LINCOLN — Two weeks from the Capital One Bowl against Georgia and Nebraska's defensive front seven prepares for one last surge in its long, bruise-filled season.
It's hard to envision any significant changes to a group that got its collective gut punched against Wisconsin. Minus tackle Baker Steinkuhler, the Huskers will roll with their seniors, including Cameron Meredith, nominally an end playing tackle. Sixty more minutes for that kid in the meat grinder.
And 60 more minutes for three senior linebackers whose intelligence, toughness and leadership skills — mixed with head-scratching, blush-inducing mistakes — are a mirror for the entire unit. Soon, we'll discard that mirror. Because next year's defense looks more talented — but green like a pea shoot.
It's mid-December. Time for The Hope Report, a rundown of the top guys you didn't see this year because they were redshirting, brought to you by some of the NU starters who face them. Previous editions included names like Kenny Bell — who drew informed raves from Prince Amukamara and Eric Hagg — David Santos, Corey Cooper and Taariq Allen.
This year's bunch is heavy on defense — a slew of names expected to replace those experienced seniors along the front seven and at safety.
“Last year's recruiting class — that whole defensive side — is pretty good,” said offensive line coach Barney Cotton, who sees the redshirts daily on the scout team. “Those guys have a good future ahead of them. Especially the front seven.”
And there's a couple entries on offense, too. So in lieu of an “I see you” section of the Rewind, there's instead an “I've heard about you” chapter. These are Huskers talking about Huskers, so positivity is at a maximum. Consider it an early Christmas present of speculation.
I've heard about you
>> Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine: Yes, Virginia, Nebraska does have a SEC-looking defensive tackle on its roster, and it's the 6-foot-3, 320-pounder who occasionally wreaked havoc in practice.
“He's a load,” guard Spencer Long said. “He's got a motor. He's got to get stronger, but he's a big load. His initial pop. I think he's got to get more fine-tuned, but I think he'll have some potential.”
Why did Valentine redshirt? I've long believed that coach Bo Pelini liked redshirting players he thought had considerable potential on the defensive side. (Notable exceptions were Alfonzo Dennard and Eric Martin, both of whom Pelini used on special teams.) Valentine has more upside than any tackle Nebraska's had since, well, Ndamukong Suh.
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>> Quarterback Tommy Armstrong: The odds-on favorite to back up Taylor Martinez next year — had Martinez gone down early in 2012, I think you would have seen the 6-1, 215-pounder — is a different kind of quarterback than NU's current three-year starter. Freshman running back Imani Cross, who took nearly every snap with Armstrong during fall camp, would know.
“He talks a whole lot,” Cross said, smiling. “So he's a natural leader.”
Armstrong and Martinez are “A-plus” improvisors, Cross said, but Armstrong is more “shake and bake” while Martinez is a “speedster.” Armstrong, who injured his knee halfway through the season but should be fine for spring practice, also manages the passing game well, Cross said.
“He's very athletic,” Cross said. “He can jump, run, throw, think on the run. He has a fast dropback, knows how to read defenses.”
Armstrong will get more company when 2013 recruit Johnny Stanton hits campus next fall.
>> Linebacker Thomas Brown: A preseason injury kept Brown from playing this year, but once he got healthy, he gave NU's scout team a hybrid pass rusher who was named defensive scout team MVP. At 6-2, 210 pounds — he looks taller, perhaps because he's so lean — Brown's clearly more of a linebacker than an end, but he's a dangerous playmaker.
“Fast, athletic, tough,” tight end Ben Cotton said. “He's going to be a great player.”
>> Linebacker Jared Afalava: The 6-3, 215-pounder arrived late to fall camp and probably a little underweight. He appears to have put a little muscle on without losing the speed he showed in high school.
“He's like a pest,” Cross said. “He gets everywhere. He just attacks. He's very violent.”
>> Linebacker Michael Rose: The 5-11, 230-pounder received the most consistent praise from a variety of players. He'll battle with Elkhorn walk-on Trevor Roach for Will Compton's starting spot in the middle.
“He's just built to be a good linebacker,” Long said. “He takes good angles. He flows. He hits hard. He's got the weight behind the punch. He fills well.”
Said Barney Cotton: “He's a true inside linebacker. You can tell.”
>> Defensive end Greg McMullen: Redshirting the 6-3, 280-pounder — especially after Avery Moss got hurt — still surprises me. McMullen has the size to be a 3-4 end if Nebraska wants to use that look.
>> Corner Jonathan Rose: The 6-1, 180-pound Auburn transfer drew praise from defensive backs coach Terry Joseph earlier this year as a player who could fit at nearly any position in the secondary. Since Nebraska's in good shape at corner, you could see him get a look at safety.
“He's done what it takes already,” Ben Cotton said.
>> Athlete Alonzo Moore: He's played wide receiver during his redshirt year, but the 6-2, 170-pounder from Winnfield, La., is wanted by coaches on both sides of the ball.
