LINCOLN — It was a question about Nebraska's offensive line that coach Bo Pelini used to describe the state of the Huskers after what he called a productive spring camp.
How does Nebraska's line — one of the nation's best for decades, but recently inconsistent — make that jump from good to great?
“Win them all,” Pelini said with a quick, purposeful laugh. He added that, from his view, NU has run the ball pretty well in the past two years.
“But to take the next step for our football team, we need to get that much better,” Pelini said. “And that includes the offensive line. And you can say that about a lot of our areas: We've been good, but not great. We need to take that next step.”
In a half-hour phone interview with The World-Herald on Friday, Pelini explained how the Huskers progressed toward that “next step” in the spring — and what has to be done over the summer to keep the momentum going.
Pelini offered his take on each major offensive and defensive group. Who made a move in the spring? Will quarterback Taylor Martinez make the jump to a more effective passer and game manager? Will four injured defensive linemen return for summer conditioning? What's the summer recruiting plan? Which incoming freshmen could contribute right away?
The fifth-year coach addressed those and other topics in this football-focused interview.
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World-Herald: As a general overview, what were you happiest with this spring with your team?
Bo Pelini: When you go through spring, a lot of it is about individual development. We got a lot of guys reps. Across the board, we got better. A lot of guys made progress. And I'm not just talking about the spring. We accomplished a lot in the months in the offseason. We made a lot of strides. Makes me excited for the upcoming year.
Across the board, we needed to get better. Better attention to detail. More conceptual knowledge of what we were doing. I thought we were able to do that. I thought we came out of spring as a much better secondary, for instance. I wanted to see what we were going to do at the Will linebacker spot to fill Lavonte's shoes and I thought Alonzo Whaley stepped up there, and David Santos is a guy who's on the come. He's still green, but I think he made progress. Sean Fisher is back to the Fish that he was before he got hurt. I was really excited about that. I thought defensively, we made great strides.
WH: What in your secondary did you see that leaves you optimistic about their development?
BP: We had a lot of green talent — a lot of guys who needed to develop. They were young. Inexperienced. We threw a lot at them and we got better at the details. Ciante Evans had a good spring. Daimion Stafford and our safeties — P.J (Smith) and Courtney (Osborne) down to (Corey) Cooper, Harvey (Jackson) — they're light years ahead. Really makes me excited. And we have a lot of talent at the corner position. Andrew Green had a tremendous spring. Mo Seisay, Antonio Bell, Ciante, Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Stanley, he didn't know what he didn't know last year. And he's a totally different guy right now.
WH: Andrew Green's at one corner spot. Who's competing for that other starting cornerback?
BP: Mo Seisay. Antonio Bell. Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Those top four guys are capable of playing for us. That's some pretty good depth.
WH: At linebacker, what did Whaley do to solidify the Will spot, and why do you feel so good about Santos?
BP: David — his understanding's a lot better. He's still trying to figure some things out, but I thought he did some really good things. He showed what he's capable of. Whaley moved over from Buck, and (while) he played some pretty good football for us toward the end of last year, I wasn't sure how he was going to pick up the Will spot, but I thought he got better over 14 practices.
You know, when we start getting in our nickel and dime packages, we'll have a lot more options than we had last year. We can get pretty fast on the field pretty quick. That's exciting to me. We like to match up a lot, get a lot of speed on the field. The depth in the secondary makes us versatile.
WH: On the defensive line, you had Todd Peat, Thad Randle, Chase Rome and Kevin Williams sit out of spring with injuries. Do you expect all four back and healthy this summer?
BP: Oh yeah. Randle and Williams will be cleared pretty quick here. Rome's in the same situation. Todd's a little further away, but he'll be fully cleared by the time we start summer conditioning. When we get to June, we're going to be pretty healthy.
WH: Doesn't it hurt young guys like that to miss the physical reps in the spring?
BP: Chase and Thad have played a lot of football. I wasn't as concerned about them. And at least Kevin Williams was able to go through individual drills.
WH: Your top defensive ends — Jason Ankrah, Joe Carter, Eric Martin, Cameron Meredith — are all upperclassmen. How much of a step forward did they take?
BP: They had good springs. Ankrah had an exceptional spring. Eric Martin got better. We know he's a talented pass rusher, but he's playing the base pretty well. Carter, with a year under his belt, showed he could help us a lot.
