March 26, 2010

Friday notebook: Young linebackers stepping up

With Phillip Dillard no longer in the picture at linebacker, one of the players that will be looked at to fill his spot is sophomore Eric Martin.

The 6-foot-2, 240 pound Martin said on Friday he recently made the switch from WILL linebacker to MIKE linebacker this spring, while sophomore Will Compton has moved from MIKE to WILL.

Martin said he also works at the WILL linebacker spot when the Huskers are in the nickel, so really he's playing both positions similar to the way Dillard did at the end of the 2009 season.

"I was learning (WILL) during the off-season and the winter break, but at the last minute they wanted me to play MIKE," Martin said. "Phil (Dillard) played both positions and played both real fast. Me and Will Compton are both filling in for him. Will Compton plays WILL and I play MIKE. It's just for now.

"Nobody knows who's playing where right now. Coach is just putting people in places to see how comfortable it gets. If you feel comfortable there, than you are going to stay there. If the coaches feel you need to play somewhere else, than they are going to put you somewhere else."

Compton said on Friday he feels more confident going into his third season at NU. A year ago, Compton played with hesitancy but now he's in a position where he has a better grasp of the defense.

Compton feels like his added confidence will make him one of the leaders of NU's linebacker corps in 2010.

"I already feel a lot more confident just out there playing and running around and stuff like that from last year," Compton said. "I'd say pulling the trigger was just my main thing. I'm starting to get over that hump and just start taking shots. I'm more confident running around out there, and I recognize the plays faster. I'm just going for it and not hesitating."

When Martin looks at his overall progression, he feels like he takes the game much more seriously than he did a year ago. Last season, Martin joked how he used to fall asleep in team film sessions and not pay attention.

Now film sessions are some of Martin's favorite things to do during the week.

"I've got something to pay attention to now, because when I mess up in practice coach is the first one to bring it up," Martin said. "I'm actually awake in films every day now. I'm the first one there and the last one to leave. Film (sessions) are actually enjoyable now. It's not my 'sleepy time' no more.

"The whole off-season I've been going into film with Coach Ekeler like two or three hours a day just watching film and learning different positions and learning what our defense is all about. "Right now film is fun. I enjoy going into the film room. It's actually something I look forward to during the day."

- Sean Callahan

Smith still sees starting job as up for grabs

Junior P.J. Smith may be the assumed frontrunner to replace Larry Asante as one of Nebraska's starting safeties this season, but that doesn't mean he's taking anything for granted.

In his mind, he's no closer to winning a starting role than any other safety on the Huskers' roster, and he's going into every practice this spring with the mindset that he has to prove himself and win the job outright.

So while many may have already declared him winner, Smith isn't losing focus on what he needs to do to make sure it happens.

"I don't even worry about what other people say," Smith said. "I'm working my tail off to be the starter, but if it doesn't happen, then so be it."

When Smith says he's working his tail off, he means it. Along with all the team workouts the players went through during winter conditioning, he also came to the stadium on Saturdays and Sundays to workout on his own.

He also put in a good deal of time in the film room with defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler. Because of how demanding the mental aspect is for NU's defensive backs, Smith wanted to make sure he was as prepared as possible when spring ball arrived.

"I'm just trying to learn as much as I possibly can," Smith said. "We sat just sat down and went over a lot of sets and a lot of things just trying to learn as much as possible, because that's the main thing with this defense. You have to learn as much as you can."

Smith insists that he has no expectations one way or the other about what happens with the Huskers' depth chart at safety, and the only thing he's focused on is making himself the best player he can be.

Still, there's no denying that his ultimate goal is to be a starter on Sept. 4.

"It's very important," Smith said. "We all want to play. We all want to be the starter around here, but you're not going to have everybody starting. I'm just going to work my tail off and if it happens or not, I'm going to be happy, because I'm a team player. I want it bad though."

- Robin Washut

Cotton makes big strides physically

One player who stood out right away when spring practiced kicked off was sophomore tight end Ben Cotton.

After essentially dedicating himself to Nebraska's strength and conditioning program this winter, Cotton showed up to spring ball more physically impressive than ever. He not only added 10 pounds of muscle from the end of last season and bulked up to 260 pounds, he's also gained roughly 30 pounds since the day he first showed up on campus two years ago.

Now with practice finally underway, Cotton is hoping the work he's put in over the off-season pays off when the regular season rolls around.

With senior Mike McNeill moving from the No. 1 tight end to wide receiver, Cotton's chances of becoming a bigger factor in the offense went from good to almost certain.

Senior Dreu Young is still the leading candidate to win the starting job, but the gains Cotton has made physically in his short time with the Huskers have put him in prime position to potentially jump Young to the top tight end spot.

However, Cotton is the type of person who actually prefers as much competition he can get.

"I'm not all for having somebody ahead of you get moved or anything," Cotton said. "You've got to earn your spot no matter what. You've got to beat the people out ahead of you and you've got to be able to hold your spot when you get it. I think that's the best part about our room - every guy wants to be on that field, and we're going to get the best guys on the field each play."

- Robin Washut

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