August 29, 2011

Monday notebook: Game week officially begins

Nebraska officially kicked off its 2011-12 season with its first weekly press conference of the year on Monday. While this year will be unlike any other for the Huskers with their move to the Big Ten Conference, their expectations and goals haven't changed one bit.

New conference or not, Nebraska is still viewing championships as the only true measure of success this season.

"I don't ever look at it being a success if you don't win a championship," head coach Bo Pelini said. "That's our goal from the beginning. Is that to say you can't have a good year and not win a conference championship? That all depends on who you talk to. In this program, we're about winning championships. If we don't, than I know me personally, and I think if you talk to those guys in the locker room, they wouldn't feel it was a success.

"That's our goal, and if you don't reach your goal, it's obviously not a success."

The Huskers have been on the brink of achieving those championship goals the past two seasons, but heartbreaking losses in consecutive Big 12 Conference titles have left the program and its fans unsatisfied and disappointed with missed opportunities.

Coming into the year, Nebraska is being pegged by several national media outlets as the favorites to win the Big Ten in its inaugural season, even if the most familiar opponent on the schedule, Washington, is a non-conference foe.

On Monday, the Huskers talked about wanting to get the bad taste of how last season ended out of their mouths. In some ways, however, having come so close to reaching their goals two straight years could provide the motivation NU needs to fuel a run for a title in its Big Ten debut.

"It makes you hungrier," Pelini said. "We've been really close, but you're looking for ways to get over the top. It's how you approach your job each and every day, every week and obviously every year. You can't look back and change what's happened, but you look to keep getting better as a program. That's our approach all the time."

Along with that, a conference title isn't the ultimate goal for some players.

"As a team right now, we're not really striving for a Big Ten championship, we're striving for the national championship," sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "If we get to the national championship, everything else will fall into place."

With it now finally being game week, the players say there's a new energy within the team as they start preparations for the Saturday's season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga.

After seemingly one of the longest and most anticipation-filled off-seasons in recent memory, the Huskers are now just days away from putting it on field and getting back to football.

"It's been a long time, so I think everybody is excited," senior safety Austin Cassidy said. "It's that time of year again where we get to hit someone else other than ourselves. We're tired of hitting each other. I think everyone is just a little bit more focused now. We get to change it up a little bit. We're really scheming for another offense now. Now we really get to focus in on shutting down another team. I think everybody is a little bit more focused this week."

- Robin Washut

Martinez past last year's struggles

As bad as things got for Nebraska's offense and Martinez towards the end of last season, the sophomore and all of his coaches and teammates are confident this year will be a completely different story.

While he showed plenty of flashes as a redshirt freshman, Martinez came under heavy criticism for his performance on the field, his assumed lack of leadership of the offense and reluctance to take the same ownership of all the responsibilities of a quarterback his predecessors did.

However, Martinez said he's been able to block out all that criticism by completely ignoring all together.

"You just pretty much try to ignore the media, like ESPN or what you guys put in the newspapers," Martinez said in only his second group interview since the Spring Game. "We don't really read much into it. You just play your game and go out there and try to compete."

Martinez said he got caught up in what media had to say about his performance early on last season, but by the end realized he was better off blocking it out both the good and the bad that was said about him.

"After a while I just gave up and I didn't even care anymore," he said. "I just turned on CMT or something and started watching that."

Pelini backed up his quarterback on Monday, once again saying he couldn't be happier with the progress Martinez has made this offseason both on and off the field.

"I think if you'd talk to anybody in the country, I mean, Taylor Martinez is an impact football player," Pelini said. "He's a tremendous quarterback, a guy who we think very highly of. Obviously he has a year of experience under his belt, so we expect him to take a big step in Year 2.

"Taylor is just a lot more confident. He's light years ahead of where he was at this time last year."

Since the start of spring practice, all of Martinez's coaches and teammates have had nothing but positive things to say about his leadership and growth as a quarterback since last season. In Martinez's opinion, though, his leadership was never as big as an issue as most people made it out to be

"Maybe because you guys kept criticizing me so much about leadership and stuff like that, maybe they just cam to realize that they need to speak out to you guys and tell you guys that I am a leader," he said.

- Robin Washut

Ankrah wins starting DE job

One of the most highly contested position battles throughout the spring and on into fall camp was for the starting defensive spot opposite Cameron Meredith. With the first game now less than a week away, a starter was finally officially named on Monday.

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said sophomore Jason Ankrah would be the starter after having a great spring and even better fall.

"He's gotten really physical," Carl Pelini said. "He reminds me of Pierre (Allen) in terms of how he plays the run. He plays with good pad level, he's got a lot of lower body strength, he's gotten a lot stronger in his upper body. He allows himself to play very physical against the run, but he's still got the athleticism on third-down situations to rush the quarterback like a pure pass rusher does."

While Ankrah may be the starter, that doesn't mean Nebraska won't rotate heavily at its deep defensive end positions. Carl Pelini said junior Josh Williams would be the first player off the bench on either side of the line, while juniors Eric Martin and Joseph Carter would both see plenty of situational snaps.

