March 27, 2009

Friday notebook: Lee talks quarterback race

It took a couple days longer than expected, but junior quarterback Zac Lee finally faced the music, so to speak.

Following Friday's helmets-only practice inside the Hawks Center, the guy who many expect to be the frontrunner to take over as Nebraska's next starting quarterback this season gave his first official interviews of the spring.

Among the many topics addressed, Lee talked about being almost thrust into the driver's seat for the starting job, and how he plans to handle the pressures of the role should eventually be named the starter.

Like offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said on Wednesday, Lee isn't quite comfortable talking about taking over as NU's quarterback just yet. Even though his current competition consists of a redshirt freshman, a true freshman who's currently hurt and a junior who just moved over to quarterback three days ago, Lee feels he still needs to prove himself worthy of the job.

So what does he feel he still needs to do to accomplish that?

"Just work hard," Lee said. "You've got to just work hard, got to keep learning the offense. The thing is, I've done just about as much here as they have. I mean, I've thrown two passes since I've been here, so there's not really a lot of game experience there. I've just got to keep working, keep getting better, hopefully earn the trust of my teammates and make the coaches happy."

Should he end up being named the starter, Lee said he would benefit from the fact that the Huskers already have established leaders on both sides of the ball that would keep him from having to step in and try to be a vocal leader right away.

He also touched on how he's already begun to establish some good chemistry with NU's young receiving corps through offseason work and 7-on-7 drills this winter.

Of course, there was the inevitable question about how he stacks up with his predecessor, former starter Joe Ganz.

"We're obviously two different guys," Lee said. "We might have some similarities, but we're different players. Joe has taught me a lot though just in terms of using this offense and not having to force things. Just taking what the defense gives you. That's why Joe was so successful, because he didn't force a lot of things."

Lee was also asked about his reaction to losing arguably his toughest competition for the starting job when sophomore Patrick Witt unexpectedly decided to transfer just before the start of spring practice.

He said he was surprised about Witt's decision to leave, but didn't let it change his approach to spring practice. After that, Lee declined further comment.

Lastly, Lee talked about dealing with all of the off-the-field pressures of being Nebraska's starting quarterback. While obviously an intimidating prospect, Lee said he was more than ready to take the pressures head on should he get the chance.

"This is why you come to Nebraska," he said. "This is why you come to a big college football town, (and) a big school. You want to be the guy in every situation."

Redshirt freshman LBs making impact

Three of the fiercest position battles of the offseason will be at all three of Nebraska's linebacker spots, and that's mostly due to the addition of three redshirt freshmen to the mix this spring.

According to defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, linebackers Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher have all stepped in and raised the levels of competition at the Mike, Will and Buck positions far higher than they ever were last seasons.

"They see the opportunity to play," Pelini said. "There's a lot of competition going on at their positions. A lot of fire, a lot of excitement. They're still making some bonehead rookie mistakes, but it just brings a level of intensity to the game. Just the renewed competition we have at all those positions and the excitement of the young guys. It's just bringing a certain intensity to practice that always wasn't there a year ago."

Pelini said all three young linebackers not only have impressed him with their physical skills, but also how quickly they've picked up the defensive playbook over the course of the offseason.

"They're all pretty far ahead," Pelini said. "They really did a nice job studying their playbook and catching up and getting a head start on the season. They really haven't missed a beat. I'm really pleased with their progress in terms of their knowledge of the defense."

Hagg adjusting well at safety

After a breakthrough season in 2008 in which he emerged as Nebraska's starting nickel back as a sophomore, Eric Hagg has apparently taken his move to strong safety as well as could be expected.

Though he's had just two official practices since changing positions this offseason, the junior has already made an impression on NU's coaching staff, specifically defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders.

Sanders said the move was made to give Hagg a better chance to see more playing time, as he's currently working behind senior returning starter Larry Asante. Hagg played in all 13 games and started in 10 of them for the Huskers last year, finishing with 39 tackles and seven pass break-ups.

"I think he's excited about it," Sanders said. "Eric played a lot for us in that nickel (last season), and that was a valuable spot for us. But I think Eric has the ability to be an everyday player for us, so that's kind of - if you want to call it an experiment - that's kind of what this is. I think he can handle it. He can handle it mentally, and we know he's got the physical tools to do it. We'd like to get him and his play-making ability on the field more."

Lineman Henry still learning

It's no secret that junior offensive lineman Ricky Henry plays with as high of motor and as much intensity as any player on Nebraska's roster. Now, he just needs to improve his mental grasp of the game to put it all together.

Offensive line coach Barney Cotton said Henry undoubtedly possesses the physical talent to make a big impact for the Huskers' up front this season, but he still has some work to do in understanding the playbook and learning all the blocking schemes his coaches ask of their linemen.

Henry came to Nebraska last season from North Dakota State College of Science. While his physical tools made an immediate impression on NU's coaching staff, Henry redshirted last year to help him learn the offense better.

After the loss of starters Matt Slauson and Mike Huff, the competition at guard should be one of the tightest on the roster this offseason. If Henry can show he's mentally capable enough, Cotton said there's no reason he can't make a serious push for a starting job this fall.

"He is really a tough guy," Cotton said. "He's a great guy to work with. He loves to learn. Like I said, I hope it works out. He's got a lot of classroom work to do so it all fits for him mentally, but he's working awfully hard on it."

Quick hits

***Carl Pelini touched on the similarities between former defensive tackle Ty Steinkuhler and his younger brother, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler.

Pelini said that while Baker is longer and utilizes his leverage a bit better than Ty did, their work ethics are almost mirror images of each other.

"They're very different players," Pelini said. "But in terms of the motor, there's a great similarity. They both play with great effort all the time. Great motors. They're always running to the football, and they're high-energy guys, and I see that carrying over to Baker."

***Junior Niles Paul, freshman Antonio Bell, redshirt freshman Tim Marlowe and redshirt freshman Jase Dean all stayed after practice and fielded punts, meaning that group is likely the leading candidates at punt returner.

***Redshirt freshman defensive end Josh Williams is finally starting to look like a collegiate defense end, as he's bulked up considerably this offseason. In fact, Williams weighed in at 245 pounds to open the spring, meaning he's put on at least 20 pounds of muscle since the beginning of last season.

***Spotted watching practice was 2009 wide receiver signee Brandon Kinnie. Hard to miss along side Kinnie was his teammate, 2010 offensive tackle prospect Jermarcus Hardrick. Hardrick received his Husker offer in late February.

***Tight ends coach Ron Brown has become well known for his enthusiasm and energy level on the field, and Friday was certainly no exception. During quarterback-receiver passing drills, Brown and receivers' coach Ted Gilmore stood about 5 yards in front of the wide outs and gave them a bit of a pop as they came off the line with full-length arm pads.

As freshman Antonio Bell began his route, Brown gave him a shot to the upper chest/head that was so hard it knocked Bell's helmet completely off. Despite some jeers from his teammates, Bell did finish his route and made the catch before running back to retrieve his helmet.

***Nebraska men's basketball coach Doc Sadler and wrestling coach Mark Manning stopped by and chatted with head coach Bo Pelini during the beginning of practice. Both Sadler and Manning made regular appearances at practices last season, and it looks like that won't change much this year.

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