November 2, 2010

Tuesday notebook: Pelini 'sick' of hitting issue

As much as Bo Pelini has tried to ignore the topic, there was no escaping it during Tuesday's press conference.

With the flood of attention helmet-to-helmet contact has received over the past few weeks, especially with how it's pertained to Nebraska in the past two games, Pelini spent roughly the first 10 minutes with media answering questions about his thoughts on the most controversial issue in football.

While helmet-to-helmet hits have been widely discussed on all levels of football recently, the Huskers have been at the forefront after linebacker Eric Martin was suspended by the Big 12 Conference last week for a hit against Oklahoma State and then safety Courtney Osborne raised even more eyebrows with a hit on Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert on Saturday.

Being a defensive-minded coach who was known for delivering some big hits as a safety at Ohio State, Pelini was obviously not too excited about the uproar that has been made about plays that he says have been in the game of football for decades.

"I was sick of (the issue) three weeks ago," Pelini said. "Obviously, nobody wants anybody to get hurt. I think they just blew it up so much. I just don't like that it seems like the NFL dictates so many things now. I'm a little bit tired of that."

Pelini was referring to the attention helmet-to-helmet contact got from national media after three NFL players suffered concussions from blows to the head in one Sunday. As a result, the league cracked down on its policy on hits to the head, which has been heavily analyzed and scrutinized by national media ever since.

The biggest problem Pelini has with both the NFL and collegiate officials putting such an emphasis on the hits is that, in his eyes, there's no way to give a standard definition as to which plays are penalties and which are legal.

"I don't think there is an easy way (to officiate the rule)," he said. "I think they are trying to handle it the right way. I mean, I think the intent is there. It's not an easy thing for anybody involved. Things happen in the sport and they happen fast. It isn't easy to call or easy on people setting the rules. It isn't easy to coach or for the players. It is going to take time."

Pelini stressed that a penalty should be called if a player clearly targets another player's head with the crown of his helmet, but in many cases it isn't always that simple.

From all of his experience as both a coach and a player, Pelini said when things are happening so fast during a play, it's pretty much impossible for a defender to adjust his head accordingly while making a tackle to keep from hitting an opponent's helmet.

"It's not realistic," he said. "Especially because surfaces change and people duck and so many things happen so fast. I think officials try to do a good job of talking about intent. I think every situation is a bit different, and it has gotten to the point where it is hard for officials to call it.

"It's a difficult thing. There is such an emphasis on it, and it is so blown up. It is damned if you do and damned if you don't for the officials. I kind of feel for those guys at times. And really everybody involved in the decision and enforcing it and what the media has done with the whole issue. It's not an easy thing right now. It's hard to coach."

- Robin Washut

Tuesday practice takes
Amukamara a Thorpe semifinalist: Senior cornerback Prince Amukamara took another step towards earning the top honor at his position on Tuesday when he was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back. Amukamara was one of 10 players named to the list, and the only player from the Big 12 Conference. The other candidates included Mark Barron, Alabama;
Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State;
Brandon Harris, Miami (Fla.);
Cliff Harris, Oregon;
Tejay Johnson, TCU;
Joe Lefeged, Rutgers;
Rahim Moore, UCLA;
Patrick Peterson, LSU; and
Tyler Sash, Iowa.

Striking fast: Nebraska is quickly developing the reputation as a team that can literally score at any second. So far this season, the Huskers have 10 touchdowns that either took one offensive play to score or came off an interception, kickoff or punt return. Of those 10, five were on scoring drives of just one play, including four runs of 58 yards or longer by senior running back Roy Helu. The others were three interception returns, an 80-yard run by Taylor Martinez, a kickoff return by Niles Paul and a punt return by Eric Hagg.

Injury report: Martinez was able to participate limitedly on Tuesday after missing Monday's practice due to the sprained ankle he suffered against Missouri. Junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (concussion) missed his second straight day of practice, however, and senior defensive end Pierre Allen (knee) was also held out of action.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced in full pads inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Tuesday. The Huskers will return for another full-padded session on Wednesday as they continue for their trip to take on Iowa State on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Martinez returns to practice

After missing the second half against Missouri and then sitting out Monday's practice with an ankle sprain, redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez was back in pads on Tuesday.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said he was almost surprised with how much Martinez was able to do in his first practice back.

"He did surprisingly well," Watson said. "He threw the ball well today and moved around good. We were smart with him, and we'll give him more tomorrow and practice him and keep pushing him. He had a good day today."

