Nebraska Cornhusker Defense Looks to Make Leap in Pelini's Second Year
A year ago at this time, all of Husker Nation was wondering what Bo Pelini, even with his defensive wizardry and impressive resume, really could do to fix a defense that the previous season had been massacred (and I'm talking Biblical proportions here) on a near-weekly basis.
Not only had fundamental things such as tackling and basic gap assignments apparently fallen by the wayside, the thing that bothered Husker fans most was what seemed like a lack of effort by the Nebraska defense, a seemingly lackadaisical attitude that was among the main factors when Tom Osborne ultimately terminated the previous staff.
One year later, we know why we hired Pelini as our head coach. While he may not have turned the Pinkskirts of 2007 into Blackshirts, he salvaged a sinking ship and got it pointed in the right direction.
The Huskers improved from 112th in the country to 55th, and while 55th might not be cause for celebration, it was good enough for 2nd in the Big 12, and it certainly was better than crapfest saw the previous season under Kevin Cosgrove.
So what does 2009 hold? Will inexperience hold back the Huskers, or will a year in the system overcome any youth-related shortcomings? Here's a look at each unit of the Husker defense for the upcoming season.
Much like their offensive counterparts, the defensive line for Nebraska is the strength on this side of the ball.
Led by All-Everything DT Ndamukong Suh, this unit will be counted on to put pressure on the backfield by itself a lot of the time, especially considering it's difficult to blitz linebackers or defensive backs in a conference where the average pass is gone in two seconds or less.
One exciting thing to watch this season is where Suh positions himself in the pantheon of Husker greats.
How high can he climb? A recent article in the Lincoln Journal-Star put him as the 20th-best defender in Husker history. Obviously he has a long way to go to get into Grant Wistrom territory, but what if he puts up another monster season with a few more sacks?
What if by dominating, he enables the rest of the defense to rise to new heights on his back? Stats are not the only thing that measures greatness. Greatness is making the people around you better.
In addition to Suh, the Huskers have proven players in defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Tuner. Allen, who last year filled in for Turner after the latter's season-ending knee injury, surprised many with his stellar play.
According to defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, he could be the Huskers next "superstar," though Allen was quick to downplay the quote. Still, having Suh on the interior, along with a rejuvenated Turner on the other side, should offer Allen plenty of opportunities to make good on Pelini's prediction.
The guy who is the most unknown player among the starting front four is Jared Crick, a sophomore defensive tackle. While he may be an unknown commodity at this point, Bo Pelini singled him out in his press conference Tuesday as a player who has had a great camp and could make a lot of plays with opposing offensive lines having to focus on Suh.
Behind both Crick and Suh is redshirt freshmen Baker Steinkuhler, the former high school All-American who along with Terrence Moore (no slouch himself) will be counted on to give both starters a breather.
Along with Steinkuhler, another redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on this season is Cameron Meredith, who turned heads this spring and will be looked to spell both Turner and Allen on occasion.
The only true freshmen that has really made much noise at all in fall camp is Jason Ankrah, the defensive end out of Maryland. Right now it hasn't been determined if he'll redshirt or not, but they could wait the first few games and see how everyone's health is before making it official.
The key to a great defensive line is having quality depth, as any player, no matter how well-conditioned, is going to get tired up front if the defense is out there for an extended series.
Carl Pelini didn't switch guys out much last year, but I expect him to be less hesitant to throw some younger players in this year now that everyone knows the system, and it should be fun to watch what should be a extremely good (and potentially dominant) unit.
This is what makes writing a season preview for the Huskers difficult: we are still sans a depth chart. That said, a few things have began to hash out the past week, and apparently Nebraska could be trotting out a cabbage patch kid assortment at linebacker.
Two of the projected starters, Will Compton at the MIKE and Sean Fisher at the BUCK, are redshirt freshmen.
Obviously we have no way of knowing if they both will indeed be starting Saturday, given the coaching staff's insistence on making competition go up through Thursday, but the staff, and the young duo's older teammates, have been effusive in their praise of Compton and Fisher.
Compton, a 6'2" 230-pound wrecking ball, was highly recruited out of high school in Missouri, and there were several times last year where he nearly had his redshirt yanked to help a depleted linebacking corps. Luckily for Husker fans everywhere, they were able to resist the temptation and continue Compton's development.
According to Carl Pelini, Compton's communication and mastery of the defense are two of the biggest reasons for his rise to No. 1 on the depth chart.
Backing him up will most likely be Phillip Dillard, who in his senior year is looking at his last chance to live up to the spotty potential he has shown the past few years here. Expect senior Colton Koehler, who saw significant time last year, to also see his share of playing time at the MIKE position this year.
