September 19, 2011

Monday notebook: Dennard returns to action

The waiting game continues for senior Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, but he's starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Dennard said on Monday that he did go through portions of practice, but he still continues to battle injury. He partially tore his left quadriceps on Aug. 15, and it remains to be seen if he'll play for the Huskers on Saturday at Wyoming.

"I did a few things and a little bit of running around to try and get back into the groove," Dennard said on Monday. "I'm really not sure yet (if I'll play Saturday). I'm just trying to get back in the groove on the football field. I'm really not sure if they're going to play me or not."

The biggest hurdle Dennard is trying to cross is getting back mentally after being out so long. Ideally, he hopes to play on Saturday at Wyoming in a limited number of snaps to slowly get his feet back underneath him and be ready for the Huskers showdown at Wisconsin on Oct. 1.

"I want to get a little tune up game in and get my feel back and be out there on the field in front of all those people," Dennard said. "If the coaches want me to play, then I'll play. If they don't, then I'm not going to play."

Following Monday's practice defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said Dennard was getting closer and closer to returning back to form.

"He looked good," Raymond said of Dennard. "He did some good things. He ran, and he had the burst today and did what he was supposed to do with that burst. That was a big plus for us to see that happen, and he didn't come out.

"So it was just him gaining confidence out there. The more he gets confidence out there, the better he's going to be."

Head coach Bo Pelini continues to stay positive about the situation and said it's been good to get so many young players reps the last three weeks while Dennard has been out.

"Obviously I think (Dennard sitting out) hurts you, because in my opinion I don't think there's a better corner in the country," Pelini said. "I think he's that good. Obviously you miss a guy like that. You're going to miss him, but I also think it's given us an opportunity to look at other guys.

"You know, you're 3-0, you've look at a lot of guys, you've given guys opportunities, you're gaining experience, and hopefully it makes you stronger over the long haul."

-Sean Callahan

Pelini not worried about defensive struggles

A week ago, head coach Bo Pelini was visibly upset while talking about the play of his defense in Nebraska's 42-29 win over Fresno State during his weekly press conference interview.

Despite a similar performance against Washington, Pelini wasn't nearly as concerned about the Huskers' play defensively on Monday.

Instead of blaming the defense for Washington's 38 points and 420 yards of offense on Saturday, Pelini said the Huskies' gaudy numbers were more a result of some late mental lapses by the Huskers.

"Believe me, I'm not happy with giving up 38 points," Pelini said. "Last week was a little different type of game. Like I said, 17 points in the fourth quarter and seven of those were off of a turnover. I think the guys relaxed a bit, and I think we got away from what we were doing. I just didn't like how we finished.

"Once again, I'm not going to get upset. The players understand. Our guys on defense were not real happy with our performance. I don't need to say much about that. I think we will be fine. I just don't think we played very smart Saturday or adjusted well. We didn't do a good enough job as coaches sometimes. I feel like I have a good handle on how to get it fixed."

While Pelini might not be all that concerned about the play of the defense, the numbers teams have put up against Nebraska the past three weeks seem to suggest something isn't quite right with the usually dominant unit.

The Huskers have given up 24.7 point and 364.7 yards per game this season, including more than 800 yards of offense and 67 points their last two outings. Through three games last season, the defense surrendered just 16 ppg and 274 ypg.

Obviously Nebraska has had to replace some key members of last year's defense, and Dennard has yet to play a down because of a lingering injury. As a result, the Huskers have had to rely on a number of young players to step up and fill some big voids in the defense, which they say will only benefit the team moving forward.

"You get to know the depth and who can play and who can perform," sophomore Ciante Evans said. "Who's ready to step up and who needs to just sit back and watch. By playing a lot of people, you can see where everybody's mind is. We just have to take that perspective."

Pelini has never been one to make excuses, but he knows the deck was somewhat stacked against his defense coming into the season. Seeing how the Huskers are still 3-0 at this point, he's confident the unit will return to its usual self eventually.

"I've been here before," Pelini said. "Like I said, I don't buy into statistics. I don't want to get into all the things that I could throw out. There are a lot of things that went on in that game. How they attacked us and threw a lot at us. I had a feeling it would be like that to an extent. The things that concerned me, in all phases, is that we have to get better with technique issues; the communication, the taking care of us and growing up with understanding and adjusting.

"When you have new guys in the mix that are going through it with a lack of experience, there are times that we weren't on the same page and communication wasn't as good as it needed to be, and it put us in bad positions. Early in the year, we could simplify. But you don't grow quite as much when you do those things. We will grow a lot because of what happened in all phases over the last few weeks. I'm seeing a lot of progress."

- Robin Washut

Martinez continues to grow at quarterback

Since the beginning of spring practice, all any of Nebraska's coaches and players could talk about was how different of a quarterback sophomore Taylor Martinez was from last season.

On Saturday, fans got a pretty good look at what the rest of the team has been trying to tell everyone.

While he certainly wasn't perfect against Washington, Martinez was about as steady as he's been all year both as a runner and a passer. He played so well that Pelini gave him one of the most glowing evaluations he's given any player over the past four seasons.

