November 19, 2009

Thursday notebook: Burkhead could play Saturday

It's been a while since Nebraska got some really good news on the injury front, but some finally came on Thursday.

After missing more than a month with a broken foot he suffered on Oct. 12, freshman running back Rex Burkhead practiced for the second straight day on Thursday.

As a result, head coach Bo Pelini said there's a good chance the Plano, Texas, native could see the field as early as Saturday's game against Kansas State.

"Rex is doing really good," Pelini said. "It's looking like he's going to play."

Pelini was asked if Burkhead would be used in a limited capacity if he were to play on Saturday considering he hasn't played since the Huskers' Big 12 Conference opener against Missouri on Oct. 8.

Though he might still be a bit rusty, Pelini said he had no plans of using Burkhead any differently than if he were perfectly healthy.

"If he can play, he can play," Pelini said. "Let it all hang out."

Prior to his injury, Burkhead was off to a fairly impressive start to his freshman campaign. In five games played, he carried 23 times for 118 yards and a touchdown while also hauling in eight receptions for 66 yards and another score.

More than anything, it was his ability to make plays in crucial situations while junior running back Roy Helu needed to come to the sidelines. In his last game against Missouri, three of Burkhead's six total touches resulted in first downs for the Huskers.

- Robin Washut

Thursday's practice takes
Even more praise for Suh: The accolades continue to pile for senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh seemingly by the day, and the pile got even bigger on Thursday. Suh has been named one of five finalists for the 2009 Bronko Nagurski Trophy by the Football Writers Association of America and the Charlotte Touchdown Club. Suh joins TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes, Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody, Tennessee strong safety Eric Berry and Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer. The winner will be announced on Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C.
Wildcats ready for a battle: After looking at some of the numbers Nebraska's defense has put up over the course of the season, Kansas State's offense is well aware that Saturday night's showdown will be anything but a shootout. Wildcat senior quarterback Grant Gregory said it best when asked about the challenges NU's defense presents earlier this week. "Punting is not a bad thing against this defense," Gregory said. "Yeah, you want to get first downs, but I assume it's going to be like an NFL game. It's a great defense and it's going to be hard to move the ball. You don't want to give them easy opportunities."
Injury update: Junior tight end Mike McNeill (ribs) and junior defensive end Pierre Allen (foot) are both expected to play on Saturday, head coach Bo Pelini said. Of course, freshman running back Rex Burkhead practiced for the second straight day on Thursday, and Pelini said Burkhead could play as soon as Saturday.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team conducted a two-hour half-padded practice inside Memorial Stadium on Thursday. The Huskers will conduct a short walk-thru practice on Friday before getting ready for Saturday's 6:45 p.m. kickoff, which will be nationally televised on ESPN.

Defense focused on containing Banks

He might be one of the smaller players on the field, but Nebraska's defense definitely won't overlook Kansas State's senior wide receiver and return man Brandon Banks.

At just 5-foot-7, 150 pounds, Banks comes into Saturday's game as one of the most electrifying playmakers in the Big 12 Conference. Though his numbers are a bit down from his breakout junior season last year, Banks still has 51 catches for 657 yards and is averaging 9.2 yards per carry running the ball.

Pelini said the Huskers have somewhat of an advantage in that they've played against a similarly explosive player already this season in Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles. However, it wasn't as if NU shut down Broyles two weeks ago, as he hauled in eight receptions and accounted for 176 total yards (74 receiving, 102 punt return), including a 35-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter that nearly set up the tying touchdown drive for the Sooners.

"He's fast," Pelini said of Banks. "He reminds me a lot of Broyles from Oklahoma. We had a lot of respect for (Broyles), and we have a lot of respect for Banks. He's a good football player."

Banks' biggest impact this season has been in the return game, as he leads the Big 12 with a kickoff return average of nearly 30 yards per return and his four kick returns for touchdowns are the most in the entire country.

That's why the Huskers are making sure to keep a close eye on Banks at times on Saturday.

"I just know he's going to be one of the fastest guys we go against," senior safety Matt O'Hanlon said. "He's definitely one of the best playmakers in the Big 12. Not the biggest guy, but he brings a lot more to the table than just size."

Last season, Banks took a kickoff back 98 yards for a score against the Huskers. Nebraska was able to keep him in check on offense, though, as he finished with just three receptions for 16 yards and rushed twice for 13 yards.

On Saturday, O'Hanlon said the Blackshirts are going try their best to limit Banks' production just as effectively, no matter how they the Wildcats try to use him.

"They try to get him involved both ways (rushing and receiving)," O'Hanlon said. "They do reverses with him and then they'll send him on go routes and posts and stuff like that too. We've got to be on our toes."

