December 10, 2008

Young receivers making their case for next season

Menelik Holt is doing everything he can to stay focused on the task at hand, but a part of him simply can't help thinking about what next season could potentially have in store.

As Nebraska continues preparation for its Gator Bowl match-up with Clemson on Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla., Holt and the rest of NU's younger receivers are in the midst of their own tryout session of sorts.

With the departure of seniors Nate Swift and Todd Peterson at the end of the year, players like Holt, Niles Paul, Chris Brooks and Curenski Gilleylen are already trying to make their case to take over as the Huskers' top two receivers next season.

"This is an opportunity for a lot of the young guys to step up and take advantage of this chance to get a lot of reps in practice and show the coaches they can do something and put themselves in a good position going into spring ball," Holt said. "One thing (receivers coach Ted Gilmore) is trying to do here late in the season, he's kind of opening up and putting us in the game. You saw a lot more receivers later on in the season. Nate and Todd can play every single down, everyone knows that. But we know that there's going to be a day when we won't have those two big guys.

"Coach Gilmore knows that, and he's just trying to set up young guys like Curenski, myself, Will, Chris and Wes Cammack to get ready for next season."

Of all the up-and-coming receivers on Nebraska's roster, Holt appears to be the most ready to step and fill the void left by Swift and Peterson. Behind Swift, Peterson and sophomore tight end Mike McNeill, Holt was the Huskers' fourth-leading receiver this season, catching 28 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown in 11 games and four starts.

Paul is the next receiver behind Holt, as he hauled in 21 passes for 201 yards while seeing action in all 12 games and making two starts. After that, though, the cupboard is pretty bare in NU's receiving corps in terms of game experience.

Combined, Gilleylen, Brooks and Cammack totaled just five receptions for 43 yards, the most significant being Brooks' 25-yard touchdown grab against Kansas.

With the door pretty much open for any receiver to step in and claim a starting job next year, senior quarterback Joe Ganz said he's seen some increased intensity from his receivers during NU's bowl practices the past couple of weeks.

"Niles and Curenski, and Chris Brooks, they're really fighting, not so much to play in the Gator Bowl, but for the top spots next year," Ganz said. "This is kind of like an additional spring ball for those guys. It's really good for those guys to get in there and get work. They've been working really hard and doing great, so it's just really kind of another spring ball and tryout for those guys to show what they have."

For Holt, who is probably the leading candidate to replace Swift as the "X" receiver, he said the experience he gained this season has made him a completely different receiver in terms of his overall confidence and composure.

"That first game against Western Michigan, I can't tell you how out of breath I was," Holt said. "Those first couple drives, I was just so excited about the game. I got a couple catches and I was just trying to do everything so hard, I was messing up because I was trying so hard. That's all because of being nervous and finally being under the lights.

"As the season went on I became more confident. The pre-game didn't get to me, the fans stopped getting to me. I stopped worrying about what everyone thought with everyone watching me. I just got down to playing football, and that's when I started playing my best football."

Holt went on to say that he and Paul, who was the No. 2 "Y" receiver behind Peterson, have tried to learn all they could from Swift and Peterson the past two seasons. He said that while fans might notice some differences from he and Paul being on the field as opposed to Swift and Peterson, the production they get each and every game wouldn't be one of them.

"(There's) probably not much (of a difference)," Holt said. "Maybe we're a little darker. We've all tried to mold ourselves into receivers like them. They're smart and dependable. Hopefully when they're gone there's no drop-off and you see the same kinds of plays being made."

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