November 17, 2009

Tuesday notebook: Pelini reflects on Suh's impact

Head coaches annually must eventually say goodbye to seniors who have made significant impacts on their respective teams both on and off the football field.

Few, however, are on the same level as senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in either regard.

On Tuesday, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini talked about what Suh has meant to both him and his football team over the course of the past two years, as Suh and NU's 12 other seniors get ready for their final home game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

"I don't like to compare guys, but its obvious how much he's developed and how good of a football player he has become," Pelini said. "I think in the last two years he has come a long way. He's had a special career here. If he finishes out the season the way I think he'll finish it out, I think he could be a highly, highly decorated senior if things fall the way I think they will."

Pelini went on to say that he's rarely had the opportunity to coach a player of Suh's caliber, especially considering all the national attention the Portland, Ore., native has garnered this seasom.

Along with being nominated for essentially every individual defensive award a defensive lineman could be eligible for, Suh was named to the Walter Camp Award's "15 Players to Watch in 2009" list. The Walter Camp Award is given to the best player at any position in all of college football.

"He's played pretty phenomenal," Pelini said. "You hear a lot of people, they give him great respect in how they treat him and the different ways they choose to block him both run and pass. He's played really good. I told him, you can put so much pressure on yourself that you can drive yourself crazy. That's something he's got to fight, is not trying to get outside of who he is. He thinks he should make plays no matter how many guys are on him and he has for the most part.

"He's made the plays and he's played really consistently in what we've asked him to do. It's been a tough road to hoe for him, especially this last week. He can get frustrated. I think I sensed a little bit of frustration on him after the game because he didn't feel like he played well, but when you look at the film he played well."

In Suh's interview during Tuesday's press conference, he gave the bulk of the credit for his success to the coaching of Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini.

Bo deflected the praise for the most part, saying he and Carl haven't done anything more with Suh than they have with any other defensive player they've coached since coming to Lincoln two seasons ago.

Instead, Bo said it's been Suh's relentless desire to constantly become a better player that has resulted in his dramatic improvement in his five years at Nebraska. Now with a bright future in the NFL seemingly inevitable, Bo said Suh has only begun to reap the gains from all of his hard work and dedication.

"We coach him like we coach everybody else in a very black and white manner, and stress technique and fundamentals and getting better each and every day, and showing willingness to point out how much farther you can go and what you can become," Bo Pelini said. "You can't have a false sense of what you are. I think he's come a long way since we've been here. To his credit, he bought in. He's worked as hard as any guy I have been around. He's sacrificed and it's paying dividends for him. I give him a lot of credit.

"I believe when I got here, I believe he was testing the waters to see whether he should come out or shouldn't come out, even his first year there. He wasn't ready at that time and then he decided to come back again the second time, and obviously it's paid off for him."

- Robin Washut

Tuesday practice takes
Staying away from Banks: If there's one player on Kansas State's roster that head coach Bo Pelini is worried about getting the football the most, it's Brandon Banks. One of the most electrifying playmakers in the Big 12 Conference, Banks burned the Huskers last season when he broke a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. "Hopefully the wind is blowing about 60 miles an hour behind us and (Adi Kunalic can kick it into about the eighth row," Pelini said of the Wildcats' receiver and return man. "We have a lot of respect for Banks and what he's able to do. We'll have some things prepared depending on what the weather conditions are and that type of thing."
Honoring the seniors: Nebraska's 13 seniors will be honored prior to Saturday's game against Kansas State, but there might be a couple names you might and might not expect to be among them. One player who will get honored is former linebacker Blake Lawrence, who left the team earlier this season after suffering a series of concussions that forced him to leave the game of football. One player who will not be honored, however, is safety Rickey Thenarse, who is still hoping to earn a medical redshirt after injuring his knee early in the year.
Injury update: Junior tight end Mike McNeill missed practice for the second straight day with a rib injury he suffered last week against Kansas. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said McNeill is listed as day-to-day, and he was unsure if the McNeill would be ready in time for Saturday's game against the Wildcats.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team conducted a two-and-a-half hour full-padded practice on the grass fields North of Memorial Stadium and inside the Hawks indoor facility on Tuesday. NU is scheduled to come back on Wednesday for another two-hour full-padded practice.

Watson says Osborne suggested play

As had been the rumor following Nebraska's win over Missouri back on Oct. 8, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson confirmed on Tuesday that NU athletic director Tom Osborne suggested Watson call a play during the fourth quarter.

The play just happened to result in 56-yard touchdown pass from Zac Lee to Niles Paul that sparked a fourth-quarter comeback that gave the Huskers a win over the Tigers in the conference opener.

Watson said as he was leaving the coaches' box and heading down to the locker room at halftime of the game, Osborne peaked out of his sky box and reminded him that a play they had been working on all week in practice would still work if Nebraska gave it another shot.

During the week, Watson said the Huskers worked on a play that took advantage of Missouri's safeties when they crept up to stop the run. He said he called the play a couple times earlier in the game, but the Tigers' safeties weren't doing what he wanted them to do and the poor weather conditions kept the play from working as planned.

