Huskers O-Line Takes a Hit
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Huskers O-Line Takes a Hit

August 19, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. — For the first time this fall, the Nebraska football team has lost a player to significant injury.

Yesterday, Coach Mike Riley revealed that sophomore Jerald Foster – the starting left guard – had suffered an injury in practice and would be out four weeks. However, further testing revealed that Foster had torn his MCL.

“I jumped the gun on Jerald Foster unfortunately,” Riley said. “I was really hopeful and I had heard, the initial report was that he was going to be out four weeks. Upon further examination, he’s actually going to have surgery and miss the season. We’re really disappointed for a number of reasons. First of all, he just put in a ton of work. He was so invested in getting to where he was, so we will miss him. The good news is that what happened they will repair and he will be as good as new.”

Foster, a Lincoln Southeast product, redshirted as a freshman then spent last season as a special teams contributor and the backup to Dylan Utter at left guard. With Utter sliding inside to center, Foster emerged as the clear starter at left guard. Now he’ll have to wait another year to see the field.

“It’s horrible,” said senior linebacker Josh Banderas, another Lincoln native by way of Lincoln Southwest. “Knowing Jerald for as long as I’ve known him and how hard he’s worked, it’s awful that happened. He’s going to be a great player for us, and he’ll be a great player in the future. So I’m excited to see him … I’m just bummed I didn’t get to play my last year with him.”

The hits kept coming as Riley announced that senior utility lineman Corey Whitaker will also miss some time.

“Corey Whitaker, who would’ve been the first guy to go in there, Corey’s got a scope [on his knee] coming and he will miss up to two weeks,” Riley said. “That means he will be back, [but] that’s putting us right up against that first game.”

With options one and two unavailable for the rest of fall camp, Riley and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh have turned to a pair of freshmen to fill in.

“[Redshirt freshman] Jalin Barnett and [true freshman] Boe Wilson are guys that can play,” Riley said. “And I like both of those guys. Physically, they can play. Now we’ve got to get them up to speed to fit in and know what they’re doing. We will make this thing work. We’re disappointed for Jerald, but that’s it. With Corey, we’re just thankful he’s going to be back. Corey plays every position, so we’ve got to get him back.”

Riley said the team plans to keep Utter at center rather than sliding him back to guard and plugging redshirt freshman Michael Decker or someone else in at center.

QB Bush Moves On

Back-up quarterback AJ Bush also revealed on Twitter last night that he is transferring from Nebraska. Bush, a redshirt sophomore, will spend this coming season at Iowa Western Community College.

“I did not want him to leave,” Riley said. “We have many talks about this through the course of months with him and his family. When you’ve got five quarterbacks, you’re five deep. Nowhere else on the team are you five deep. AJ wants to play and he was third right now and then he was going to be in a battle in the spring with two more guys that are here right now, too. It’s just looking for an opportunity and I don’t think it was anything more than that.”

Bush’s departure forces the Huskers to alter their plans at the quarterback position for this season, but Riley said he is still content with the group he has.

“My plan, ideally, was to have Tommy [Armstrong Jr.] be the starter, Ryker [Fyfe] be the backup, AJ be the third guy that would travel and Patrick [O’Brien] redshirt. I like our depth at quarterback a lot. That frankly is your goal as a coach, to have a program where you have older guys playing and they’re good players and they’re doing well. And you have young guys that are going to be that guy eventually, so it’s a process as they go through. We do have a good looking picture right now at quarterback.”

O’Brien, a true freshman, is the player most impacted by Bush’s departure. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, the other quarterback on the roster, has to sit out this season per NCAA rules, meaning O’Brien is now the No. 3 quarterback.

“We obviously need a third quarterback that’s going to travel,” Riley said. “He will be prepared like our third and he will travel and we will hope we don’t have to play him. That is actually not bad. You’ve got a young guy who’s getting used to traveling, game preparation, how it all works day to day to day. It’s really not a bad deal at all. That’s probably how we will approach it … We have to have another guy prepared and we’ve got that kind of built into this team. We’ll have that ready, too.”

Simpson Awarded a Scholarship

In other roster news, after practice on Friday teammates revealed on Twitter that senior linebacker Brad Simpson has been awarded a scholarship. Simpson walked on out of Ralston High School in 2012 and has been running with the second unit at outside linebacker in practice. In essence, Simpson has taken Bush’s scholarship, keeping the total at 84 right now.

Saturday’s Scrimmage a Key Test

The Huskers are going to scrimmage during Saturday afternoon’s practice, and defensive coordinator Mark Banker said the defense has had a good week and a good Friday heading into that scrimmage.

“When we finished our scrimmage and met on Monday, I told the defense that I thought that this week was the most important week,” Banker said. “We had put the building blocks in place, this would give us an indication of where we could go from there, how fast we could go. You’d like to be able to have a breadth of calls in your scheme to help you some that you won’t come back to until game six. This week was really important to build up, number one, consistency with what we did with our building blocks and then from there how much more could we give them?