Pelini said Martinez has recovered well since suffering the injury late in the second quarter against the Tigers, but the coaching staff would continue to monitor him closely the rest of the week before making any decision as to his status for Saturday's game against Iowa State.

"He is still a little sore but making progress," Pelini said. "He is day-to-day. Remains to be seen. He will be out there, depends on how he feels. He responds well but is sore a little bit."

Watson said Martinez was able to push off of his ankle and do pretty much everything as usual on Tuesday, and said he didn't notice any swelling or discoloration on Martinez's ankle.

"We're really encouraged with what we got today, and every day has been a positive sign," Watson said. "He's done a great job of working with our training staff, and he's ready to go."

Though his coaches made it seem as if the Corona, Calif., was back as good as new, senior wide receiver Niles Paul said Martinez didn't work much at all with the first-team offense.

"I'm sure they just wanted to take it easy on that leg of his," Paul said.

While Martinez's progress looks encouraging so far, how close he is to getting healthy enough to play on Saturday seems to depend on whom you ask.

- Robin Washut

Coaches impressed with Thomsen

Fans and media had to check their roster sheets when an unfamiliar No. 37 came running onto the field for the Huskers during Saturday's win over Missouri.

Things only got even more confusing when there wasn't a No. 37 to be found on fold out numerical roster.

After a little more thorough search, it was learned that the player was none other than Kevin Thomsen, a junior walk-on linebacker from Elkhorn who never played in a single collegiate game until that moment.

It was a strange sight not only to see Thomsen come into the game seemingly out of nowhere, but even more so when he sacked Gabbert midway through the third quarter.

It wasn't that big of a surprise to his coaches, however.

"He had a great week of practice," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "He's very athletic. He's very strong. He was a switch over from linebacker to defensive end. He has great speed and he is physical. It's a hard change over to make. I was actually antsy the other way, trying to find opportunities that he could help our defense. He was so athletic."

Thomsen got his chance when the Huskers incorporated the "spinner" position into last week's game plan to help stop Missouri's wide receiver sweeps. Sophomore defensive end Cameron Meredith was the primary spinner, but when he needed a breather, Thomsen emerged as his top replacement.

"As soon as we kind of came up with that, I said great idea," Carl Pelini said. "He was able to back up Cameron and did a great job. He could have played more if he would have had to. We didn't skip a beat when he was in there. That's saying something about Kevin because that position in the game had to check our fronts, had to be aware of when they motioned the back into the backfield. We went from an empty check to a regular defense. He had to make all those calls.

"For a young guy, he just did a great job with that. We had no busts on that call, which was a lot of him."

Bo Pelini said he never questioned the idea of putting such an inexperienced player into such a key role mostly because of the praise Thomsen had been getting all year from Carl and defensive ends coach John Papuchis.

"Carl and J.P. have liked him from the start, and there are always situations that lend a bit more to a certain guy's skill set," Bo Pelini said. "Carl and J.P. put him in there and thought he could do well in the role we put him in, and he did."

How much the Huskers will use the spinner the rest of the season remains to be seen, but considering what Thomsen did in his first big opportunity, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him get a few more chances down the road.

"He's only going to get better," Carl Pelini said. "It will probably take another offseason before he is reaching his potential at that position."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Even though Osborne has taken some heat for his hit on Saturday, Carl Pelini had nothing but praise for the Garland, Texas, native and how he's emerged this season.

"Courtney is money," Pelini said. "You watch him through the course of a week at practice, there aren't very many mental mistakes and he is a very physical tackler. Put those two things together, like I said after the game. Sometimes as a coach you just become complacent, just playing the guys you've been playing.

"But again, if you're going to preach competition, you have to reward guys and give guys opportunities at certain times. Courtney certainly earned the opportunity and made the most of it."

***Carl Pelini also said redshirt freshman defensive tackle Thaddeus Randle has been getting better every time he steps on the field this season.

"(He's shown) marked improvement from the first game until now," Carl Pelini said. "He has become better before our eyes. He just really has a grasp of what we're asking him to do, technique and everything. I like the way he is progressing."

***Bo Pelini took some time to give some praise to senior defensive end Tyrone Fahie, who will receive an honorary Lott IMPACT Trophy on Dec. 12, which is awarded to players who have the biggest IMPACT (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity) both on their team and community.

"Well he is a guy who has given everything he could to the program," Pelini said. "He has a tremendous attitude and is a guy that won't get out there every Saturday, but he busts his butt everyday and it shows the heart and character. I think he is a tremendous role model for our younger guys and our program. He is a true team guy and we are proud of him. I know he is a great guy to have on our team."

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