- Robin Washut

Offensive line ready for more power running

Nebraska's couldn't have ended last week's win over Kansas with a better taste in its mouth, as it put the perfect exclamation point on the victory by marching down the field on all runs to punch in the winning touchdown on their final drive.

On the drive, the Huskers went 74 yards on 10 straight running plays and eventually punched in a 14-yard touchdown run by junior back Roy Helu with 29 seconds remaining to go up 31-17 and seal the win.

Looking back on the final drive, the Huskers' offensive line said it was the perfect way to end a game, and that they hope the offense continues to utilize the power running approach for the rest of the season.

"As a line, that's basically as good as it gets," senior center Jacob Hickman said. "A big drive in that situation is exactly what you're trying to do. They know we're trying to run the ball, and still to have success doing it, it's kind of exciting as a lineman. That's definitely what you hope for as a line."

Junior guard Ricky Henry said the entire line thrived off of asserting their dominance to close out the win.

"You are pretty much telling the defense, 'This is what we are doing. Try and stop us,'" Henry said. "Just coming right at them every play and blowing them off. We were just drooling at the mouth ready to hit guys."

Offensive line coach Barney Cotton said Nebraska would likely continue to incorporate more power running into the offensive game plan the rest of the way, though the line still has to improve in a number of areas before it perfects that style of offense.

Particularly in the option game, Cotton said the Huskers are still committing far too many penalties while running the football. Part of the reason has been the incorporation of more cut blocking, which Cotton said is a scheme that can't be perfected in merely a couple of weeks.

"You've just got to make sure you're doing it in the right way," Cotton said. "You've got to get your head in front and make sure you're not going in the back of people's legs, and you can't have high-lows. It's kind of an acquired thing, and you have to teach it and you have to practice it. You just can't go out and do it in a game."

Cotton said the Huskers have worked on cut blocks all season, but only in the past two three weeks have they really started to focus on it during practice. He said the mistakes that have resulted from the transition in blocking schemes shouldn't last too long, as the o-line just needs more game experience with it.

"Some of these guys have never really done it," he said. "But we do drills every day. We get in a couple of cuts every day against bags, and now that we're starting to implore a little more of that, it's something that we should get better at with time.

"The good thing about it is our guys have been willing. They've made some changes. As we try and figure out the best ways to best win some games and move the football, our guys have been very open-minded and very coachable and doing what we've asked them to do."

- Robin Washut

Pelini says Suh deserving of recent praise

There have been few Nebraska players in recent memory that have garnered the national attention senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has seen during the past few weeks.

Because of his exceptional play of the field, Suh has become a finalist for several prestigious awards, the most recent being him becoming a finalist for the Bonko Nagurski Award on Thursday, which is given to the nation's best overall defensive player.

As a result, Nebraska's media relations has taken some steps to beef up Suh's publicity for the awards, including the Web site "", which is dedicated solely to chronicling all of Suh's accomplishments and praise from opposing coaches and national media.

Pelini was asked about the hype surrounding Suh's award campaigns, and he said he couldn't think of a more deserving player to receive that much attention.

"I think that's part of the deal," Pelini said. "I just know there's no Bo Pelini sites. That's a good thing. But no, I think he's earned it. I think he's right in position to win a lot of honors and be recognized the way he should be. But you know how that goes. There's a lot of politics involved with the media and just publicity. That's (media relations director Keith Mann's) job and his department, and they do a great job of promoting him, and that's a good thing."

Asked where he would rank Suh among the rest of the defensive tackles in the country, Pelini wasn't shy about sharing where his would place his vote.

"I don't know if there's a better player in college football at his position," he said. "I'm not taking away from anybody else, but I wouldn't trade him for anybody, I know that."

Quick hits

***With athletic director Tom Osborne's recent involvement in the offensive play calling being a hot topic this past week, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was asked if Osborne would still make a good offensive coordinator in today's game of college football.

"Oh yeah," Watson said. "He loves the game. Loves the game. He knows the game inside and out. He's got a great mind for it."

***Watson went on to talk about the season as a whole and the tough times he and Nebraska's offense have had to overcome. He said this year has been one of the most difficult seasons he'd ever been a part of in his coaching career, but said he knows it would only make him better as a coach and a person in the long run.

"It's been a hard year," Watson said. "But in tough times, you don't go through these things without getting better. You always get better. I have never been through a tough time that I haven't personally or professionally gotten better. This is something that I know will strengthen me and make me better. It always does. You have to become more creative and you have to use your pieces.

"I think I'm fortunate enough to have been through a lot of tough times, and I've had to learn how to use a lot of different pieces. This one year has had a lot more youth in it that other ones."

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