2009 Apr 01
SPRING FB: Young Guns
Only his adidas wardrobe suggests he’s Nebraska’s wide receivers coach. His class is in session for all of four weeks this spring, it's definitely graded on a curve, and students have plenty of cramming to do.
Gilmore is charged with replacing departed seniors Nate Swift and Todd Peterson - who combined for 125 catches, 1727 yards and 14 touchdowns - by developing a talented-but-inexperienced corps that includes true freshman Antonio Bell, who enrolled in January, and converted running back Marcus Mendoza.
And, of course, he has to mesh them with quarterbacks Zac Lee, Kody Spano and Cody Green.
“Although (the quarterbacks) haven’t played, I’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t played either,” Gilmore said. “They’re gelling. They’re throwing a lot of balls together and they’re finding their way through it.
“You have to be patient. But at the same time, you’ve got to press them. You have to let them know what’s acceptable, what’s not. Give them tough love.”
Gilmore’s troops agree: He’s a stickler for precision. He loved Swift and Peterson for “attention to detail” and “professionalism.” Peterson, in particular, wasn’t a receiver who whizzed by defenders. But he had a knack for positioning himself for Joe Ganz’s passes without taking too many big hits to his 6-foot-4 frame. Swift was more athletic, but he improved his hands significantly during his senior season, no longer dropping the balls that had cost NU first downs and touchdowns in previous years.
Plus, they could block.
“Coach Gilmore loves blocking,” junior Niles Paul said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Paul was one of Nebraska’s best downfield blockers in 2008, and it helped him earn playing time over guys like Chris Brooks, Will Henry and Curenski Gilleylen. What he had to improve – and did – was running some of shorter, safer routes in NU’s offense.
“Running routes is what we go over and over every day in the meeting room,” Paul said.
At Omaha North, Paul had been accustomed to challenging cornerbacks on deep routes, and winning jump ball situations with his superior speed and leaping ability.
Last year, he lived the life of the third, and sometimes fourth, option. Paul was the safety valve over the middle. Or the slot receiver sitting down in the zone. Or the guy running the ten-yard curl route to the first down marker.
“Of course there were some plays left out on the field,” Paul said. “But I went out there and played my hardest with the role I had.”
Should Paul win the starting job as one of the two outside receivers – Menelik Holt is the favorite for the “X” position – he’ll get more shots downfield.
“I can’t wait,” Paul said. “I’m excited about that.”
Not that Paul is counting his touchdowns. As a player under Gilmore, he said, the starting job is a constant competition. Receivers might be working at certain spots, but Gilmore doesn’t name leaders. And his expectations are higher than the ceiling of the Hawks Center.
Take Holt. Long presumed to be the heir apparent to Maurice Purify, Holt has spent four years at NU behind Swift, who in turn was behind Purify. Holt has prototypical size – 6-4, 220 – and speed, but many of his 30 catches last year were like Paul’s receptions: Short, over-the-middle grabs when Ganz had exhausted his two options. His longest catch was 25 yards, and his lone touchdown was the final play in a 52-17 loss to Missouri.
Last year, possibly sensing that Lee was gaining momentum for the starting quarterback job, Holt worked out after practice with him, running a variety of routes at the far end of the Hawks Center. This spring, Gilmore said, he’s been impressed with Holt’s willingness to work with underclassmen.
But the professor is a tough grader.
“It’s not his yet,” Gilmore said of Holt. “You’ve got to earn it. He knows that and he’s accepted the challenge. He’s showing some leadership, helping the younger guys out, which he should be able to do at this point. He’s got to demonstrate that he’s ready to be an every down player.
“I want them all to want be the No. 1 guy. There’s no guaranteed spot.”
The addition of Bell and Mendoza should turn the heat up in the room, too. In early workouts, Bell, while slight, has shown off good hands and top-end speed. For now, he looks a little more like former speedster Frantz Hardy than some NU fans might prefer – Hardy’s lack of upper-body strength made him an easy guy to jam at the line of scrimmage – but Gilmore likes the raw material.
“He’s swimming in it a little bit,” Gilmore said. “But he brings speed – legitimate speed – to the field. He’s got a lot to learn at that position, but he can really run.”
Then there’s Mendoza, a 5-10 sophomore jitterbug who couldn’t break the three-deep at running back. It’s not an official title, but Mendoza - along with freshman receiver Tim Marlowe and probably cornerback Anthony Blue before his knee injury - were the fastest Huskers on the team.
Gilmore said Mendoza is big enough to work on the outside, but he should see time at slot, too.
“I’m really excited about it,” Mendoza said. “Anything to get me on the field faster, and whatever helps the team.”
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