October 17, 2011

Monday notebook: Rome ready for opportunity

There's no question that the loss of senior defensive tackle Jared Crick for the season to a pectoral injury last week was a huge blow for Nebraska both in terms of his production and leadership on the field.

However, as with any injury in football, when one player goes down, it's a chance for another player to step and make the most of the opportunity. From here out, one player the Huskers will be counting on in a big way will be redshirt freshman Chase Rome.

While the competition to replace Crick in the starting lineup will likely be ongoing throughout the season, many expect Rome to become a big factor in NU's defensive tackle rotation. The Rock Bridge, Mo., native has seen action in four games this year, but he's been on the cusp of being a fixture on the front four since last year.

After enrolling a semester early to participate in spring practice as true freshman in 2010, Rome quickly rose all the way up into the two-deep at defensive tackle and was a member of Nebraska's travel roster for most of the season. Had it not been for a lingering elbow injury, there was a good chance Rome would have seen significant playing time as a true freshman.

With a redshirt year to learn the defense and now some live game experience under his belt, Rome said he's more ready than ever to step up to the challenge that awaits him this week and for the rest of the season.

"It's kind of unreal, really," Rome said. "After you get some game experience, your view of everything changes. It's like, 'OK, I understand why they say this or why we do this.' You have a better perception of the whole defense as opposed to just 'OK, what am I doing?' or 'what is my technique?' You have a better understand of how is what I do affecting everybody else and vice versa. I think just the attention to detail changes a lot once you have some game experience. You really understand, 'OK, this is crucial. This is a big part of what I'm doing.' I think that you mature in that aspect."

No player ever wants to see a teammate go down the way Crick did last week, and Rome certainly didn't understate the impact the injury to his good friend and teammate would have on the Huskers' defense.

Rome knows he's going to be counted on more than ever for the rest of the season, as will fellow defensive tackles Baker Steinkuhler, Terrence Moore and Thaddeus Randle.

It definitely won't be easy, but Rome said that four-man rotation would have to find a way to soften the blow of Crick's injury as much as they possibly could, regardless of who replaces him in the starting lineup.

"I don't think anyone is really worried about who's got that job," Rome said. "I think everyone needs to step up. We all need to work hard. We have a huge void to fill… but at the same time, if T-Mo plays, I'm happy. If Thad plays, I'm happy. I don't care. Whatever we have to do to fill the spot where Crick was at, because that's a huge blow. My thoughts are with him and not, 'Oh who's starting now?'

"We all kind of pulled each other together and just said almost exactly what I told you, just that this is all of us working together to get this spot filled. This isn't me vs. Terrence or Thad vs. Terrence. This is a group effort to fill that void, and I think everyone is taking a good approach to that."

Head coach Bo Pelini echoed Rome's statements, saying no one player could replace someone as important to the defense as Crick, and it would take a full team effort to fill the void he left.

"We play a lot of guys, and I feel like you talk about guys that we have: Thad Randle, Terrence Moore, Chase Rome, guys who have played a decent amount of snaps before," Pelini said. "So we feel like we'll be fine up front. Obviously I feel horrible for Jared. I mean, he's a good football player, he came back and obviously this isn't the way he wanted to end his career here. Things happen, and I'm just happy that, going forward, he'll be just fine."

- Robin Washut

More praise for Jean-Baptiste

There hasn't been a more talked about position move for Nebraska over the past three weeks than Stanley Jean-Baptiste's move from wide receiver to cornerback, and it's mostly because of how logical the change looks in retrospect.

After being buried on the depth chart at receiver all of last season and through the first five games this year, the coaches finally decided to move the Miami native to the other side of the ball to help add some depth at cornerback.

While he was a solid safety in high school and NU's defensive coaches always thought he'd thrive as a defensive back, no one expected he would make such an early impact like he did with his clutch interception in the fourth quarter against the Buckeyes.

"We've been working him in practice and we really worked him a lot during that week," Pelini said. "We thought maybe he was a week away. We wanted to break him in and do it at the right time, but we felt like we needed him right there. You can kind of look into a guy's eyes and see: Is he ready or is he not ready? Is he up to the challenge?

"He'd been doing it in practice, he got a lot of reps during that week and he made the play, especially that interception, when it was called upon. It says a lot about the young man. He's a good athlete and tough and he wants to go out there and compete and be a part of this football team."

Jean-Baptiste made his debut at the podium during Monday's weekly press conference, an indication of just how much attention his story has been getting recently. He said the transition from offense to defense was unexpected and has been difficult, especially since he'd worked so hard at receiver the past two seasons.

Though he had never played cornerback before the Ohio State game, Jean-Baptiste said he's embraced the move, especially because of how excited his coaches are to have him in the secondary.

"A lot of people tell me that I (had) a bright future playing wide receiver, but now playing corner, everyone's saying I have a bright future at corner," Jean-Baptiste said. "I don't know what to think… I've been learning to play wide receiver since I've been in prep school really. (Pelini) telling me I'm going to play corner, in that short time, it was kind of different."

While fans have only gotten to see Jean-Baptiste in action at corner in just one game, his teammates have been watching and going up against him in practice for four weeks now.

"It's pretty impressive," senior safety Austin Cassidy said. "I know it took me like three years to learn the defense, and I'm still learning it. He did it in three weeks, that's pretty impressive. Hopefully he can continue to play like he did against Ohio State. That would obviously be huge for us to have another guy across from Alfonzo (Dennard) that really has potential to shut someone down."

Jean-Baptiste's new defensive teammates are obviously excited his addition him to their side of the ball, but his former fellow wide receivers aren't all that thrilled about now having to compete against him on a daily basis.

