December 27, 2010

Monday notebook: Paul finally returns to practice

The past month has been one of the longest months of Niles Paul's life, as he has been forced to watch his teammates from the sideline since breaking a bone in his foot just before the Colorado game.

On Monday, that month finally came to an end, as the senior wide receiver was back in pads at practice for the first time since the injury. Paul said he felt about 98 percent after the practice, and outside of a little soreness on some cuts, his foot felt just like new.

"It felt fine," Paul said. "Yesterday I had a little trouble cutting and coming back. We talked about it today, and it felt a lot better doing those things. It kind of felt like my normal routine."

Along with finally getting back on the field with his teammates, Paul said the best part about returning to practice was going out and playing football again after more than four weeks without putting on a helmet.

Paul has been cleared to play in Thursday's Holiday Bowl, but on Sunday, receivers coach Ted Gilmore said Paul would likely play a limited role in the game regardless of his health status.

Paul, however, is confident he'll be able to do whatever his coaches ask of him, including returning to his duties as kickoff returner. He said he took some reps returning kicks on Monday.

"I plan to just do the same thing I've been doing, block or whatever," Paul said. "Whatever they want me to do, or whatever they allow me to go out and do, I'm going to do the best I can."

Senior cornerback Prince Amukamara, who has had more than his share of head-to-head battles with Paul over the course of their careers, said getting No. 24 back on the field gave a spark to the entire team.

"Niles is a competitor, and he wanted to come (back) even with his foot injured," Amukamara said. "You can tell he's hungry. I see him fighting for reps on the kickoff return team, and I'm sure he's doing that on the offensive level. It's good to have a guy as hungry as him, because that just spreads through the team and gets everyone hungry."

- Robin Washut

Paul and Helu will play in Senior Bowl

Both Paul and running back Roy Helu confirmed on Monday after practice that they have been invited to the Under Armor Senior Bowl and they will play in the prestigious draft all-star game.

The other known Husker who's been invited at this point is Amukamara, but he still hasn't decided if he'll take part in the game.

"I've been invited to the (Senior Bowl), so I'm going to play in that one," Paul said. "I'm excited to play in there. I'll get to play against the best seniors in the nation."

-Sean Callahan

NU struck juco gold with Gomes

Nebraska has obviously been able to assemble one of the best secondaries in the country over the past three seasons, but there is one piece of the unit defensive coordinator Carl Pelini still can't believe the Huskers wound up getting.

In his two years at NU since coming to Lincoln from City College of San Francisco, senior safety DeJon Gomes has emerged as arguably one of the most underrated defensive backs in all of college football.

Looking back, the fact that Nebraska was able to get the hybrid safety/cornerback/linebacker without hardly any other schools recruiting him as well still boggles Pelini's mind to this day.

"It shocked me when we put his tape on for the first time when we were recruiting him, before we had even talked to him, it shocked me how he was such a playmaker," Pelini said. "He was all over the place. It just goes back to do you recruit by numbers or stars, or do your recruit by what you saw on tape. It shocked me that he wasn't as heavily recruited as any junior college defensive back in the country. We felt so lucky to get him."

While Gomes is getting ready to play his final game as a Husker on Thursday, Pelini said Nebraska might have another defensive player on the exact same career path in juco transfer linebacker Lavonte David.

Though he started every game this season, Pelini said David's development has skyrocketed after every game he plays - just like Gomes.

"One thing we saw on tape (with Gomes) was the same thing we saw on tape with Lavonte - they both had a great feel for the ball," Pelini said. "They're always in the right place. They're always around the football. They're always making plays. Honestly, if I had to compare two guys on our defense, those two guys are really similar in that respect. They're just got a feel for the game, a genuine understanding of football.

"At times, even early in the process when they first transferred here and they maybe didn't take the exact correct footwork or do the exact correct alignment, they still understood it and ended up in the place they should be."

- Robin Washut

Huskers host coaches clinic

Nebraska's coaching staff had a pretty busy day on Monday, as they hosted a local chalk talk clinic for area high school and junior college coaches in California following their practice at UCSD.

An estimated 167 coaches pre-registered to this year's event and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said it was very successful.

Hosting a local coach's clinic was something first started by former head coach Bill Callahan during NU's trip to the Cotton Bowl in 2006. Head coach Bo Pelini's staff has done it now both at bowl stops in Florida and California as well.

"Our recruiting staff put it together and what we are trying to do is extend a hand out to them," Watson said. "They were able to come out and watch practice today. Later on we are going to have breakout sessions with all of our coaches for an hour and a half."

-Sean Callahan

Washington's offense has evolved

Much has been made about the transformation Washington has underwent since its 56-21 drubbing at the hands of Nebraska in September, but according to Carl Pelini, the biggest change has been in the Huskies' offensive approach.

