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COMMENTARY
TAD STRYKER
April 18, 2009

 

I got the feeling after the 2009 Red-White scrimmage Saturday that the Nebraska coaching staff saw pretty much what it wanted to see.

They saw solid, but not spectacular. They saw promise, but not polish, especially from their large class of redshirt freshmen.

It may be an overstatement to call it a coach's dream, but let's do it anyway. There were no serious injuries, just one turnover and only seven penalties – not bad for a bunch of first-timers on the field – and the Cornhuskers revealed very little in the way of new material for opponents to study on film.

Afterwards, Bo Pelini made it clear that most of the evaluation of players was done before the annual spring game, which Pelini referred to a more of a show. Well, the show was not quite as dramatic as last year's, when the crowd was more intense and verbose in welcoming the new head coach to the Husker Nation. Attendance was dialed down to 77,670 this time around, and the feel in the stands this year was a little less celebratory, a little more clinical, a little more businesslike, a little more focused on the coming season.

With 48 points and 653 total yards in the final books, this scrimmage was not dominated by defense, as many thought it would be. Here's where the lack of turnovers looks like a problem, but the defensive sets were definitely plain vanilla, and the green jerseys on the quarterback make everyone dial down his pass rush a notch, so you can't read too much into that statistic.

The quarterback play was solid, and here's where the lack of turnovers looks spectacular.

Zac Lee is your starter this fall, barring injury or the wheels coming off in some other unforeseen way. Lee looked composed and was productive in leading the Red team on three touchdown drives of 50-plus yards. He completed 15 of 18 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns, with no turnovers. He ran the short passing game in the West Coast offense and didn't try to stretch the field much.

Neither of Lee's backups disappointed the coaches, either. In fact, Pelini went out of his way to say that the quarterback position is in good hands. Converted linebacker Latravis Washington looked like he'd had a full season at quarterback instead of just 15 practices. He passed for 190 yards and two touchdowns. True freshman Cody Green seemed to gain confidence as the day went on, finishing 8 of 15 for 81 yards. And Pelini also said that Kody Spano should be recovered from his knee injury by the time fall camp begins in August.

The running game was mediocre. With Roy Helu Jr. held out of action due to a tweaked hamstring, neither team gained 100 yards on the ground, although Quentin Castille had a couple of good runs in limited action and redshirt freshmen Lester Ward and Collins Okafor had their moments. Okafor led all rushers with 79 yards on 11 carries, including a 33-yard touchdown run. Shawn Watson never went to the I formation, preferring to let tight ends catch passes a little more and block a little less.

Ben Cotton had four receptions, including a 24-yard touchdown pass from Lee late in the first half. Kyler Reed, another redshirt freshman, caught a sideline pass from Washington and showed a lot of speed in breaking it for a 71-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

The best first impression I got was from redshirt freshman was Tim Marlowe, who returned five punts for 96 yards, including a twisting, churning 38-yarder late in the game. The smallish Marlowe was a late addition to Pelini's first recruiting class, and since he's from Cardinal Mooney High in Youngstown, Ohio (Pelini's old school), some suspected his ability. He may turn out to be another spring storm that blows over quickly, but he looked decisive and aggressive-minded after catching a punt.

Antonio Bell, a true freshman, also looked promising. Bell did most of the kickoff returning and caught two passes for 38 yards.

Menelik Holt and Marcus Mendoza looked solid at the wide receiver positions, as did Chris Brooks, who led everyone with five catches for 48 yards and a touchdown. Mendoza made one of the most athletic plays of the day, hooking up with Lee on a leaping, twisting 26-yard touchdown play where the converted running back stretched the ball over the goal line as he was tackled.

Watson finished the day by talking optimistically about his offense, saying that he has a lot of talent to work with this fall. That's a dramatic turnaround from the scrimmage just three days earlier, when he loudly chastised his offense for its poor performance.

It could provide some motivation for the Blackshirts this summer as they take part in conditioning and drills. There is no evidence yet that the defensive backfield is settled; receivers were open much of the day. There is a lot promise on defense, though. Redshirt freshman Will Compton, who played Mike linebacker for the White team, led all tacklers with seven. Baker Steinkuhler (defensive tackle), Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley (linebackers) and P.J. Smith and Courtney Osborne (safeties) all got extensive playing time.

Pelini seemed satisfied at the end of the day, saying the Huskers are set up for a good fall camp. He said a lot of things that Nebraska fans would hope to hear at the end of spring drills.

No promises, but there's no reason for those fans not to expect their team to be in the battle for the Big 12 North title. Let the countdown to fall commence around the Cornhusker State.

 

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