"The kid is an amazing football player and an amazing guy," redshirt freshman receiver Kenny Bell said. "He's a talent that we weren't using at the time, and I knew wherever he went, whether it was corner, quarterback, wide receiver, I mean, anywhere you put the kid he's going to make plays. He's a phenomenal talent.

"He's great to go against, but he's so big. He's 6-2, 220 pounds, the length - he's a nightmare to go against in practice. It's not fun."

- Robin Washut

Another second half surge in store?

Nebraska has become notorious in recent years for kicking things up a few notches in the second half of the regular season. Now past the midway point this season, the Huskers are hoping for another late run.

Since Pelini took over in 2008, Nebraska is 15-3 after the midway point over the past three seasons. The Huskers have posted 5-1 second half records every year under Pelini, which mark the best finishes to a season since NU went 5-1 in 2001.

Not only has Nebraska had solid success late in the year, it's done it in fairly convincing fashion. Defensively, the Huskers have held 12 of 18 opponents to 20 points or less in the second half of the past three regular seasons, including holding six of those teams to less than 10 points. Offensively, NU has scored at least 30 points in 10 of those 18 games.

"I would hope that you always get better the more you've practiced, the more development that happens," Pelini said. "I think we're getting better right now. I feel good about where this football team is going and what its potential is. I really do. I thought we had a good couple days of practice last week. I thought the bye week came at a good time for us. I thought we got some things that we really needed to get accomplished last week. I thought we made progress. I'm looking forward to the second half of the year."

Considering Nebraska ends the year with a crucial stretch of games against teams like Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Iowa, it can only hope it can continue its run of late-season dominance.

- Robin Washut

Huskers not looking past struggling Gophers

Coming off an emotional win over Ohio State and then a bye week, it wouldn't be all that surprising if Nebraska had some problems getting the intensity cranked back up to face a 1-5 Minnesota team this week.

After putting up a decent fight against Southern California in the season opener, the Gophers' season has started to implode over the course of the past three weeks. Not only are they 0-2 in Big Ten Conference play, they've been outscored 103-17 in losses to Michigan and Purdue.

The week before those games, Minnesota lost at home to FCS opponent North Dakota State, 37-24.

The Gophers rank in the bottom half of nearly every statistical category, with the only real bright spots being their special teams. Still, while it may seem like basically an extension of the bye week for Nebraska, the Huskers say they're not looking past Saturday's road trip one bit.

"They've had some struggles, but at times we've also seen their potential," Pelini said. "You take over a program like (UM head coach Jerry Kill) did, that was struggling a little bit, you're not going to come out and be dominant in year one. It's a process. They understand that. But what you watch from this football team is they play hard. They are well-coached, they're aggressive. They do present some problems for you. Obviously we have them at their place, where they're going to be excited, they're going to play hard and they're going to give us their best shot. We'll be challenged up there in Minnesota, there's no question."

Even some of Nebraska's younger players know the importance of not letting their guard down this week, even in a game in which the Huskers are favored by as much as 26 points.

"We approach it the same way we approached this Ohio State or the Wisconsin game," Bell said. "It's important that you don't overlook anybody. Have they had their struggles? Absolutely. But this is college football. I remember a couple of years ago (Appalachian State) beat No. 2 Michigan, so you can never take those kinds of things for granted.

"We're going to go out and we're going to prepare all this week, and not only is this week a stepping stone, we've got five after that that are big ones. We can't just look to this one and say, 'we're going to take it easy and then switch it on next week.' It's not like that. It's a process. We have to work every day."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Pelini said freshman running back Braylon Heard was fully recovered from an infection on his leg that forced him to miss the past two games.

***While Eric Martin worked almost exclusively at linebacker the week of the Ohio State game, Pelini said Martin hasn't officially moved from his defensive end spot. Because of the junior's versatility, Pelini said Martin could play either position depending on the match-ups each week.

"He's mainly a defensive end, but he's somebody that we know that, in certain packages and things, we can stand him up and play him as a linebacker and try and use him the right way," Pelini said. "And a lot of that depends on game plan and that type of thing. He has a lot of versatility in what he brings to the table, so we try to use that. And obviously his training as a linebacker lends to that."

***Minnesota is led by dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray, who leads the team in rushing (74.2 yards per game) as well as passing. At 6-4, 229, Gray is arguably the Gophers top offensive NFL prospect.

***While Gray is the assumed starter at quarterback, Max Shortell has taken a decent amount of snaps under center for the Gophers this season as well. Pelini said Nebraska is preparing for both quarterbacks, though he said Minnesota's offense doesn't change all that much when either Gray or Shortell are in the game.

"We prepare for them both," Pelini said. "I don't think the offense changes a whole heck of a lot between the two guys. You've got to be prepared for whatever they throw at you. They're coming off a bye-week, I'm sure we're going to see some things we haven't seen yet. You just got to be ready to execute, and our situation is we have to be ready to execute our plan."

***Return man Marcus Jones has been one of the few highlights for Minnesota this season. He's averaging 27.8 yards per return on the year, which ranks in the top-15 nationally and is second in the Big Ten only to Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (31.9 ypr).

***Saturday's game in Minneapolis will be the 52nd all-time meeting between Nebraska and Minnesota, the Huskers' most against any Big Ten school. The teams played all but one year from 1900-13, then 19 straight seasons from 1934-52 and eight straight years from 1967-74. Overall, the Huskers have won the past 14 games against the Gophers, though this weekend will be the first meeting since 1990.

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