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  1. 2011 Mar 02

    Husker Heartbeat 3/2: Ek, Elmo, Nick and Black Bears

    1,422 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Welcome to Husker Heartbeat - a sampling of links and quick wit to start your morning! Keep checking each morning, Monday-Friday, for new links! We look for the offbeat as well as the straightforward - so don’t just think of us as a typical link farm!

    A quick abbreviation key FYI: OWH=Omaha World-Herald, LJS=Lincoln Journal-Star, CN=Corn Nation, BRN=Big Red Network, HI=Huskers Illustrated, BRR=Big Red Report. If we need to add more - we will. Others, like ESPN, are self-explanatory.


    *Sam's Ten "Prove It" Players for Spring Ball.

    *Prince Amukamara, a known draft target of the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans, has a great day at the NFL Combine. He's tabbed as a riser by USA Today.

    *Nebraska lands at No. 8 in an early group of rankings from the Sporting News.

    *LJS Sipple and LJS Brian break down the NU wide receivers and tight ends.

    *Big 12 basketball rankings for week 7.

    *Phil Elmassian returns to Purdue. We're sure he'll do wonders for the Boilers' secondary.

    *Slightly disjointed story about former NU linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, who now is one of Indiana's defensive coordinators. Cool guy - but the humorous quotes don't always come across in print.

    *11 National Spring Storylines to Watch as Camp nears. Two of them include questions about Ohio State and Michigan.

    *Ole Miss looks set to replace its Col. Reb mascot with a black bear. A black bear. In Mississippi. Well, they are said to roam around the areas of the Mississippi River. Of course it's called the Louisiana Black Bear.

    *Nick Saban has his statue in Tuscaloosa.

    *Early enrollees to watch nationwide - including Ohio State's Braxton Miller.

    Tags: husker heartbeat, mike ekeler, ljs sipple, phil elmassian, nick saban

  2. 2010 Dec 21

    Husker Heartbeat 12/21: Ek's Departure, Prince and Hagg and the $8 Million Miss

    8,380 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Welcome to Husker Heartbeat - a sampling of links and quick wit to start your morning! Keep checking each morning, Monday-Friday, for new links! We look for the offbeat as well as the straightforward - so don’t just think of us as a typical link farm!

    A quick abbreviation key FYI: OWH=Omaha World-Herald, LJS=Lincoln Journal-Star, CN=Corn Nation, BRN=Big Red Network, HI=Huskers Illustrated, BRR=Big Red Report. If we need to add more - we will. Others, like ESPN, are self-explanatory.


    *Mike Ekeler learned a lot at Nebraska, but he decided to move to Indiana because it was time for a change, LJS Sipple writes.

    *Eric Hagg and Prince Amukamara loved competing with and against each other for four seasons at Nebraska.

    *Sorry girls, Jake Locker's taken.

    *After a long book plug for the OWH's Big Red Rivals, Tom Shatel settles in for some sports takes.

    *Football stands in the way of justice at Auburn. Well, of course it does.

    *Tennessee football players got the VIP treatment in Knoxville.

    *The $8 million miss.

    Tags: husker heartbeat, mike ekeler, steve sipple, tom shatel, eric hagg, prince amukamara, boise state

  3. 2010 Dec 20

    Podcast 12/20: Weekend Recap

    334 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Tags: podcast, mens hoops, womens hoops, mike ekeler, christian standhardinger

  4. 2010 Dec 18

    Ekeler Headed Hoosier

    679 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Nebraska's excitable, ebullient linebackers coach, Mike Ekeler, appears ready to be the new defensive coordinator at Indiana.

    The Lincoln Journal-Star's Steve Sipple reported Saturday noon that Ekeler would accept the job from new Hoosier head coach Kevin Wilson, the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator who recently riddled the Blackshirts for more than 400 total yards in the Big 12 Championship.

    "I can't comment until it all becomes official at Indiana," Ekeler told the LJS.

    Ekeler will likely become the co-defensive coordinator with New Mexico's Doug Mallory, who worked with Ekeler at LSU. Mallory's dad, Bill, was once Indiana's head coach.

    It's the first departure off of Bo Pelini's assistant coaching staff in three years.

    A potential replacement candidate: Tulane's Doug Colman, who played linebacker at Nebraska and served as an intern through the 2009 season. Colman coached high school football in his home state of New Jersey, has strong recruiting ties there and played in the NFL, as well.

