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Growth of young Huskers gives hope when thinking ahead

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Mark Banker wasn't sure Joshua Kalu was even going to play Saturday.

"Kalu was sick. He was very, very sick tonight. ... But he's a warrior," the Husker defensive coordinator explained after Nebraska's 31-14 win against Rutgers. "He went out there and competed."

Banker joked that maybe there was an advantage to the sophomore cornerback being sick. "Because he was more serious the whole time, so he had to really focus," the coach said with a smile. "No, I'm telling you. That kid, he can do anything he wants to do. He's a dynamic individual both as a person and a player."

Whether sick or feeling like a million smackeroos, games like Saturday's can only help young players such as Kalu and fellow sophomore corner Chris Jones grow in confidence.

No, Rutgers standout wide receiver Leonte Carroo probably wasn't 100 percent as he tried to come back from an ankle injury. But he was on the field. And the receiver averaging 105 yards a game came up with just four catches for 62 yards.

When Rutgers tried to go deep to Carroo at one point in the first quarter, Jones had him all the way, notching the first pick of his college career.

"With Chris, it is just a matter of more reps, more confidence," Banker said. "And as we approach the offseason, which we still got a ways to go yet, (it's about) getting him in the weight room and getting him strong, because he is a helluva athlete. He's got to be feeling better about himself."

So do several other young Huskers. If this 5-6 campaign, which has taken a turn to the positive in recent weeks, is ultimately viewed as a building season, let's throw out names of some of the underclassmen, sophomores and younger, who Husker fans can feel good about as they hope for a big finish to 2015 with a better 2016 to come.

For the sake of brevity, we'll dedicate most of this space to those young players who were on the field this year. But certainly redshirts Carlos Davis, Alex Davis and Khalil Davis on the D-line, and Eric Lee and Avery Anderson in the secondary, will be among those of great intrigue when the spring rolls around.

Considering NU's need for guys that can make noise at rush end, take note of what Banker said about Alex Davis in September: "He's not too far from getting out on the field right now and actually playing for us."

Davis, a basketball standout in high school, has been building size while learning the game. Keep him in mind.

These guys too....

Aaron Williams, S

A true freshman who has started two games this year at safety. Perhaps you caught Banker's comments about how Williams was "the shining light" of an otherwise crappy Husker game against Purdue. Banker was high on Williams ever since spring.

And recall what Banker said about the safety even in the summer before a game had been played. Williams has great FBI, the coach thinks. Football instincts.

Banker said Williams can quickly pick up the A, B and C options of a play, “and then all of a sudden he knew D came after C, and then there was even an E and F. And you go, ‘Oh, o-kay.’ … FBI. He’s got it. He understands that stuff. Then you couple that with the athleticism and the toughness, and you’ve got yourself a live one.” Doesn't seem that opinion has changed at all.

Nick Gates, RT

Winning a starting job at right tackle over a senior should tell you plenty about the redshirt freshman. On an O-line that will lose three starters, he'll be looked up to by others next year.

“I think we’re all tough guys,” Gates said earlier this fall about the O-line competition. “I think we could all do that role, but I’d like to think I’m one of the five toughest guys.”

No question he is.

The young LBs

Marcus Newby and Chris Weber, and Dedrick Young and Tyrin Ferguson: Two sophomores and two true freshmen.

Weber and Newby got more snaps than many would have guessed in late August and ran with the opportunity. Young has been a Blackshirt since Day 1. Ferguson? An intriguing piece in the middle linebacker conversation along with Josh Banderas and Weber. Remember, Trent Bray recruited Ferguson like crazy, and coaches saw enough out of him to get him experience on special teams this year.

Linebacker depth was a real worry in August. It shouldn't be as much so the next one.

Devine Ozigbo, RB

With Imani Cross moving on, it opens up more reps in 2016. Ozigbo looks like he's a do-it-all guy, too.

Only had two carries this past week but he ripped off a 30-yard run on one of them. He was also being trusted to block on a big third down. His 129 yards on 18 carries give him a 7.2-yard average.

His four catches have added another 47 yards.

Antonio Reed, S

Worth attention in the safety competition next year.

As a true freshman, he's already become one of the team's better special-teamers.

Redshirt freshmen D-linemen

Freedom has been quieter at D-end since nonconference play, and having minor surgery on his knee.

He'll have to keep working, and growing, to become a force in future league games. But you've seen the promise. He still leads the team in sacks with 4½.

Stoltenberg has had limited reps this year in the D-tackle rotation, but the redshirt freshman from Gretna with tree-trunk arms has held his own when he's been out there. He's 6-foot-5, 285 pounds. Has all the looks of someone who will play some big snaps eventually.

Stanley Morgan, WR

Some guys get a lot of fall camp love and never live up to it. Stanley Morgan did.

The receiver has 20 catches for 229 yards in his first year in the program. To put that in perspective, Jordan Westerkamp had 20 for 283 as a redshirt freshman. So Morgan is in that same ballpark.

Add to it that he's become a pretty good kick returner despite never having done it in high school. Asked earlier this year how he's picked it up so fast, you have to love his response.

"Just being a ballplayer, I guess."

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