After their first on-site practice for the Capital One Bowl, coach Bo Pelini said the Huskers had to shake off some of the rust from a holiday break, but otherwise had a strong workout with “good energy” at Freedom High School. Nebraska installed its plan for attacking Georgia last week, so now it's a matter of reviewing it.
“It's a pretty mature group,” Pelini said. “I think they understand the challenge we have ahead of us … they understand the balance you need to have, obviously, between enjoying the city and enjoying the time you have down here, but also keeping in mind that the big picture is being ready to play a football game.”
Pelini said the break between a 70-31 blowout loss to Wisconsin and the Capital One Bowl helped the Huskers rebuild their stamina.
“You look back at the last game that we played and for whatever reason we did look a little leg weary. Maybe the second half of the season took a bit of a toll on us? I don't know. It was a physical, tough grind. Hopefully our guys have their legs back underneath them.”
Running back Rex Burkhead and defensive tackle Chase Rome both said Nebraska's older players and starters are treating this bowl game more like a business trip and less like a holiday getaway.
“I'd hope so – especially after last year,” Rome said.
Burkhead said that many of older players are trying to get off their feet, relax and lock in on Georgia.
“You want to make sure you're focusing on the game and not too much on the fun,” Burkhead said. “We're down here to have a little bit of fun — that's what the bowl trip's meant for — but we're here to beat Georgia.”
Is that mantra coming from the coaches or players?
“Both,” Burkhead said. “That's Coach Bo's message, as well as the seniors. I think the whole team gets that.”
Plan in place for Jones
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez raised eyebrows last week when he referred to Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones as “just another guy” that the Husker offense would face this year. Jones — an All-American who has 12.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles — is considered a surefire top 10 pick should he declare for the 2013 NFL draft.
Thursday, position coach Joe Ganz shed some light on Martinez's mentality.
“We don't make a big deal out of it,” said Ganz, a former Husker quarterback and current graduate assistant. Ganz has instructed Martinez to let his offensive line stick to its plan to block Jones — and not try to pick out the 6-foot-3, 241-pounder before every snap.
“As a quarterback, you can't,” Ganz said. “You can't worry about the rush. You have to trust your guys. We have a plan for him, the way they rush, but if you're looking to see where he's at on every play, he's already won.”
Ganz compared Jones to two pass rushers Martinez has already faced during his career — Texas A&M's Von Miller and Missouri's Aldon Smith. Miller and Smith, both second-year players in the NFL, were named to the Pro Bowl Wednesday.
“So it's not the first time he's going to see a guy of that caliber,” Ganz said. “So you go back to those experiences — what he did well, what he could have done better — and learn from it.”
Martinez will speak to reporters Friday.
Nebraska's chosen to simulate Jones in practice with freshman linebacker Thomas Brown – the scout team defensive player of the year who redshirted this season because of a nagging preseason injury.
“He's been a pain in our butt,” Ganz said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder. “He's got really good instincts and he's a really good athlete. He's wearing No. 29 and he's going as fast as he can after the quarterback. He might be a little lighter than Jarvis, but it's pretty much the same type of body. He's been a really big help for us.”
Said running back Ameer Abdullah, who may have to chip block on Jones Jan. 1: “Brown gives us the best look. A lot of guys come out on scout team, and say 'Aw, we're not going to play, we're just going to go through the motions.' He never goes through the motions.
“He sets the tone a lot of time. He'll smack someone in the mouth. And then the 1s will get mad... I really appreciate that. He's been Jarvis Jones. (Jones) is not going to come soft, so we need the best look. That's what Thomas Brown's done.”
Another freshman, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, is emulating giant Georgia nose tackle Kwame Geathers.
Pensick expected to start
Center Cole Pensick — expected to be the starter for next week's game in relief of the injured Justin Jackson — did not travel with the rest of the team because of a lingering virus. Pensick, a Lincoln Northeast grad, planned to arrive Thursday night and practice Friday. Mark Pelini — Bo's nephew — is the other center who will play for NU.
“Cole was probably lined up as the starter for most of bowl practice, and Mark had a good day today,” Bo Pelini said. “We feel confident in both those guys.”
The starter for most of the season, Jackson gave his longest interview since breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle in the first half of the Iowa game. Jackson, a walk-on from Roca, still attends meetings and offers his two cents, but said Pensick and Pelini don't need his “cheerleading” to do a good job on the field.
Right now, he's focused on rehabbing with his best friend on the team, defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, who tore up his knee about 15 minutes after Jackson got hurt in the Iowa game. They sat together in the locker room as their collegiate playing careers came to a close.
“There were a few choice words,” Jackson said.
Now it's words of encouragement as the two work to get healthy again.
“We hang out all the time,” Jackson said. “Do rehab together. It's a good thing to have a friend — I wish it wasn't him — to help each other through it.”
Williams to provide depth
If Nebraska needs a fourth defensive tackle for the bowl game, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, look for it to be redshirt freshman Kevin Williams. Williams, who has four tackles in five games while battling lingering pain from a torn ACL and other injuries, would back up the trio of Chase Rome, Thad Randle and Cameron Meredith.
