Big 12: Ryan Hill

Big 12 spring game recap: Nebraska

April, 20, 2010
4/20/10
3:00
PM ET
What happened:
  • The White team erased a 14-3 deficit early but fell to the Red team 21-16 on a go-ahead touchdown by Kody Spano to Ryan Hill.
  • Ndamukong Suh gave $2 million to the athletic department and $600,000 to the engineering school to endow a scholarship.
  • 77,936 people attended the game at a sunny Memorial Stadium, the most of any team in the Big 12.
What we learned:
  • The big story, of course, is how the Red team got that lead: Taylor Martinez. Martinez definitely has happy feet in the pocket and has to develop as a passer, but his feet won't be the only things that are happy if he breaks runs during the season like he did on Saturday. He ran nine times for 60 yards, including a nice stiff-arm and is pretty tough to bring down. For a quarterback race with two underwhelming frontrunners in Zac Lee and Cody Green, Martinez injects some excitement into the race. That said, my guess is Lee's experience will land him the job this fall when he returns from surgery on his throwing arm. Green has plenty of potential and provided a highlight of his own with a 72-yard score to Will Henry to help spark the White comeback. Expect both Martinez and Green to get some playing time next season, but I'll take the safe route and count on Lee winning the derby.
  • The Huskers threw from the Wildcat with Rex Burkhead once for a four-yard loss. Like Watson said, the Wildcat will be part of what they do, but it's not going to be a featured package in the offense week-to-week. Rely on a solid group of running backs, and get Niles Paul open in space for a manageable throw as often as possible. Trickery won't take this offense very far.
  • Hard to take much away from the defense in a less-than-dominating performance, but it's spring. Pelini spoke this morning about how he was encouraged by the play of sophomore Alonzo Whaley, who had a game-high nine tackles, but stopped short of explaining where Whaley fit in the rotation at linebacker. "He's in the mix, but just like all of them, he's got a long way to go. He's doing some good things, but he's got a long ways to go yet," Pelini said.
  • It's also good to see Rickey Thenarse coming back from last season's knee injury to have a nice game with seven tackles and an interception for the White team.
They said it:
“He has a skill set that, honestly, you can’t coach. He can put his foot in the dirt and go. He’s an instinctive runner. If something breaks down, he can make something big for an offense and can hurt a defense.”

--Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, on redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez

Pelini silent about who will start at QB against Kansas

November, 9, 2009
11/09/09
5:36
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said Monday he's in no hurry to name a starting quarterback for the Cornhuskers' game Saturday at Kansas.

Freshman quarterback Cody Green started the Cornhuskers' 10-3 victory over Oklahoma and played the first quarter. He was replaced by junior Zac Lee, who led a one-play, one-yard touchdown drive on his first possession and play the rest of the game.

It was Green's second-straight start after Lee had started Nebraska's first seven games.

"We’ve got to go week to week and we’re going to do what we feel like we need to win each football game,” Pelini said. "It could be a combination of the two. It could be Zac. It could be Cody. It’s something we’re going to figure out as time goes on and we put in our game plans, and give us the best opportunity to win football games.”

Green directed the Nebraska to five-straight three-and-outs to start the game, producing 20 yards on 15 snaps for a 1.3 average. After Lee took over, the Cornhuskers amassed 160 yards on 42 plays for an average of 3.8 yards per snap.

Pelini acknowledged Monday that his decision to pull Green was because of Oklahoma's strong blitzing defense and his lack of early success against it.

"That was a crazy atmosphere,'' he said. "I just felt an aura out there. That game was a little different. I wanted to protect him a little bit, and that's one of the reasons why we did what we did. It wasn't that we lacked confidence with Cody, but it's a long-term deal with him.''

Because of that, Pelini said he had already decided to put Lee into the game after Prince Amukamara's interception gave the Cornhuskers the ball at the Oklahoma 1. After an Oklahoma penalty, Lee hooked up with backup tight end Ryan Hill for a touchdown pass on the next play.

“I wasn’t going to change after I already made that decision,” Pelini said.

Despite the victory, Pelini said he's concerned about his offense's productivity. Nebraska's offense has contributed only one touchdown in each of the Cornhuskers' last four conference games.

"We need to get more consistency on that side of the ball, Pelini said. " It’s a tremendous sense of urgency.”

