Nebraska coach Mike Riley on Thursday evening had positive updates on several Huskers, even beyond announcing the clearances of senior defensive backs Chris Jones (knee) and Joshua Kalu (hamstring).
Riley said senior outside linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) is set to take a rotating role after missing two games.
Newby’s return will make for an interesting situation at linebacker. To account for losing him and Tyrin Ferguson (turf toe) on the field side, the Huskers moved junior Luke Gifford there and began rotating redshirt freshman Ben Stille and junior Sedrick King on the boundary.
Stille promptly tied senior inside linebacker Chris Weber for the team lead in tackles for loss with four, including three last week en route to earning Big Ten freshman of the week honors.
Will Newby rotate in on that side? Will Gifford and Stille rotate, even though Gifford has been one of only two every-down front-seven players for the Blackshirts?
“That’s a good question; we can do either one of those that we want to do, and you’ll see Saturday night what we do with the outside backers,” Riley said.
Wilbon improving: Junior running back Mikale Wilbon felt “much better” Thursday, according to Riley, but missed a fourth straight practice after spraining his left ankle against Illinois.
“We’ll see what he’s like tomorrow and see if he can be in the mix as a rotation or at least as an emergency guy Saturday night,” Riley said.
Wilbon, who has been NU’s starting tailback since sophomore Tre Bryant was injured Sept. 9 against Oregon, leads the team in carries (56) and is averaging 4.5 yards per rush.
Fellow junior Devine Ozigbo, who has rushed for 100-plus yards in back-to-back weeks, will be the primary option if Wilbon cannot play or is limited. Ozigbo said that he, freshman Jaylin Bradley, sophomore Wyatt Mazour and junior fullback Austin Rose all took practice repetitions this week.
Jaimes, Decker in starting lineup: Riley confirmed Thursday night that NU will not change its starting offensive line this week.
That means true freshman right tackle Brenden Jaimes and sophomore center Michael Decker will each make their third straight starts.
Senior right tackle David Knevel is close to returning from a stress fracture in his right foot and a high right ankle sprain, but is “not 100 percent back yet,” Riley said.
Huskers bet UW will dial up the pressure: The Badgers sacked Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson eight times last week. Through four games, they have 16 — 10 different players have recorded at least a half-sack — and 33 tackles for loss. Senior outside linebacker Garrett Dooley had five of his team-best 7½ TFLs against the Wildcats and also leads UW with 4½ sacks.
“They’re pretty versatile with their pressure, and their pressure is predicated on the type of team they’re playing,” Riley said Thursday. “You’re going to see a little different stuff every game and anticipate a different flavor of what they might do in the blitz game against us.”
Reed still part of plan: Kalu’s return also adds options on the back end for NU. Antonio Reed played mostly nickel early in the season, but stepped in and played well next to fellow junior safety Aaron Williams when Kalu went down.
“We want to keep Antonio Reed active and playing in the games,” Riley said. “He’s a good player. With him and Aaron playing at safety, the defense has actually grown and done a nice job, so we want to keep Antonio active. We really like him.”
Reed has played the past two weeks with a cast on his left hand to protect a thumb injury, but he still had an interception against Rutgers, forced a fumble and is fifth on the team with 25 tackles.
“Antonio’s playing really good ball right now,” redshirt freshman cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said Monday. “Yeah, he only has one hand, but he’s playing just like he has two. It’s not fazing him, it’s not affecting him and that’s the kind of guy Antonio is. He’s a dog.”
1:48: AD search
9:37: Wisconsin breakdown
13:11: Wisconsin pass rush, secondary
17:33: Jonathan Taylor and UW run game
23:50: Steve make his prediction
30:00: Husker hoops opens practice
36:20: Chris and Parker make their predictions