    Another possibility: Current NU intern T.J. Hollowell, who played for Pelini during Bo's first stint at NU in 2003. The personable Hollowell is well-liked by players within the program although his duties are limited to off-the-practice-field work.

    A third: NU defensive graduate assistant Ross Watson, a Youngstown native who's worked closely with defensive coordinator Carl Pelini.

    The 39-year-old Ekeler, a Blair native, played college football at Kansas State before returning to work for Bo at Oklahoma in 2004 and later LSU. He joined the NU staff with Bo in 2008. An aggressive recruiter in his initial season, he was crucial in landing linebacker Will Compton. Later, he helped identify defensive tackle Thad Randle and recruit quarterback Cody Green.

    In early 2009, he turned down an apparent defensive coordinator offer at South Florida from Jim Leavitt, Ekeler's coach at KSU. USF fired Leavitt the following year. In his final year at NU, Ekeler made a base salary of $175,000, plus bonuses. He spent the majority of his Husker coaching career on the sidelines, but Bo and Carl Pelini moved him to the press box midway through the 2010 campaign. The Pelinis were the only two defensive coaches on the sidelines after that.

    Tags: mike ekeler

  5. 2010 Nov 12

    Hello, Position Change!

    11,207 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Linebackers coach Mike Ekeler told a Husker audience at the Big Red Breakfast in Omaha this morning that linebacker Eric Martin is in the process of switching to defensive end.

    "You're going to like what you see," Ekeler said.

    Martin played extensively two games at linebacker this year vs. Washington and South Dakota State, even earning a Blackshirt for a time. He lost that Blackshirt midway through the year. He's been a star on special teams, although a hit on an Oklahoma State player during Niles Paul's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown earned him a suspension from the Big 12.

    Tags: eric martin, mike ekeler

  6. 2010 Apr 09

    Husker Heartbeat 4/9: Wildcattin, Five Stats, Cavemen and Lincoln's Big Moment

    421 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Welcome to Husker Heartbeat - a sampling of links and quick wit to start your morning! Keep checking each morning, Monday-Friday, for new links! We look for the offbeat as well as the straightforward - so don’t just think of us as a typical link farm!

    A quick abbreviation key FYI: OWH=Omaha World-Herald, LJS=Lincoln Journal-Star, CN=Corn Nation, BRN=Big Red Network, HI=Huskers Illustrated, BRR=Big Red Report. If we need to add more - we will. Others, like ESPN, are self-explanatory.

    Cool? Cool!


    *BRN: Is the Wildcat more than a gimmick? It doesn’t have to be. Is it the way Nebraska will use it? More or less. Which is fine. Gimmicks gain yards and score touchdowns.

    *Mike Ekeler talks Husker linebackers - just a little anyway.

    *College football scion scribe Tony Barnhart asks: Do you need a five-star quarterback to win a championship? Did Alabama or LSU twice?

    *Tom Osborne declares the Haymarket Arena vote in Lincoln still too close to call. Nebraska isn’t too worried either way, I assure you. The Huskers will manage.

    *Nebraska’s bowling team is the top seed in the national championship.

    *Sipple begins to ponder Mike Anderson’s future. He writes:

    “I’m sticking to what I said last May: Anderson’s past success warrants a high degree of patience from fans, media and most important, his boss. Anderson deserves ample leeway -- within reason. He’ll get plenty of leeway from Osborne. But losing nine of 10 Big 12 series is unreasonable. It recalls the dark John Sanders days, when Husker baseball was an afterthought.”

    That paragraph seems to want to make both arguments, but, if the LJS is rolling out the question marks, I think it’s fair to say the mood has shifted over at Haymarket.

    *Meanwhile, NU pitchers can’t lose confidence, says Friday starter Michael Mariot.

    Tags: husker heartbeat, mike anderson, mike ekeler, steve sipple, bowling

  7. 2010 Feb 16

    Podcast 2/16: Baseball's Optimism in 2010

    531 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Tags: podcasts, kelsey griffin, mike anderson, bo pelini, carl pelini, marvin sanders, john papuchis, mike ekeler, barney cotton, shawn watson, tim beck, ron brown

  8. 2010 Feb 15

    Pay Bump for Bo, Assistants

    1,015 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    According to several news outlets, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne bumped the base salary for head coach Bo Pelini again on Monday - and sweetened the pot for NU’s assistants - particularly defensive coordinator Carl Pelini.

    Effective Feb. 1, 2010, Bo Pelini will make 2.1 million per year. Last year, he made $1.851 million as a base, although incentives pushed him over $2 million.

