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Nebraska's spring growth stamps them as North title challengers

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska's inexperienced play at quarterback was supposed to be the biggest concern that could keep the Cornhuskers from challenging for the Big 12 North title.

But after the Cornhuskers' spring game, production at the position was the biggest story in an impressive outing that was played before a Big 12-best crowd of 77,670.

Nebraska's quarterbacks combined to complete 36 of 54 passes for 485 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in a strong collective effort.

Projected starter Zac Lee looked sharp as he completed 15 of 18 passes for 214 yards and three TD passes to help the Red to a 31-17 victory over the White.

"I thought Zac played well and he had a great spring," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He did a lot of good things and he managed some things well. He just carries himself and he's a very confident kid. He did a lot of good things and he's clearly ahead."

Converted linebacker Latravis Washington, playing with barely a month of college experience at the position, was another revelation. Washington completed 13 of 21 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown and showed an intuitive grasp of the offense.

More importantly, Washington's strong showing could embolden Nebraska coaches into placing him in the backup position behind Lee. It might save a redshirt season for incoming freshman Cody Green -- a scenario that wasn't expected to be available after Kody Spano's knee injury earlier in spring practice.

"The quarterback position is in good hands," Pelini said. "I feel good about that spot. There's talent there. There's confidence there. And we've got a great guy (offensive coordinator Shawn Watson) coaching them."

The Cornhuskers barely ran the ball in the spring game, producing only 168 combined yards in the scrimmage.

But no worries there. Roy Helu Jr. will be healthy by the time fall practice begins and the Cornhuskers' running game likely will be their biggest offensive strength.

Wide receivers were another concern, but some of those fears were allayed after the strong showing by Antonio Bell, who made a couple of nice catches in the spring game and looked to be a natural running backs kickoffs. His effort should lessen any concerns about the status of Niles Paul, who was suspended for the team after he was charged for driving under the influence last week.

Development by young tight ends Dreu Young and Ben Cotton, son of the Nebraska offensive line coach Barney Cotton, also was notable this spring. Cotton snagged four receptions for 48 yards in the spring game and Young developed into a punishing run-blocker. Their growth only added to the depth at the position that is headed by underrated starter Mike McNeill.

The depth at tight end should lessen concerns about the loss of leading receivers Nate Swift and Todd Peterson from last season.

And any worries about the defense's performances in the spring should be tempered by the fact that the unit was split for the spring game. Continuity will be better as the group works together.

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has been happy with development this spring in the second season.

"I think we are moving a little more quickly than a year ago, and we're also a little more decisive," Pelini said. "I thought we were looking much faster on both sides out there."

Nebraska's spring development should boost them into the conversation to contend for the North title with Kansas. The quarterback questions appeared to have worked themselves out enough where the Cornhuskers look like a team that will contend for its first trip to the Big 12 title game since 2006.

"We got a lot accomplished this spring ball," Bo Pelini said. "We got a lot done. I'm happy. I'm not satisfied, but I'm happy with the progress we made. But we still have a long way to go yet."