Published Friday, July 19, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 4:21 pm
Speed on defense has Papuchis pumped

Nebraska’s John Papuchis acknowledges the challenges associated with replacing eight starters and training a youthful defense this fall. But first he must point out a perk.

The less experienced the player, the easier he is for coaches to mold.

“They don’t have good habits, they don’t have bad habits — they have no habits,” the Husker defensive coordinator said at a fundraiser Friday night. “Whatever they turn out to be in the next two or three years, it’s whatever we’re able to develop them into.”

The on-field work starts in about two weeks, when the NU football team kicks off preseason practice on Aug 3.

Papuchis and wide receivers coach Rich Fisher were on hand for more than two hours Friday at the All Holy Spirit Greek Orthodox Church, at 90th and Q Streets, to help provide about 250 fans with a season preview. Normally Tim Beck joins Papuchis for the annual event, but the offensive coordinator recently underwent jaw surgery.

So Fisher stepped in to talk about a veteran offense that he said may not have many opportunities for young players to contribute.

It’s a different story on defense, though.

Besides seniors Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, Papuchis named nine players along the line who either haven’t seen game action at this level or have had very sparse exposure to it — redshirt freshman Avery Moss, redshirt freshman Greg McMullen and junior Randy Gregory at end; and at tackle, sophomore Kevin Williams, sophomore Aaron Curry, redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine, true freshman Kevin Maurice, true freshman Maliek Collins and senior Brodrick Nickens.

Yet those guys are all expected to be in the mix for spots in the defensive line rotation.

Papuchis said Nebraska’s linebackers are as athletic as ever since his arrival in 2008, though splitting game reps could be tricky when the Huskers are matched up against spread offenses early in the season.

There’s seasoned depth at cornerback and plenty of potential at safety, but no battle has been settled yet. Papuchis said true freshman Nate Gerry, a safety from Sioux Falls, S.D., could make an immediate impact.

Said Papuchis: “I think some way, somehow, Nate Gerry’s going to play football for us and be a pretty good player for us this year.”

Question marks don’t bother Papuchis at this point. This pool of prospects has talent, and perhaps those physical traits will end up being the biggest asset for players who’ll inevitably make mistakes.

“We can run,” Papuchis said. “Speed kills. We can teach a lot of things, but we can’t teach speed. I’m excited about the fact that we have some pretty fast, dynamic, athletic guys.”

Other notes from the coaches Friday night.

Ľ??Sophomore receiver Taariq Allen (knee) was cleared last week to participate in next month’s practice, Fisher said. Allen’s 2012 season ended when he was pushed to the turf, landing awkwardly during the opening kickoff against Michigan. Junior receiver Tyler Wullenwaber and freshman quarterback Johnny Stanton are also healthy, Fisher said.

Ľ??Fisher listed a few potential candidates to take practice reps returning punts and kickoffs: junior Kenny Bell, junior Jamal Turner, redshirt freshman Alonzo Moore, true freshman Terrell Newby and junior Josh Mitchell. And maybe junior Ameer Abdullah — but only if the projected starter at running back can handle the workload.

“I coach the kickoff return team,” Fisher said, “so I’ll fight to have Ameer back there.”

Ľ??Papuchis spoke briefly about college football’s new consequences for players whistled for a targeting penalty. A flag means the violator will be suspended for one game. It could put defenders in “no-win” situations, Papuchis said, because moving at full speed, helmet-to-helmet collisions are sometimes unavoidable. “The intentional, flagrant hits that are sometimes out there that are meant to cause harm — those need to get out of the game. I agree with that,” he said. “But football’s a violent game. It’s just part of what it is.”

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

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