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April 16, 2011

The final breakdown of the Red-White game

In the official debut of Nebraska's new "aggressive" and "attacking" offense during Saturday's Red-White Spring Game, it was clear the Huskers were still a long way from where they need to be.

While there were a few bright spots in the Red team's 32-29 victory, there were just as many ugly points in first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck's first live showing in front of the 66,784 fans in attendance.

With the majority of the projected offensive starters in the game, the Red and White offenses combined for less than 150 total yards in the first quarter, and the game was scoreless until a 39-yard field goal by junior kicker Brett Maher with 10:46 left in the second quarter.

In fact, there were more penalties (8-72) than points before Red fullback Tyler Legate scored the game's first touchdown with just under 10 minutes remaining in the half.

Head coach Bo Pelini said Nebraska's simplistic approach to the offensive game plan had a lot to do with the less-than-impressive numbers on Saturday.

"It was about what I expected," Pelini said. "We mixed and matched a lot of personnel, so there wasn't a lot of continuity out there… Obviously we were very, very basic. We huddled the whole game, we did a lot of things to be really basic. We were pretty basic on both sides of the football and were running guys in and out. That's how we chose to play the game."

The most concerning aspect of the offensive deficiencies was arguably the play of the quarterbacks, as both Taylor Martinez (Red) and Cody Green (White) struggled to complete a pass throughout the first quarter and a half.

Martinez finished the day 4-of-13 passing for just 52 yards, with 23 of those coming on a pass to redshirt freshman receiver Kenny Bell. He also took a sack and threw an interception on a tipped pass to start the third quarter.

Green wasn't any better, as he completed just 4-of-11 passes for 63 yards to go along with a goal line fumble early in the first quarter.

The most impressive quarterback numbers-wise was redshirt freshman Brion Carnes, who completed 11 of his 14 attempts for a game-high 173 yards and two touchdowns.

However, both Beck and his quarterbacks said to take the stat lines with a grain of salt, as Nebraska only ran a total of roughly six or seven different pass plays the entire game in what they called the most basic game plan possible.

"You've kind of got to weigh it with one eye open," Green said. "We really didn't do a lot of stuff, and we were handcuffed… We really didn't throw the ball a lot. We have a lot of stuff in and we could do a lot of stuff, we just decided not to."

It wasn't all bad for Nebraska's offenses, however. Running back Rex Burkhead picked up right where he left off last season, as he racked up 91 yards on 11 carries and had a stretch of three straight runs for a first down in the first quarter.

The Huskers also saw promising glimpses from heralded receivers Bell and Jamal Turner. Bell had his nice 23-yard catch and looked as fast as advertised in the return game, while Turner also caught four passes for game-high 93 yards. Turner also made the two most exciting plays of the day on a 59-yard punt return in the first quarter and then a 49-yard touchdown catch on a pass from Carnes.

Of course there was also Legate, who scored the only two touchdowns of the first half on runs of 14 and 2 yards. Still, Beck said the 19 combined penalties, three fumbles and interception were mistakes the team couldn't just ignore.

"It's kind of misleading: I know we had some holding calls up front and I know we had a couple false starts and a couple turnovers, (but) I think all those were some younger guys," Beck said. "We had the batted ball (on Martinez's interception), and any time the ball's tipped it's usually going to be an interception. You don't want any turnovers and you don't want any penalties, but it's going to happen in the course of a game. We've just got to continue to work to eliminate them. We've got to get better at those things."

