Ron Kellogg will get reps under center. But Lee’s absence clearly opens the door for Green to be the front-runner going into fall camp.
On defense, how in the world will the “Blackshirts” replace Heisman Trophy finalist and potential No. 1 pick Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle? Well, they won’t. But that doesn’t mean that the unit lacks enough talent and depth to still be the backbone of the team.
Jared Crick was solid inside last year, registering 70 tackles — 14 for loss — and 9