March 24, 2009

Position battles to watch for the Huskers this spring

The start of spring practice is now less than a day away, and that means some of the biggest questions surrounding Nebraska's roster next season will finally start to get answered. While there are several position battles to keep an eye on during the next month, here are three positions that you might want to pay special attention to…


Linebacker


While senior Phillip Dillard should return as the leader of the defense at the MIKE spot, figuring out who's going to flank him as the outside linebackers is a wide open competition.


Junior Blake Lawrence will likely be the frontrunner for the starting job at the WILL linebacker, but don't be surprised if redshirt freshman Alonzo Whaley makes a strong push for the job this spring and on into fall camp. Throughout the season, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler raved about Whaley's performance in practice, and with a full year in the program now under his belt, Whaley could easily begin to make himself a fixture on NU's defense.


On the other side at the BUCK spot, redshirt Sean Fisher seems the most likely candidate to take over for Tyler Wortman. However, Matt Holt and Matthew May both saw playing time as freshmen last season, and there's no reason they won't continue to do so this year to help provide depth in different defensive packages.


Behind Dillard is redshirt freshman Will Compton, another player Ekeler has been high on since the day he first set foot on campus. Dillard has been plagued with injuries throughout his career, so Compton very well could see extensive playing time to help keep Dillard fresh.


Another thing to keep in mind is that while the unit is divided into three separate positions, it was almost a rarity last season that all three linebackers were on the field at the same time. With the spread offenses so common in the Big 12 Conference, the Base 4-3 defense often took a backseat to the nickel and dime packages, meaning only one or two linebackers were on the field together the majority of the time.


This means that any combination of the aforementioned linebackers could end up seeing the field depending on specific match-ups and opposing offensive styles. With at least 10 solid players to work with, the Huskers might be deeper at linebacker than any other position, and they're probably going to need all of that depth as the season goes along.


Cornerback


Like the linebackers, Nebraska has plenty of up-and-coming talent joining the mix this season at cornerback. Despite the loss of Armando Murillo, junior Anthony West returns as the starting left cornerback.


On the other side, sophomore Anthony Blue looks to be the leading candidate to take over for Murillo on the right side. Blue was expected to compete for the starting job across from Murillo last season, but a knee injury during winter conditioning ended his season.


Junior Prince Amukamara has all the tools to make a push for a starting spot this spring, but he was demoted from starter to back-up last season because he struggled with secondary coach Marvin Sanders' coverage schemes.


The real player to keep an eye on this offseason is junior college transfer Dejon Gomes. While mentally and experience-wise he still has plenty of work to do, Gomes has already shown flashes of his athletic ability during winter conditioning and should make a serious case for playing time by the Huskers' season opener.


Another player to watch is sophomore Alfonzo Dennard, who was just one of two scholarship true freshman to see the field for the Huskers last year. Dennard undoubtedly possesses the physical tools to make an impact at corner, and as he continues to settle into the position his stock should only continue to rise.


Lance Thorell came onto the scene somewhat unexpectedly last season as one of NU's nickel backs, and his knowledge of the defense should once again make him a valuable back-up.


The Huskers don't have a single senior cornerback on their roster, meaning youth will have to step up. It should be interesting to see which of the several young corners make the biggest jumps this spring to help fill that void.


Guard


Even with the loss of four-year starter Matt Slauson, Nebraska still has plenty of talent returning at the guard position this spring. What it doesn't have, however, is mch of any experience to speak of.


Junior Keith Williams is the clear leader at the position at the moment, as he saw significant action last season. Right now, it's probably a safe bet to assume Williams has claim to one of the starting guard spots, but the starter on the other side is a different story.


The player with the most hype coming into the spring is junior Ricky Henry. With as much attitude as any player on the roster, Henry made a name for himself last year for his intense and extremely physical playing style on every snap.


Offensive line coach Barney Cotton[db] has been very open about his fondness for Henry and his intensity, so it wouldn't come as much of a shock if the junior college transfer ended up with the starting guard job.


However, that all depends on what becomes of senior [db]Andy Christensen. After a tumultuous offseason that almost saw him dismissed from the program completely, Christensen enters the spring looking to put his past discretions behind him and start over with a clean slate.


Before his incident last fall, Christensen was arguably one of the Huskers' top interior linemen and easily of their best run blockers. Depending on how he rebounds from last year's events, Christensen could make a case for a starting job when all is said and done because of his combination of talent and experience.


Junior D.J. Jones is another player to watch this spring, as he's always boasted plenty of potential but has never really had a chance to live up to it playing behind guys like Slauson his whole career. This spring will be Jones' first real opportunity to make a push for significant playing time, if not a starting job.


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