Carl Pelini said Williams also had a great offseason, and he would see significant playing time on Saturday. He also said Williams, who has bulked up to nearly 270 pounds after coming in at 225 as a freshman, has finally learned to play with his added muscle and is becoming a force both against the run and as a pass rusher.

"Josh has had a great camp too," Carl Pelini said. "I think he's taken a definite step ahead. I think the competition has been great for Josh. Last year he put on a lot of size. He was like Jared (Crick). That first year he put on all that size, he didn't play really comfortable at that size. Now he looks comfortable at 270. He's a very valuable guy for us."

With so much defensive end depth at their disposal, Carl Pelini said the coaching staff would continue to evaluate the position throughout the season, saying the starting spots were anything but set in stone at this point.

"The competition goes on," Carl Pelini said. "I could call (Ankrah) a starter, but I don't know if they're fighting for who's starting. They're fighting for snaps. In my mind, I look at every position on the field, and to me it doesn't matter who's starting, it's how I want to use guys in each situation. Those are the snaps they're fighting for.

"My two top pass rushers are going to be on the field on third-and-long, and my run guys are going to get on the field on second-and-8 and third-and-short. So it really doesn't matter who's on the field the first snap, it's how I envision rotating those guys. If they want to play in those situations, they've got to prove themselves effective in those situations."

- Robin Washut

No updates on Jackson, Marrow

Bo Pelini said there was still no news to report on the statuses of freshman cornerback Charles Jackson and sophomore fullback Mike Marrow.

For Jackson, Pelini said NU is still waiting on the results from Jackson's appeal to the NCAA to get him cleared academically for this season. Pelini said he expected the NCAA to rule on Jackson's appeal within the next couple days, but didn't expect Spring, Texas, native to be on campus this semester regardless of the outcome.

"We're kind of at the mercy of the NCAA on that," Pelini said. "I don't think you can bring him on. It wouldn't be in his best interested to come on campus because he's missed too much school. You can't put somebody in that situation. It'll probably be December before he comes in."

As for Marrow, Pelini said he hoped to know if the transfer from Eastern Michigan and Alabama would be eligible to play this season by the end of the week.

"That'll be determined here in the next few days," Pelini said.

- Robin Washut

Maher officially named starting kicker, punter

Last week, Bo Pelini said junior Brett Maher was the frontrunner over freshman Mauro Bondi to win the starting place kicker and punter jobs to start the season.

Pelini made that official on Monday.

As expected, Maher will be handed the task of trying to replace Alex Henery, the most accurate kicker and one of the most underrated punters in school history.

Pelini said it would obviously be a daunting task to try and fill Henery's shoes, but he had full confidence in Maher to make sure there was as little drop off as possible.

"It's a tough act to follow, but I feel real good about our guys, and I think we're in good hands as far as Brett handling the place kicking to get started here," Pelini said. "We have a lot of confidence in him."

Pelini said Maher had a great fall camp, and thrived in the competition with Bondi, whom Pelini said would be a very good kicker in his own right in time.

For now, Pelini said Maher would only continue to get better over the next two years.

"You keep working on his technique, and practice makes perfect," Pelini said. "He's done really well. I think mentally he's a strong, tough kid. It's his job now. He's earned it. I think he's doing well."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Bo Pelini said he ideally wants to rotate in as many players as he can across the board, but it would depend on how the game goes on Saturday as to how many would see the field in the opener.

"It depends on how the game goes," Pelini said. "We want to play as many guys as we can all the time. I think we have some numbers in some areas, and we still have a lot of competition going on. So I think you'll see some guys just based on the fact there are a lot of guys who are close in some areas, especially at certain positions. We'll just have to see how it goes on Saturday."

***Believe it or not, there was some talk about Nebraska's opponent this week, Tennessee-Chattanooga. Bo Pelini said he's been very impressed with the Mocs' quarterback B.J. Coleman and receiver Joel Bradford.

"I think he's a heck of a football player," Pelini said of Coleman. "I think the quarterback, and (Bradford), those guys kind of make their offense tick. He's very good. He makes some big time throws. He can make all the throws. He's one of the better guys that I've seen in a while."

***Pelini said don't be surprised if sophomore right guard Spencer Long didn't see some significant playing time for the Huskers this season.

"I think he followed up a really good spring with a good camp," Pelini said. "I anticipate him playing a lot of football for us. He's one guy who you want to see how he reacts out there for the first time. I think there are a number of guys in that boat. But I think he's talented, he plays hard, and I think he's earned the right to be out there."

***Senior defensive tackle Jared Crick was asked about his recent appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he said he hasn't let the wave of national publicity this offseason get to his head. In fact, he said he doesn't even own a copy of the magazine.

"With Sports Illustrated for instance, you've just got to have fun with it," Crick said. "You don't use it to get a big head or anything, you just do it and have fun with it because you were asked to do it. You just don't make things bigger than they are. You just roll with the punches. Whatever, I've done as far as magazines or whatever, it's not a big deal to me. It's just me doing my job and going out there and having fun with it."

Is Crick worried about the SI cover jinx?

"I don't believe in the jinx, no I don't," he said.

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