“Today’s practice I know the offense seemed a little bit down with a couple of offensive linemen out and things like that. That 2-minute situation is probably as efficient as I’ve seen us be.”

Senior safety Nate Gerry shared what he is hoping to see most from the defense on Saturday.

“I think we need to finish a lot better,” Gerry said. “We need to work on our tackling. We’ve been doing a lot of fundamental tackling drills with our approach to the ball, so putting ourselves in live situations like tomorrow in the scrimmage, I think that’s one thing that we need to focus on is our angles to the football.”

Gerry Likes Level of Improvement in the Secondary

The safety and cornerback position have been separated in practice to allow better individual instruction by Banker (safeties) and Brian Stewart (cornerbacks), but Gerry said that hasn’t affected the communication between the two positions out on the field. In fact, Gerry said the secondary has made a big improvement in that area.

“I think it’s been night and day from what we were last year,” Gerry said. “Last year we kept on kind of getting mixed signals together. Now we’re both kind of set and clear so we’re able to listen to each other, able to give one call and just focus on that call an have no problems with it. I think communication has helped us so far in camp.”

Gerry said limiting big plays and having more success on first down are two of the defenses primary focuses heading into the season, and if the team is able to stay on the same page, more turnovers will follow.

“To create turnovers, everybody has to do their job,” Gerry said. “That’s one thing that we’ve been focusing on in camp is – last year we had nine people do the right thing or 10 people do the right thing, but that one person, good quarterbacks and offenses are going to find that weak spot. Playing all together – I think that’s helped us a lot during camp is we’re all on the same page and that’s how we create turnovers. Today I thought we had a really good day. We had a couple turnovers, we had a couple interceptions, and I think that’s because everybody did their job today.”

#LockdownU

Stewart has been promoting the #LockdownU hashtag on Twitter in regards to his position group at Nebraska. That may seem like a fairly presumptuous mantra considering the team’s struggles in the secondary last year, but for Stewart, in order to achieve something you have to first believe it.

“I’ve said it before. Muhammad Ali was 18 years old when he said he was the greatest. When we buried him about a month ago, we all know him as The Greatest,” Stewart said. “I think you have to start somewhere and if you start where you want to be, you’ll end up being where you want to be.”

Young D-Line Facing Two Big Weeks

Defensive line coach John Parrella said these next two weeks will be big for redshirt freshman tackles Carlos and Khalil Davis, who need to make a jump to get on the field.

“In order for us to win and play at a full capacity, we need these two guys to know what the hell they’re doing, play hard and be efficient so that they can just get after it,” Banker said. “John [Parrella] and I sat down with them at the end of last week and said ‘You know what, there’s two different games that are played; there’s one up front and there’s one in the back end.’ For those guys, they love that stuff. They love the physical part of it. But there’s also controlled mayhem. They’ve got to stay within that box because as soon as you go off that edge, that’s all it takes, one guy out of 11, and you’ve got a big play.”

At this point of camp, the second unit is starting to shape up for Parrella with the Davis twins and Logan Rath inside and Sedrick King, AJ Natter and Alex Davis on the edges.

“[Alex Davis] has really been making a push here these last couple of weeks and that’s a good little group,” Parrella said. “They just have to improve daily and be tough. That’s the bottom line. That’s the whole group. They have to understand that if we win in practice, the games will take care of themselves. You have to make practice as grueling as humanly possible so they’re ready to play on Saturday nights.”

Parrella said they saw the “light turn on a little bit” with Alex Davis and they’ve been giving him some opportunities to play with and against higher units recently.

“Alex Davis, golly, he’s come out of nowhere,” Banker said. “Something went on with him this week. He had a couple of pass rushes this week that were pretty outstanding. [Right tackle David] Knevel? Now the dude’s 7-foot-2, right? He’s got long arms. And Alex Davis had one arm on him as he’s coming around the edge and even Knevel was having a hard time getting his hands back on Alex’s body. That was crazy.

“We know that’s the first thing he’s going to do – he’s going to shine as a pass rusher. But he’s played the run much better. This kid’s learning, right? One year of high school football and all together this is his third season of playing and this season hasn’t even started.”

Work Still To Do at Defensive End

One player who hasn’t made the second-year jump yet is defensive end DaiShon Neal. Neal dealt with injuries in fall camp last season and ended up redshirting last year.

“There’s no redshirt,” Banker said. “He did that last year. Whenever he’s ready to go — and it’s a long season, one game at a time, it’s a marathon – he’ll be on the field because he can help us. He’s a good-looking rascal and he’s improved a lot. His biggest thing is pad level. When you incur an injury and then return it doesn’t just go back on.”

Not only is Neal working his way back from an injury, but he is facing another unique challenge – his own height.

“[I want to see] continued improvement,” Parrella said. “When you’re 6-foot-7 – the biggest challenge for any tall kid is your foot work. He’s working on that daily and learning how to be a knee-bender and his technique. He’s swimming a little bit but I think he’s got an extremely bright future.”

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