    Carl Pelini gets $375,000, while offensive coordinator Shawn Watson gets a small raise to $380,000. Secondary coach Marvin Sanders now becomes the highest-paid non-coordinator, making $250,000 per year. Ted Gilmore, Tim Beck, Ron Brown, and Barney Cotton will make $220,000. Previously, all five, plus Carl Pelini, made $208,360. Watson made $375,000 last year.

    Mike Ekeler and John Papuchis were bumped from $150,000 to $175,000.

    Bo Pelini is now the fifth-highest paid coach in the Big 12, inching just ahead of Kansas’ Turner Gill, who will make $2 million at KU. Bo is just behind Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s $2.2 million base salary. Like OSU, NU and Osborne has chosen to focus more dollars toward the assistant coaching staff than most programs in the Big 12.

    Tags: bo pelini, carl pelini, marvin sanders, john papuchis, mike ekeler, barney cotton, shawn watson, tim beck, ron brown

  9. 2010 Jan 04

    Commentary: The New Fad - New and Improved?

    1,131 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Air Raid. Spread. No huddle. Zone read. Fly sweep. Wildcat.

    After years of offensive fads in the Big 12, get ready for a defensive one: The Match Read Zone. The name that’s been given to Bo Pelini’s spread-killing defense. A system that’s not easy to get down but - much like a match-up zone defense in basketball - can be hard to crack.

    You can be plenty sure league defensive coordinators have been paying attention to Pelini since he arrived in the Big 12. You can also be sure they took notes as Bo dismantled Texas and Colt McCoy with it.

    Why does it work? Because it’s zone, masquerading as man, taking away the simplest throws for a quarterback. Because it’s aggressive against bubble and tunnel screens. Because Nebraska has the back seven personnel - and the four-man pass rush - to pull it off.

    It’s a perfect storm of sorts that met the two perfectly vulnerable - though normally productive - spread offenses - Texas and Arizona - at the end of the season.

    Bo’s the new fad of the Big 12. With two of the offensive gurus - Mike Leach and Mark Mangino - floating away on rafts made of their own egos, the problem to solve for 2010 won’t be how to stop their passing games. But how to crack Bo Vinci Code.

    Two-tight end formations - which forces Nebraska to replace corners with linebackers - might be part of the solution. Straight power football might be another. With a full season of tape to view, offensive coordinators will begin to chip away at the few weaknesses the Blackshirts possessed in 2010. Washington, armed with a good quarterback (Jake Locker) and even better playcaller (head coach Steve Sarikisian) will pit its West Coast principles vs. Match Read excellence.

    Much like he declared the Huskers back for good after the Holiday Bowl, Pelini has set the bar for his defense, at, oh, only “five times better” than it was this year. Statistically, trust us, it’s basically impossible. So we can presume Pelini is talking experience, expertise and playmaking ability.

    Nebraska looks to have the nation’s best secondary in 2010. Credit Pelini and position coach Marvin Sanders for just about all of it, as Prince Amukamara and Eric Hagg were merely raw prospects in spring 2008, and Alfonzo Dennard, Dejon Gomes and P.J. Smith - all projected starters - weren’t yet on campus. Is it on par with the 2003 unit, Pelini’s first college secondary, that featured three future NFL starters in Fabian Washington, Josh Bullocks and Daniel Bullocks, and led the nation in interceptions? Potentially.

    The front four loses Ndamukong Suh. He will be sorely missed - and don’t let pundits or even the Brothers Pelini attempt to sweep his departure under the rug. Suh was arguably most valuable on screens, draws, shovel passes and backside running plays. A stat nobody kept track of: How many first downs Suh - and Suh alone - saved by peeling back to make downfield tackles. And you can’t teach his instincts for pass defense and finding the ball. What’s left is pretty good. But Suh made that unit dynamic and versatile.

    The warning flags appear to be at linebacker. It was telling that, in the last half of the season, Gomes and Hagg were serving as de facto linebackers on key downs, as opposed to Will Compton and Sean Fisher. Spread passing teams carry light cargo, and allow Nebraska to get away it. But almost half of NU’s opponents in 2010 can and will go heavy. And if Pelini found it necessary to pick up JUCO linebacker LaVonte David, it speaks, potentially, to the health and inexperience of some of the guys behind Compton and Fisher. Eric Martin is a exciting playmaker as a sophomore, but he won’t see the field until he knows the defense.