Even with Lee's success against the Sooners, expect both quarterbacks to play against Kansas. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Green start again against the more manageable Jayhawk defense.

Nebraska holds on for gritty win

November, 7, 2009
11/07/09
11:55
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Bo Pelini was looking for a signature victory that signaled that his Nebraska program was headed back.

His defense provided one Saturday night, allowing the Cornhuskers to hold on for a gritty 10-3 victory over Oklahoma.

Safety Matt O'Hanlon provided the third of his three interceptions in the final minute to wrap up the victory. It was the fifth interception thrown by Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones.

The win enabled the Cornhuskers (6-3) to escape despite producing only 180 yards and seven first downs. The Cornhuskers converted only 1 of 14 third-down plays.

But they got the only touchdown of the game because of their defense. Prince Amukamara returned the interception to the Oklahoma 2. After an Oklahoma penalty, Zac Lee and Ryan Hill hooked up on a 1-yard touchdown pass.

It enabled the Cornhuskers to keep pace with Kansas State, which won earlier in the day against Kansas. Nebraska (3-2 in conference play) is a half-game behind the surprising Wildcats.

The Cornhuskers have a huge road trip to slumping Kansas, which comesinto the next week's game with a four-game losing streak.

It also snuffed out whatever slim hopes that Oklahoma had of reclaiming the Big 12 title. The Sooners (5-4) have lost more games than any team coached by Bob Stoops since 2005. Only two Oklahoma teams coached by Stoops have four or more losses.

Nebraska defense sets up TD

November, 7, 2009
11/07/09
9:06
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska's defense had a big hand in the first points of the game, catapulting the Cornhuskers ahead.

Prince Amukamara's 22-yard return of an interception set up a 1-yard TD pass from Zac Lee to backup tight end Ryan Hill on the next play, giving Nebraska an early 7-0 lead over Oklahoma.

Freshman Cody Green started the game, but was pulled at the end of the first quarter in favor of Lee. His touchdown pass came on his first play after the change.

The Nebraska special teams have also had an advantage over Oklahoma. Nebraska's Alex Henery is averaging 51.4 yards per punt on five punts in the first quarter. And Oklahoma kicker Tress Way has misfired on two field goals.

The pressure is on Oklahoma's offense to get back in the game.

Nebraska spring wrap

May, 14, 2009
5/14/09
9:25
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska Cornhuskers
2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 5-3

Returning starters

Offense: 6, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

I-back Roy Helu Jr., I-back Quentin Castille, G Jacob Hickman, TE Mike McNeill, DE Pierre Allen, DT Ndamukong Suh, S Larry Asante, K Alex Henery.

Key losses

QB Joe Ganz, I-back Marlon Lucky, WR Todd Peterson, WR Nate Swift, G Matt Slauson, DT Ty Steinkuhler, CB Armando Murillo

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Roy Helu Jr. * (803 yards)
Passing: Joe Ganz (3,568 yards)
Receiving: Nate Swift (941 yards)
Tackles: Ndamukong Suh* (76)
Sacks: Ndamukong Suh* (7.5)
Interceptions: Ndamukong Suh*, Zach Potter, Anthony West* (2)

Spring answers

2009 Schedule

Sept. 5 Florida Atlantic
Sept. 12 Arkansas State
Sept. 19 at Virginia Tech
Sept. 26 Louisiana-Lafayette
Oct. 8 at Missouri
Oct. 17 Texas Tech
Oct. 24 Iowa State
Oct. 31 at Baylor
Nov. 7 Oklahoma
Nov. 14 at Kansas
Nov. 21 Kansas State
Nov. 27 at Colorado

1. Zac Lee: There were some serious doubts before spring practice at quarterback, but Lee appeared to dispel most of those fears as he replaced Joe Ganz. Lee looked comfortable in his role as starter, passing for 214 yards and three TDs in the spring game. His development over the spring has clearly stamped him as the most likely starter for the Cornhuskers in August when heralded freshman Cody Green will be more comfortable in the offense.

