March 25, 2009

Pelini, players eager to grow in Year 2

The difference was clear from the moment head coach Bo Pelini walked to the podium for his pre-spring practice press conference on Tuesday.

Compared to this time last year when he was preparing for his first season as Nebraska's head man, Pelini seemed far more relaxed and comfortable in front of the hoards of cameras, tape recorders and reporters. More importantly, he seemed confident - something that was reflected in the seven of his players that took the podium after him.

No longer is Nebraska a team simply in transition. As was fairly clear through the first press conference of the season, the Huskers are now a team with a clear mission in mind.

"I think we have a better handle this year on what we have on our roster and what we want to do," Pelini said. "I think we have a better plan on both sides of the ball on where we want to go. I told the team yesterday that we have to make some giant steps in 15 practices. Last year there were a lot of unknowns and this year we have a better idea entering spring ball. I know that we are a better team this year entering spring ball then we were last year."

Unlike last year, the Huskers enter spring practice a year wiser in terms of what Pelini and his staff are trying to do on both sides of the ball. While there are still several voids that need to be filled before the season opener, a base has been laid that is allowing Nebraska to continue to progress rather than start from scratch.

Pelini said that luxury in itself very well could be the spring board for the Huskers to not only equal the success of their nine-win season a year ago, but to take the program to even greater heights.

"We need to stay on our progression," he said. "They have a bit more knowledge to start with and hopefully that helps us be better. Thinking back to different places where I was entering year two, I expect to make a big jump this year. We were our own worst enemy a lot last year. We need to fix us and I think we have a good idea on how to get that done.

"If we can stay consistent, I think we have a shot to be a lot better. We gave up a lot of big plays and it wasn't always the offense beating us. I have high expectations. We made a jump last year from where they were the year before, but nowhere close to where I expect us to be. Until we're at the top, we aren't satisfied."

Pelini isn't the only one showing a difference in the overall attitude around Memorial Stadium this spring. Junior running back Roy Helu - who apparently put on 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason - showed up to Tuesday's press conference bigger and more confident than ever.

Helu said the players are looking at spring practice and on into fall camp as a chance to both continue what they started last season and also start all over again with a clean slate.

"The difference for our team this year competition-wise is it's going to be more cut throat," Helu said. "We have a lot of practices back-to-back, so it's going to have a feeling of more a camp-type situation. Me personally, I'm excited."

While talking about the steps his team has made in taking the program to the next level, Pelini also took some time to discuss some of the personal growth he's made over the course of the past year.

"I hope I've grown up a bit into the position," Pelini said. "I learned a lot in my first year. Everyone makes mistakes along the way. I hope I learned, made corrections and have gotten better. Just like when I was a coordinator or position coach, you don't have all the answers and you learn every step of the way. If you continue to learn you have a chance to make yourself better and the program better. I think the whole staff learned to get better last year."

As much as the Huskers seemed poised to build on last season's success, the reality is that there are still far more questions than answers at the moment. They still need to find a new starting quarterback, which only headlines a list of other key positions where major contributors from last year have moved on and left voids to fill.

Still, there's no question that optimism is running high, and there's no reason to think Nebraska won't find more than enough players on to step on a roster that's full of youth and potential.

For now, though, the Huskers are focused on one, simple goal.

"Get better, period," Pelini said. "We want to continue the development of the culture of how we want our program to be. That is a broad all encompassing thing. It's an everyday day thing. We want our kids to compete in everything because everything counts. We won't be satisfied until we're on top."

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