November 9, 2010

Tuesday notebook: QB situation looking brighter

After last week's near disaster at the quarterback position because of injuries, things are looking a little less scary as the week progresses leading into Saturday's game against Kansas.

Both head coach Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez and senior Zac Lee have been getting better by the day after being held out against Iowa State with injuries.

As of Tuesday, the coaching staff is hopeful Martinez will be recovered enough from the high ankle sprain he suffered against Missouri and be ready to start against the Jayhawks.

"That's the plan right now," Watson said. "He practiced yesterday and practiced the whole practice. He did a good job, moved around, so we're taking it day to day and keep increasing the workload."

Martinez went through all of the warm-ups prior to last week's game at Iowa State, and Pelini reiterated that the Corona, Calif., native could have played if the team needed him. However, there are some that believe the best decision is to let Martinez sit out another week to assure he's fully recovered for Nebraska's trip to take on Texas A&M on Nov. 20, arguably the last major challenge on the regular season schedule.

Never ones to take a game for granted, both Pelini and Watson said Martinez would play Saturday as long as he was healthy enough.

"We're going to always do what's best for our team, what's going to put wins on the board and how (he) is and where he's at," Watson said. "Bo and I will make that decision as we work through our week."

Should he be able to play Saturday, Pelini said he expects Martinez to come back more eager than ever after having to sit and watch as the Huskers nearly lost their chance at a conference championship against the Cyclones.

"I'm sure it makes him more hungry," Pelini said. "He's a competitive guy. He wanted to play the other day. Hopefully that will make him that much more hungry when he gets back in there."

As for Lee, who re-aggravated an injured throwing hand he suffered after hitting it on a helmet during a pass against Missouri, Watson said he's getting closer and closer to being able to throw and grip the ball normally.

Lee was essentially not even an option last week, as he didn't throw a single pass during warm-ups because of his injured hand. Asked if Lee was dealing with any other injury issues, specifically with his elbow, Watson said Lee was fine aside from his hand.

"We'll find out more and more each day," Watson said. "I'm just really following what the doctors have said and where Zac feels. Today we increased his workload, and every day will be a day-by-day process."

- Robin Washut

Tuesday practice takes
Watson not interested in CU: With news breaking Tuesday that Colorado had fired head coach Dan Hawkins, Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who coached at CU for six seasons before coming to NU, was asked about the Colorado football program and why it's been so difficult for coaches to have success there recently. Immediately following his response, Watson was asked if he had any intentions of applying for the Buffaloes' new job opening. "No, I've got to do my job here, man," Watson said. "We've got to beat Kansas. That's all I care about right now." Watson also talked about the culture of Colorado football compared to Nebraska: "Colorado obviously has their people that love their program, but there's 1.7 million people in this state that love their program," he said. "It's just a little bit different. There's a real spirited cooperation here university-wise, talking about the university community, and so many times you have to fight so many things there. It's part of the battle."

Reading the signs: If you haven't already noticed, Nebraska has taken a new, colorful approach to getting play calls to the offense on the field from the sideline. With a series of poster boards divided into four random images in each corner, the Huskers are using the images to represent different plays and assignments for each position in addition to simply reading off long and complicated play calls. Former NU punter and football intern Jake Wesch is credited with coming up with images, which are changed each week. "Jake Wesch is in charge, and he knows what we're trying to do with the cards, and he never has ceased to amaze us or surprise us," Watson said. "He'll change them week-to-week. We put him in charge of it because he's really creative, and our players have fun with it seeing what he'll put on there. He'll put some pretty crazy things on there. There's some that we had to veto."
Injury report: Junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (concussion) was back in full pads for Tuesday's practice. As expected, quarterbacks Taylor Martinez and Zac Lee were also both suited up and practiced with the team, though Lee didn't do much of any throwing. Sophomore safety P.J. Smith did not practice because he was sick.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced in full pads inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Tuesday for their second session of the week. The Huskers will return for another full-padded session on Wednesday as they continue to get ready to take on Kansas on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Osborne, Cassidy get Blackshirts

After starting the past two games at the two safety spots, sophomore Courtney Osborne and junior Austin Cassidy were both awarded Blackshirts on Tuesday.

Defenisve coordinator Carl Pelini said Osborne and Cassidy have proven themselves in their first two career starts the past two weeks as more than deserving to earn the famed practice jerseys.

"They've been starting for two games, and we just wanted to see if they would hold those positions and play well," Pelini said. "We put them in there because they're good tacklers, and for the most part they've been able to do that. Yeah, it's very deserved."

For Cassidy and Osborne to get two of the 12 total Blackshirts, however, meant two others had to lose theirs. Those players were senior safety Rickey Thenarse and sophomore safety P.J. Smith, who have played limited roles the past two weeks.

Pelini said he expected both Thenarse and Smith to respond to the challenge and earn their Blackshirts back.

"It's just starters who get it, so they've got to get it back," Pelini said. "We talked to them before we did it, and they understand. Everybody understands the system, which is how it goes. It's going to do nothing but make them grow hungrier probably."

- Robin Washut

T.O. still holds Gill in high regard

Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne took some time after Tuesday's practice to share his thoughts on Saturday's game and his feelings about his former star quarterback and current Kansas head coach Turner Gill coming to town.

Osborne said he's excited to reunite with Gill one again, even if the circumstances might not be the most ideal.

"I'm always glad to see Turner," Osborne said. "It'll be a little different, but you know, competition is competition. We understand that's just the nature of it, and oft times I think fans and people even sometimes in the media, you realize that you can have competition without animosity.

