Nebraska came into the season with plenty of unknowns at the wide receiver position, but the one sure thing was supposed to be the veteran leadership of the only senior in the unit, Brandon Kinnie.
However, through the first two games of the year, Kinnie has essentially been nowhere to be found.
With a total of just two catches for seven yards on the season, Kinnie's production has been all but completely absent in the Huskers' passing game. Last week against Fresno State, the Kansas City, Mo., native was held without a single catch in the game, and he had at least a few dropped passes he arguably should have come down with.
After Nebraska's win over Tennessee-Chattanooga, when he hauled in both of his catches, Kinnie said he wasn't nearly as concerned with his statistics as he was with the Huskers simply getting the win. While he's been able to put on a good face after two straight disappointing individual outings, Kinnie's coaches have taken notice of his early season struggles.
"BK worked hard (over the offseason), I expected a big year," Beck said. "It's just for some reason he's struggled a little bit. I know he's disappointed in himself. I think he feels like there were some catches he should've made, but you've just got to keep working through it. All great hitters go through slumps, and maybe he's just in a little bit of a slump right now. But he'll bounce out of it, and we're going to need him. He knows that. We still love him, and he's still working hard."
Kinnie's disappearance in Nebraska's passing game has been especially surprising considering his breakout year in 2010. The transfer from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College ended his debut campaign with the Huskers by leading the team with 44 receptions for 494 yards and five touchdowns.
Receivers coach Rich Fisher said Kinnie's early struggles haven't been entirely his fault, as the passes thrown to him have often times been off-target. However, Fisher said the majority of Kinnie's problems have been a result of him trying to do too much.
"It's not like we haven't targeted him in the passing game," Fisher said. "To his credit, there have been some balls that probably haven't been the greatest or the easiest to catch. But still, at the end of the day, our job is to catch the ball wherever it's thrown. I think for a guy like Brandon who takes so much pride in what he's doing and team leadership and the way he works, he in my opinion is maybe starting to press a little bit, trying to do too much and not letting the game come to him."
Coming into this season, Kinnie was expected to be one of quarterback Taylor Martinez's go-to targets, especially in key third down situations. Through the first two games, though, Kinnie has been targeted just 11 times, with only three of those passes coming on third down.
Fisher said he was fully confident Kinnie would rebound and return to his roll as one of Nebraska's top receiving targets soon.
"He's there for a reason," Fisher said. "He's a good player. It's not like he hasn't shown or proven before that he can play at a high level, so I have the utmost confidence in BK that things will come around. He's a hard-working kid, and he's put a lot of time and effort into his craft. He's gotten a lot better, and he just hasn't shown up in the first two games. But we have a long season, and he'll be fine."
Does that mean Kinnie's spot in the starting lineup will be safe even if his lack of production continues?
"Well, I didn't say that," Fisher said. "I just said I have a lot of faith in Brandon Kinnie and it's a long season."
- Robin Washut
More safety rotation expected
One of the more noticeable absences from Nebraska's secondary last week was junior safety Courtney Osborne.
After starting five games going back to last season, Osborne watched the entire Fresno State game from the sideline while junior college transfer Daimion Stafford made his first start and played almost all four quarters.
Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said Osborne's benching had nothing to do with performance, injuries or anything off the field. Instead, Raymond said he just didn't rotate his safeties enough to allow Osborne to get on the field.
"It was pretty much my fault because of the flow of the game," Raymond said. "That's all it was. It's not that he's behind Daimion, it's just we have like four guys who can play, and it just happened to get into the flow of the game and things got out of hand, not in a bad way, but things just kept going, so we couldn't get him in the game."
Raymond said he fully plans to incorporate all four of his top safeties into Saturday's game against Washington, as junior P.J. Smith also saw sparse playing time behind Stafford and senior Austin Cassidy.
As for Stafford's performance in his starting debut, Raymond said he was pleased and not surprised at all by his 11 tackles on the night. Still, Raymond said he needed to see much more improvement from all his safeties.
"He did pretty well, but he's still got to keep working," Raymond said. "It's like all of them out there, they've got to keep working everyday. Hopefully he'll be better, because you always want to try to get better every time you get on the field."
As for the secondary in general, Raymond said this week would be by far its biggest test of the season, as the Huskies bring a talented and experience receiving corps to Lincoln. Led by seniors Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, Washington features a total of six juniors and seniors at the receiver spot.
"Those guys are much older, and our guys are much younger," Raymond said. "We're going up against some receivers that are real good, so we have to be mentally and physically prepared for these guys and be ready. We have to be on our A-game to play against these guys, because these guys are real good.
"They're experienced guys. They play physical. They can run. I mean, those guys have been around. Our guys have to step up and head-on meet the challenge."
- Robin Washut
NU gearing up for match-up with Polk
It's really no secret that one of the focal points of Washington's game plan on Saturday will be to get the ball to running back Chris Polk.
Through two games Polk currently leads the Pac-12 in rushing with 232 yards on 45 carries. In last year's 19-7 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska Polk carried the football 34 times for 177 yards.
The 177 yards is the biggest number a running back has rushed for on a Pelini defense at NU.
In last week's Fresno State win, Bulldog running back Robbie Rouse rushed for 166 yards on 36 carries. With that said the Blackshirts will be ready for a heavy dose of Polk this week.
"I would expect it, because he's a pretty good back," defensive line coach John Papuchis said when asked if he expects to see a lot of Polk. "I would expect that they're going to try and establish the running game.
"He does a nice job, so we are going to have to be ready to stop the run early."
After last year's Holiday Bowl loss to Washington, Papuchis added not much needs to be said to his guys about what Polk did to them in San Diego.
"I hope it gets our guys attention," Papuchis said. "That's the message this week. We better be ready to roll. At the end of the day we all are aware at what happened nine months ago.
"Now it's a different year and a different team with us and a different team for them. You'd be lying if you didn't say that was part of the mindset going into the week."
***Fisher said he couldn't be happier with the progress of his young true and redshirt freshmen receivers through the first two games this season.
"Those guys, they are hungry," Fisher said. "They're hungry to get on the field. They're hungry to make plays. In that game last week, we gave them an opportunity, called their number, and they bailed us out. They really kind of sparked us there in the second half, so hopefully that's a sign of things to come."
***Head coach Bo Pelini said senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard "did some work out there" on Thursday, but listed him as questionable for Saturday's game against Washington. Dennard was seen walking off the field with his teammates without a jersey or helmet and an ice pack wrapped around his upper left leg.
***Offensive lineman Andrew Rodriguez returned to practice after sitting out on Wednesday. Pelini said Rodriguez would be ready to go for the Washington game.
"Since he practiced, he's obviously going to play on Saturday," Pelini said.
***Pelini didn't go into much detail about how the week of practice went for the Huskers, outside of saying they practiced well. He ended several questions about how his team responded from last week's performance by saying, "We'll find out on Saturday."
***Pelini also said there was no priority being made to get the ball to NU's three freshmen running backs this week. Of the three, only Ameer Abdullah saw the field last week against Fresno State.
"Our priority is to win the football game no matter what," Pelini said. "Who plays and how we get it done, that's up to how guys practice and how much playing time they get."
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