September 22, 2009

Tuesday notebook: Lee back as good as ever

After nearly 48 hours of near panic over the status of junior quarterback Zac Lee's injured left thumb, it turns out it was all much ado about nothing.

Not only was Lee back in practice in full pads Tuesday after sitting out Monday, he also apparently had one of his best practices as a Husker according to offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.

"He did great," Watson said. "He had one of the best practices he's had, probably his best practice of the year today. He did a great job. Great job."

Watson said Lee did not have any trouble passing or taking snaps from under center or out of the shotgun, and that the small wrap around his thumb did not affect his passing one bit.

"(Our trainer) did a real great job of getting him wrapped up," Watson said. "He's in great shape. He had no problems at all."

Lee was asked about his injury during Tuesday's press conference, and he said it was never really anything that bothered him too much to begin with.

Even after he initially suffered what had been called a "splinter" on a bone on his thumb during the first half of Saturday's loss to Virginia Tech, Lee said it was more of an annoyance than concern.

"I kind of know what's going on, just a little thumb thing," Lee said. "I took a day of rest yesterday. I took snaps in the game and was fine. Oddly enough, I don't really remember when it happened. I just kind of remember being like, 'That kind of hurts,' at the beginning of the second quarter."

Earlier speculation was that the injury would limit Lee's playing time in Saturday's game against Louisiana-Lafayette and might give true freshman Cody Green a chance to see the bulk of the snaps.

Instead, it looks as if Lee is not only fully ready to make his fourth career start, but he's also looking to get some redemption for his performance in NU's loss to the Hokies.

"Especially after you start the way Zac did," Watson said, "you can get spoiled by his first two performances. He went through a humbling Saturday. He would tell you the same thing I'd tell you, he didn't play his best ball. He struggled. But part of that is, I share in that also. I've got to help him through those times.

"He's learned from it, and that's what we want him to do. We want him to learn from it."

Tuesday practice takes
Lee determined to improve: Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson gave a great example of the steps junior quarterback Zac Lee has already taken to improve on his lackluster day Saturday against Virginia Tech. On Sunday, Lee showed up to Memorial Stadium first thing in the morning to watch film with Watson one-on-one, something Watson normally doesn't do. The two went over the tape in detail, and Lee saw exactly where he made his mistakes and what he needs to work on the most. "Once he saw some of the things that happened, he took it personal, which he should," Watson said. "That's the kind of player I thought I was coaching. He took it personal, and he came out here today that he was on a mission and did a great job."
Cajuns brings the heat: Louisiana-Lafayette doesn't generally strike much fear in the minds of most Nebraska fans, but Watson and offensive line coach Barney Cotton both said the Ragin' Cajuns bring something to the table unlike any team on the Huskers' schedule. As it turns out, ULL likes to blitz. A lot. Watson and Cotton said the Ragin' Cajuns blitz nearly half of the time - sometimes even more - and they do it in a variety of ways. "They blitz probably more than anybody that we've seen on film so far," Cotton said. "In some situations, they're well over half. Within that they're defensive line does an awful lot of movement. They don't sit still in one spot, and even when they don't blitz, there's a lot of movement with them."
Injury update: Head coach Bo Pelini was not available to media after practice, but no official injury report was given. Obviously Lee was back in practice after missing Monday with a thumb injury, and senior safety Larry Asante (neck) wore a green no-contact jersey for the second day in a row, though he said the injury wasn't serious. Finally, junior offensive lineman Cruz Barrett practiced for the first time this year after missing all of fall camp and the first three weeks of the season with an undisclosed injury.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team conducted a two hour full-padded practice inside of the Hawks indoor practice facility. The Huskers will come back on Wednesday for a full-padded practice at 3:45 p.m.

Dillard makes immediate impact

If there's one thing that a coach simply can't teach, it's experience.

That's why it was almost a no-brainer to bring fifth-year senior linebacker Phillip Dillard back into the starting lineup last week heading into Saturday's game against Virginia Tech.

After being buried on the depth chart all offseason and through the first two games, Dillard reclaimed a starting job last week when he took over for senior Blake Lawrence as the starting WILL linebacker.

The biggest reason for the switch was a sub-par performance against Arkansas State, where the entire linebacker corps was criticized by head coach Bo Pelini for its lack of physicality.

