Spring Game primer: Who to watch?

2014-04-11T21:00:00Z 2014-04-11T23:52:09Z Spring Game primer: Who to watch?By BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

You never know who will capture the fancy of the masses when it comes to a Nebraska Red-White Spring Game.

Who could have predicted, a year ago, that a 7-year-old named Jack Hoffman would paint probably the most indelible image the annual bash has ever produced?

So we’ll offer no predictions about who will steal the show Saturday. Consider this instead a cheat sheet on some players perhaps worth watching.

Consider two additional things:

1) There will be very few snaps, if any, given to running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory.

2) Husker coach Bo Pelini has also said the offense will be “dialed back” to not reveal too much.

All that said, fans may like some aspects of this scrimmage more than previous ones. The format, with a specialized scoring system, will allow some snaps pitting the first-team offense vs. the top defense.

And while there are other spring scrimmages that carry just as much weight, if not more, it’s an important day for players looking to leave a strong final impression heading into summer conditioning.

So here's a sampling of a players you might want to watch.

DEFENSE

* Marcus Newby, No. 3: Here’s hoping Newby is recovered from pain in his lower back that bothered him Wednesday. (Pelini was optimistic he’ll play Saturday). And here’s hoping coaches continue to line him up for occasional reps at rush end. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound redshirt freshman linebacker has been popular viewing whenever he’s had the chance to put his hand down and try to get to the quarterback this spring. Given Nebraska’s depth at linebacker, it seems a good way to get Newby snaps and also make the Husker defense as fast as possible.

* Charles Jackson, No. 21: Jackson seems to have put the mental part of the game together with his natural physical ability. He’s been starring in the nickel role with Nebraska’s No. 1 defense this spring, getting the type of reviews from coaches that make you think it could be his job. At 5-11 and 180 pounds, Jackson seems to play bigger than his frame. He likes hitting.

* Joe Keels, No. 9: Nebraska’s starting defensive front four looks like a pretty fierce bunch, but if there’s an area of concern, it’s depth at end behind Gregory and Greg McMullen. While Nebraska does have some creative options, such as moving Maliek Collins or Kevin Maurice outside for some snaps, it’s important for a player such as the transfer Keels to continue to climb the depth chart. It matters, especially when you consider fellow reserve D-end A.J. Natter has been hampered by injury. And with Gregory not expected to play much Saturday, it’s a chance for guys such as Keels and walk-ons Ross Dzuris and Jack Gangwish to show their stuff.

* Jonathan Rose, No. 14: Sometimes cornerbacks don’t show up as much in spring games if there's a conservative offensive game plan. But the junior Rose, who transferred from Auburn in 2012, has put together a solid spring that has mostly had him working with the top-unit defense at cornerback opposite Josh Mitchell. Receiving strong competition from junior-college transfer Byerson Cockrell, and with cornerback talent in the recent recruiting class, Rose knows he can’t afford to take a day off.

* Maliek Collins, No. 7: Perhaps no one received more praise this spring than the sophomore defensive tackle. There have been times in recent practices when Collins and Vincent Valentine have taken over and blown up plays from the snap. But the O-line punched back in the scrimmage a week ago, getting it done running right at the teeth of the defense. While most fans naturally put more emphasis on following the ball during a game, some of the best action Saturday will come up front. When it’s first team vs. first team, you’ll want to see how Collins operates.

* Josh Banderas, No. 52: You could list four or five players here as a nod to the linebacker position. We’ll put Banderas as a representative of the MIKE spot, where there's a good battle between him and Michael Rose. One of the most noticeable things this spring is how well Nebraska has communicated on the defensive side of the ball, a far cry from the beginning of last year, when the unit sometimes couldn’t even line up properly before a play. That said, the Huskers need Banderas and Rose to continue to grow. While their stock seems to be going up, they’re both still just sophomores who rode a roller coaster last fall. When you watch the 6-2, 235-pound Banderas run step-for-step with a running back, however, he shows it’s going to be hard to not find him a key role in the defense come fall.

OFFENSE

* Alex Lewis, No. 71: It’s a shame, although understood, if Gregory doesn’t play Saturday. The shame is that the Gregory-Lewis confrontations have been must-see viewing this spring. The 6-6, 290-pound Lewis seemed to entrench himself at left tackle by the third practice this spring. His talent is easy to spot. So is his fiery nature. If Lewis can harness that emotion, Nebraska might have something pretty good going on the left side of the line, where Jake Cotton plays guard. “A couple of hotheads,” Ameer Abdullah said of Lewis and Cotton. He meant that as a compliment. Running backs like a little steam coming out of their linemen.

* Adam Taylor, No. 28: Fans heard or read about the 6-2, 210-pound redshirt freshman running back being a bruiser, wowing his peers on the scout team. Of course, players redshirting come with high expectations. While Taylor won’t be able to shoot thunderbolts from his fingers, he's proved difficult to tackle when he gets going downhill. The thing is, Terrell Newby and Imani Cross have only upped their games. Which one of those three backs has the bigger day will be fun to track. Don’t sleep on Newby, whom Abdullah has sort of taken under his wing. The sophomore gained 10 pounds and has looked electric in space. No doubt he’d like to make a house call Saturday to remind the fans he’s not about to go away in the battle to be the man behind Abdullah.

* Johnny Stanton, No. 5: Stanton has shown flashes with both his feet and arm this spring, but still has work to do, as you’d expect, to make any sort of move on Tommy Armstrong at quarterback. For that matter, he's in a tough battle with Ryker Fyfe. Fyfe has had a very good spring and is very much in the conversation to be the No. 2 guy. But Saturday's scrimmage should be viewed as a good opportunity for the 6-2, 225-pound Stanton. He was quite a gamer as a star in high school in California who performed well on the big stage. Some guys have a knack for showing up big when the lights are on and everyone’s watching. It will be intriguing to see how Stanton performs with 60,000 people in the stands.

* Chongo Kondolo, No. 70: Kondolo has seemed to make a good push at right guard since the team came back from spring break. He’s been splitting reps with Givens Price with the top unit. Kondolo plays with a little edge, which is never a bad thing. But every day is an important one in making your case. Price is just as eager to make a difference after waiting in the background the past three years. And Mike Moudy will return this fall to make the competition even steeper. If you like watching line play, right guard is a good position to check out.

* Sam Burtch, No. 9: Pick your receiver and insert his name here. Husker fans know what they have in Kenny Bell, but there should be interest in who emerges as the second and third options. There’s a good competition going on, with players such as Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner, a fully healthy Taariq Allen, Brandon Reilly and even Lane Hovey. We don't even bring up Alonzo Moore, who has missed the spring with injury. All those players, but the 6-3, 195-pound Burtch remains as likely a candidate as any to step into a starring role. It’s clear that experience has only given him more confidence this spring. The Murdock native is no longer just simply a feel-good spring story as he might have been a year ago. Burtch has been working with the first team throughout the spring. He’s going to be an important piece in this offense.

* Cethan Carter, No. 11: It wasn’t an easy situation for Carter to step into last year. Fresh out of high school, he was the new guy trying to fill the void at tight end left behind by Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. The 6-4, 240-pound Carter clearly feels more comfortable both as a blocker and in the passing game than he did last fall. Despite the opportunities, the quarterbacks and Carter could never quite get on the same page for the big play last season. But the more he works with Armstrong, the more you can see a possible connection starting to form. The Huskers will need it to, because the tight end is a weapon they’re going to need for this offense to really take off.

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

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

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