LINCOLN — As Nebraska ramps down training camp and starts turning its attention to Wyoming, NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis remains, like head coach Bo Pelini, full throttle on playing as many guys as possible early in the season.
“It's discipline on our part as much as anything else, because if things are going well, sometimes you have a tendency to lean toward the guys who are in the game,” Papuchis said after Thursday's workout. “Bottom line is: We gotta find out more about our guys in game situations. We don't have the benefit of preseason. I want to play a lot of guys. We gotta track how many reps those guys are getting and make sure we get a thorough gameday evaluation.”
Position battles continue at most positions not manned by nickel Ciante Evans, who seems to be the only player certain to be on the field when NU plays its first defensive series against the Cowboys. Though seniors Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle are likely to see the most playing time on an otherwise-young line, the Huskers are comfortable letting other positions play out.
That includes the secondary, where defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said nothing is definitive besides Evans.
“It's too close to call,” Joseph said. “At safety, we feel good about four, five guys. At corner, we could get five guys in there and each one of those guys could go in and play nickel. As we start to finalize the gameplan, we'll what our personnel matchups will be. Having that many guys who are game-ready gives us a lot of options.”
Wyoming's spread offense tends to feature four wide receivers — head coach Dave Christensen was Missouri's offensive coordinator for 11 years. That means Joseph's unit could have as many as six players on the field. At dime, NU typically prefers a linebacker/safety hybrid, which is why true freshman Nate Gerry is battling with junior Zaire Anderson for the role. Gerry works with the linebackers, but Joseph coached him earlier in camp. Linebackers coach Ross Els said Gerry offers flexibility at dime that few other Husker athletes offer.
“With the spread offenses we see now, there isn't a whole lot of difference between the type of player that plays back there at safety and your dime- or nickel-type outside linebacker,” Els said. “From a coverage standpoint, you just need a better athlete. And that's where Nathan Gerry comes in.”
Freshman tackles impress
True freshman tackles Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice are both likely to play this season, Papuchis said.
“I don't want to put too much pressure on them, but they performed well enough that they deserve a shot,” Papuchis said. “We're gonna see. No final decisions have been made on who's going to play and who isn't, but guys who are going to be significant contributors will not redshirt.”
Collins has drawn regular praise from coaches. But Papuchis is also pleased with what he's seeing out of Maurice, a 6-foot-3, 280-pounder from Orlando, Fla.
“Right now he's a little ahead of even some of the more experienced guys in terms of how he plays the run,” Papuchis said. “He plays with a great center of gravity, he has good hands, good feet, plays with a good base. He's certainly an early-down guy and, where he's really made a lot of strides for us in the last couple days is, I think, he's a little bit better of a pass rusher than maybe we had realized right off the bat.”
Maurice was off Nebraska's recruiting radar until Papuchis saw a film of him last winter. Maurice had just a smattering of offers at the time. The best of those offers was from Boston College.
“He was under the radar in terms of a recruiting perspective,” Papuchis said. “I was shocked when I saw his film in December or January, to find out that he didn't have a home yet. I think he was a steal, in terms of recruiting. But there's always going to be those kinds of diamonds in the rough.”
The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Collins is an “every-down guy,” Papuchis said.
“I don't think it's fair to him to put him in a specific role at this point,” Papuchis said. “I think we just let him develop. God knows, over the course of four years, he's going to be a lot different product. But he's doing some really good things.”
Switch has helped Rose
A switch to weakside linebacker appears to have led to several good practices for redshirt freshman Michael Rose. Papuchis said Rose “made a fairly significant jump” in the last two weeks.
“I always knew he was smart. I always knew he was pretty instinctive,” Papuchis said. “What we were missing is that sometimes he didn't pull the trigger always. That's the best way to put it. The last two weeks, I see him taking his shots, being aggressive, being the player we saw on film when he was in high school.”
O-line spots up for grabs
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck hasn't entirely settled what the rotation will be on the line. There's depth to burn — more than Nebraska's had under Beck or even head coach Bo Pelini — but Beck's comments gave the scent of playing time battles still being waged.
“It's more of a thing that we'll take care of maybe this weekend,” Beck said. “That's when we'll worry about those things. It's good to have all those guys. They're older. That helps.”
Kicking job still open
The starting kicker job remains a “really close battle” between senior Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith and sophomore Mauro Bondi, special teams coordinator Ross Els said.
“I haven't made the decision,” Els said. “I don't want to get into the numbers right now.”
Els indicated that one kicker might have a slightly stronger leg than the other, but declined to say which.
Backup QB still not set
Beck said Thursday that the backup quarterback race is still undecided, and he's yet to determine if true freshman quarterback Johnny Stanton will redshirt.
At this point, choosing between senior Ron Kellogg and redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong to replace starter Taylor Martinez would be an in-the-moment decision, according to Beck.
“I think a lot depends on the game situation, the score,” Beck said. “There's so much that goes into that.”
Stanton's still being evaluated as well, though he's working through the typical struggles of a first-year college quarterback, Beck said. Anticipating throws. Identifying blitzes. Making accurate reads on option plays.
“He's learning those things,” Beck said. Stanton's still adjusting to the speed of the game, too, Beck added.
The staff will probably evaluate the roster to consider applying redshirts once preseason camp ends this weekend, according to Beck.
Fullbacks making progress
Expect to see senior C.J. Zimmerer and sophomore Andy Janovich at the fullback spot next week. Beck indicated Thursday that both have earned playing time.
How much the fullback will be used remains unclear. Beck said the position's role will be based on matchups, determined game to game.
Beck did mention Zimmerer specifically as someone who's improved during the offseason.
“He's had a great spring, a great summer, and he's doing a great job this fall,” Beck said. “Really pleased with how much he's developed, his leadership, and all that. He's a key part of our football team.”
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