    Tags: bo pelini, carl pelini, marvin sanders, john papuchis, mike ekeler, jared crick, dejon gomes, will compton, sean fisher, pj smith, alfonzo dennard, eric hagg

  10. 2010 Jan 04

    7 Questions: Defense in the Offseason

    4,051 views

    By HuskerLocker

    Can NU keep its defensive staff intact for one more season? After 2010, all bets are off, because Carl Pelini, Marvin Sanders, John Papuchis and Mike Ekeler could easily be headed for head coach/coordinator roles somewhere. Can Bo Pelini convince them to see through one more potentially championship-winning season? We’ll know for sure in the next two weeks.

    How does Bo adjust to life without Suh? No. 93 can’t be replaced, so that option is out. But the remaining pieces on the defensive line - Jared Crick is chief among them - are pretty solid. Of course NU retains a base four-man look, with Crick at his spot, Terrence Moore plugging the nose, and Pierre Allen and Cameron Meredith crashing on the ends.

    Do Sean Fisher and Will Compton keep developing? We have no reason to think they won’t - but, with at least five offenses on the 2010 schedule requiring a nickel-or-base defense - Washington, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Colorado and Kansas State fit that bill - NU needs two - not just one - of Mike Ekeler’s guys to perform at the level Phillip Dillard reached in 2009. And it doesn’t appear JUCO linebacker LaVonte David will hit the scene until fall.

    How do Mathew May and Matt Holt fit back into the defense? Both injured in 2009 - May played mostly on special teams, Holt didn’t play while recovering from a torn ACL - these two walk-on breakout players of 2008 will have to fight for time in what’s become one of the nation’s defenses. They’ll get a look, because they have the size - and speed - to stay on the field in a dime set as a hybrid linebacker/safety.

    What defensive wrinkles get unfurled in 2010? One option just to chew on: A three-man line that kicks Crick out to a hybrid tackle/end, uses a heftier Meredith at the other end, and sticks Moore - or maybe true freshman Jay Guy at that true nose tackle spot. We suspect Bo and Carl get creative with the players on hand.

    Does Eric Hagg stay at nickel, or rotate back to free safety? And, if the latter, does Rickey Thenarse shift down into Hagg’s role? Thenarse is a wild card best used 10-15 times per game then he left on the field for 60 minutes. The rest of the secondary - Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard at the corners, Dejon Gomes at slot corner, P.J. Smith at strong safety, Austin Cassidy, Lance Thorell and Anthony West as priority backups - seems pretty set. Our take: Keep Hagg where he is, pick your spots with Thenarse, and give Cassidy a long look at Matt O’Hanlon’s starting job.

    Who is this year’s Dejon Gomes? Thad Randle? Alonzo Whaley? Courtney Osborne? Smith? Cassidy? Andrew Green? Jason Ankrah? That’s what’s fun about prognosticating, isn’t it?

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    Tags: bo pelini, carl pelini, marvin sanders, john papuchis, mike ekeler, jared crick, dejon gomes, will compton, sean fisher, pj smith, alfonzo dennard, eric hagg

  11. 2009 Sep 08

    Podcast 9/8: Will Compton and the '67 Stingray

    2,274 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Tags: podcasts, will compton, mike ekeler, sean fisher, bo pelini

  12. 2009 Aug 11

    White Hawk and Knight Rider

    1,247 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    “White Hawk” is a converted walk-on safety, a tough-but-reserved sophomore who might be one of Nebraska’s fastest, most athletic defenders in recent memory.

    “Knight Rider” is a chatty, smiling junior showing off his new $495 helmet, a player so well-versed in Bo Pelini’s defense that he’s almost like another coach on the field.

    Matthew May and Blake Lawrence might be battling hard for the starting WILL linebacker job on Bo Pelini’s defense, but they’ve managed to forge a friendship and keep it light off the field.

    “We figured you guys were going to talk to us about each other,” Lawrence said to reporters. “So we just made up nicknames.”

    “Blake, why couldn’t you tell me that yesterday?” joked one scribe away from the interview.

    “We made them right after, I swear,” Lawrence said.

    Of course Lawrence is in good spirits, despite a grueling start to fall camp. That he’s allowed to practice is an improvement over last spring, when Lawrence suffered his third concussion in one year, and his football career was in jeopardy.

    When the concussion occurred, “I didn’t think it was very serious,” Lawrence said.

