2009 Nebraska Preview - Offense
Nebraska TE Mike McNeill
Nebraska TE Mike McNeill
Posted Jul 12, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Nebraska Cornhusker Offense

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Preview 2009 - Offense

- 2009 CFN Nebraska Preview | 2009 Nebraska Offense
- 2009 Nebraska Defense | 2009 Nebraska Depth Chart
2008 Nebraska Preview | 2007 Nebraska Preview | 2006 Nebraska Preview 

What you need to know:
The offense finished 15th in the country with a good group of players, but there weren't many superstars and they are replaceable. At least that's the hope for the Huskers. The line will undergo some shuffling, but there's plenty of talent and plenty of versatile blockers to create a decent front that should be solid after a few games of work. Zac Lee appears to be a more than capable of replacing Joe Ganz and be a quarterback to work around for the next few years, but he needs receivers. The one big problem area is the loss of Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, who combined for 125 of the team's catches, but Lee will have a tremendous group of tight ends to throw to, led by Mike McNeill. Roy Helu and Quentin Castille form a nice 1-2 rushing punch that should be serviceable. There might not be a slew of All-Big 12 performers across the board, but the numbers should be impressive once again.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Zac Lee
1-2, 5 yds
Rushing: Roy Helu
125 carries, 803 yds, 7 TD
Receiving: Mike McNeill
32 catches, 442 yds, 6 TD

Star of the offense: Junior RB Roy Helu
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior WR Niles Paul
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore OT Marcel Jones
Best pro prospect: Junior TE Mike McNeill
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Helu, 2) McNeill, 3) OT Mike Smith
Strength of the offense: Tight End, Speedy Skill Players
Weakness of the offense: Experienced Quarterback, Proven Wide Receivers


Projected Starter
The big question mark going into spring ball was the quarterback play and the potential of Zac Lee to replace Joe Ganz. The 6-2, 210-pounder had a great offseason and was fantastic in the spring game completing 15-of-18 passes for 214 yards and three scores. He only completed one of two throws in game action last season, but the junior who came to Lincoln after starring for San Francisco CC has been fantastic for the last few years in practices, has a nice arm, and brings far more speed and quickness than Ganz, who ran for 159 yards and five scores.

Projected Top Reserves: There are position changes, and then there's Latravis Washington, a 6-3, 225-pound former linebacker who's making the switch over to quarterback. He has a surprisingly accurate arm, completing 13-of-21 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, is extremely smart, and he moves extremely well. He's no threat to take over the starting job, but he's a potentially dangerous option in a pinch.

In a perfect world, star recruit Cody Green doesn't see the light of day for two years and is the face of the program in 2011. The 6-4, 220-pounder is one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks  after throwing for 3,265 yards and 37 touchdowns and rushing for 1,610 yards and 25 scores last year for Dayton High in Texas. At 6-4 and 220 pounds he has the size and he has the deep arm, and he has the rushing ability. Now he needs a little time to get used to college life before he's a star. He got to school early to work out in spring ball and was solid.

Watch Out For ... Lee to be more than fine. Ganz was terrific, even if he didn't get a whole bunch of attention in a league full of ultra-talented quarterbacks. Lee isn't quite a Ganz clone, but he's not far off and he's a better runner. The offense isn't going to have a problem with him under center.
Strength: Mobility. This won't exactly be the days of Eric Crouch or Scott Frost when it comes to the quarterbacks running the ball, but Lee is fast, Washington is a terrific runner, and Green is special. The Husker quarterbacks are supposed to do a little of everything well, and this trio can.
Weakness: Experience. Lee has JUCO experience, but he has thrown two passes in anger in the big leagues. Washington is a former linebacker and Green should've been kicking back in his senior year of high school. There will be a learning curve, even if this is a very talented group.
Outlook: Somewhat quietly, Nebraska finished 15th in the nation in both passing and passing efficiency. While it might be a lot to ask for a revamped passing game to do that again, Lee appears to be good enough to be able to handle himself well in shootouts. The backups have talent, but they need time and seasoning.
Rating: 7

Running Backs

Projected Starters
Marlon Lucky was supposed to be the main man for the running game, but Roy Helu Jr. followed up a great spring with a team-leading 803 yards and seven touchdowns. At 6-0 and 215 pounds, he packs a nice punch inside and has the speed to make things happen when he gets into the clear averaging a nice 8.4 yards per carry. He took over the running game in November with three 100-yard games in the final four before getting stuffed for -1 yard by Clemson in the bowl. A good receiver, but not an elite one, he caught 26 passes for 266 yards but will be used mostly as a runner once he's 100% healthy from a hamstring injury.

Sophomore Jordan Makovicka continues the tradition of Mackovickas rolling through the Husker program following brothers Jeff, Justin, and Joel. At only 5-10 and 205 pounds he's not a big, bruising fullback, and will likely be used more like an I-Back and a power runner. He was an ultra-productive high school runner, but he's not the talent that Jeff and Joel were.

