March 23, 2009

A look at the spring's five biggest storylines

With the start of spring practice now just days away, HuskersIllustrated.com has decided to take a look at some of the biggest storylines waiting to be answered during the next month. While there a certainly a number of question marks hovering over the Huskers at the moment, here are our five of the most important storylines to watch over the course of this spring.


Is Zac Lee ready for the spotlight


There is undoubtedly no bigger storyline facing Nebraska this spring than who will emerge as the frontrunner to take over the offense as the new starting quarterback. The general early consensus is that the job is essentially junior Zac Lee's for the taking.


After the bizarre transfer of sophomore Patrick Witt earlier this offseason, the Lee became the most experienced signal-caller on NU's roster despite throwing a total of two passes in two career games played. Despite limited game experience, Lee has been a strong candidate to replace Joe Ganz since the end of last season, and he was obviously strong enough to scare off Witt before spring ball ever began.


Lee boasted the strongest arm on the team last season, and at one point threw a ball a little more than 70 yards during a post-practice competition among the quarterbacks. He also possesses solid speed and has shown the ability to run the option and zone-read offense head coach Bo Pelini began to install last season.


The question, however, isn't whether Lee has the physical attributes to handle the job as much as whether he can handle all the on- and off-the-field pressure that comes along with it?


Lee hasn't seen more than a few mop-up snaps since he was the starter at San Francisco City College back in 2006. Since then, he's completed just one pass for five yards in live game action.


The good news that while he may be lacking in game experience, Lee is heading into his third season at Nebraska under offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, as he was one of just six players in NU's 2007 recruiting class to join the team early in January.


Who's going to replace Swift and Peterson?


While quarterback is obviously the position at the top of everyone's radar, another position that could prove to be almost or equally as important is wide receiver. With the departures of Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, the Huskers lost a combined 125 catches for 1,727 yards and 14 touchdowns from last season.


Not only that, they also lost the school's all-time receiving leader in Swift, who racked up 166 receptions for 2,476 yards and 22 touchdowns during his for seasons in Lincoln.


They weren't the most athletic or high profile players on the roster, but few players were even close to being as dependable and consistent as Swift and Peterson. It seemed that whenever the Huskers needed a big third-down conversion or someone to make a play in the red zone, one of the two was always there to come up with a crucial catch in traffic to keep the drive alive or put points of the board.


So who among Nebraska's returning receiving corps can equal that dependable production this season? The easiest guess would have to be junior Menelik Holt, who caught 30 passes for 355 yards and a touchdown last year. However, Holt rarely saw action outside of the No. 3 receiver slot, while Swift and Peterson were generally matched against opponent's top defensive backs.


After Holt, things get even murkier. Niles Paul, Will Henry, Curenski Gilleylen and a trio of redshirt freshman will all get their looks this spring to help answer that question, but all of those players still have a long way to go before proving themselves as legitimate No. 2 receivers.


Suh and who?


Yes, Nebraska's got a potential All-American talent at defensive tackle in senior Ndamukong Suh. The question is, though, who's going to line up next to him?


While the Huskers are set with Suh and a deep cast of defensive ends, they're still looking for another defensive tackle to join Suh on the starting interior defensive line following the graduation of Ty Steinkuhler.


Redshirt freshmen Jared Crick and Terrence Moore appear to be the most likely candidates, as both saw increased playing time as the year went along last season. Crick served as Steinkuhler's primary back-up, seeing time in nine games last season. Moore played in seven games, with his most notable action coming in a two-sack performance in NU's win over Colorado.


Though Crick and Moore boats the most returning experience, it doesn't mean a newbie can't come in and beat both out for the starting job. One player many will be watching is freshman Baker Steinkuhler, who sat out all of last season due to a back injury. One of the prized recruits of last season's recruiting class, Steinkuhler is apparently fully recovered from his injury and ready to make a run at the starting spot next to Suh, though a move over to offensive line still hasn't been ruled out.


Is Anthony Blue ready to go?


Nebraska took a big hit to its secondary last year when cornerback Anthony Blue was lost for the season with an ACL injury during winter conditioning. The sophomore was able to battle back and ended up rejoining the Huskers in practice in October, but as is the case with most knee injuries, he was still far from returning to 100 percent.


Along with the obvious task of strengthening his knee back into playing shape, Blue has also had to get over the mental setback he suffered along with the injury. He's had to steadily rebuild confidence in his knee to make all of the same cuts and plants that made him such an explosive player prior to the injury.


How much progress he's made in both of those areas will certainly be something to watch this spring, as this will mark the first time he'll be exposed to full-contact drills since his injury.


The good news is that Blue has now been with the team for two years and still has three seasons of eligibility. He'll likely come into the spring as one the frontrunner to replace Armando Murillo at starting cornerback along side junior Anthony West, and if he wins the job as expected, he'll likely be there for years to come.


Of course, that all depends on how well he's able rebound from one of the most devastating injuries in football.


Don't forget about the punter


One of the most overlooked positions in the game, punter will actually be a key point of concern for Nebraska this spring and on into fall camp.


With the graduation of three-year starter Dan Titchener, the Huskers lose one of the most experienced players on their roster. While he wasn't quite the same caliber as NFL standouts Sam Koch and Kyle Larson, Titchener if nothing else brought consistency and stability to NU's punt team.


In Nebraska's win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl, the Wyoming native booted seven punts for an average of 38.6 yards to help back up the Tigers' offense while Ganz and the Huskers worked to establish a rhythm.


The prime candidates to replace Titchener look to be sophomore Jonathon Damkroger and freshman Brett Maher. Damkroger joins the Huskers after starting as a freshman at Nebraska-Omaha in 2007, making him the only true freshman to play for the 10-win Maverick squad. He averaged 35 yards on 40 punts.


As a senior at Kearney (Neb.) High School last year, Maher averaged 41.2 yards per punt while also serving as the team's kicker and wide receiver. He was named first-team all-state for his efforts, and actually turned down scholarship offers from Ohio and Colorado State to walk on at Nebraska.

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