    “But the doctors and trainers said, ‘Whoa, Blake, this is a red flag. Three in one year. We’ve got to go through all these tests, and you really have to decide whether you want to play football again. Hearing that for the first time was kind of shocking.”

    And tough when the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder had made so much progress, and even become a starter, toward the end of the 2008 campaign. After spot action through the first eight games, Lawrence got an extended opportunity in the Oklahoma, and made one of the better plays in that 62-28 loss, batting down a third-down pass from Sam Bradford and forcing OU’s first punt.

    “Although the final score didn’t reflect too much success, I felt I succeeded on the field,” Lawrence said. “After that, the coaches kind of put me in a starting role based on packages for the rest of the year.”

    He added five tackles in a win over Kansas State and three vs. Colorado. His best game was NU’s last, the 26-21 Gator Bowl win over Clemson. Lawrence had four tackles and intercepted a bubble screen pass that led to a Husker field goal. Nebraska held the Tigers to just 210 total yards.

    “There was a point where I was on the field and I realized ‘this is nothing different, this is just playing football,’” Lawrence said. “Just getting that experience, being out on the field, it was great for me to accomplish what I came here to do, be a contributor as much as I can out there on the field.”

    And then, concussion No. 3.

    Lawrence missed the Red/White Spring Game, and had to pass a battery of medical tests in the following weeks. At the end of the summer, he took a neuro-pyschological exam and passed that, too. He was officially cleared to play football.

    And then he got fitted with a Xenith Helmet, an-elaborate-but-expensive piece of headgear that uses shock absorbers to stabilize the head and minimize force. The absorbers look like a small hockey puck. They’re hollow inside, and each has a tiny hole to release air pressure. When they receive a blow, they instantly deflate, inflate again in a fraction of a second, and rebuff some of the energy to the shell of the helmet.

    Developed by former Harvard quarterback Vin Ferrara, Xenith is still a bit of a boutique business, battling mainline manufacturers and a $1000 Riddell helmet called the Revolution, but they’ve got Lawrence as a pitchman. Figures. He’s got a 3.9 grade-point-average in marketing, and is on schedule to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in 2½ years.

    Lawrence touted the airflow and the comfort, which helps him stay cool in hot practices. And hits do seem lighter now, he said, although fully-padded practices don’t begin until Wednesday.

    “The other guys on the team are jealous,” Lawrence joked. “I said, ‘Just get three concussions and get a sweet helmet like this!’”

    Don’t ask Lawrence’s position coach, Mike Ekeler, to laugh about it.

    “I’m a superstitious guy, so I don’t even want to talk about it,” Ekeler said. Asked the same question a slightly different way, Ekeler said, “Apparently you didn’t hear what I just said.”

    He’s smiling. But he’s not kidding.

    Ekeler is just glad to have Lawrence back in the mix.

    “Knows our system better than anybody,” Ekeler said. “He’s really become like a coach on the field. Bo can say ‘Hey Blake, make a correction here or there,’ or Carl or myself, and it’s done. The guy is sharp.

    May, the 6-1, 216-pounder from Imperial, agreed. When Ekeler and head coach Bo Pelini shifted May from safety to the WILL spot, it was Lawrence who would help in those down moments of practice, or in between drives during games.

    “Other than the coaches, he approaches me first when I come off the field and we make the corrections,” May said. “He’s more supportive than anyone I know. So it’s a competition between us, but we’re really supportive of each other.”

    It’s been a whirlwind for May. From unknown walk-on, to linebacker, to the guy leaping through the air to cause a Josh Freeman fumble in the 2008 KSU game, to top of the depth chart in the spring.

    Last year “seems a long ways away,” now, May said. He’s in the thick of position battle, and no longer a walk-on novelty brought in on blitz downs.

    And May knows it, Ekeler said. He watches films, gets in the playbook, asks questions.

    “He’s a guy who wants it so much,” Ekeler said.

    Said Pelini: “He’s learning a lot. He’s still got a lot to learn. He’s nowhere near a finished product. The linebacker position right now, it’s up for grabs. At all three spots, we don’t really have any starters right now…everybody is in the mix.”

    Including reporters, Pelini said, if they want to suit up.

    Only if we can get a nickname, coach.

    Tags: blake lawrence, matt may, 50 huskers to know, bo pelini, mike ekeler, gator bowl

  13. 2009 Aug 11

    Podcast 8/11: Lawrence Ready to Roll at LB

    671 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Nebraska linebacker Blake Lawrence has become a "coach on the field" for the NU defense.

