LINCOLN — The most important and encouraging quote of Nebraska's training camp fell from coach Bo Pelini's lips Saturday evening.
Asked if the final week of camp would be important to several position battles, Pelini agreed, then repeated the usual line about those battles extending into the season. If he'd left it there, no real insight. But he walked the quote another mile down the road.
“There's a lot of guys who have earned playing time out there, and it's going to be our job to play a lot of guys and see where guys are,” Pelini said. “We're deeper than we have been probably across the board. And that can be a good thing and a bad thing. But we gotta handle that well. We gotta figure out who fits best, and see a lot of guys play and see who can do it when the lights come on.”
If Pelini sticks to the letter and spirit of that quote, he'll stand to have a much better — and fresher — defense when the Huskers hit a furious November stretch of five games in 27 days. Even better, Pelini placed the responsibility of testing several players squarely where it belongs: On himself and the assistant coaches.
The defensive coaches will have to push themselves, however hard it may be, to treat six of the first seven games — UCLA is the exception — like a laboratory. If there's a series against Wyoming or Southern Mississippi where NU features an all-freshman defensive line, don't shudder. It may have to happen. It probably should happen. Practice reveals many truths — not necessarily all of them.
The Huskers can't afford, as they did last year, to get comfortable with a certain 13 to 14 guys on defense. NU doubled down in 2012 on experience and chemistry, and that left its gas tank empty by the Big Ten title game — with few backups to refill it. The position where Pelini tried the most options last season, cornerback, was the best unit on the defense. It's the strength of the defense now — and not just because those guys are talented.
“Everybody's pushing me,” top NU corner Josh Mitchell said earlier this week. “It doesn't matter if you're at the top of the list or the bottom of the list. We're pushing each other. I came from the bottom of the list last year to the top.”
At some schools, word of Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice, Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry's push for immediate playing time triggers alarm bells. Not here, where Pelini's premium on know-how seems to have blended with an understanding that his usual tack of strong caution with young players left the Huskers short of depth when it mattered most.
The media can't watch practice, but if those true freshmen are priming to play, know this: Nebraska will have coached hard to make them — and the redshirt freshmen — fairly ready. That's a strong hunch based on Pelini's value of his own system. It will mean NU's defensive coaches, especially Pelini, are hustling to wean the kids fast off the milk.
The question becomes: Will Pelini stick to Saturday's quote when the Saturdays start counting?
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On with the Rewind, in its final week of the Prewind.
A look at the preseason poll
Here's my Top 25 preseason ballot. I choose the list based on past-season performance, returning starters, talent-depth, schedule, recruiting rankings and, finally, current-year projections:
1. Alabama. 2. Ohio State. 3. Oregon. 4. Texas. 5. Georgia. 6. South Carolina. 7. Louisville. 8. Florida State. 9. Notre Dame. 10. Stanford. 11. Texas A&M. 12. Clemson. 13. Nebraska. 14. LSU. 15. Oklahoma State. 16. Kansas State. 17. Oklahoma. 18. Oregon State. 19. Arizona State. 20. Wisconsin. 21. Miami. 22. USC. 23. Florida. 24. Michigan State. 25. Georgia Tech.
» Alabama and Ohio State play for the national title because Oregon loses at Stanford. (Stanford loses two league games elsewhere on its tough schedule.)
» In eight of the last 10 years, the Big 12's best team has finished in the top six of the final AP poll. I'm predicting that again with Texas, which returns nearly its entire team from last year. To suggest with any seriousness that six SEC teams are better than the Big 12 champ is a bad joke.
» The Huskers start at 13, which I predict to be a one-loss regular season, a Legends Division title, a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl to play Oregon, my predicted Pac-12 champ. Wisconsin's lower than the Huskers because I predict a loss at Arizona State and Ohio State in the regular season, but the Badgers have the potential to move up.
» I ranked Kansas State higher than any other voter because of Bill Snyder's track record for defying expectations, an offensive line entirely intact from last year, a strong class of junior college recruits and eight games in the state of Kansas.