"Sometimes you've had some of your best boxing matches with your brother. You try to beat him, but when it's over, it's over. So I think Turner is very sound philosophical in what he wants to do, he knows who he is, and I have great admiration for him as a person."

Gill and Osborne have kept in touch over the years since Gill left Nebraska to pursue a head coaching job, and Gill said they last spoke as recently as Monday night. Though the two have obviously maintained a great friendship, Osborne admitted that his relationship with Gill would have to take a back seat on Saturday, at least from kickoff to the final whistle.

"I certainly wish him well," Osborne said. "I hope I get a chance to say hello to him. We'll always be good friends, no matter what happens. Naturally I'd like to see Nebraska play very well on Saturday… but it will be an interesting circumstance. In a way I'm kind of glad that we won't be playing them after this year, at least for a long time, because it is a little awkward situation."

Gill talked about his ties to the Huskers during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. Once again, was pretty short in his answers to questions about his experience at Nebraska, as he's done his best this week to keep the attention on his team and what Saturday's game in Lincoln means for the Jayhawks.

"The game is not about me," Gill said. "It is about the players and that is the truth of it all. I have tremendous respect for Nebraska and the people, coaches and everything about it. This is about Nebraska playing Kansas and we are trying to do the best we can to go out and win a football game."

- Robin Washut

With Martinez out, Huskers rely on Wildcat over Green

With Martinez out of the lineup on Saturday, Nebraska went to the wild card it had kept in its back pocket since last year's Holiday Bowl.

By the end of the day, the Huskers ran out of the Wildcat formation roughly 15-18 times against Iowa State. The reasoning, Watson said, was to keep the zone read option game a major part of the offense by using running back Rex Burkhead as the Wildcat quarterback.

In other words, the coaching staff felt using the offensive wrinkle was a better option than letting quarterback Cody Green fill Martinez's shoes completely.

"It's putting people in position to do what they do best," Watson said of bring out the Wildcat again. "When you have the option between Rex and Cody in terms of their ability to run and what they bring to the read element of it, it's a no-brainer. It's just putting people where they do what they do best."

Watson said it wasn't that he felt Green wasn't a good runner, but more Burkhead's experience and ability running out of the zone read that lead to the strategy change. Burkhead thrived running the Wildcat in the Holiday Bowl, and he already had plenty of experience in the offense from when he quarterbacked Plano (Texas) High School for a year.

In fact, Watson said there are even a few plays drawn up for Burkhead to throw the ball out of the formation if need be.

"He's done some things for us in the past, and we've run like reverse passes with him and those types of things, and he's a good passer," Watson said. "He's not John Elway, but he's more than adequate at doing it. So we'll do some things with him. We always have that as part of the plan. We had some Saturday, we just didn't choose to use them."

Should Martinez be back in the lineup on Saturday, Watson said the Huskers likely wouldn't use the Wildcat much at all. Seeing how there aren't much better runners in college football than Martinez at any position, there just isn't much reason to mix things up again.

"When you have Taylor Martinez you don't need (the Wildcat)," Watson said. "You don't need it. When you have a healthy Taylor, he's our most explosive player. You'd rather have that explosiveness making those read, so we didn't have to use it.

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard participated in his first full practice Tuesday since suffering a concussion in Nebraska's win over Missouri. Carl Pelini said seeing Dennard back on the field was certainly a big relief.

"It was good to see him out there," Pelini said. "He looked good. He's been cleared, so hopefully he won't have any symptoms recur, but as far as now he's been cleared. He had his helmet on and he was involved in everything."

***Eric Hagg got even more praise on Tuesday, as Bo Pelini talked about the versatility the senior peso brings to Nebraska defense and what a luxury he has been in game planning for opposing offenses each week.

"Eric Hagg is an invaluable part of our defense," Pelini said. "He does so many things for us. Obviously everyone knows what he brings athletically and such, but we ask him to do a lot of different things. Week to week he has a lot to learn, and we ask him to do a variety of different things, and you have to be multitalented to get that done.

"I think he's having an exceptional year. He's really doing well and playing well. I think his future is bright. He's going to go play at the next level, there's no question in my mind."

***Junior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said he got some attention from Kansas while being recruited out of Fort Scott (Kan.) CC, but any interest he had in the Jayhawks didn't last long after his first unofficial visit and meeting then-KU head coach Mark Mangino.

"I went an took an unofficial, and it was alright, I guess," Kinnie said. "They had signed like two or three junior college guys the year before, so they had a couple there already. Mangino introduced himself to me like five times while we were walking around, so I guess he kept forgetting that I was there.

"That really made me feel just like, 'Well, this really ain't the place.' He literally introduced himself like five, six times to me, saying hi. I'm just like, 'I just talked to you.'"

***Junior defensive back Lance Thorell saw a surprising amount of playing time last year as NU's sixth defensive back. This season, it took all the way up until last week's game against Iowa State before he saw his first real significant action when DeJon Gomes was out temporarily with an injury.

"Every week you've got to prepare like you're going to be a starter, just because you never know when you're going to get the chance to get on the field," said Thorell, who finished with three tackles. "Every week you've got to take the same attitude and just prepare your butt off and be ready to go."

***Carl Pelini said the Huskers would likely continue to use a heavy rotation on the defensive line as long as the unit continued to perform well in practice from the top of the depth chart to the bottom.

"That's the important thing for me, they earn their reps during the week," Pelini said. "It makes for a happier meeting room and gives them a little motivation to work a little harder and they're more focused during practice. As long as that trend continues - I think probably the last three weeks have been our best three games on the defensive line, and I think part of it is that we're rolling other guys through there and they're a little bit fresher come the fourth quarter."

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