On Saturday, Dillard provided more of what Pelini was looking for, finishing with five tackles and a tackle for loss while helping hold the Hokies to just 86 rushing yards on 36 carries.

"Phil's been around here a long time," redshirt freshman BUCK linebacker Sean Fisher said. "He knows how the game is played and how it works, and he's a physical guy. His presence was really felt out there on Saturday… Phil's a fifth-year senior, so he's been around here a lot. People respect the things that he's done and respect him as a player. Having him out there I think helped a lot."

On the other hand, though, Fisher said the lineup change has been tough on Lawrence, his good friend and roommate. While he's obviously been upset with losing his starting job, Fisher said Lawrence has taken the situation in stride and maintained a positive attitude throughout.

"I imagine it's difficult," Fisher said. "He started the first two games, and now to have Phil in there in base and me in there at WILL in the nickel, I imagine it's kind of a tough pill to swallow. But I live with him, so obviously I'm around him a lot, and he's taken it very well.

"He's a great team player, and he's been nothing but supportive for everybody in terms of helping everybody out."

Linemen don't want mistakes to snowball again

For those watching Nebraska's goal line implosion during the third quarter of Saturday's loss, where the Huskers' committed four penalties in the span of six plays to eventually end a sure scoring drive with a punt, there likely was a healthy mix of frustration and disbelief.

If you thought that was bad, imagine what it was like in the huddle.

As would be expected, Nebraska's offensive line was not exactly thrilled about series of mental mistakes that cost the Huskers a potential game-winning touchdown or field goal.

Senior center Jacob Hickman said getting his teammates to settle down and not let the penalties snowball into further disaster was a difficult task at the time.

"You're going to have guys frustrated, you're going to have guys who aren't making mistakes are going to be (saying), 'Who did that?' or whatever it may be," Hickman said. "Really, you've got to do your best just to get everybody to shut up and calm down. At one point I was like, 'Hey, no one's talking. Just be quiet, listen to the quarterback and play.'

"Sometimes when one guy messes up it kind of tumbles. It's just the way it works sometimes. I've been in a couple of situations like that, and it's just a bad feeling. You've got to get everybody to just calm the heck down."

While the tension was undoubtedly high during that particular series, Hickman said the offensive line has spent the past couple days after the game focusing on the mistakes it made and what it needs to do to fix them in the future.

He said the unit is also looking at the good things it did against the Hokies, such as leading the way for 207 rushing yards as a team.

"The thing you've got to do is explain to them to take the good, appreciate that, and look at the bad things - things you did wrong and the mistakes you made - and find out how you've got to fix it," Hickman said. "You've got to eliminate the mental errors, eliminate the false starts… It's just one of those things where you've got to trust yourself, trust your team and trust the scheme, and then just calm down and play."

Quick hits:

***Senior safety Larry Asante has been known to say what's on his mind from time to time, and while it was a little more reserved than other instances, Tuesday was no exception.

Asante was asked if it was safe to say that Louisiana-Lafayette is picking a bad week to come to Lincoln.

"I think that statement is accurate, because we have a chip on our shoulder," Asante said. "We don't really care who we're playing this Saturday, we just want to go out there and play our best football and put it all together."

***On a couple occasions, junior kicker/punter Alex Henery rolled out to his right during punts, including the one he booted 76 yards. However, the move was now drawn up by design.

Henery said he did it because the snaps were making him draw over to his right, and in order to avoid getting his punt block, he continued to roll out further to his right to evade defenders and clear out more kicking space.

"It wasn't really planned Just something I saw and something I did," Henery said. "I guess it wasn't too bad."

***As far as punt returns go, junior Niles Paul said he felt he finally got a chance to show his abilities as a returner on Saturday. After not getting many good looks on returns the first two games, Paul averaged more than 14 yards per return, including a season-long 55-yarder in the first quarter.

"I definitely think that I made Coach (Pelini) more confident in me as a punt returner," Paul said. "I know he was a little nervous about me at first, but now I know that he puts all his confidence in me that I'm going to make something happen."

***While Lee obviously seems good to go for Saturday's game, it sounds like the rest of the Huskers' would not have been concerned had Green had to see more snaps or even start if Lee couldn't play.

"Oh yeah, I have no problem with Cody," Paul said. "I'm just as much confident in Cody as I am in Zac. He's a ball player. I don't think any of us are really concerned. We trust Cody and we trust Zac."

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