By Tommy Rezac
Nebraska’s coaching staff, along with the rest of the nation, have known for awhile how dazzling Jr. RB Saquon Barkley has been this season.
For a Husker team that’s given up an average of 279.8 rushing yards and 41.3 points in the last four games, the Big Ten’s leader in all-purpose yards has become a pivotal focus.
“(Barkley) is the total package,” Diaco said. “He’s got contact balance, great speed, great vision. Powerful runner, big thick-bodied guy. He breaks tackles, he makes you miss, he can jump over you. What’s fun to watch is his pass protection. He’s an aggressive blocker. One of the best backs that’s been in the league in some time.”
The speedster and Heisman candidate is 5-11, and packs a punch at 230 pounds. He’s been held to under 70 yards rushing in his last three games (44, 63, 35), but still leads the Big Ten and is second in the FBS with 1,846 all-purpose yards.
899 of that on the ground, 524 through the air and 423 in kickoff returns. He’s taken two kickoffs back for a touchdown this season, most recently against then-No. 6 Ohio State on Oct. 28 in a gut-wrenching 39-38 loss.
Trace McSorley, Nittany Lions’ offense
Penn State’s Jr. QB, who engineered a 21-point comeback against Wisconsin in the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game, is a superstar in his own right.
The second-year starter and Davey O’Brien Award Finalist has accounted for more than 3,000 all-purpose yards and 30 all-purpose touchdowns in 2017. His 2,666 passing yards lead the Big Ten.
“It’s weapons at all levels on offense,” Diaco said. “The offensive coordinator (Joe Moorhead), a great coach. Fun system, attacking system. Really suits their players well. They’ve got a weapon at tight end. He’s the most productive receiver they have.”
Mike Gesiciki, the Sr. TE Diaco was referring to, is the Nittany Lions’ lead receiver with 42 grabs, is third in receiving yards with 419 and has five touchdowns.
Moorhead and Diaco never worked together, but both spent a considerable amount of time coaching in the Northeast region of the U.S.
“He’s just a name you know,” Diaco said. “I think he does a great job of getting his play makers the ball.”
Moorhead spent time as an assistant at Pitt beginning in 1998 as a grad assistant, and has since had stops at Georgetown, Akron, UConn (before Diaco got there) and was the head coach of Fordham from 2012-2015 before getting hired as PSU’s O-coordinator in 2016.
Moorhead was successful in three seasons at Fordham, finishing with a 38-13 record. He made the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2014.
Last week, Diaco said former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, along with current head coach Mike Riley, are both “beautiful in their own way.”
He took a page from Pelini’s playbook when he was asked his reaction to watching the film of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.
“Disgusting game,” Diaco said. “You watched it. You know.”
“There’s been so many things we’ve been working on. So many things that I’ve alluded to for you guys in terms of the gaps in defending and how hard it is to defend with those gaps and how you eliminate the gaps and how it long it takes to eliminate those gaps.”
Nebraska’s total defense (32.5 ppg) and rush defense (200.1 yards per game) both rank 105th in the FBS.
Diaco says he plan to close these gaps with two games left with “loving the players, diligence, and detail.”
“Show up the next day and give more,” Diaco said. “Try harder as a coach to serve them and their needs. They want to get better. Everyone is straining to get that done.”
The Jr. linebacker and at one time, team-leader in tackles, was seen in full pads Tuesday, but did not participate in practice. Gifford hasn’t played since the Ohio State game on Oct. 14.
“I feel badly for him,” Diaco said. “He’s going to be okay, but he was doing such a wonderful job and really found a home at (outside linebacker). It really suits him, and he was becoming a real leader. Still doing a nice job as a leader, actually. We’ve given him kind of a role to kind of coach the field overhang. He really bought into it. I’m not sure he wants to be a coach someday, but I’m sure he’d make a hell of a coach.”
Gifford ends the season with 39 total tackles, including three tackles for loss. He’ll undergo surgery on Thursday.
O’Brien says he’s still “preparing as if he’s the starter” this week. He mentioned his work in the film room really doesn’t change.
“Just trying to prepare every single day and trying to get better,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s father, Paul, is a Philadelphia native, and O’Brien says he’ll have up to 21 in attendance at Beaver Stadium.
Jr. QB Tanner Lee was not at practice, as he continues to go through concussion protocol. Coach Riley said on Tuesday’s Big Ten Teleconference that Lee has “cleared the first hurdle” when it comes to getting back on the field. Riley remains optimistic that Lee could potentially return.
So. CB Eric Lee, who’s also going through concussion protocol was at practice Tuesday, stretching and warming up in street clothes. He remains questionable for Penn State.
Elsewhere, So. LB Tyrin Furgeson (turf toe) was working out in full pads for the first time in several weeks. Jr. NT Mick Stoltennberg (knee), Jr. S Aaron Williams (neck), Sr. TE Connor Ketter (back), Fr. RB Jaylin Bradley (ankle), and Sr. LB Chris Weber (neck) all suited and worked out Tuesday.
Most of them are probable or “hopeful” for Saturday.
Additional Practice Audio
In Case You Missed It
Dirk Chatelain joined Jack Mitchell and Josh Peterson of 1620 The Zone on Tuesday morning to give his thoughts on the current state of Husker Football, coaching rumors and plenty more.
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.