Projected Top Reserves: At 6-1 and 235 pounds, junior Quentin Castille is a big, tough runner who finished second on the team two years ago with 343 yards and added 467 yards and six touchdowns last season being used mostly on short yardage plays until the Gator Bowl when he rumbled for 125 yards. He has tried to keep his weight down to add more quickness to his game, but he'll still mostly be the tough back who's used to beat up defenses. He can catch a little bit, making nine grabs for 109 yards, but he's not a top receiver.

Sophomore Austin Jones walked on to the team a few years ago and now will make a push to be the No. 3 back in the rotation. A smart players with good quickness, he has yet to see any action outside of shining on the scout team. The 5-10, 210-pounder isn't going to carry the load, but he should come in and see action in blowouts.

Bringing more speed to the backfield is Rex Burkhead, one of the team's top recruits. The 5-11, 200-pounder out of Texas has home run hitting speed and the potential to be a dangerous returner. He ran for 1,762 yards and 28 touchdowns last season and caught 47 passes along the way. A nice get for the Huskers, he should be a big part of the offense sooner than later.

One of several fullbacks looking for time in the rotation is Tyler Legate, a walk-on who started out his career at South Dakota before sitting out last year in Lincoln. The 5-10, 210-pound sophomore was a tough defender and a 2,000-yard runner in high school, and he also showed enough speed to be part of a relay team that got to the Nebraska state finals.

Watch Out For ... Helu to come up with a bigger year. He has to stay healthy, and he's trying to bulk up a bit to be able to take more of a pounding. He might not be the sexiest back in the Big 12, but he'll put up some big numbers and should warrant all-star honors if he averaged over six yards per carry again like last year.
Strengths: Receiving ability. The offense likes to use all the running backs like third down backs with the ability to do a little of everything. While Helu and Castille might not be phenomenal pass catchers, at least like Lucky was, they're very good and very reliable. They can be used in a variety of ways.
Fumbles. This was expected to be a problem, and it was. While the Huskers lost a not-that-horrible 17 fumbles, they put it on the ground 31 times. This will be a good ground game, but not an elite one, and it doesn't need to sputter by putting the ball on the ground.
Outlook: Helu and Castille are good, solid backs who can each carry the workload and should combine to balance out the offense. Now the task will be to find a reliable No. 3 back who can add a bit more speed, along with a good fullback to pave the way. With a mobile quarterback in Zac Lee helping the total, Nebraska should finish in the top 30 in the nation in rushing, but the more the backs can do, the better.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters
The team needs a No. 1 receiver, and while senior Menelik Holt might not be that type of a target, he's a sound, reliable producer who finished fourth on the team with 30 catches for 355 yards and a score. While he was M.I.A. for a big portion of last year, catching just one pass over a four game span, he has the ability to do a lot more. At 6-4 and 220 pounds and with nice deep speed, he has the potential to be a matchup nightmare. However, potential defines his career after coming to the program as an elite recruit who hasn't quite panned out.

Junior Niles Paul has the ability to be a top target, even though he didn't score and averaged just 9.3 yards per catch last year on 23 grabs. While he's smart enough to earn academic honors, he made a boneheaded move and got suspended for suspicion of driving under the influence. While he missed time this spring, the 6-1, 215-pounder is expected to be back in the starting spot this fall where he needs to show off his phenomenal deep speed.

The tight ends should be the strength of the passing game led by junior Mike McNeill, the team's leading returning receiver who caught 32 passes for 442 yards and six scores. the 6-4, 240-pounder has nice hands and has shown just enough toughness as a blocker to be more than just a beefed up wide receiver. After a strong finishing kick to last year, he should be the go-to target early on.

Projected Top Reserves: Freshman Antonio Bell was fantastic this spring showing off the best wheels in the receiving corps to go along with 6-2, 180-pound size. There was a question about whether or not he was going to redshirt, but he was too good this offseason to be kept on the sidelines. He'll be a third down target and will be used in three and four wide sets as a deep threat.

Senior Chris Brooks has never been healthy and only caught two passes for 27 yards with a touchdown coming against Kansas. At 6-2 and 210 pounds he has excellent size with the type of excellent deep speed that made him one of the nation's top recruits in 2005. He has great hands and he makes every grab in practice, and now he'll work in combination with Holt.

Former I-Back Marcus Mendoza was lost in the shuffle at running back running for 103 yards and a touchdown in his limited work. At 5-9 and 190 pounds he's built more like a receiver and has the tremendous speed to make big plays on the outside. One of the fastest high school players in Texas a few years ago, he ran a 10.64 in the 100 and 21.6 in the 200. Great in spring ball, he's a tough blocker for his size.

Certain to be used in two tight end sets is Kyler Reed, a 6-3, 230-pounds all-around playmaker who can block well and has the hands to be used as a nice deep threat. The redshirt freshman proved this offseason that he could take short passes to the house, highlighted by a 71-yard touchdown in the spring game. He's a weapon.