Especially during its three-game winning streak to close out the regular season, Pelini said UW has turned to its running game to lead the way and open up plays for senior quarterback Jake Locker rather than have Locker try and do it all himself.

Running back Chris Polk, who ranked second in the Pac-10 Conference with more than 1,200 yards rushing, has led the way for the Huskies' new ground attack. Highlighted by his monster 284-yard game in the Apple Cup against Washington State, Polk rushed for a total of 508 yards and four touchdowns in UW's past three games.

"They've been running the ball," Pelini said. "I think they've kind of discovered an identity. They've been executing really well. They've been running the ball well and combining that with a good play-action game, playing a lot of backs, doing a lot of things different than we saw the first time. It will be a challenge for our guys."

Not only is Washington committing to the run far more than it did early in the season, Pelini said the Huskies are also doing it from a variety of different looks and formations that have kept defenses constantly off balance.

After watching film of UW since the first meeting, Pelini said he's seen its offense utilize numerous personnel groups and pre-snap motions, as well as relying heavily on misdirection running plays and play-action bootlegs to get Locker out of the pocket.

"They're very creative offensively," Pelini said. "They use formations well. You can only prepare for what you've seen. You take into account what they've done in the past. We've gone back a couple seasons and looked at some different things we hadn't seen this year. You do the best you can, but you know in a bowl game with a month to prepare, you're going to have to make some sideline adjustments. We're ready to do that."

- Robin Washut

Tweeting away

A popular thing that has recently taken the Husker locker room by storm is Twitter. Several different Husker players have recently signed up on Twitter and Amukamara said it's something he enjoys.

"It's pretty fun to social network," Amukamara said. "I just don't hope I get addicted to it and let me get in trouble."

Other notable players who Tweet are cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, defensive end Cameron Merdith, offensive lineman D.J. Jones, quarterback Kody Spano, safety Austin Cassidy, kicker Adi Kunalic, David and Paul.

Amukamara said former linebacker Blake Lawrence is probably the guy who tweets the most around the program.

"Blake Lawrence got me on it," Amukamara said. "Him and Adi and Niles is creeping up on there. He tweets a lot."

-Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***There were several new Blackshirts roaming the practice field on Monday, as the Huskers continued their tradition of handing out Blackshirts to all senior defensive players as well as Kunalic and punter Alex Henery.

"Our defensive guys believe those guys are part of the Blackshirts because they've got kickoff duties and pinning guys deep, and getting important field position is like playing defense," Pelini said.

***Though it's been assumed that junior Terrence Moore would be the starting defensive tackle for the Holiday Bowl in place of the suspended Baker Steinkuhler, Pelini made it official on Monday. He said Moore's experience was the deciding factor in giving him the start over redshirt freshman Thaddeus Randle.

"He's really a guy who deserves a shot," Pelini said. "They've been on even ground since the start of the year and have played an even amount. I like to go with the older guy when I can."

***Amukamara said he was more than willing to give Dennard advice on whether to enter to the NFL Draft this year or come back for his senior season, as he was faced with the exact same decision last year.

"He just asked me for my two cents and just about the benefits and disadvantages about it, and I shared that with him," Amukamara said. "I guess he saw how it helped me and Suh out, so I guess he based the decision off of that. It was definitely a decision that he made, he just used others' inputs to make that decision."

Amukamara said he has no doubt that Dennard will follow he and Ndamukong Suh's footsteps and come back for a breakout senior season.

"Definitely, and maybe even better," Amukamara said. "Alfonzo is definitely playmaker. He likes to make plays on the ball, and I definitely think that since he's going to stay next year, he's going to keep doing that."

***Watson said there's a chance he may work in Cody Green into Thursday's Holiday Bowl if the situation allows it.

"That's a potential," Watson said. "Cody has gotten a lot of reps and so has Zac (Lee). We'll use the same type of mentality we did when the season started. If Cody earns those reps, we can give him reps in this game."

***Since coming to Nebraska, Helu has yet to effectively play in a bowl game. He sat out the 2008 Gator Bowl and in 2009 he played just a couple of plays in the Holiday Bowl. Helu said he's looking forward to finally getting the chance to prove himself in a bowl game on Thursday.

"I got banged up in the first quarter last year and in the Gator Bowl I had a knee infection, so this game has a little more value to me to finish strong," Helu said.

***Just before the team left for Sea World for their post-practice activity, Amukamara was informed that he and the rest of Nebraska's captains would get the chance to swim with dolphins. That was an activity he wanted absolutely no part of.

"I'm not doing that," Amukamara said. "Not with animals. I've seen too much of that show Animals Gone Wild."

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