- Robin Washut

Inside the hashes
Reliable veteran: Junior running back Rex Burkhead picked up where he left off at the end of the 2010 season during Saturday's Red-White game. Burkhead finished with an effortless 91 yards on 11 carries to lead all rushers in the spring game. Burkhead also had a 12 yard touchdown run that was called off because of a holding penalty.
Promising newcomer: Really the best story that came out of today's spring game was the emergence of freshman wide receiver Jamal Turner. In just his third week at the position, Turner caught four passes for 93 yards and a touchdown, to go along with 113 return yards. Turner ignited the crowd of 66,748 with a 59 yard punt return in the first quarter. The future looks pretty bright for this young up and comer in the program.
Solid overall unit: Top to bottom it's hard to find anything wrong with Nebraska's defensive line. The Huskers are deep and talented at all four positions heading into 2011 and with the emergence of Eric Martin at defensive end they appear to have another solid pass rusher to compliment Cameron Meredith when he returns in August.
Unit that needs work: You don't want to draw too many conclusions from Saturday's Red-White game, but until Taylor Martinez can return to the Taylor Martinez of old, the jury is still out with the quarterback position. Martinez and Cody Green finished a combined 8-of-23 with one interception and one fumble.
Looking ahead:As you start to look ahead to the 2011 season, it's clear Nebraska has a deep and talented defense that should be a top 10 national unit. NU looks faster and more explosive at wide receiver, but there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered at quarterback. The other question I still have is which young running back will come in and compliment Burkhead in August?

-Sean Callahan

Turner, Carnes put on a show

There wasn't much to talk about regarding Nebraska's offensive performance, but there was no question that Turner and Carnes stole the show in the spring game.

Even though most of their impressive plays came against reserve defensive players, it was clear that the two freshmen were capable of bringing instant electricity to the offense.

The play of the game was no doubt Carnes' 49-yard touchdown pass to Turner late in the second quarter. As Carnes rolled to his right, he found Turner coming across the field on a post pattern and delivered a perfect pass that hit Turner in stride.

Turner took it from there, as he out-ran two defenders and shook a tackle before flipping over the goal line into the end zone. He was flagged for a dead ball excessive celebration penalty for the flip, which led to a missed ensuing extra point, but no one seemed to really mind the added bit of flare Turner brought to the game.

"Jamal, like we've said all along, is an electrifying player," Beck said. "I feel like we've got three or four guys like that. If teams want to try and double-team him, we've got other guys too. He played really well. I was very happy for him."

As for Carnes, Beck said his performance was just a continuation of what he's shown in practice all spring. At this point, Beck said Carnes' next step is playing at that high of a level every time he steps onto the field.

"He's just got to be more consistent, and I think he knows that," Beck said. "But I like what he's done. He's really improved. I think all the guys, I've thrown a lot at them in three weeks, a lot at them. I think they were able to grasp it and tried to apply it. We were very, very simple today."

Carnes emergence this spring has definitely pushed Martinez and Green the past few weeks.

"Brion goes out there and competes every day," Green said. "He's a young guy who has a lot of energy and he wants to play He goes out there and gives it everything that he has, and it good to have somebody like that who pushes us."

- Robin Washut

Martin lives up to hype at DE

There had been a lot of talk about how well Eric Martin was adjusting to defensive after moving from linebacker late last season, and that progress was put on full display on Saturday.

Though he didn't play much past the first quarter, Martin was a force coming off the edge. On the Red team's second offensive drive of the game, Martin blew up Green on an option play for a 5-yard loss then forced a fumble on Green on a third-and-goal play to give the ball back to the White team.

"Eric's had a good spring," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "He's a very active player. He makes plays. He's still got some learning to do at the defensive end spot, but he's one guy that will get off blocks and make big plays for you, even though he makes some mistakes sometimes.

"I'm excited about where he is as a football player. He's going to be a valuable asset for us. We're going to use him in a lot of different ways."

More than anything, it was Martin's speed off the line of scrimmage that was the most impressive part of his performance. Just as his teammates and coaches said he's been doing all spring, the 6-2, 260-pound Martin blew past Red offensive tackles throughout the first quarter.

"Moving from linebacker I wasn't fast at linebacker," Martin said. "Moving from linebacker to defensive end obviously my linebacker speed came to d-end. That's kind of how my speed came along at defensive end. I'm just a linebacker rushing, but I gained weight. I still have quickness, but I'm not top speed like I was on kickoffs. I'm not the first one down there anymore."

That speed combined with Martin's overall unrivaled intensity on the field have made him a perfect addition to Nebraska's front four, his coach said.

"I thought he played hard," defensive line coach John Papuchis said. "He brings an enthusiasm, a passion to the game, and I thought he played well. In terms of his impact, he brings a high amount of energy, and he's a playmaker. He has a nose for the football, and he always has since he's been here."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Beck defended Martinez's poor statistics by saying the tough positions the Red offense was put in early on in the game made it tough for it to get any rhythm going. He also said having to play with a mix-matched offense made it tough to settle in and get comfortable.

