August 17, 2009

Monday notebook: Three Huskers return from injury

An off day can do wonders for the health of your football team during the month of August.

Nebraska took their first official off day of fall camp on Sunday, and the trade off was three key players made their return to the practice field after being sidelined with injuries for most of the first week.

Both junior offensive lineman Ricky Henry and sophomore cornerback Alfonzo Dennard returned to practice on Monday after being sidelined with hamstring injuries for most of last week.

Junior tight end Dreu Young also returned to practice, after missing the entire first week of fall camp with a back injury. Young was only able to practice in a helmet and shorts though on Monday since it was his first official practice. He won't be able to go full pads until Friday.

"Dennard and Henry are coming off hamstrings, so we limited them, but they got some work in there," Pelini said. "Dreu Young, he's getting back out there kind of getting going again. We need everyone out there practicing, that's the key."

Pelini also said on Monday that junior offensive lineman Mike Smith was sidelined with a minor injury, meaning redshirt freshman Brandon Thompson will see time with the No. 1 offense at left tackle until he returns.

"He's fine," Pelini said of Smith. "He had some treatment yesterday where he had some things done where we are going to give him the whole day off, but he'll be back out there tomorrow."

The other injury news of note that came out of Monday was that true freshman Jess Coffey will miss the remainder of camp with an MCL knee injury he suffered on Saturday.

Pelini said Coffey was replaced on the 105 man roster by sophomore Luke Lingenfelter, who reported to camp on Monday morning.

"Coffey has an MCL," Pelini said. "It's nothing big or nothing long term. He's probably going to be two or three weeks."

-Sean Callahahan

Monday fall camp takes
Another walk-on rewarded: Another walk-on player was rewarded on Monday in sophomore offensive lineman Luke Lingenfelter, who replaced the injured Jess Coffey on the 105 man roster. Coffey is the second walk-on player brought up in the last week, joining true freshman quarterback Ron Kellogg. Coffey was brought up in favor of two scholarship offensive linemen-Cruz Barrett and Quentin Toailoa. Once again this should show people that this staff does not discriminate. If a walk-on player is better than a scholarship guy, he'll get a fair shake.
Old school film session: In an effort to teach his running backs how to run more physical, Tim Beck has had them watch old film clips of NFL greats Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson. Junior Quentin Castille said he's enjoyed watching the clips of Payton and Dickerson and it's helped him improve his running style.
Injury update: Junior tight end Dreu Young (back), junior offensive lineman Ricky Henry (hamstring) and sophomore cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring) all returned to the practice field on Monday. Junior offensive lineman Mike Smith sat out Monday with a minor injury, but he's expected to be back on Tuesday. Freshman offensive lineman Jess Coffey was taken off the 105 man roster due to an MCL knee injury, but he should be back in two to three weeks. Redshirt freshman linebacker Sean Fisher (ankle) and freshman safety Dijon Washington still remain out with minor injuries.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team will hold two-a-day practice sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of this week, for a total of nine practices over the next six days. NU worked out from 9 to 11 a.m. in full pads on Monday morning and they'll come back in the afternoon for a practice session from 3:45 to 6:00 p.m. On Tuesday, the Huskers are scheduled to practice from 3:45 to 6:00 p.m.

Dennard back, but not 100 percent

Sophomore cornerback Alfonzo Dennard may have returned to practice for the first since pulling his hamstring last Monday, but that didn't mean he's back in full form just yet.

Dennard said he only participated in the individual drills portion of Monday's first practice and didn't get a single rep during Nebraska's team work. While he admitted that his hamstring only felt about 75 percent, he was confused why the coaching staff would want to get him back so soon and not let him fully practice.

"Only thing I know right now is they told me to hurry up and come back because I won't compete for a starting spot if I don't hurry up and show them what I got on the field in full pads," Dennard said. "(The injury) probably set me back a little bit because I didn't get no reps today. No reps today. I don't know why."

Dennard entered the fall in contention to possibly win a starting job by the start of the season. In talking with NU secondary coach Marvin Sanders last week, he said Dennard had shown great progress prior to his injury and was definitely in a position to earn a starting spot.

However, one of Denard's biggest attributes was his explosiveness in jumping routes and defending passes. With his hamstring still not healthy, the coaching staff apparently wanted to ease him back into things before working him with the full defense.

"I'm still not 100 percent yet," Dennard said. "I'm just trying to hurry up and get in the mix of the plays in practice."

- Robin Washut

Paul becoming special teams ace

Junior Niles Paul likely won't have much to complain about as far as his playing time goes this season. In fact, the question will probably how much he doesn't play.

Along with his role as one of the Huskers' top receivers, Paul said he's been working on three different special teams units this fall - kick return, punt return and punt team. That means he's on every special teams unit except kickoff team.