2. Tight ends: Mike McNeill already was one of the conference's most underrated players after breaking the school record for catches at the position last season. But the Cornhuskers will have outstanding depth at the position after strong springs by junior Dreu Young, sophomore Ryan Hill and freshmen Kyle Reed and Ben Cotton. Their growth at the position might lessen some of the worries at wide receiver. Don't be surprised if the Cornhuskers regularly feature two-tight end sets as part of their basic offensive strategy.

3. Antonio Bell: The suspension of Niles Paul was supposed to aggravate the Cornhuskers' iffy depth at wide receiver. But Bell developed into a strong playmaker at the position and even showed some flashes as a kick returner at the spring game. He'll be in the mix for playing time at the start of the season.

Fall questions

1. Wide receiver: The loss of leading 2008 receivers Todd Peterson and Nate Swift robbed the Cornhuskers of much of their big-play capabilities at the position as well as a duo which contributed 125 combined catches last season. It will remain the biggest offensive liability of the Cornhuskers. Players like Menelik Holt and Paul will need to add production. Injury-prone Chris Brooks produced five catches in the spring game and much is expected from heralded junior-college standout Brandon Kinnie. And Marcus Mendoza looks to have adjusted after moving to wide receiver from I-back.

2. Right side of the offensive line: The loss of Matt Slauson and Lydon Murtha robbed the Cornhuskers of solid producers familiar with playing together. Marcel Jones appears to have claimed the starting job at right tackle. And the development of center Mike Caputo allowed Nebraska line coach Barney Cotton to
experiment with moving starting center Jacob Hickman to right guard. But a bigger question will be replacing the veteran leadership they received with Murtha and Slauson over the last several years.

3. Linebackers: The Cornhuskers are talented but very young at linebacker. Colton Koehler and Matthew May both look to have earned starting positions during the spring. Redshirt freshmen Alonzo Whaley, Micah Kreikemeier, Sean Fisher and Will Compton all had their moments. But a key player in fall practice will be Blake Lawrence, who started quickly but suffered a concussion late in the spring.

Underrated McNeill provides big production for Cornhuskers

May, 7, 2009
5/07/09
4:44
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Most college recruiters had the same kind of grandiose plans for Mike McNeill when they were recruiting him.

Specifically, McNeill heard a lot about catching passes and little about knocking opposing defenders down. And even with the disparity from what everybody else was telling him, McNeill liked when he heard Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson explain to him that he would develop into a multi-faceted tight end with the Cornhuskers.

 
  Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
  Nebraska's Mike McNeill has developed into one of the best tight ends in the league.
Sure, there were would be his fair share of receptions. But the Cornhusker coaches also harped on blocking technique and what a bigger, stronger McNeill could accomplish in the program.

Three years later, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound McNeill has developed into one of the most underrated players in the Big 12 and a prominent reason why many are thinking the Cornhuskers can challenge for the North Division title this season.

"I'm definitely happy with my decision," McNeill said. "In general, I really liked the way they use me in this offense. I'm catching passes, but I'm also getting my hand on the ground and blocking, too. It's not exactly old-school, because I'm catching passes. But I'm still blocking, too."

McNeill developed into an integral offensive weapon last season for the Cornhuskers, setting a school record for tight ends with 32 receptions. He also produced six touchdown receptions and several memorable plays, including a pivotal 53-yard touchdown grab against Colorado.

That strong production could be a foreshadowing of a big season for him in 2009. Some already are projecting him as a potential challenger for All-Big 12 honors -- big claims considering the presence of players like Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham at his position.

It starts with his soft hands and quickness. But McNeill has also developed his talents as a punishing blocker and his route-running abilities, both skills that have taken time to develop during his time as a collegian.

"My blocking has come a long ways," McNeill said. "I didn't block a whole lot in high school because I was fairly oversized from everybody else. But my blocking has come a long ways. I'm not as timid and learned to fire off one the ball. That's where a lot of development has come."

Coming into college, McNeill was known more as a receiver after a strong high-school career in Kirkwood, Mo., where he as a teammate of former Missouri All-American Jeremy Maclin.

His development as a Nebraska player had a couple of obstacles. He played more soccer than football when he was younger. And his father, a Texas graduate, cheered for the Longhorns above all else during his adolescence.

"It was a little different," McNeill said, chuckling. "But I really didn't follow football too much until high school. I was playing more soccer than anything else."