    Tags: podcasts, fall camp, blake lawrence, mike ekeler, bo pelini

  14. 2009 Aug 10

    Locker Pass Practice Report 8/10

    867 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    20 fresh takes, observations and insights that nobody else has! check them out with a 30-day free trial to locker pass!

    Tags: fall camp, locker pass, bo pelini, ted gilmore, quentin castille, eric martin, mike ekeler

  15. 2009 Aug 10

    FC Day 3: 'Average at Best'

    998 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Nebraska’s football team stood up well to some weird weather situations during the first two days of fall practice. But on Monday, head coach Bo Pelini said, the Cornhuskers “gave in to the heat a little bit.”

    “Average at best” was the way Pelini termed it. The practice began with good tempo, but there wasn’t enough consistency, execution. NU “put in some new things” on offense and defense, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler said, and the sharpness the coaching staff was hoping for wasn’t there.

    “Neither side was as crisp as I’d like to see it,” Pelini said. “Part of the process.”

    The effort is there, though, and the competition, Pelini said, is strong across the board. Aside from defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh – and probably quarterback Zac Lee – no jobs have been nailed down.

    The situation at linebacker is so fluid right now, Pelini said, that “everybody” – including true freshmen -
    “is in the mix.”

    “You guys are in the mix if you can suit up,” he said, nodding toward the press corps. “I want to see some people who can execute our defense. I want to see some consistency, and I haven’t seen it yet.”

    Added Ekeler: “Guys are working hard, but we’ve got to clean it up.”

    The linebacker corps is considered one of the question marks on NU’s defense, as the Huskers must replace part-time starters Cody Glenn and Tyler Wortman.

    But there’s a month of fall camp to hash out the depth chart, and Ekeler knows he’s got a talented crew of players, flush with redshirt and true freshmen.

    “Every team in the nation right now is a question mark until you go out and earn it,” Ekeler said. “And that’s all we’re concentrating on, is getting better and understanding the system.”

    NU again takes the field Tuesday for an afternoon practice. Full pads are to come on Wednesday.

    See also: More Practice Notes

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    Tags: bo pelini, mike ekeler, fall camp

  16. 2009 Aug 09

    Commentary: New Look, New Attitude for Dillard

    2,406 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Rocky Road ice cream. That was his weakness. And Lamar’s Donuts. Eating late at night. Maybe a little frustration and stubbornness.

    It landed Phillip Dillard in the doghouse of Nebraska’s football staff. OK, so head coach Bo Pelini said at the Big 12 Media Days he doesn’t believe in the concept of a doghouse. But when Dillard reported to spring camp at 248 pounds – 15 pounds more than coaches believe is his ideal weight – he landed at the back at of the drill line, the bottom of the depth chart.

    “We ask certain things,” linebackers coach Mike Ekeler said then. Dillard, meanwhile, wasn’t talking.

    Just a few months before, Dillard had been Nebraska’s starting middle linebacker. Trailing 20-17 at halftime to Baylor, it was Dillard who addressed the locker room, who cut to the chase, who lit the Cornhuskers’ fire for a second-half comeback. And it was Dillard who helped make a crucial stop on third and goal when he tackled probably the fastest quarterback in the nation – the Bears’ Robert Griffin – on a speed option around the end. BU missed the ensuing field goal try, and NU scored 15 unanswered points for a 32-20 win.

    Dillard suffered a severe ankle injury at the end of that win, and was sidelined for the rest of the season. He was cleared to suit up for the Gator Bowl, but got no action. In his absence, the “Farm Dog,” Hastings walk-on Colton Koehler, filled in, and played well.

    And then, the spring. Koehler at the front. Dillard, the last guy through.

    “This game will come up and bite you,” Pelini said after Saturday’s practice.

    It sunk its teeth in hard on Dillard.

    “It didn’t surprise me,” Dillard said. “I’m the one that came in and didn’t do exactly what they asked of me. It’s not like I was in trouble with the law, I just didn’t handle my business as far as taking care of business as a man should. So I got punished for it.”

    And challenged. Ekeler preached a clean slate for his unit this fall. But for Dillard to earn even a shot at playing time, he had to drop the weight.

    He talked to reporters Saturday looking more cut than he ever has. Almost small, if a 6-1, 234-pound rock can be considered small.

    Dillard had a summer to rescue his career, apologize to teammates, and join the race for playing time at NU. He did it. On a day that probably would have finished off the Dillard of 2007, the Dillard of 2009 was smiling and seeming thankful he had a team to motivate him.