"There's a lot of things - he's not with the normal guys, and we were in some really weird situations with the Red team early on," Beck said. "I've taught our guys to be safe with the football as much as you can. We don't want to turn the ball over.

"So it's a little misleading if you look at the down and distances and what I had to call. There's not many guys at third-and-10, third-and-15, that are going to have a high percentage of completions, let alone conversions. Yeah, I'd like to see a little but more, but I know there's a variety of things that go into it."

***Even after scrambling a few times and taking a bit hit on a blindside sack, Martinez said he felt fine after Saturday's scrimmage. He also said he's 100 percent recovered from the ankle injury that plagued him for most of last season.

"Right now I'm 100 percent," Martinez said. "Today they just limited me just because on cuts, I can feel it. And they need me to be 100 percent in the fall."

***Saturday may have been the first time most fans got to see the playmaking ability of Turner, Bell and the rest of NU's cast of young receivers, but their performances were nothing new to the Huskers' secondary.

"We see that kind of stuff all the time," safety Austin Cassidy said. "We didn't do any trick plays, it was pretty basic. You just saw some playmakers that can do that stuff. They do that in practice, they did it in the spring game and they will be doing it in the games for us next year, so it's pretty exciting."

***While Burkhead showed once again why he's regarded as the focal point of Nebraska's offense, Bo Pelini said Burkhead wasn't the only reason he's excited about the running game this season and for years to come.

"I think we're going to have an outstanding running game next year," Pelini said. "Some of those true freshmen - we recruited those guys because we think that they've got some ability, and they're going to be players. I'm hoping that a couple of them, if not all of them, will be ready to step up and help this football team.

"I don't ever look at recruiting somebody, thinking I'm going to redshirt them. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn't. We'll see how it goes. I know those guys have the ability to help our football team next year."

***Another defensive player who had a big day was redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jay Guy, who finished with four tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.

"Jay has probably improved as much as any player that we've had in our program over the course of the last calendar year," Papuchis said. "He works hard, and he's on the come."

***As exciting as Nebraska's big kickoff and punt returns in the game may have been, the downside to them was the fact that the coverage units gave up so many big returns. However, Papuchis said it was mostly due to the fact that the coverage teams were pieced together on the spot after the draft for the teams.

"There were guys on the coverage units that had never practiced on those units before just with the way the teams got divided up," Papuchis said. "There were guys on the return units who had never been on a return unit before, too. Sometimes in these games special teams is a little bit sloppier than you'd like. Basically what you're doing is kind of piecing guys together based on how the teams are split. But I thought those return units did a pretty good job, and we're going to have some explosive guys back there."

***As for the return units, Papuchis said he was very pleased with what he saw from prospective return men Turner, Bell, Brandon Kinnie and Josh Mitchell.

"There were some guys who made some plays back there, and that's one of the things that we would like to really make an emphasis on is our return game," he said. "I thought it was pretty good today."

***Along with only running a handful of plays in the game, offensive line coach Barney Cotton said the line only used three different run blocking schemes the entire game - outside zone, tight zone and some gap schemes.

***Beck said Legate's two touchdowns were a sign that the fullback would be used more often in Nebraska's new offense. They also just might elevate Legate into some lofty company of former NU fullbacks.

"He's going to be a folk hero," Beck said. "The fullback scored two touchdowns. It's been what, since 1980 probably since that's happened."

***Carl Pelini said he feels much more comfortable with Nebraska's depth at linebacker after four weeks of spring practice.

"I feel better about our depth overall probably more than any point since I've been here just in terms of quality backups and ot being scared to death to have an injury at a certain position," Pelini said. "Throughout the spring we had some guys step up to be quality backups or even get in the position where they're fighting for playing time now."

In particular, Pelini said he's been especially impressed with redshirt freshman Trevor Roach.

"Roach had a good spring, period," he said. "He's really worked himself into the mix at linebacker."