“He's just explosive,” Compton said. “He's a playmaker. Fast. He'll be a good weapon whether he plays offense or defense. The defensive guys want him on defense. The kid will be a special player.”
>> Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp: Along with Cross and cornerback Charles Jackson, you can often find the 6-foot, 200-pounder working late after practice. Because of the depth at wide receiver, Westerkamp and Moore weren't immediate needs this year — and they'll still have to fight for playing time next year — but they're two good weapons for position coach Rich Fisher.
>> The B1G getting beaten up in bowl season: When you give Big 12 and SEC teams a month to heal and get healthy — and you also give them shorter distances to travel — you afford those schools a chance to negate the toughness advantage some Big Ten teams might have. Take the two most recent Rose Bowls. If Wisconsin, with its big offensive line, gets to play TCU and Oregon one week after the season ends, doesn't the Badgers' physicality seem more imposing on a tired team?
>> The cost of bowl tickets: This is more of an irritation than a concern. The prices attached to any tickets except the Fiesta Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the BCS national championship game are much, much too high. Even on the secondary market, where, despite being reduced in some cases by more than 50 percent, they're still expensive because of the high starting cost.
Why are they so expensive? Because the bowls need to pay for pointlessly high salaries for bowl CEOs, corporate sponsorships, events that fewer and fewer fans attend because they're not going to the games, and swag that players really don't need.
And because conferences put up with it.
It's a weird relationship that exists there, because leagues surely can't enjoy potentially reimbursing schools for expenses incurred from unsold tickets, and bowls can't enjoy bad matchups foisted on them by the conference tie-ins. It seems like a toxic relationship in which only fans lose.
>> The fading interest in Husker basketball: Two straight beatdowns right out of the late Sadler era throw all the spotlight back on the football team during the holidays. The next opponent, Jacksonville State, only bothers to play defense, so settle in for a thriller Tuesday.
>> Nebraska's actually interested in recruiting Iowa Western, right? You have to wonder after the junior college national champion Reivers have an announcement day gala for a bunch of Division I prospects and none of them even got much interest from the university 60 miles down the road.
But Barney Cotton, who recruits the area and visited the program in the spring, insists NU and IWCC have a good relationship.
“We're not a big junior college recruiting team,” Cotton said. “We recruit by need. By certain positions. We have a great relationship. (Iowa Western) coach (Scott) Strohmeier does a great job.”
Cotton said he is well acquainted with assistant Richard Glover Jr. — son of former Husker defensive great Rich Glover — and the two keep in contact.
That's Cotton's answer. NU's actively recruiting the junior colleges for defensive tackles, pass-rushing defensive ends and tight ends. Iowa Western's roster featured a few of them, including former Lincoln East product Devon Nash, a defensive end who committed to Kansas State.
My take: Even if the Huskers didn't want to pull the trigger on Nash or any other Reiver, having a highly visible presence around one of college football's better recent stories is good business.
>> Will the bowl matchups get better when the playoff arrives? Slightly better, yes, no matter how strange college football conferences look by then. A selection committee should bring a little more sense to the second-tier “host” bowl games like the Cotton and Fiesta, and the Big 12-SEC marriage in the Sugar Bowl saves that game from being a dog, which it often has been the last decade.
The bigger problem still looms in the lower-tier games, where solid teams from smaller conferences are shafted into horrible bowls while a 6-6 Purdue will get a 60-point oil change vs. Oklahoma State.
Utah State's two losses were by a total of five points and because of missed field goals. It should not play in the Dec. 15 Potato Bowl.
>> What's your first big bowl upset? I'm not sure Louisville beats Florida straight up in the Sugar Bowl, but the Cardinals as a two-touchdown underdog seems odd. The Gators beat Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette by only seven at home. And Louisville won't be the road team in the Sugar Bowl. Not with Florida struggling to sell tickets and ol' Papa John (yes, the overeager pizza dude) donating money to reduce the cost of the Cardinals' tickets.
Florida nearly made it in the national title game. Be glad it didn't.
>> 124: Number of tackles Lavonte David has through 14 games in his rookie year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
>> 87: Yards that New England Patriots rookie Alfonzo Dennard returned an interception for a touchdown this season, which was tied for second in the NFL heading into Sunday.
>> Six: Losses in a row for the Detroit Lions, who easily qualify as the most disappointing NFL team this year. Suh, who gets more heat for the team's struggles than he should, still could make the Pro Bowl. But the shine is off the NFL's most physically imposing athlete.
Georgia began its bowl workouts last week, trying to get past the SEC championship hangover. One central question as the Bulldogs prepare: Will junior quarterback Aaron Murray declare for the NFL draft after the Capital One Bowl?
He's decided to push back his decision until after the game because he'd like to win a bowl game before he leaves school. He's 0-2 so far.
Last week on a teleconference, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gave Murray a second- or third-round grade right now. Of course, Kiper thinks the best quarterback in the draft might be North Carolina State's Mike Glennon.
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