Paul said he's once again working as the No. 1 kick returner and is one of the leading candidates for the starting punt returner spot. Additionally, he's Nebraska's starting guard on the punt team.

Those he's a bit undersized to be a lineman, Paul said he's strong enough to block and his speed makes him a nice weapon in getting down field in punt coverage.

As far as returning goes, Paul said he'd be perfectly OK handling both kickoffs and punts for the Huskers this season.

"I have no problem doing both," Paul said.

- Robin Washut

Lee happy with progress so far

After finishing his first live scrimmage of the fall on Saturday, junior quarterback Zac Lee said he was happy with his performance overall and that the offense is clicking as well as ever wit him at the helm.

"I think I've had a pretty strong camp," Lee said. "I'm still learning and trying to improve every day at different things, just trying to clean up my play."

While he said he started getting comfortable running the offense in the spring, Lee said the more game situations he gets under his belt the more confident he gets under center.

"That's big," he said. "We work those situations all the time. That's what quarterback play is - being successful on different situations, like red zone and two-minute and stuff like that. We work game-like situations as much as possible."

With the loss of redshirt freshman Kody Spano last week, Lee was asked whether the coaches would take extra care in making sure he stayed healthy this season.

Lee said he hasn't noticed any drop in the number of running plays he's taken so far, and even though he's wearing the green no-contact jersey, he didn't expect that to change once the season started.

"I don't know if you can ever play football like that," Lee said. I think you've just got to go out and play. The game's going to happen know matter what plays are called and no matter what happens. We're just going to go out and play football."

- Robin Washut

A tough stretch ahead

Over the next six days Nebraska will probably have the toughest practice stretch they'll face all season. The Huskers are scheduled to have nine practices over the next six days, including three two-a-day sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The NCAA does not allow you to have two-a-day practice sessions on back-to-back days any more.

Pelini said when he looks at the schedule that lies ahead, he should be able to find out quite a bit about his football team over that stretch.

"A big thing this week will be to figure out who is playing for us," Pelini said. "The competition is fierce right now. We are looking at a lot of different guys, but after this week we are going to have to start zeroing in on who's winning jobs and where people are. This week personnel wise we are trying to figure out specifically who fits in where. We are trying to fit the whole puzzle together and there's a lot to be done."

Junior running back Quentin Castille said this next week should also help condition the team and make them stronger for the 2009 season.

"I can truly say that I see us out here every day and we are competing," Castille said. "We are competing and like Coach (James) Dobson was saying, this week is going to help us later on in the season in October and November. Those games right there, it's going to really help us."

Quick hits

***Now in the second full week of fall camp, Lee said the competition in camp has started to heat up even more as players continue to battle for playing time.

"Guys feel that," Lee said. "It's the week before school starts and it's the last week to really, really get after it all day. The intensity was good last week, but I expect it be picked up a little this week."

***With the competition still wide open at receiver, Paul shed some light on receivers coach Ted Gilmore's philosophies in determining how to divvy up reps in practice.

"If you practice hard, everybody gets a fair shot," Paul said. "If he puts you in and you basically piss down your leg, then Coach Gilmore will tell you pissed down your leg. He gives everybody a fair shot, and it's an even competition."

***Speaking of receivers, Lee said that even if a true No. 1 target doesn't emerge by the end of fall camp, he wouldn't be concerned. He said with the way Nebraska's offense works, having a multitude of options in the throwing game is better than having just one or two main guys to throw to.

"The best thing about this offense is no one knows where the ball is going," Lee said. "Hopefully we have six guys with 35-40 catches. That would be awesome if we could just spread it out and have even distribution of the football, because then defenses don't know where to go. The open guy is going to get the ball every time, so I think that's our goal."

***Lee added to the stockpile of praise sophomore receiver Brandon Kinnie has earned since joining the team this fall.

"He's talented," Lee said. "Like I've said before, we've got a lot of talent guys, and Brandon's a really talented guy. He's getting there with the offense. He's someone to be excited about."

***Castille said his body fat is currently down to 11 percent, a personal best for him. Castille's said his weight fluctuates from 240 to 245 pounds.

***After watching the film from Saturday's scrimmage, Pelini said the team obviously still has a long ways to go.

"It was sloppy," Pelini said of Saturday's scrimmage. "There were some good things and some bad things. It was late in the week and we kind of scrimmaged late in the day after practice. It was a long day and I think it showed. It just showed me where we were as a football team and that just means we aren't ready to play winning football yet."

***When Castille looks at Nebraska's younger running backs, he said what's impressed him the most is how easy guys like freshmen Rex Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson have been able to pick things up.

"All of our younger backs are picking up on a lot of things fast," Castille said. "I can truly say they've picked up on a lot of things faster than I did as a freshman, I mean way faster. I couldn't pick up protections after the first week, but both Rex (Burkhead) and (Dontrayevous Robinson) picked up protections real, real good. That's crazy."

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