Tuesday notebook: No guarantees with new position battles

Robin Washut & Matt Reynoldson, HuskerOnline.com
Husker Online

As Nebraska keeps a close eye on the injury statuses of some key pieces to its offensive lineup, there are no guarantees that starting spots will be there waiting when those players do make their return.

The Huskers were without several notable starters during last week’s win over Rutgers, particularly running back Tre Bryant, their top two right tackles in David Knevel and Matt Farniok, and center Cole Conrad.

But considering that NU ended up playing some of its best power football of the season in their absence, the coaching staff said the injured players are going to have a competition on their hands once they get back to action.

“Yeah, I think so,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said when asked if other running backs Mike Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo would still have roles when Bryant rejoined the lineup. "I think they’ve earned that right to play. They’ve done a nice job of filling in.

“We were pretty heavy with Tre in the first couple weeks, and rightfully so with the way he was playing. But the fact that we were able to get those other guys in there when we needed to was encouraging.

"The depth in that group is good, so I think continuing to roll those guys has been helpful to keep them fresh. I think they’re different style runners, so that’s a good thing too.”

Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said he was very pleased with how sophomore center Michael Decker and true freshman right tackle Brenden Jaimes filled in on Saturday.

Given how well the offensive line played as a whole after struggling the previous couple games, Cavanaugh said he might want to keep the group that out-powered Rutgers together going forward.

“I mean they’re playing well, so nothing’s automatic in life,” Cavanaugh said. “Right now, those guys are playing good… It’s competition right now.”

- Robin Washut

Riley praises Rimington as interim A.D.

Nebraska officially announced former Husker great Dave Rimington as its new interim athletic director on Tuesday.

Rimington made it clear immediately during his press conference that he had no intentions of shaking things up with coach firings during his 60-day term as A.D., and he even met with all of NU’s coaches hours after being hired.

Head coach Mike Riley said during the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference on Tuesday that he had heard “rumblings going on” that Rimington would be the choice for the interim position, and Riley had nothing but praise for the hire.

“Dave is the perfect guy who cares so much about this place,” Riley said. “For this moment, a very good choice.”

- Robin Washut

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Getty Images

Reed improving by the day

After flirting with steady playing time the past two seasons, safety Antonio Reed was thrust into the spotlight right off the bat when senior Joshua Kalu suffered a hamstring injury against Oregon.

Kalu has been out ever since, and Reed has only gotten better and better in each day he’s spent in Nebraska’s starting lineup.

Since he took over for Kalu for the second half vs. the Ducks, the junior has racked up 16 tackles, two tackles for loss, and hauled in an interception against Rutgers that should have been a pick six had it not been for a penalty on the return.

Reed now ranks fifth on the team with 19 total tackles and is tied for the team leads with two TFLs, an interception, and a forced fumble.

"I think he is playing with more confidence…” Riley said. “I think Antonio will be a really good player. I am really excited about his growth. I am not happy about the circumstances (with Kalu’s injury) but I am glad he is playing in the games, because I think he will get better and better."

- Robin Washut

D-line rotation propelling Huskers' run defense

When Oregon plunged in for its third rushing touchdown of the game in the second quarter, Nebraska's defense was at a crossroads.

Since then, the Huskers have allowed just two defensive touchdowns and now rank in the top 30 nationally in stopping the run.

One key part of the defensive turnaround has been the willingness of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and staff to rotate players in for different looks.

“The rotation is huge," junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. "Getting guys in, fresh bodies and fresh legs is really big, especially through a long season.”

One of the more common rotations has been an even split of defensive end snaps between junior Freedom Akinmoladun and sophomore Khalil Davis.

Davis said even though the snaps are split, the converted nose tackle has learned a lot from a three-year starter in Akinmoladun about gap discipline and the finer points of playing defensive end.

“Because he’s played that position longer than I have, he knows all the little things,” Davis said, pointing out that sharing snaps and knowledge leaves both players stronger.

“We try to keep each other healthy. We try to do it during practice so each of us take less blows on the weekend, heal our body up, because it’s a long season. We just try to split it evenly and we do that in a game to keep us both healthy and fresh.”

Veteran leaders on the defense made it clear before the start of the season: the Blackshirts’ goal is to excel against the run.

In a collaborative effort between the front seven and the defensive backs in the box, the Huskers have seen young players like Deontre Thomas step in and provide big snaps, as well as other freshmen in the mix due to injuries.

“You can see when some of those younger guys go in, there’s really not that much of a difference in talent, which is great,” Stoltenberg said.

“Those guys are playing hard, they’re fresh and ready to go. I think that’s awesome to see.”

- Matt Reynoldson

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Associated Press

Quick hits

***Players who sat out of Tuesday's practice: Tre Bryant, Bryan Reimers, Marcus Newby and Joshua Kalu.

***Players who wore green no-contact jerseys: Aaron Williams and De'Mornay Pierson-El.

***Players who did practice who have been out with injuries: David Knevel, Matt Farniok, Cole Conrad, Stanley Morgan, and Tyrin Ferguson.

***Cornerback Chris Jones wore a helmet, jersey, shorts, and cleats on Tuesday, and was able to do some light work in practice.

***Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco praised linebacker Luke Gifford's development this season, saying Gifford is now a player the staff really doesn't ever want to take out of the game.

***Diaco said injuries have forced NU to get pretty far down the linebacker depth chart, but that's not totally a bad thing. He said a guy like Collin Miller has been getting "a ton of reps" this week and has done a nice job.

***Diaco said even though Illinois has used two quarterbacks much of this season, the offense doesn't change much regardless of which QB is in the game.

***Diaco subtly knocked the Big Ten's scheduling for making Nebraska play on a short week while Illinois is coming off a bye. That said, he said the Huskers have really been engaged in practice this week.

***Another good thing about a short week is the Huskers don't have time to overthink things with their game plan, Diaco said.

***Center Michael Decker said Nebraska ran some variation of the same running play 31 times vs. Rutgers. The play was called "Csonka", but that's all the details Decker would give.

***Right tackle Brenden Jaimes said he graded out at a 71 during his first start on Saturday, which tied for the lowest grade on the offensive line. Obviously there is lots of room for improvement, but Jaimes said he was pretty happy with his debut.

***Decker said that even though he and Conrad are battling for the starting job this week, he thinks he's definitely earned more playing time. Regardless of who starts, Decker said he knows both he and Conrad are going to play.

***Tight end Tyler Hoppes said the short week has been more taxing mentally than it has been physically. Though the practice intensity has been lighter, they've had to cram the game plan and scouting of Illinois in with a day less of prep.

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