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October 6, 2009

Tuesday notebook: Helu, others held out of practic

There were some notable absences from Nebraska's final practice of the week Tuesday before its Big 12 Conference opener against Missouri.

The odd part is, none of them had anything to do with injuries or grades.

Head coach Bo Pelini didn't give much of a reason why junior running back Roy Helu, senior center Jacob Hickman and redshirt freshman tight end Ben Cotton all missed Tuesday's session, other than they weren't feeling well.

Pelini addressed only Helu's absence specifically, saying that he simply was feeling under the weather and the team decided to send him home to rest.

Pelini didn't seem concerned at all about any of the players who missed Tuesday's practice, but considering the rumors of the H1N1 bug hitting the team this week, a red flag was definitely raised.

"Roy wasn't feeling well today, but he's fine," Pelini said. "He could've practiced, but we just sent him home."

Pelini was then asked if the team had to take any extra precautions to keep a potential flu bug from spreading.

"There is no potential flu bug," he said. "I mean, there's always a potential flu bug, but it's no issue. Somebody brought it to my attention. Somebody said that some news station out there reported something like that. There are no issues like that. That's news to me."

The coincidences didn't stop there, however. Oddly enough, Helu actually spoke about the potential of H1N1 hitting the team during the day prior during Monday's press conference.

Helu, who had a noticeable cough and was drinking orange juice during the interview, said he wasn't worried about H1N1 because Nebraska's training staff takes good precautions to keep bugs like that from spreading.

"We've been sick as a team before, so I'm not sure if (H1N1) has hit the team or not, but it doesn't concern us at all," Helu said. "I'm sure that if someone got sick then we'd all be aware of that. But the training staff does a really good job of making us wash our hands. They have bacterial soap everywhere. I think that has a lot to do with us being a pretty healthy team right now compared to other teams in the country right now.

"I'm not concerned about it. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, then that's fine."

Tuesday practice takes
D-line focused on getting pressure: After head coach Bo Pelini announced Monday that Nebraska would open up with a dime defense against Missouri, the primary objective for the defensive line became pretty clear. With the rest of the defense focusing on coverage against the Tigers' spread out passing attack, it will be up to the front four to apply pressure on sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert to and try to throw off the timing of the passing game. Even if the Huskers don't get any sacks - which because of how deep Missouri's quarterbacks sit in the pocket is certainly a possibility - they will have to try and at least flush Gabbert outside and make him throw on the run. Gabbert is a little better at throwing on the run than former MU quarterback Chase Daniel was, but he's been able to pick defenses apart this season when allowed to sit in the pocket, go through his progressions and throw on rhythm.
No hard feelings: While many Nebraska fans might still resent Gabbert for de-committing from NU and opting for rival Missouri instead, it seems at least some Husker players have been able to let bygones be bygones. Junior tight end Mike McNeill was Gabbert's player host on a couple of his recruiting visits to Lincoln, and he said he's still good friends with the Tiger quarterback. In fact, the two went to a baseball game this offseason when McNeill, a Missouri native, went back home to visit family. "I'm still good friends with him," McNeill said. "He's got to do what's best for him, and he felt like that was Missouri. I'm not going to hold it against him or anything. I went to baseball game with him when I went home, so there's no hard feelings or anything like that."
Injury update: Pelini said junior running back Roy Helu was one of a handful of Huskers who missed Tuesday's practice with an undisclosed illness. Senior center Jacob Hickman and redshirt freshman tight end Ben Cotton also both missed practice, though Pelini did not specify a reason for either's absence. Other than that, Pelini said Nebraska was healthy overall and should have all of its usual starters ready to go for Thursday night's game.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team held a two-hour half-padded practice on Tuesday. The Huskers will have a brief run through practice on Wednesday before flying out to Columbia, Mo., for Thursday's 8 p.m. kickoff against the Tigers. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Defense looking to spoil Gabbert's perfect season

It's not often that zeros in a quarterback's stat line stand out like the one Missouri's Blaine Gabbert boasts in the interception column.

After 131 attempts, the sophomore has been nearly flawless with the football, adding 11 touchdowns while leading the Tigers to a 4-0 start in his first year as a starter. On Thursday, Nebraska's defense will be looking to wipe that zero off the board.

So far this season, the Huskers have three interceptions compared to just one passing touchdown allowed. One of those INTs was taken back 74 yards for a touchdown by senior safety Larry Asante.

Interceptions will definitely be a goal once again for NU's secondary, but especially going against a potent passing attack like Missouri's, the Huskers are still going to be careful in the process.

"It's a challenge, but at the same time, we're not going to force the issue," senior safety Larry Asante said. "We're going to play our assignments, and if it comes, we're going to make a play. But if it doesn't, then we're not going to force it. We're let everything come to us. We're not going to force anything."

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said Gabbert's mistake-free start has been both a credit to his passing accuracy and decision making, as well as Missouri's offensive game plan.

Because of the Tigers' quick passing game and their ability to give Gabbert plenty of time in the pocket, he's been able to deliver good, controlled passes and let receivers get through their routes and get open.

"They do a great job spreading the ball around and taking what you give them," Pelini said. "It's a very controlled passing game, but he also makes good decisions over and over again, even in duress. He doesn't ever panic. You don't ever see panic on his face.

"That's a tribute to their coaches that work with the quarterbacks, and to that young man and how mature he looks out there for a young guy."

Compton's role increases in dime

Over the course of the past four games, redshirt freshman linebacker Will Compton has seen his role in the defense steadily increase each week.

On Thursday, he's going to play one of his biggest roles yet.

Because of his mix of physical play against the run and ability to keep up with receivers in coverage, Compton will work in with fellow redshirt freshman Sean Fisher as the lone linebacker in the dime defense, which features four linemen and six defensive backs.

Considering the offenses Nebraska will face with the Big 12 Conference schedule now underway, that means Compton should continue to be on the field for the majority of the game.

Carl Pelini said Compton has grasped the Huskers defensive schemes, especially in the dime package, so quickly that he has no reservations about giving the Bonne Terre, Mo., native that much responsibility.

"He's in control out there," Pelini said. "He's confident in making a lot of calls and (he's) doing a great job in that part of it. He's been good in both phases. He understands where he's supposed to be in terms of the running game and he's done a really nice job in the coverage aspect of it.

"Really, when we started the season he wasn't our No. 1 dime linebacker, but he's kind of worked his way into that role at this point because of his coverage and just his command out there on the field. It's like having a veteran out there. I'd compare his progress probably to Gabbert on the other side. They're the two quarterbacks facing each other out there, really."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***The weather forecast for Thursday night in Columbia, Mo., doesn't look too good at the moment, as there is a high chance for a significant amount of rainfall throughout the night. Bo Pelini said he wasn't worried about the conditions affecting his team in the game, saying Missouri would have to overcome the same difficulties as the Huskers.

***On Monday, senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh echoed Pelini's statement that he wasn't satisfied with the play of Nebraska's defense thus far this season, despite the Huskers ranking No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense.

As it turns out, other players feel the same way. Sophomore defensive tackle Jared Crick said the defense still had a long way to go before it felt it was playing its best football.

"We're not playing to our potential," Crick said. "Suh's exactly right - whatever we statistically, we're playing to our potential. When we get to where we are playing to our potential, it's going to be a good thing. I agree with Suh completely, we're not playing to our potential. That's all it really is. We've got so much further to go before we reach greatness.

"There's no limit for us. You can say that we're doing good, but in our minds there's no bar, so we're just going to go as high as we can."

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