Published Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 8:07 pm / Updated at 12:38 am
Football
McKewon: Summer's livin' shouldn't be easy

LINCOLN — It was a glorified scrimmage for one side of the ball, anyway. Nebraska's defense couldn't have extracted many positives in the first half of Saturday's spring game.

Not when Ron Kellogg has a three-Mississippi count to float a corner route to a fourth-string tight end. Not when presumed starting safety Corey Cooper has a 3-yard head start on catching fullback C.J. Zimmerer, and can't before Zimmerer scores a 45-yard touchdown. Not when offensive lines are blasting open good holes for King Frazier and Graham Nabity on basic running plays. Not when ...

We won't go on. NU's defense is young, uncertain and currently knee-deep in an inch-thick playbook that, by all accounts, it will have to master if it intends to make good memories in the fall. Film study and scheme analysis.

Nebraska's idea of going above and beyond is to set up a proverbial cot in North Stadium — like the older UNL architecture students actually do when it's big project time — and absorb the complexities of modern football.

The Huskers, coaches suggest, have to work harder and smarter this summer. To worry about lining up right, but if they don't, to fly around anyway.

Does this opening sound harsh?

Well, it's the offseason, where the narrative often involves a recitation of weaknesses. The offseason should focus on plugging leaks in the boat. There's not much time come September, however soft the schedule is. Bo Pelini wisely put a good spin on a day when his top defensive players frankly struggled against the top offensive players.

“You come to anticipate some things that are going to happen going in,” Pelini said.

The offense outplaying the defense, yes, was expected. Tim Beck's bunch has experience, natural leaders and momentum. Confidence correlates to smarter play, and Beck has designed an offense rooted in creating both.

“It works,” Beck said of his system. “We tell them: 'Let it work for you.'”

That's how a kid like Alonzo Moore — who, Pelini says, still has a “long ways to go” — still makes a couple big plays.

Nebraska's quarterbacks were impressively in rhythm with their receivers. They were patient to let tight ends and receivers clear underneath coverage and, of course, a woeful defensive line push gave them time to be patient.

But when quarterbacks had to be quick, they were. Kellogg sniffed out a casino blitz and busted the house when he flipped a quick slant to Kenny Bell. Tommy Armstrong zipped two beauties up the sideline against decent coverage. Taylor Martinez wasn't quite as sharp, but he threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Zimmerer with decisiveness and touch.

Why Zimmerer was able to clear 11 defenders in the span of a Martinez play fake shifts the focus back to the defense.

Big plays — dropped coverage, missed assignments, flubbed tackles — were the Blackshirts' top problem last season. On Saturday, there were completions of 45, 45 and 37 yards, and if Martinez hadn't forced tight end Sam Cotton to leap for a badly-thrown ball, it would have been a 51-yard touchdown instead of a 17-yard gain. The run gains were more modest, but Imani Cross, Frazier and Nabity aren't burners. Ameer Abdullah would have busted some of those runs open. And Martinez wasn't allowed to run, either.

Nebraska's top goal on defense next season has to be to limit those explosion plays. The Huskers don't want to be a vanilla unit that just kicks the can down the road until next year. I get that. But NU's offense — which will be the story of the 2013 season — can win more than its share of games with a little help. On with the Rewind.

I see you

HOFFMAN STARS AT SPRING GAME
Click to read more about 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman's star turn at the Husker spring game.

>> Running back Jack Hoffman: The 7-year-old's 69-yard touchdown run was, indeed, awesome.

>> Linebacker Zaire Anderson: If you didn't read Rich Kaipust's profile on Anderson's Philadelphia roots, do. He was one of the few defenders with a little fire to him Saturday.

>> Quarterback Tommy Armstrong: The two fumbles aside, a nice debut. Armstrong looked sharp running the option for a relative novice at the play. He's a little slower to the edge than Martinez, which is a good thing. It makes for a better pitch relationship.

>> Frazier: The I-back has quick feet for the college level and he uses his shoulders to dip in and out of a hole. He has a shot of playing down the road.

>> Kellogg: He'd probably win the Iowa job tomorrow. If the quarterback has to play extended snaps next season for some reason, Beck can a build a passing attack around his medium-range accuracy.

>> Tight end Jake Long: Spencer's brother appeared headed for a scholarship in his senior season. He's better, perhaps, than we think.

>> Moore: Longer than Jamal Turner and perhaps quicker laterally than Bell. That'll play for the next four years.

