Dienhart: Things I learned at Nebraska practice
The second stop of our BTN bus tour brought us to Lincoln, Neb., where we watched the Huskers practice on an absolutely beautiful night Thursday. Here is what I learned and observed while taking in the practice. Talking to offensive coordinator Tim Beck after practice, he says quarterback Taylor Martinez has made strides in his mechanics. Beck showed me how Martinez had a hitch in his delivery, thrusting his hips forward and dropping his right shoulder before delivering the ball.
Beck also said Martinez’s drop back was unconventional, as his first step away from center was with his left foot, which left him with a poor setup in the pocket.
Martinez still has trouble setting his feet, continually moving them and sometimes inadvertently sliding forward in the pocket. But Beck says the quarterback has made strides in all of those departments while also improving his velocity. We shall see. And from the oh-by-the-way department: Martinez remains a killer runner.
Also, while talking to Beck about Martinez, he was quick to note how well true freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., performed in the practice we watched. No doubt, Armstrong looks like a special talent who could have a bright future. The kid showed a nice arm and some uncanny poise in the full pads practice.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis wants to get his first-team set, and then focus on developing depth. He knows the importance of having a good two-deep as the season wears on. Papuchis installed a 3-4 at practice last night, displaying an array of talent at linebacker.
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In addition to the three senior starters in Alonzo Whaley, Will Compton and Sean Fisher, Papuchis feels good about JC transfer Zaire Anderson, along with true freshman Michael Rose, who ran as the No. 2 middle linebacker in the practice I watched. Each is built low to the ground and is a whirling dervish like Sam Mills or London Fletcher. It’s just a matter of each getting up to speed with the schemes, Papuchis told me.
[BTN.com: Tweets from Nebraska practice]
And in the secondary, keep an eye on Charles Jackson. He didn’t qualify until late last year and never enrolled. Now, he’s on campus and turning heads as he’s running as the No. 2 nickel back.
Speaking of youngsters, new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski loves the depth of talent behind starters like end Jason Ankrah and Cameron Meredith, along with tackle Baker Steinkuhler. The Huskers have four talented true freshmen d-linemen. But keep an especially close eye on mammoth 320-pound tackle Vincent Valentine and end Avery Moss. Papuchis thinks each could help this season. This is a special group up front.
In watching the running backs, it was impossible not to notice true freshman Imani Cross. The 6-1, 225-pounder from Georgia has been described to me as being “country strong.” To wit, the kid did 41 pull-ups and 200 push-ups during a conditioning test prior to camp. Cross is a big, physical runner who is unlike any of the other backs on a roster that already features three strong options in Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard.
Still, it would seem to be difficult to keep Cross off the field. He already looks like an NFL back and runs hard. Tim Beck said he’s coming along as a pass protector, too.
The offensive line could be outstanding. There are four legit tackles in Andrew Rodriguez, Jeremiah Sirles, Tyler Moore and Brent Qvale and two strong guards in Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi. But the center spot remains a work in progress. Undersized local product Cole Pensick is slated No. 1 for now, but Mark Pelini and Justin Jackson remain in the mix, according to Beck. Nothing was resolved on Thursday night.
People I talked to said the defensive coaching staff has better chemistry. Secondary coach Corey Raymond left to work at LSU, while coordinator Carl Pelini took the Florida Atlantic head coaching job. Bo Pelini promoted John Papuchis to coordinator and hired Rick Kaczenski from Iowa to run the line. The moves look like wise ones for a defense that teems with potential, showing a great ability to run and good depth.
Is there a better collection of receivers in the Big Ten? Maybe not. Kenny Bell didn’t have a great practice, but he’s the bellwether of this unit and is one of the fastest receivers in the Big Ten. Quincy Enunwa is as physical as any wideout in the league and a knockout blocker. If ex-quarterback Jamal Turner is dialed in, he could be a contributor. And gutsy Tim Marlowe is undersized but can work the slot and gets in and out of cuts quickly. Add in a boffo tight end duo of Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and Martinez will have no shortage of options. Beck even told me the two tight ends behind Reed and Cotton are good. Bottom line: This is a Husker attack that is loaded with skill-position talent.
Touted JC transfer cornerback Mohammed Seisay hurt an ankle recently but is OK. Still, he’s running with the No. 2 team for now, but Papuchis says that could change in time. Seisay is a big corner (6-2, 200) who can be a difference maker for a team that also will have Andrew Green, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans—among others–at corner. Lots of options.
No player I saw is better put together than end Jason Ankrah. The 6-4, 265-pound junior looks like he’s chiseled from marble. No doubt, he passes the eyeball test, as does most of this roster. In fact, cohort Howard Griffith thinks the defensive line talent of Nebraska is on par with any school we will visit on this tour.
It was fun to watch the ball explode off the foot of Brett Maher, whose punts often ricocheted around the rafters of the indoor facility. The guy has a monster leg.
All during practice, staffers blasted music from the back of a John Deere Gator. Why? Beck says it’s so the offensive players can learn to communicate amid a noise din of sound, as the no-huddle look requires impeccable non-verbal communication. By the way, the selection of music was OK by a 47-year-old man’s standards, with some Who and Rolling Stones playing among other tunes. No Justin Bieber-thank goodness. Beck wasn’t sure who picks the music when I asked him. But, I bet it’s Bo Pelini.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.
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