Even with great tight ends in McNeill and Reed already in place, 6-6, 250-pound Ben Cotton is certain to see plenty of action. The redshirt freshman was a nice recruit with a good all-around mix of toughness, hands, and route-running ability.

Watch Out For ... the wide receivers to be an issue early on. There isn't a Nate Swift or a Todd Peterson to count on right away, and while there's a ton of speed and nice overall upside, there isn't a sure-thing wideout to rely on from day one.
Strength: Tight end. McNeill would be in the hunt for first-team All-Big 12 honors if it weren't for Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham. Reed and Cotton are likely to be too good to keep off the field.
Weakness: Receivers who have lived up to the prep hype. Bell and Mendoza are nice young targets who should add some more pizzazz to the corps, but Holt, Paul, and Brooks haven't come close to playing up to their promise.
Outlook: The whole should be better than the sum of the parts; the production will be better than the players. There might not be a superstar, go-to wide receiver to count on out of the gate, but there are enough big, fast, talented players to hope for one to quickly emerge. The Huskers are loaded at tight end where QB Zac Lee should have plenty of good targets to rely on.
Rating:: 6.5

Offensive Line

Projected Starters
The right side of the line needs to be replaced with sophomore Marcel Jones getting the first shot at taking over for Lydon Murtha at tackle. At 6-7 and 310 pounds he's a big blocker with a long frame that's good at keeping pass rushers at a distance. He started at right tackle in the opener against Western Michigan and saw time throughout the season as a key backup, and while he can play on the left side if needed, he should be a rock on the other side.

The other big loss is all-star guard Matt Slauson. Junior D.J. Jones is versatile enough to play either guard or tackle, but he's been groomed to play right guard after spending last year as the main backup. A big-time recruit for the program, he was the top prospect in Nebraska in 2006, he's about to step up and become a major factor. Built like a tackle at 6-5 and 305 pounds, he's tall, moves well, and has excellent strength for the inside.

In one of the big moves of the offseason, sophomore Mike Caputo will go from being a backup guard to center after a nice spring. The former walk-on isn't big at just 6-1 and 275 pounds, but he's feisty and good on the move. While it's hardly a lock that he'll be the starter in the middle, he'll be a key piece to the puzzle in some way.

With Caputo good enough to move to the middle, that will allow senior Jacob Hickman to move to left guard where he should be more useful. The 6-4, 290-pounder was an honorable mention All-Big 12 performer at guard two years ago, and now he's expected to be an all-star again

The one big issue up front is replacing center Brett Byford, the only starter to last the whole season, but the Huskers have two-time honorable mention All-Big 12 performer Jacob Hickman moving over and ready to step in. The 6-4, 290-pounder was a bit questionable going into last year with a knee injury, but he ended up turning into a steady starter at left guard. The anchor of the line and a good, tough veteran, he can play where needed and could end up moving back and forth between spots.

Even with all the movement, the most important position might be at left tackle where 6-6, 290-pound junior Mike Smith is back after started 12 games last year. Originally projected to be a key backup, he has been a nice surprise after moving over from the defensive side. A great athlete who's still trying to get enough polish to become a steady all-around blocker, he's expected to become a steady all-around blocker now that he knows what he's doing. He's also expected to be the team's top pass protector.

Projected Top Reserves: There's a good chance Jaivorio Burkes will end up starting at right tackle at some point this year. A nice producer as a true freshman, he was a key reserve last year earning three starts and being a steady blocker. He'll work at right tackle as a part of a crowded group with 6-5, 295-pound size, quick feet, and a world of upside.

6-5, 310-pound sophomore Keith Williams was a big-time recruit who's built more like a tackle than a guard, but but he ended up playing on the inside and now will back up Huff at left guard. He has the talent to eventually be special.

Trying to find a spot somewhere in the tackle mix is Ricky Henry, a 6-4, 305-pound junior who is great at finishing blocks and has a defensive lineman's mentality. He went to North Dakota State College of Science where he became a star at right guard. In high school he was a Nebraska state champion wrestler and brings that sort of mauling ability to the offensive front.

Watch Out For ... the right tackle situation. There are at least four players good enough to take over the gig with Jones, Burkes, Henry, and Derek Meyer all trying for the same spot. Jones has the inside track, but there should be a fight.
Strength: Versatility. Along with the right tackle job, there are several options for all the positions to allow the coaching staff to tinker with the combination. There's talent up front, but it has to be molded. 
Weakness: Pass protection. The line last year was fine at keeping the quarterbacks upright, but it wasn't great allowing 21 sacks and several big hits. This year's line has athleticism and upside, but with several new starters and a lot of shuffling, it could take a little while for everything to jell.
Outlook: This isn't going to be the Nebraska line of the heyday, but it'll be good. The former coaching staff brought in several great prospects, and the new staff has come up with some nice new talents to mix in. The key early on will be to find one set lineup and stick with it, but there are several good options to play around with in case of injuries of if someone isn't getting the job done. This might not be a team strength, but it'll be a positive.
Rating: 7.5


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