WH: Can you get a more effective and explosive pass rush than you got from your front four last year?
BP: We'll see. Just by being healthier, we're going to get a more effective pass rush. We weren't very healthy there last year. We're going to be a little bit deeper. You get a healthy Thad Randle in there — along with a healthy Kevin Williams — those guys are pretty athletic.
And we've got to be a little bit more aggressive than we were a year ago. Being better in the secondary will make our d-line that much better.
WH: By "aggressive," do you mean more blitzing?
BP: More multiple than we have been. We weren't comfortable to use all the bullets we had in our gun. We're a lot more equipped to play the style of defense I like to play.
WH: Were Rick Kaczenski and Terry Joseph everything you thought they'd be?
BP: Absolutely. And more. When you have turnover, you still want continuity. Guys who are going to do things — from my standpoint and (defensive coordinator) John Papuchis' standpoint — the way we want them done. Rick didn't have a hard time since he was with us through the bowl game. And Terry had a real good understanding of what we wanted to do.
WH: Last question on defense: You lost Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. They don't grow on trees. So coming out of this spring, did you find enough players — or a combination — to replace their playmaking ability?
BP: Since I've been here, we've always lost good football players. I think we've developed our guys well. And our guys have moved along, and our next guys have been productive. We can say that every year, that we're going to lose some good football players, if we're doing our job right.
You figure out what your strengths are and you play to those strengths. We did that with Fonzo, Lavonte and Crick. And we'll continue to do that. But we have some talented players.
WH: Do you expect any of the true freshmen to contribute next fall, or is your depth such that you feel like you can redshirt those players?
BP: If you look at them physically, we have guys who are capable of playing as true freshmen. How mature are they? How quickly are they going to pick things up? We'll see how it plays out. But on the hoof, we have guys who have a real chance to challenge for playing time.
WH: Moving to offense. Tim Beck, year two. You talked about wanting to diversify the offense, to balance the pass and run. Did you achieve, in the spring, what you wanted schematically?
BP: We made good strides. There were certain things we put emphasis on, and we were able to do that. We got a lot of reps at it. We have a chance to be pretty salty on offense. We wanted to make sure we're versatile and making defenses defend the whole field on us. Inside. Outside.
WH: What did you emphasize?
BP: Being efficient. Make sure that you're not shooting yourself in the foot. Be better in the penalty area. Be more efficient in the passing game. I think Taylor (Martinez) and Brion (Carnes) have a lot better understanding of how to use the offense to their advantage and how the system works. You're never at the level you want to be at, but I know we're further along than we were at this point a year ago.
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WH: Is Martinez going to make the jump fans expect him to as a passer and game manager?
BP: I think he will. I think he has to. He's been good, but I think there's a whole other level he can go to, and Taylor would be the first to tell you that. He had a good spring. But it comes down to how the offense gels come September. That's a work in progress.
WH: Martinez has had a lot of snaps and starts at the position. Do you expect that experience to kick in?
BP: I would hope so. I've been saying: It seems like he's been around so long, but he still just finished his sophomore year. He's got two years of football left. It requires growth. Hard work and getting better. If he keeps working, he has a chance to do really good things.
WH: You thought that Carnes made progress in spring camp, but did canceling the spring game hurt him? That was an extra 60 to 70 snaps in front of a full stadium.
BP: It sure would have helped for him to be out there. But it's not going to kill him. He had a good spring. He showed progress in areas. He's got to keep coming in others. Yeah, I would've liked to get him out there. But we weren't going to do a lot in the spring game. We never do. Not where he's going to be audibling. He wouldn't have had the full offense at his disposal. The thing he does miss out on is playing in the stadium, in front of a big crowd. But it is what it is.
WH: How do you feel about your running back spot with Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green?
BP: I feel great about our running back position.
WH: What did Abdullah and Green show you in the spring?
BP: They're ready to play. To be very productive. They're going to be dangerous guys. They really got better. And it's going to make Rex better. We're not going to have to lean on him as much.
Let's face it: It's hard to come in as true freshmen and play. Ameer and Aaron were ready, but not nearly as ready as they are now.
WH: Are Abdullah and Green co-No. 2s then?
BP: The way I look at it, we have three running backs who can play at any time. That's what I was hoping to come out of spring with.
WH: What last pieces can Burkhead add to his game?