» I ranked Florida lower than any other voter because it plays six games away from home, returns four defensive starters and isn't likely to enjoy the repeated strokes of luck it got in games last year.
Five backups one season (or one injury) from shining
» Cornerback Daniel Davie: Long, fast, bright, competitive. Nebraska guessed right on this in-state recruit, but he's just behind Josh Mitchell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste at the corner spot. Davie will get valuable time throughout the nonconference season.
» Offensive tackle Zach Sterup: The Hastings St. Cecilia grad could be more of the “one play” variety, really. Despite three senior tackles and junior college recruit Matt Finnin, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound Sterup seems to be making the most of this camp. A converted basketball star, Sterup always needed time to gain weight and get stronger. He's done it. It's the same kind of jump true freshman 6-9, 305-pound David Knevel will be asked to make.
» Center Paul Thurston: Ultimately, I think the starting job goes to Cole Pensick or Mark Pelini. But Thurston's a big guy to watch.
» Linebacker Courtney Love: Great frame, good hitter, enrolled early. But Love's been slowed a bit this camp by an injury — the wrong time for a freshman to get dinged.
» Defensive back Charles Jackson: Another guy battling for a starting job among more experienced players. Jackson should be a stud on special teams, and perhaps more of a factor later this year. To this point, I've heard the three older safeties — juniors Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson, plus senior Andrew Green — have held up well in camp.
Five Big Ten nonconference trap games this season
» Northwestern at California on Aug. 31: The Wildcats might be three touchdowns better than the Golden Bears, but a 9:30 p.m. start didn't thrill coach Pat Fitzgerald, and Cal's offense promises to be explosive.
» San Diego State at Ohio State on Sept. 7: The Aztecs run an aggressive 3-3-5 defense (nine returning starters) that takes some teams out of their comfort zone. Pay attention: Coach Rocky Long was Brady Hoke's defensive coordinator when Hoke coached SDSU in 2009 and 2010. Do you think the Aztecs might be fairly well-prepared for the Buckeyes?
» Michigan at Connecticut on Sept. 21: West Coast offenses have the occasional habit of bogging down for reasons laymen can't explain — it's too technical — but the Wolverines will have their struggles during the 2013 transition. An odd game in the Northeast could be a spot.
» San Jose State at Minnesota on Sept. 21: The Spartans' David Fales is considered a worthy prospect for the 2014 NFL draft. SJSU gets a bye week to prepare.
» Navy at Indiana on Sept. 7: The Hoosiers are supposed to be improved and bowl-bound this year, but the Midshipmen beat them 31-30 last year.
» 2-3: Bo Pelini's record against nonconference BCS teams. Two losses to Virginia Tech, two wins against Washington, one loss to UCLA. The Bruins make a trip to Lincoln this year. In four years, Bill Callahan was 4-2, with two wins each against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest and two losses to USC.
In his first five years, Frank Solich was 8-1 against nonconference BCS foes, but only two of the opponents (2000 Notre Dame, 2002 Penn State) had nine wins for the season. Virginia Tech had 10 in 2008 and 2009. Washington had seven in 2010 and 2011.
» 5,050: The combined number of yards true freshman running backs Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby compiled during their senior seasons. In case you're wondering why they might play some in 2013.
» 14: The school record for receptions in one game, set by split end Dennis Richnafsky during a 16-14 win against Kansas State in 1967. Seems a bridge too far for Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa or Jamal Turner — they're good enough to share 14.
» Kirk Ferentz wouldn't name a starting quarterback after Iowa's open practice Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, but the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that sophomore Jake Rudock took all the reps with the No. 1 offense. The Gazette also reported that Giltner graduate Drew Ott started with the first team on the defensive line and picked up a sack.
» Another sign that Penn State coach Bill O'Brien gets it: He allowed ESPN cameras for an “All Access: Penn State Training Days” one-hour special that will air Tuesday. More segments will air on ESPNU. For a program pummeled by NCAA violations, O'Brien's recruiting quite well, and savvy decisions like this are part of the reason why.
The Huskers tire of hitting each other.