    This is the best shape I’ve ever been in,” Dillard said. “I feel great out there, running around. I’m not tired, I wasn’t breathing hard or nothing. So losing the weight was for my good.”

    Not that Dillard wasn’t a hard worker before. But the transition from Kevin Cosgrove to Pelini was arguably tougher on him than most defenders. Dillard, after all, was playing nose tackle in Cosgrove’s third-down defense. Like a lot of Huskers, Dillard was bigger by design. Nebraska was probably the paunchiest team in America in 2007. By design.

    And so, when that switch flipped, and Pelini was suddenly playing safety-sized players, like Matt Holt and Matt May, at linebacker – and the smaller guys were flourishing - Dillard was on the heftier end.

    A victim of the previous culture – and his own weaknesses. That’s the story of a lot of folks in and out of football.

    So, too, is redemption, and credit a new system of player-driven accountability for Dillard’s new physique. He had to apologize to his teammates, and they, in turn, kept giving words of encouragement.

    “They’d tell me ‘Man, just keep working hard.’ Because they’d see me working hard. You don’t want to let those guys down. Everyone works hard. But I wanted to work harder, and that’s where I got my drive from. I didn’t want to let them down.”

    It’s feel-good story thus far. Yet it doesn’t mean Dillard is going to be handed his job back. Ekeler and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini both called the race for all three linebacker positions “wide open.” Koehler had a good spring, and while redshirt freshman Will Compton still has to nail down the playbook, he’s the fastest, and most physically gifted, of the three. Bo Pelini had to bite his tongue pretty hard not to burn Compton’s redshirt in 2008; if he had, the Bonne Terre, Mo., native would probably be the favorite to start.

    But Dillard brings an important emotional element to the defense. Even with the tough spring, he’s still a leader, and he, along with returning defensive end Barry Turner, bring some personality back to the field.

    “I want to play with a lot of emotion,” Dillard said. “I can’t just hit somebody and get up. I’m trying to run through somebody. Like I can’t stand the opposite person. That’s just the kind of spark defensive coaches have. You’ve seen Coach Pelini on the sideline. He’s got that fire and spark.”

    Dillard’s off to a good start.

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    Tags: phillip dillard, bo pelini, mike ekeler, colton koehler, will compton, barry turner

  17. 2009 Jul 26

    Holt Out?

    2,428 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Nebraska linebacker Matt Holt could be out for the 2009 season with a shoulder injury. So says columnist Steve Sipple in this morning's Lincoln Journal Star.

    That's a blow to depth at the weakside linebacker position, and potentially that nickel/dime set Nebraska occasionally runs. Holt was instrumentally part of that in a narrow loss to Texas Tech. Holt also would been a nice player on special teams, particularly kick and punt coverage.

    Fortunately, there are guys this year who can fill the void, notably Matt May, Alonzo Whaley and possibly Lincoln Southwest product Graham Stoddard.

    Still, in Bo Pelini's system - where the more guys he can use to blitz, the better - it's would be an unfortunate loss.

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    Tags: matt holt, mike ekeler

  18. 2009 Jun 08

    ...And A Bonus Sixth Key!

    2,861 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Here's one more key to add to your five keys for summer conditioning:

    The Long Climb Back for Phillip Dillard: Dillard found himself at the bottom of the MIKE linebacker depth chart at the beginning of spring practice. While specifics were never given for why, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler pointed to “we ask certain things of our players.” Dillard, in the coaches’ eyes, didn’t deliver.

    Dillard’s a tough, prideful guy. You need both to play middle linebacker. While he isn’t ideal to play against some of the spread offenses NU will face in 2009, he can be a help against some of the more power-oriented teams. And NU will indeed play a few: Virginia Tech, Kansas State, Colorado and Baylor, to some extent.

    But his attitude, and his conditioning, have to be in lockstep with his toughness for him to play a significant role in 2009.
    We still think it’s possible, actually. Dillard, to us, still represents the best middle linebacker NU has for base situations. But he has to prove it by beating out Colton Koehler and Will Compton for that role.

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    Tags: five keys, bonus key, phillip dillard, mike ekeler

  19. 2009 Mar 25

    SPRING FB: Long climb ahead for Dillard

    4,326 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Former starting MIKE linebacker Phillip Dillard began NU's spring football practice in an unfamiliar place: At the back of the line. Dillard was standing with the third and fourth units during early stretching drills, an unlikely place for a guy who was expected to be one of the defensive leaders in 2009.