***Asked to describe what it is that makes Burkhead so good, Green couldn't come up with the words to give a specific answer.

"He has 'it', and whatever 'it' is, I'm trying to find it," Green said. "A lot of players are trying to find it. He has it, and he uses it to the best of his abilities."

The final grade out
Quarterback: 5.5
You don't want to draw too many conclusions off the spring game, but I think the jury is still out on Taylor Martinez until he can prove himself against quality competition. Martinez said he's still bothered at times by his ankle/toe injuries and he can feel it when he makes "cuts." Martinez finished just 4-of-13 for 52 yards passing and struggled to put good touch on any of his passes. Cody Green was also off the mark finishing just 4-of-10 for 63 yards. The real story of the spring game at quarterback was the play of redshirt freshman Brion Carnes who finished 11-of-15 for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Carnes also had a 24 yard run up the middle that showed his athletic ability. I'm not saying Carnes is going to take the job from Martinez, but I think he's made up a lot of ground since the end of last season.
Running back: 8.0
No player has a stronger hold right now on their starting job than running back Rex Burkhead, who finished with an effortless 91 yards rushing on 11 carries. Burkhead is Nebraska's most valuable player on the offense. The only question remains what back will compliment him in the fall? Will it be senior Austin Jones or will one of the incoming freshmen running backs take the No. 2 spot. That's my only question. I think Burkhead can take 20 to 25 carries per game, but there still needs to be that other back or two that can take 10 to 15 carries to go with Burkhead.
Wide receiver/tight end: 7.5
Last year Nebraska's starting three wide receivers all weighed around 230 pounds. This year NU has more of an explosive playmaking bunch with guys like Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell getting it done. Turner finished with a game high four catches for 93 yards, including a 49 yard touchdown where he flipped over the goal line. Turner was the star of the show on Saturday that most people left Memorial Stadium buzzing about his future. There were a few too many drops though by the wide outs on Saturday, but overall I think Rich Fisher has done a solid job with this group.
Offensive line: 7.0
With Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale both out today, you really didn't get to see Nebraska's top offensive linemen in action. I think Jermarcus Hardrick has come leaps and bounds since last year and I predict he's going to give Sirles a run for his money at left tackle come fall camp. I'm also very excited about the potential both Tyler Moore and Jake Cotton have shown. For just freshmen, both Cotton and Moore are going to be good tackles in the future.
Defensive line: 9.5
Even with Nebraska's top two defensive linemen out this spring, the Huskers still looked deep and talented up front in the Red-White game. Eric Martin finished his monster spring off with four tackles, including two tackles for loss and a forced fumble in the Red-White game. For a young a guy, Kevin Williams also looked the part finishing with one sack and two tackles for loss. Jay Guy also had two tackles for loss and Thaddeus Randle had a tackle for loss, forced fumble and a fumble recovery. When Cameron Meredith and Jared Crick both return in August this position group is only going to get deeper and stronger.
Linebacker: 7.0
Lavonte David had a quiet day with just three tackles, but he is the heart and soul of Nebraska's defense. I think Sean Fisher still needs to get some confidence back, as he struggled getting low to tackle elusive running backs like Burkhead. I was really impressed with Trevor Roach and thought he was one of the bigger surprise walk-on guys that came out of the spring.
Defensive back: 8.5
The starters are pretty established in the secondary, but I think this spring was huge for guys like Andrew Green, Josh Mitchell and Antonio Bell to show what they can do. Mitchell has come a long ways, considering he wasn't even on the 105 man roster last August because the staff initially planned to gray shirt him. Bell scooped up a fumble on Saturday and ran it back for a 28 yard touchdown. It was also good to see Harvey Jackson come up with an interception.
Special teams: 8.5
I think Brett Maher proved on Saturday that he's the front runner to win all three kicking specialist jobs. Maher was 3-of-4 on field goals, he averaged 49.3 yards on six punts and 64.5 yards on 11 kickoffs on a windy spring Nebraska day. Maher was consistent and his only miss was basically a botch on purpose to help the Red team win the game. As far as returns go, Turner gives Nebraska a legitimate home run threat on both kickoffs and punt. I also think Bell has some big play potential.

-Sean Callahan




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