Papuchis said the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder — who enrolled early as part of the 2011 recruiting class – has flashes of potential mixed with the flaws of a player his age.
“Being that he came here early, it feels like he's been here a long time, and really he's in his redshirt freshman year,” Papuchis said. “His best football is ahead of him.”
Nebraska will make “alternate plans” for the defensive line in the bowl game, as well, Papuchis said. That includes sliding defensive end Jason Ankrah inside to tackle.
Playing tight end not an option for Enunwa
When junior college tight end Beau Sandland last week chose to sign with Miami (Fla.) instead of Nebraska, a popular theory among fans involved moving junior wide receiver Quincy Enunwa to the position. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Enunwa is one of the Huskers' best perimeter blockers, and could potentially put on a few extra –
“I'm not playing tight end,” Enunwa said emphatically before a reporter could finish the question.
Have coaches asked him to consider it?
“Nope. But I'm not playing tight end.”
How did he know reporters would ask?
“Because everybody keeps asking me.”
What if Enunwa might make a pretty good tight end?
“I will play tight end if I make it to the next level, but I'm happy where I am right now.”
It seems to have worked out OK for former NU wide receiver Niles Paul, who bulked up to play tight end for the Washington Redskins.
“Exactly – and he's getting paid for that,” Enunwa answered.
Anderson's recovery from ACL injury has been quick
Linebacker Zaire Anderson's recovery from a torn ACL has been swift enough for the 5-foot-11, 220-pounder to perform running and cutting drills during practice — just three months after surgery.
“I push myself every day until I feel the pain,” Anderson said. “And I don't complain about nothing.”
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Certainly not his eligibility clock. Anderson confirmed Thursday that he'd receive a medical redshirt for a year that ended after the Arkansas State game, when doctors discovered through an MRI that Anderson had been playing on a torn ligament for at least six months – and maybe longer.
“The injury actually helped me out a lot because I get to learn the system even more,” Anderson said. “I get to be around the coaches and get used to playing a lot instead of playing here and there because I'm behind a lot of people.”
The toughest moment of the year? Perhaps watching on TV as Nebraska's defense was gashed by Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. The Huskers gave up a school-record 539 rushing yards.
“There was a little frustration ... there were a couple plays I thought could have made,” Anderson said. “Especially plays that went to the outside. I think I could have caught a lot of backs to the outside.”
Huskers need depth at DT
Nebraska is still without a true defensive tackle in its 2013 class, but it's hoping to add at least two interior linemen by February, according to assistant coach Rick Kaczenski.
Building depth is the objective, Kaczenski said. Even though the Huskers are still in the junior college market for defensive tackles — Ben Bradley out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College is one key target — they could use more high school bodies that can be developed over time.
“A lot of it's a projection because the no-brainers, they're hard to get,” Kaczenski said.
Kaczenski indicated that NU has to stock up on players who have the potential to be stars, but who'll likely go through growing pains first.
“It's a tough position to recruit,” Kaczenski said.
Adding a “ready-to-go” guy from the junior college level would help, though it's not the answer, Kaczenski said.
Bradley, at 6-foot-2, 315 pounds, is expected to sign with a Division I school Friday. Nebraska and Missouri are believed to be his top two finalists.
“This league, it just beats up on you,” Kaczenski said. “We've got to gain some depth.”
Martin expects chances
Senior defensive end Eric Martin is assuming Georgia's offensive line will underestimate him. Most teams do.
“I'm little,” the 250-pounder said. “So they're probably going to look at me and probably think they're just going to toss me around. But I don't think it's going to happen.”
Nebraska certainly needs Martin to create some disruption up front.
Martin had at least one tackle for loss (eight total) in five straight games before Nebraska's 70-31 loss to Wisconsin Dec. 1. Martin ranked third in the Big Ten with 14.5 tackles for loss and second in sacks with 8.5 this season.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray could be an easy target because he's not been a mobile threat all year. He's averaging 1.8 yard per carry (not counting sacks) and he's recorded just two rushes of more than 10 yards.
“When there's pressure in your face, you know it's hard to make passes,” Martin said. “We're going to try our best to put pressure on him.”
Bits and pieces
Sophomore defensive tackle Chase Rome is practicing with a cast on his right hand. He hopes it will be removed by Tuesday's game. … Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler (right knee) is still walking with a cane and senior center Justin Jackson (left foot) is still using crutches. Both are out for the Capital One Bowl. … Thursday's practice, the first in a week, started slowly, according to a few players. Said senior Kyler Reed: “We were a little rusty.” … The Huskers are practicing at Freedom High School, the same location they used last year.
Seen: Nebraska players after practice eating a Caribbean meal of braised chicken, beans and tomatoes.
Heard: “There's stuff I've never even seen before. You got TVs in the mirror in the bathroom. I can't believe it.” — freshman defensive end Avery Moss, on some of the early highlights of the bowl trip.
Heard: “Y'all talking to Centaur?” — senior defensive end Eric Martin to reporters talking with junior defensive end Jason Ankrah.
Heard: “You ever seen a big pile of rock salt? That's his body.”— Ankrah, attempting to insult Martin in return.
Up next: Another practice for the Huskers at Freedom High School Friday, followed by a trip to Universal Studios.
— Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa