Monday, August 25, 2008
It seems like just yesterday we were slogging through spring ball, perusing over roughly 7,000 articles about Cody Glenn's position switch, and counting the days until fall camp. Well, fall camp is over now. No more beating up on each other, no more scrimmages. It's time to put another team in the crosshairs and to quote Tom Green in Road Trip, "Unleash the Fury". After 4 years of relative mediocrity, a state and it's team stand on the precipice of perhaps the most important season in school history. Will it be the best season? No, not even close. But what we search for isn't only additional victories, but the hope that somehow, someway, a return to prominence is realistic. We long not only for wins, but for relevance, to regain our alpha-dog status after being kicked to the bottom of the pile.
I have friends who are Gopher fans who give me crap, despite the fact that their team only won a single game last year. Things like this are unacceptable, and it's our also-ran standing that hurts more than anything. Which is why we find ourself hoping just to reach the old 9-win threshold this year. Will it happen? Tough to say, some things will definitely have to bounce our way. But either way, this year's attempt at a Big Red revival promises to be an exciting journey no matter what the outcome. We have the legend in the AD's office, the coach we hoped for, and a team hell-bent on redeeming themselves.
Today I'm going to look at 5 players to watch this season for the Huskers. When I say watch, I mean that these players are either essential to a successful season or are players who are looking at a breakout year.
1) Marlon Lucky, RB
What hasn't been written about Marlon? He was the signature recruit of Callahan's tenure here, a 5-star tailback from Hollywood who many thought would be our Reggie Bush, expectations that were stupid, unrealistic, and unfair for the reserved Lucky. For so long, we waited for him to break out and deliver on the promise, and even through portions of last year, we wondered if he would finally just lower his shoulder and start hitting the holes with authority. And even after the opener against Nevada when he ran wild, I still had my doubts. Sure, he was racking up catches at an astounding rate (thanks partially to Sam Keller's insistence on waiting for every receiver to be covered before checking down), but when would he become a complete tailback?
Then we played Texas. His total from that game wasn't astounding if you simply looked at the stats. 24 carries, 111 yards. But for any Husker fan who watched that game, you saw something else: a lowering of the shoulder, a determination and maybe anger that we hadn't seen to that extent. He was breaking tackles, punishing defenders, no longer looking to bounce outside when he knew that 4 or 5 yards would do. This year, Marlon enters the season as the Big 12's leading returning rusher. Yes, he has two good players behind him in Helu and Q that will take some touches away, but I doubt that will affect his stats all that much, as Pelini will look to establish a strong running game and control the clock to keep all those spread offenses off the field. I can see Marlon getting 1,100 rushing yards with 13 or 14 scores, and another 30 or so catches (which would give him a good chance at getting the school record, depending on how things shake out).
2) Nate Swift, WR
I've always followed Swift's progress with more interest than most, mainly because of my affinity for slow white receivers and also because of the Minnesota connection. After he posted 45 catches for 641 yards and 7 touchdowns his redshirt freshmen year, I thought we had a guy who had the chance to be something truly special, a potential 1st team All Conference-caliber guy. But when he followed up that campaign with a 22-catch season in his sophomore year, I began to wonder if his frosh season was merely an aberration or if he simply had received more attention from defenders. I don't even want to count last year's totals, mainly because it's hard to tell how it might have shaken out with someone else than Sam Keller throwing the balls for the bulk of the season. Swift has sometimes had issues with drops, something the Huskers can ill-afford from someone who is a starter this year and is going to have to lead a young position group. That said, I think this is the year that Swift finally delivers on the promise he showed those years ago as a 19-year old. I don't want to predict stats, because now that NU is looking to re-establish the run, it'd be foolish to forecast a statistical breakthrough for the Hutchinson, Minnesota product. But I think you'll see him make a lot of clutch 3rd-down receptions and make a run at Johnny the Jet's school record for receptions. Plus, it doesn't hurt to have a year of working with Joey Ganz under his belt either. I'm predicting 2nd-team Big 12 honors for Swifty, which might seem unrealistic, but at this point, it's all about blindly optimistic predictions.
3) Ricky Thenarse, S
Is Ricky T really a junior already? Seems like not that long ago we were all breathlessly predicting great things from the kid who had playmaker written all over him. Two consecutive Special Teams POY awards later, and we finally are going to see him trotting out with the starting defense this week. Does he stray looking for the play sometimes? Yes, much to the chagrin of the coaches. Of course, last year it wouldn't have mattered who strayed where, I would have thrown Ricky out there just for the hell of it, because at least he would hit people, something last year's defense failed to do. But with Pelini in charge now, I'm looking for Ricky to establish himself as the playmaker we have long envisioned him being. There might be a few mental gaffes now and then, but I think that if he can stay disciplined he can get 6 or 7 interceptions. Along with Thenarse, fellow safety Larry Asante will have to rebound from a disappointing campaign last year if the NU defense is going to return to form. (Yes, I know Asante had a lot of tackles last year. But he missed quite a few too.
4) Cody Glenn, LB
When Glenn arrived on campus as a freshmen, people immediately assumed that he would be the Thunder to Marlon's lightning for the duration of their time on campus. Which shows just how dumb we are to look 4 years into the future and predict stardom for kids before they even have played a snap. Over the past couple of years, we've watched his playing time fluctuate like the weather in Minnesota. I was at the ISU game in 2006 where he bowled over Cyclones to the tune of 148 yards on just 19 carries, and his bull-dozing style endeared him to NU fans who still have a penchant for a dominating ground game. But after he injured his foot on his "Let's go motherf***ers!" run against Texas A&M, he was never quite the same. The coaching staff seemed to give up on him after that as well. So when news filtered out of spring practice that he had not only switched positions but to the other side of the ball entirely, he became the talk of camp. I was skeptical, I really didn't think he'd be able to make the switch in so little time and be a big contributor. Which shows how big of a dumbass I am, as he went on to become a starter. But now camp is over, and the real experiment begins. Glenn, along with Phillip Dillard (another player we hope to see deliver on his initial potential) are the two seniors on the most important position group of the defense. They are the elder statesmen who have to make the supposed weakest link (and maybe the most important one in Pelini's defense) strong enough to combat the lethal offenses in the Big 12. How fast Glenn comes along will go a long way in determining how successful the defense is.
5) Joe Ganz, QB
There's a reason I put Joe at the bottom of this list. It's not because I think the previous 4 guys are more integral to the success of this year's Huskers. Everyone knows that quarterback is the most important position on the team. Rather, I was just sick of so many articles leading off with him, so I decided to flip the script a bit and write about him last. At this point, most Husker fans know by heart that Ganz passed for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns in just 3 starts last year. But what can he do with a stronger running game and a defense that hopefully doesn't force him into throwing 40 or 50 times a game? And who is he going to look to in the redzone now that Mo Purify is gone? Make no mistake, Ganz is the heart and soul of this team, the unquestioned leader and heavy is the burden on his shoulders to make his one season in the spotlight count. He can take solace in the fact that he has a line and backs who should significantly lighten that load. While it's hard to imagine Ganz being on par statistically with the likes of Chase Daniel or Todd Reesing this year, the potential is there for him to do the only thing we really want to see: Win. And if that were to happen, Ganz will find himself in the company of other tough-as-nails QBs who endeared themselves to the Husker faithful, guys like Zac Taylor and Brook Berringer.
Tomorrow: Big 12 predictions
Posted by Husker Guy at 12:43 PM