"I thought Taylor was totally in control of that game," Pelini said. "I loved his demeanor and how he handled the game. He played really, really well in that game. Did he play perfect? No. Technique wise and fundamentally there were some things that he could have done better, but I saw another level of confidence and a guy who was totally in control of the situation and offense. He prepared extremely well and I was really happy with Taylor on Saturday."

With 83 yards rushing and a modest 155 through the air, maybe the most obvious area of growth Martinez showed were in the safe, conservative decisions he made in situations he previously would have tried to do too much.

Whether it was throwing the ball out of bounds while rolling out under pressure or sliding to avoid taking a big hit, Martinez made more veteran moves on Saturday than he did in most any game last season.

"I'm really proud of the way he's playing right now," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "He's really got a lot of confidence and had command of our offense. He's being a great leader and a team player, and he's showing a lot of toughness out there. He's working on things we ask him to work on. He's trying, and like I said, I'm really proud of him."

Beck also echoed Pelini's assessment of the way Martinez controlled the offense:

"We do a lot of tempos, a lot of different cadences, a lot of different things," Beck said. "There's audibles and checks and things he looks for and things he's got to communicate to players, and he did it. This is his third game running this offense, and he's doing a great job. A great job."

Pelini was especially a fan of Martinez's awareness to slide on some runs, which he said has been a tough concept to get through to his signal caller over the past few months.

"He doesn't like doing that, I can tell you," Pelini said. "He has been told that when it is not necessary to take a hit. He isn't going to run over three guys. Maybe it is time to take hits off of yourself. That has been a fight for a while and it was good to see him do that. He thinks he can score every time he gets the ball. We all know that is unrealistic."

In fact, Martinez said he even caught himself off-guard a bit when he chose to slide instead of taking on a pack of Washington defenders.

"I actually shocked myself that I actually slid because I think I got caught between like two or three defenders and I knew there was nowhere to go, so I was like I might as well slide," Martinez said. "That was the first time I've ever slid in my life was on that play. I'm sort of getting used to it."

- Robin Washut

Green hopes to live up to Husker I-back lore

One of the benefits of Ron Brown moving from tight ends coach to running backs coach this season was that there isn't another coach on the staff that knows more about Nebraska's long, proud backfield history than he does.

Since taking over at the position, Brown has made it a point to make sure his young backs know all about the great Husker runners that came before them. That message has apparently made an impact on the unit, especially with the three freshmen.

Aaron Green said watching film of former NU greats like Ahman Green, Lawrence Phillips and Calvin Jones has served as inspiration to live up to the high standard of what it means to be a running back at Nebraska.

"To be honest, it kind of makes me want to be like them," Green said. "Those guys, those were some dudes back then. They used to win national championships. That's the goal that I try to strive for here, is to bring the glory days back to Nebraska. When he talks about those guys, it makes we want to strive to be like them."

With the amount of talent the Huskers feature at running back this season, Brown has likened the depth at the position to what it was like during Nebraska's championship run back in the 90s.

Green said the daily competition within the unit has pushed all of the running backs harder than any had expected, which in turn has made them all that much better as a whole.

"When we sit in the meeting room and we see how deep we are at running back, he always tells us this is how we were in the 90s," Green said. "We have four running backs who could get the job done, so we have to compete every day. That's what we do. Since fall camp, we go to practice and compete every day. It's in our blood now."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Should Dennard make it back this week against Wyoming, Evans didn't rule out the possibility of him starting out at the nickel back position with Andrew Green manning the other cornerback spot.

"That's a possibility," Evans said. "I don't really know. I didn't know I was going to do it for the Washington game. They just told me on Monday that it was going to happen. You can look for it, if the coaches want it, then yeah, I'm going to be in there."

***Freshman running back Ameer Abdullah returned to practice Monday after "tweaking" his ankle during a kickoff return in Saturday's win.

***Saturday's game against Wyoming will mark just Nebraska's fifth ever meeting with the Cowboys, with the last coming in a 42-32 win in Lincoln back in 1994. That 10-point victory was the Huskers' second-closest game during their eventual national championship season. Nebraska has won all five games against Wyoming.

***At 3-0, Wyoming is off to its best start in 15 years. The Cowboys come into this weekend ranked No. 16 nationally in total offense at 492.3, as they feature a balanced attack with 226.7 ypg rushing and 265.7 passing.

***For the third week in a row, Martinez leads the Big Ten Conference in rushing with 128.0 ypg, which also ranks eighth nationally. Martinez also ranks third in the conference with 291.3 yards of total offense per game.

***Nebraska has rushed for more than 200 yards as a team in each of its first three games this season, and the Huskers are now a perfect 13-0 when they break 200 yards on the ground the past two seasons.

***With games of 40, 42 and 51, this year's Nebraska squad became the fourth team in school history to score at least 40 points in each of the first three games and the first since 1995. Should the Huskers reach the 40-point mark again this week, they'll be the first NU team to do so in four straight contests since the 1983 squad, which reached 40 points in its first five games of the season.

***Should linebacker Lavonte David keep up his average of 10.7 tackles per game against Wyoming, he'll move into a tie for 31st on Nebraska's career tackles list with 195. At the moment, he's 36 stops behind Demorrio Williams (220) for the school record for career tackles by a two-year player.

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