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April 8, 2009


Back during the Civil War, when sheer numbers of soldiers mattered a lot more than it does today, generals usually kept back several divisions of men in reserve. Then, when the time was right, they deployed them onto the field of combat, and many a battle was won by the sheer weight of numbers of fresh troops. Bo Pelini has a lot of fresh troops, presumably trained and ready, to send into combat this fall. One of the biggest questions of the 2009 season is just how much power this large class of redshirt freshmen will add to the Cornhusker arsenal.

His team suffered a pair of big-time losses to Missouri and Oklahoma in 2008, but overall, Pelini gambled and won last season, going 9-4 while keeping many of his most athletic defensive players on the bench. While the full impact of that decision won't be known until 2012, it will start to pay dividends this fall.

There are 40 redshirt freshmen listed on Nebraska's spring roster. Comments made by coaches over the past six months indicate that many of them are ready to ratchet up the speed and talent of the Husker defense. Combine that with the resiliency, guts and determination already shown by the sometimes outmanned 2008 Blackshirts, and you get an explosive mix. If nothing else, look for a big uptick in takeaways by the Big Red.

Like all reserves seeing their first real action, they will be relatively untested. But such is the nature of college football.

One thing they will certainly do is to increase the depth across the board on defense. And some will push for starting positions. One of the most notable appears to be middle linebacker Will Compton, who has said that Pelini was close to burning his redshirt last fall. You've got to think that Compton will see a lot of playing time this season. Classmates Sean Fisher, Micah Kreikemeier and Alonzo Whaley are in the mix at the outside linebacker positions.

In the secondary, redshirt freshmen will be conspicuous at safety, where Courtney Osborne (scout team defender of the year for 2008) and P.J. Smith are making a push for playing time. Baker Steinkuhler seems to have asserted himself as a backup defensive tackle, while Josh Williams and Cameron Meredith may well be the second-string defensive ends.

Pelini is starting to get the players he needs to mold the defense in his image. This class will be instrumental in the transition from the infamous 2007 backpedal-and-break defense to a Pelini-style search-and-destroy crew. There were plenty of mental busts last season, and that probably will happen again early in 2009, but this time around, there should be enough speed to cover up some of those mistakes – and there should be fewer mistakes by November.

That is due to the fact that Nebraska will have some reliable returnees in the back seven. There is a good mix of Nebraska-bred walk-ons (linebackers Colton Koehler and Mathew May and defensive backs Matt O'Hanlon and Lance Thorell come immediately to mind). Having a motivated bunch of walk-ons battling the talented young bucks for pre-eminence is a time-honored recipe for Husker success.

It's likely that no more than one or two redshirt freshmen will start a game this fall on defense (and even less likely that any of them will break through for an offensive start), but you will hear a lot of those same names mentioned on special teams this fall. The Huskers should be better on kickoff coverage and punt returns than they have been for several years – again, due to improved athleticism across the board. If they find a good long snapper and punter, they will be solid on the other aspects of the kicking game.

On offense, Husker redshirt freshmen probably will see significantly less playing time. The main candidate probably will be receiver Khiry Cooper, who is playing baseball for Mike Anderson right now. Then again, 215-pound I-back Lester Ward was recently praised by his coach, Tim Beck, and he may be in line for the No. 3 spot behind Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille.

The thing about fresh troops is that you never know how they'll respond to battle until they're smack in the middle of it. I'm not saying that anyone in the class will be the equal of a young Trev Alberts in 1990 or Grant Wistrom in 1994, but this class of redshirt freshmen will be a pivotal one as Nebraska makes its bid to return to the elite of college football.


Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive