Spring ball halftime: Orange wedges and observations

2014-03-22T23:55:00Z 2014-08-08T20:50:56Z Spring ball halftime: Orange wedges and observationsBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Halftime arrived without much attention late Thursday, with a closed Husker football scrimmage under the Memorial Stadium lights occurring while most were lost in a world of brackets and Bill Raftery, merrily possessing a case of hoops fever.

The first eight of Nebraska’s 15 spring practices have had an interesting storyline bouncing around them in that way. While coach Bo Pelini opened up most of the workouts to the media — much appreciated — the Huskers have seemed to be able to go about their business in the shadows. A feel-good run by the Husker men's basketball team disguised the goings-on at football practice from over-the-top analysis by most.

That’s hardly the worst thing for all involved.

But since NU's taken a 10-day hiatus for spring break, it seems a fitting time now to pass out orange wedges and some observations over these foundation-setting practices of March.

Here are 11 halftime thoughts. Because why does it always have to be 10?

1. Start with the defense. Let's wait until the fall plays out before making any grand declarations about the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes. This is, in many ways, the first real prove-it year for those players. But when watching practice in March, you can’t help but notice the potential defensive difference-makers coming out of those two recruiting cycles.

Consider the players that have often been working with the top unit this spring. Then consider their recruiting class.

Defensive line: Randy Gregory (2013 class), Maliek Collins (2013), Vincent Valentine (2012), Greg McMullen (2012).

Linebackers: Zaire Anderson (2012), Michael Rose (2012), Josh Banderas (2013).

Defensive backs: Josh Mitchell (2010), LeRoy Alexander (2012), Nathan Gerry (2013), Jonathan Rose (2012 transfer), nickel back Charles Jackson (2011). Senior safety Corey Cooper (2010) is about to also join the party, expected to return from a turf toe injury after spring break.

Add up the numbers and see the very real possibility that at least eight of the starters could come from the 2012-13 classes, and possibly nine.

The 2012 class is of particular interest. Nebraska signed only 17 recruits that year. But from that group you have Alexander, Anderson, Aaron Curry, McMullen, Rose and Valentine ready for important roles. (Some key names on offense come from that class too: Tommy Armstrong, Imani Cross and Jordan Westerkamp among them).

Members of the 2012 class talk openly about wanting to be the group that brings Nebraska back to the elite. The upcoming season is their first big chance, with some experience now under their belt, to make that charge.

2. Area of concern? Perhaps depth at defensive end. Nebraska looks strong at the top with Gregory and McMullen on each side. But the loss of Avery Moss (another 2012 recruit) puts immediate pressure on A.J. Natter and Joe Keels to come along quickly.

Credit Gregory and McMullen for understanding that. Each is doing his best to be a peer coach to those players, encouraging them when they do well and trying to lift them up when they don’t.

The spring also has shown there are other creative options to take some pressure off the top two ends. Husker coaches have moved the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Collins outside for several snaps this spring. If Collins’ size makes that seem odd, watching his quickness shows it isn’t.

There’s good reason Pelini likes Collins so much. A real good reason.

3. Why did sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander have only two scholarship offers coming out of high school? The 6-foot, 200-pounder looks just like you want a safety to look. Smooth. Confident. Doesn't seem to panic whenever he's playing the ball in the air.

There’s room to get better, but he’s been riding high this spring, picking off some passes and being a conductor in the back end. You can’t help but wonder if the guy who was only rated a two-star prospect by most recruiting sites might just be the biggest recruiting steal of anyone on the field.

4. The man who has nothing to prove right now still attacks practices like he has everything to prove. Watching Ameer Abdullah shift gears and change direction in practice is a beautiful thing.

5. Transfer Alex Lewis already has made his move, working his way to reps with the top unit at left tackle by the third practice. His battles with Gregory, which carry to the whistle and occasionally beyond, are must-see viewing at practice. Gregory has said he expects Lewis to make him even better.

On an O-line without much starting experience returning, the left-side combo of Lewis and guard Jake Cotton is intriguing. They're certainly not afraid to spit some fire.

6. Tommy Armstrong still has to work on consistency in the passing game (completing 51 percent of his attempts last year), but the respect he commands from his teammates, including seniors such as Abdullah and Kenny Bell, jumps out. Armstrong continues to run the option with Abdullah like they’ve been doing it together since kindergarten.

Armstrong also has the knack of making this his team, something that can't be overplayed when it comes to quarterbacks. He slaps linemen on the pads after a big series and gets noisy when the defense is winning the day.

The quarterback also seems to understand the drill of being Nebraska’s main man outside the lines. He’s already met with the media after practice twice this spring. Both times, his interviews lasted at least 20 minutes, with him one of the last to finish answering questions.

He may not be completely polished at this point, but his experience and chemistry with those around him still give him the clear edge in the QB race.

Johnny Stanton, who looks the part when barreling forward in the run game, and walk-on Ryker Fyfe, having a solid spring while getting plenty of work with the second team, are not the types who will relent. But as you'd expect, there remains some distance to cover to get to the guy with eight starts to his name.

7. Pelini is loose. You'd expect it in March. But you can also tell he really likes what this defense could be. It is more than coach-speak when he talks up the potential of players such as Collins, Banderas and Charles Jackson, who has so far made the most of his spring opportunity as the No. 1 nickel back.

Speaking of Pelini's looseness, perhaps you noticed his tweet Friday: "Can I get fined if I comment about basketball officiating?"

That's gold, Jerry! Gold! (For the "Seinfeld" crowd.)

8. Junior center Ryne Reeves gave the biggest scare of the spring so far when he felt neck pain and was transported off the field by paramedics as a precaution. Fortunately, tests revealed nothing serious. According to Pelini, the Crete native could be back on the field soon after practice resumes.

That's important, because Reeves seems to be starting to put it together. He’s always been one of those guys seemingly on the cusp of contributing. Now the game has slowed for him and he’s splitting reps with senior Mark Pelini on the first team. If Reeves can stay healthy, he’s going to be an important piece of the offensive line puzzle.

9. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski is impossible to miss during practice. Honestly, he's entertaining. Even while sporting baggy sweats, he carries the same intensity with each snap that you imagine he did when he was playing for Notre Dame in the mid-'90s.

He’s quick to let his guys know when they've screwed up, but just as quick to pat them on the helmet or defend them if he thinks an O-lineman went overboard in his aggression.

10. Taariq Allen has made the catch of the day during three separate practices. His one-handed snag last week may have been the best of them all. The 6-3, 200-pound junior wide receiver shows no signs of the severe knee injury suffered in 2012. Allen has been good, but so has fellow junior Sam Burtch, working at the same position. Burtch made his own one-handed catch this spring. Quincy Enunwa may be gone, but receivers coach Rich Fisher has options to fill the void.

11. Cornerback Josh Mitchell can't stop talking, which is a good thing. Don't wonder who rises to the top as the vocal leader of the defense. It's the 160-pound senior.

After the offense drove for a score in the first Saturday scrimmage, Mitchell called a huddle and delivered a pep talk with words not all fit for print. Let it be said the offense did not drive for a score on the next series.

​Reach the writer at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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