Watson admitted that he got away from the play as the game went along because of the rainy conditions, but as he left for the locker room at halftime, Osborne - who watched the Huskers work on the play all week in practice - suggested he give the play one more chance.

"He had seen us practice a passing concept that we had that took advantage of safeties sitting on routes," Watson said. "They were sitting on some routes, and he just said, 'Remember, you have that route.'"

- Robin Washut

Seniors prep for one last home game

The reality of the situation probably won't hit senior center Jacob Hickman until a couple days after Saturday's game against Kansas State. Maybe not even for a few months, or even until next year.

However, Hickman knows it will eventually settle in that Saturday will be the final time he will ever play a college football game in Memorial Stadium.

For Hickman and the rest of Nebraska's 13 seniors, a win over the Wildcats would not only be crucial because it would send the Huskers to play for the Big 12 Conference championship, but also to leave their mark as the group that helped return Nebraska football to the next level.

"It's big," Hickman said. "You kind of had a couple of bumps in the road this season that had you a little frustrated that the season wasn't going to be quite what you hoped, but now it's shaping up to be possibly a little bit better. If we can end it on the note that we're hoping for, that would be huge. It's kind of like going out on top and getting the program back to where it belongs."

For other seniors like Suh, Saturday's will be a culmination of a long and bumpy road that was their careers at Nebraska. Arguably no class in school history has gone through a combination of more change, turmoil and success than this year's group of seniors.

"We've definitely grown as people and players," Suh said. "Being able to adapt and adjust to different coaching changes and different schemes and different things, I definitely feel that we can pride ourselves on being able to be adaptable to the changes and different situations we've been thrown into.

"Not everybody is going to be thrown into that and have to deal with that, which hopefully they don't have to. I think we've handled it very well and pretty much come out to the top and we want to continue to prove that we're going to be on the top no matter what's going to happen to us."

With only 13 members, this year's senior class stands as one of the smaller groups in recent memory. Though they might be short in numbers, the impact of the NU's seniors has been huge in terms of leadership, especially this season.

"It's a small group and I think we're all very close," Suh said. "We've been here for a long period of time. At least the majority of us are fifth-year seniors, so we've been here for quite a while. I think we're definitely close. I have a personal relationship with every last one of them and a good one at that. Definitely a close unit."

- Robin Washut

O-line transitioning to power running game

Over the course of the past two weeks, Nebraska's offensive philosophy has undergone a facelift, as it's focused its game plan around power running and option football.

For the Huskers' offensive line, it has been a welcomed move, though it hasn't come without a few drawbacks.

One of the biggest problems with transitioning back to a option-style offense for the line has been adjusting to completely different blocking techniques and a more aggressive mentality. As a result, the Huskers have been hit with blocking personal fouls resulting from inexperience and poor technique.

Since seriously incorporating the option the past two week, Nebraska has been flagged for a chop block against Oklahoma and a tripping call last week against Kansas, and both came on option plays.

Hickman said the problem goes back to linemen simply not having enough experience with cut blocking yet to have mistake-free blocking while running the option.

"We've cut before, but we've had an increase in volume of cuts given the new kind of style," Hickman said. "That's going to happen, especially with the lack of experience some of us have with it. There are some guys who are better at it than others, that's why you gets the (chop blocks and tripping calls). It's something that I think will go down if we continue to keep doing this."

Hickman said the style of blocking on option plays has been the only real adjustment the past two weeks, as the concept of a power running game is nothing new.

"We've still ran the ball a lot, even in the spread," he said. "We weren't being any less aggressive. We were still trying to pound guys off the ball. The difference is if we're trying to run option, we're trying to cut their entire defense. That's when those kind of (penalties) happen."

Overall, though, Nebraska's offensive linemen have embraced the Huskers' new physical offensive approach. With the more experience they get with cut blocking, the cleaner and more effective NU's option game will undoubtedly get.

"I definitely prefer run blocking over pass blocking every day," junior guard Ricky Henry said. "It's a lot more fun… Running around and knocking guys down. I like seeing people laying down all over the place."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***With potentially only four more games remaining at Nebraska, Hickman said there's a chance the end of the season might not be the end of his football career. One of the Huskers' top team leaders, it's no surprise that Hickman said he might pursue a career in coaching when his playing days are done.

His older brother, Billy Hickman, is an assistant offensive line/tight ends coach at Colorado School of Mines, and Jacob said Billy has been pestering him to get into coaching for some time now.

"It's something I've considered," Jacob said. "My brother definitely wants me to try. He's had it in his head that once he gets a big job he wants me to coach with him. He's going to try and convince me at all costs, so I'm sure that will end up happening, because he's pretty convincing. It's something I could do. I've had the ability to learn from a lot of intelligent coaches since I've been here. I've seen all sorts of coaching styles, tons of drills and techniques and everything I could have at my disposal."

***Being one of the few married players on the team, Hickman has to deal with some aspects of the game that most of his teammates would never even think about - like explaining his injuries to his wife.

After suffering one of the biggest and nastiest bruises you'd ever see on his left side, Hickman said his wife, Savannah, wasn't too impressed when he came home with the unsightly battle wound.

"She was pretty upset about it," he said. "She gets frustrated when I get hurt in football. When something is so visible as that, she was pretty upset about it."

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