>> Linebacker Trevor Roach: Presumed starter David Santos missed the spring game with an injury, but I suspect Roach will battle him throughout camp.

>> Zimmerer: Proof that some players need a few years to make it click. A fifth-year senior, the fullback is a leader and on track for a solid season.

Three concerns

Downtrodden defensive line: Position coach Rick Kaczenski said he didn't see his guys “flying around” in the first half. They weren't. This, a week after the line apparently had a strong scrimmage. Lots of work to do there, but “Kaz” knows it and embraces the challenge.

Not enough kicking: It would have been good to see Mauro Bondi attempt a wider variety of kicks in front of a big crowd. Two line drive bombs — a 50-yarder that was good and a 58-yarder that was not — are not indicative of what Bondi will face next season. The key kicks to hit, the ones opponents haven't made against the Huskers in recent years, are those angled ones inside 40 yards.

No more view of Vine Street: The East Stadium expansion has taken away one of my favorite things about Nebraska's press box: That long view of an empty Vine Street during a Husker game. Empty because Lincolnites are inside their houses — watching NU. After the game, in the dark, I'd love watching that same Vine Street fill up with red taillights — cars leaving the stadium's parking lots.

The additional seats make Memorial Stadium look more intimidating, modern and corporate. And since the top rows seem to be roughly eye level with the press box, take my word for it: The view is quite good if you love watching the chess match unfold. In November, it might also be pretty cold.

Three questions

Did you like the setup of the spring game? I'd prefer the traditional No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense duel for much of the first half, followed by the customary scrub show in the second. These modern times apparently call for mini-games, on-field chats and other belated Big Ten Network Easter eggs. At least it only took two hours.

What does splitting the teams right down the middle accomplish for a young defense? If chemistry is a sticking point, wouldn't traditional first-unit/second-unit/third-unit breakdowns be more helpful?

Should Nebraska take Iowa's lead in something football-related? The Hawkeyes are holding an open practice in West Des Moines on April 14 as an effort to “reach out to our central and western Iowa Hawkeye fans” coach Kirk Ferentz told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Admission is free, but Iowa fans have to get a ticket from a local grocery store.

The Hawkeyes need the good publicity. The Huskers don't. But an NU practice at Buell Stadium or Burke Stadium would go over like a box of peanut butter Twix among kids.

You spoke of practice? I did. Being a football junkie, I took in a good chunk of a Texas A&M football practice while I was covering the NU women's basketball team in College Station. It was a sharp contrast to a Husker practice. Some quick observations:

>> Wall-to-wall music for practice. Mostly rap and hip-hop. Coach Kevin Sumlin knew most of the tunes, it seemed, based on the bobbing of his head to them. The Aggies had a DJ come in for a recent scrimmage and play records inside Kyle Field.

>> Far fewer players. A&M's walk-on program is run on a much smaller scale than NU's — all but the military academies are — and so the Aggies aren't running two units at once.

>> Johnny Manziel. He eased into the practice with so-so performances in drills, but in the short ones-vs.-ones session, he looked sharp. And his offensive line — tall and athletic — made one perfect pocket after another. Manziel's receivers are big and fast. A&M knows where its bread is buttered with the quarterback and his total game.

>> Smaller media contingent. Perhaps one-third the size of Nebraska's, which is partly why a question to Sumlin about Manziel pushing a graduate assistant in a previous scrimmage didn't have much oomph to it. If Sumlin had to face 30 reporters on the basis that NU's players and Pelini do, it'd be interesting to see his response.

Three stats

Zero: Turnovers. In a 110-play scrimmage. The defense wasn't even particularly close to an interception.

47.8 percent: The offenses' third-down conversion rate (11 for 23).

Eleven: Catches by the Husker tight ends for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Jake Long looked sharp in limited play, and, after another year of seasoning, Sam Cotton could be one of the Big Ten's best.

Opponent watch

For good reason, UCLA is the nonconference foe that worries Nebraska fans most. The Bruins opened practice last week looking to overhaul their entire secondary — a bit like Washington was when it visited in 2011 — and find a replacement for running back Johnathan Franklin.

Coach Jim Mora told the Los Angeles Times that he wants the Bruins to be more physical in the wake of an ugly 49-26 loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.

“When we played Baylor, quite frankly, they were a more physical team,” Mora said to the Times. “That night stuck in everyone's craw. Bad night, great lesson.”

Forecast

A boring, slightly anxious summer for Nebraska supporters, unless Darin Erstad's baseball team can find its way into the NCAA tournament.

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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