BP: He's a pretty complete player, but at this point, let's face it: In all our guys' lives, they're young pups as far as being football players are concerned. He'll keep getting better in what he's asked to do.
WH: How do you assess the fullback spot?
BP: There's a battle between Mike Marrow and C.J. Zimmerer. Mike's probably a little bit ahead, but it's neck-and-neck. They both have a chance to be good football players. I like them both.
WH: At tight end/wide receiver, you have as much talent as you've ever had in your tenure. How do you spread the ball around yet keep them polished and on their game?
BP: That's what we stressed this spring: Use the versatility of this offense. Multiple tight ends, multiple running backs. Get our kids with skill on the field and spread the field. But also not get too far away from two-back football.
Kyler Reed had an exceptional spring. He really played well for us. And Ben Cotton, with his consistency. He's now a very versatile player. And I think our wideouts got better.
WH: Will you study over the summer how to better utilize Cotton and Reed?
BP: We did that in the spring. We'll have a number of ways to do that. We played them a lot together last year and we'll continue to do so.
WH: Nebraska fans are offensive line aficionados. It's a cultural passion. And the sense is: You've had good lines — but not great ones — in your tenure. Do you agree — and how do you make the jump from good to great?
BP: Win them all. There's improvement you can make. Having more consistency in what we're doing offensively will help. We've run the ball pretty well here the last couple of years. But to take the next step for our football team, we need to get that much better. And that includes the offensive line. And you can say that about a lot of our areas: We've been good, but not great. We need to take that next step.
WH: Who on the line had a good camp?
BP: Jeremiah Sirles had a really good spring. We have good depth. What's going to make us better in the fall is: No. 1, we do have depth. No. 2, we're going to have great competition through fall camp. That'll make us better. It'll help us when we get Jake Cotton back. He's going to be a heck of a football player for us. I thought Spencer Long had a tremendous spring. And I feel real good about our center position. I came out of spring having confidence in our centers. If we keep working, we have a chance to have as good of an offensive line as we've had.
WH: Among the freshmen coming in this summer, are any of those guys going to be in a position to play, or will you redshirt most of those guys because of your youth and depth on offense?
BP: We'll see how they compete. How they pick things up. Same as defense. We have guys who are athletic and mature enough to come in and compete for playing time. I look at a guy like Jordan Westerkamp — he's a pretty polished wide receiver. I could see him making some noise. (Quarterback) Tommy Armstrong will come in here and compete. He's a good football player.
WH: You think that there's a chance Armstrong won't redshirt? Or do you feel good enough with your No. 1 and No. 2?
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BP: I believe in competition. Brion getting better will push Taylor. And Tommy Armstrong — or some of these young quarterbacks already here — will make Brion better. That's what I believe in. You add good football players to the mix, it ups the competition.
WH: On recruiting for 2013: Did you expect to have more commits than four at this point?
BP: We have a couple guys who have committed that haven't announced it yet. We're a little bit ahead of where you think we are. It hasn't been announced publicly, but we have a couple guys who have put their hat in the ring. When they announce, that's up to them. I feel like we're ahead of where we were last year — or the year before — at this point.
WH: Do you have a commit number in mind for the summer?
BP: We'll have a better sense of that after spring recruiting. This spring recruiting period always has been big for us. Not just getting commitments, but really dialing in. A big part of our recruiting is evaluation. And we've done a good job of evaluating guys — of finding the guys who fit us — and we get a lot done during this spring period. We'll hit a lot of places, see a lot of guys and we'll really earmark and hone in on guys we think that fit what we want to do.
WH: You talked before spring about wanting to make the jump from good to great. That last year wasn't what you planned. What are you most encouraged by that makes you think you'll make that jump?
BP: I like the work ethic, I like the football team, I like the character, I like the intangibles. I like our potential. If we keep working and staying on this track, we have the opportunity to be a really good football team. And we'll see how it plays out. I'm not big into making predictions — 'we're going to do this' or 'we're going to do that' — but we have the opportunity. It's going to come down to our level of commitment. And if we can keep this train headed in the same direction. I think we've built up some momentum through the offseason. We'll see if we can keep it going.
WH: If there was one thing you want your team to zero in on this summer, what is it?
BP: Continue our focus on the details. If we do that — not only stressing it, but living the attention to detail, living it every day, not just some of the time — that's what gets us over the top.
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