    "Right now, he's down there," linebackers coach Mike Ekeler said. "We'll see how things shake out, but he's down aways."

    Why?

    "There's some things that we ask," Ekeler said. "I'll just leave it at that."

    Right now, Colton Koehler and Matt May are working ahead of Dillard at the MIKE position. May could also swing back to WILL linebacker, where he played last year.

    "I love that kid," Ekeler said of May. "At the end of the day, he's going to find his role on the field. He already has. He's just going to keep getting better and better. We're going to put him to work."

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    Tags: springtime with bo, phillip dillard, mike ekeler, matt may, colton koehler

  20. 2009 Mar 17

    Ten NU Priorities, Part 2

    1,055 views

    By SMcKewon

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    Today, we take a look at the second part of NU’s 10 priorities for spring football. You can read part one here. Enjoy!

    Casting calls at linebacker: Time to mix the redshirt freshmen in with the veterans and see which dogs get a spot on the porch. Knowing head coach Bo Pelini and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, it will be a high-energy, spirited competition.

    Last fall, Pelini clearly stated that some of his young pups, including Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher, could have helped the Huskers’ depleted linebacker corps. But he stuck to his plan to redshirt them – Fisher, after he sustained an early-season injury – to give the bunch four years to gel together.

    Don’t think that means the jobs of Phillip Dillard, Blake Lawrence and LaTravis Washington – who hasn’t played any more at BUCK ‘backer than Fisher – are particularly safe. Dillard has been a leader in the past, but must show he’s fully recovered from a tough ankle injury that managed to keep him out of the Gator Bowl. Lawrence improved at WILL, but must hold off guys like Imperial sophomore Matt May, whose Superman leap in the Kansas State game turned some heads, and potentially Whaley, depending on where coaches put him. And it’s hard to know what Washington can or can’t do. And you can’t forget about walk-ons like Colton Kohler, Thomas Grove and Matt Holt, either.

    It wouldn’t be fair to say linebacker play was a weakness of Pelini’s defense last year. Too many injuries and strange developments – like Cody Glenn’s suspension. But it needs to be a steadier force in 2009.

    New guys in the offensive line rotation: Offensive line coach Barney Cotton has at least four guys – and maybe more – to help cover the departure of Matt Slauson, Lydon Murtha and possibly one other player who may not see much action in 2009.

    The new guys are seniors Derek Meyer and Andy Christensen, junior Ricky Henry and redshirt freshman Brandon Thompson. Meyer, a transfer from Kansas State, won scout team award last fall, while Christensen returns after what can only be called a difficult year in 2008. Henry, tough and hungry, redshirted after transferring from a JUCO and Thompson worked out with the scout bunch after redshirting, as well.

    Meyer and Thompson are probably tackles, while Christensen and Henry will fit into the guard rotation. Look for their names this spring.

    Steinkuhler for Steinkuhler: Departing senior Ty Steinkuhler was one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2008 season; his terrific play beside nose tackle Ndamukong Suh made teams pay for double-teaming one guy or the other. Might his replacement be younger brother Baker Steinkuhler? Maybe. Baker is bigger and faster than Ty, and although sophomore Jared Crick is a perfectly good option at defensive tackle as well, Baker should figure prominently at the position.

    The mental and physical recovery of Anthony Blue: If Nebraska can get this kid back on solid, confident ground, it would be like picking up a blue-chip recruit for 2009. Blue, a 5-10 cornerback who blew out his ACL last spring, is finally back to physical form, if recent reports are correct. Now it’s about trusting the knee in action. If healthy, Blue is the team’s most aggressive, most athletic cornerback. He’s not the biggest – but at cornerback, you don’t have to be. Here’s where a smart coach like Marvin Sanders helps. Sanders is a superior communicator, and getting Blue to buy into the strength of his knee is a big priority, and it helps Pelini moves the pieces around the chess board.

    Finding the diamonds: With each spring practice, some Huskers emerge from the fray in a far better position than where they started. Last year, it was Matt O’Hanlon, Roy Helu and Mike McNeill who made big moves, setting themselves up for quite a bit of playing time in 2008. Who will it be in 2009, and how does Pelini and Co. bring them to the forefront? We’re about to find out.

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    Tags: football, bo pelini, mike ekeler, marvin sanders, will compton, alonzo whaley, sean fisher, matt may, brandon thompson, derek meyer, andy christensen, ricky henry

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