Earlier in his career, McNeill's development was stunted by a disappointing series of injuries. He struggled with turf toe, a fractured right hand, shoulder surgery and hamstring pulls in both legs earlier during his time at Nebraska.

"It was frustrating going through everything like that at once," McNeill said. "I didn't know if I was ready to play in college football. It was just something I learned to have to push through.

But his return to health last season, coinciding with the arrival of new coach Bo Pelini, was a revelation.

"Once I got the chance, it was great," McNeill said. "I have a lot of confidence going into this season building what I've been able to do so far."

One recurring problem was his inability to keep on weight during the season. He dropped nearly 20 pounds last season, finding meals difficult to cram in because of his busy schedule with classes and practice.

McNeill's chances to develop big numbers might be affected a little by the Cornhuskers' strength at the position. Nebraska's five-deep rotation at tight end is helping alleviate some of the fears caused with the loss of starting receivers Nate Swift and Todd Peterson from last season.

Behind McNeill include junior Dreu Young, sophomore Ryan Hill and talented freshmen Ben Cotton and Kyle Reed. All are expected to contribute over the course of 2009 season, helping with the transition of likely Nebraska starting quarterback Zac Lee.

The Cornhuskers can mix and match their talents at the position, but McNeill is clearly the most adept at a variety of skills.

"I think we've got a great group," McNeill said. "The younger guys are coming on. There are different things we can do well. It should help us with all of the different things all of us can do."

Six items that didn't surprise me this spring

May, 5, 2009
5/05/09
4:14
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Spring football across the Big 12 was a series of mundane drills and routine practices.

It gave coaches a chance to take a long look at their own teams as they prepared for the fall.

During the course of the past few weeks, several events played out that weren't exactly a surprise to me. In fact, they should have been expected.

Here's a list of some of them:

Jeff Fuller explodes as Texas A&M's top wide receiver: Ryan Tannehill's injury opened the opportunity for Fuller to become the featured receiver, and Fuller took it and ran and caught with it. He had a marvelous spring game and should be poised for big things this season. But his big spring performance should be taken with a grain of salt -- he won't be able to play against A&M's leaky secondary once the season starts.

Texas' secondary growth: With all of the heralded recruits among defensive backs, competition was expected to be fierce this spring for the Longhorns. And it was. Earl Thomas and Chykie Brown openly talked about winning Thorpe Awards this season. They might have their chance. But with teammates like safeties Christian Scott, Nolan Brewster and Blake Gideon and corners like Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown and Deon Beasley it could make it hard for any single to player to emerge among the talents of the group. The Longhorns appear to have more ready-to-play defensive backs than at any time in Mack Brown's coaching tenure.

Colorado unsettled quarterback situation: I frankly didn't expect either Cody Hawkins or Tyler Hansen to separate himself during the spring. The situation is scrambled by Hansen's broken thumb, which will take him the next few weeks to recover from. And the departure of former coordinator Mark Helfrich also adds another dynamic as the decision plays out. I'm betting we won't know the Buffaloes' opening-day starter until shortly before their Sept. 5 game against Colorado State.

The development of Nebraska's tight ends: Mike McNeill already was one of the most underrated players in the conference after setting a single-season record for catches by a Nebraska tight end last season. A beefed-up Dreu Young has developed into a terror as a run blocker. Ben Cotton merely showed the talents that made him a top recruit when he came to the Cornhuskers. Kyler Reed and Ryan Hill also were impressive. All that talent should help abate Bo Pelini's concerns about wide receiver a little bit heading into the summer. Look for the Cornhuskers to play a lot of two-tight end sets this season.

Brandon Harold thriving upon his return to defensive end: Harold was forced inside by injuries to Kansas State's defensive tackles late last season as a freshman. But a bulked-up Harold appears to have kept most of his speed after he moved back to the outside this spring. The results were obvious after he produced nine tackles, four tackles for losses, three sacks and forced a fumble in the Wildcats' spring game.

Nebraska leads the conference in spring game attendance: The Cornhuskers always seem to lead in spring attendance, anyway. But interest and excitement is percolating for Pelini's program after the fast finish, capped by the Gator Bowl triumph over Clemson. And it was seen in the attendance of 77,670 for the spring game -- a total more than 16,000 fans ahead of the spring game attendance for the rest of the North Division combined. That is an incredible statistic.

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