Fisher, the 6'6" genetic freak, is someone I'm going to be watching with great interest this season. Anytime you get someone with that frame and speed on the field, it makes life hell for opposing quarterbacks, because it shuts down some throwing lanes and forces the QB to float his passes just a little bit more than he'd like to, which hopefully will lead to more interceptions.
In addition to his physical skills, word out of camp is that he also is a student of the game and is becoming, according to fellow linebacker Blake Lawrence, one of the leaders of the defense, which is surprising for a second year player.
In addition to being the No. 1 BUCK linebacker, Fisher is also getting the lion's share of the reps as the No. 1 linebacker in both the nickel and dime packages as well, so this is a kid who will be on the field a lot this fall. Said linebackers coach Mike Eckler halfway through camp: "His game, it's just elevating by the day."
Lawrence and former walk-on Mathew May are both competing pretty hard for the remaining starting position, though it will be interesting to see how many linebackers are on the field for most of our defensive sets, given the amount of spread looks the Huskers will get in the Big 12.
May has more athleticism than Lawrence, but reportedly is still trying to soak up the playbook. Of course, Lawrence also has had multiple concussions, so it'll be interesting to see what kind of rotation Eckler will use to utilize all the players he has at his disposal.
In addition to the two deep, there are also a couple of freshmen to keep an eye on this fall. Alonzo Whaley, a redshirt freshmen, made a lot of noise last year on the scout team, and his speed should be an asset, particularly on special teams if nothing else.
In addition to Whaley, true freshmen Eric Martin and Chris Williams also could potentially see playing time this fall. Martin by all accounts has had a head-turning camp, including the now-infamous hit that Eckler said was one of the best he's seen during his time at Nebraska.
Williams, one of the higher-rated linebacker recruits in the country, might not make it on the field till later in the season, as he's working back from a knee injury he suffered last season. While he's reportedly making good strides, the staff is being especially cautious with him, especially after Kody Spano's knee injury.
While the name may suggest otherwise, this unit is of primary concern if Nebraska is going to make another big leap in the defensive rankings this year. Last season, while still trying to learn the ins and outs of Pelini's defense, the secondary had several embarrassing mental lapses that led to easy scores for opponents.
In fact, I blame this group for the meteoric rise in my blood pressure last year, Larry Asante in particular.
To be honest, hearing the chatter out of camp that Asante is one of the best performers is making me both optimistic and nervous. Optimistic because maybe now I won't see slot receivers racing past him after he bites on the tight end running routes underneath, and nervous because what if he hasn't really improved and it just means that everyone else is playing like garbage?
Obviously, I'm joking here. While I'm always hesitant to believe everything I read coming out of practices, it seems that Asante, and the secondary as a whole, have finally wrapped their heads around the defensive scheme and are beginning to simply react instead of hesitating to read everything before doing their job.
With the safety spots, there seems to be a four-headed monster with Asante, Ricky Thenarse, Eric Hagg, and Matt O'Hanlon all looking at being interchangeable parts who will see considerable time. While I expect Asante to be a starter, the other spot is still seemingly for grabs.
In camp defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders identified Hagg as his best "lockdown" player, so you would think he would get the nod, but the other spot has usually been a two-player fight between O'Hanlon and Thenarse.
Thenarse, a senior, has been teasing Husker fans with potential for three years now with YouTube-worthy special teams hits, but he has run out of time at Nebraska. While his inconsistency can be maddening, you can't help but root for a kid who lost not one but two brothers to gang violence last year in addition to dealing with nagging shoulder problems.
Finally 100 percent healthy and focused on football, it will be interesting to see if Ricky can be the player so many have long hoped he would become. Sanders has indicated that Thenarse has made significant strides during camp, but also was quick to point out that he's excited about the depth at the position and will "look at ways to get them all on the field."
In addition to the main four safeties, there are a couple of younger guys to keep an eye on. The most promising thus far is redshirt freshmen P.J. Smith, who will definitely see his share of playing time this year after dominating on the scout team last season. Courtney Osborne is another who might see some time, though not as much as Smith.
I expect both these players to get a chance to make a mark on special teams if nothing else. In my opinion, if you're the coaching staff you're going to want to get these guys some looks in game situations though, especially when you consider that Thenarse, Asante, and O'Hanlon are all seniors.
As far as the cornerbacks go, Sanders has indicated that juniors Prince Amukamara, Dejon Gomes, and Anthony West, along with sophomore Alfonzo Dennard will all see significant playing time.
Though Amukamara has reportedly been making a few mental mistakes, he is still considered by many to be the best player at the position in terms of physical tools. If he can curb the errors, he'll be a starter for sure.
In addition to the main four, Anthonly Blue, who was a freshmen All-Big 12 in 2007, is looking to bounce back after redshirting last season with a knee injury. An injury like that is always unfortunate, but to have it happen when there's a regime change makes it twice as tough on the player, as he misses a lot of reps that would help acclimate him with the defense.
Though I haven't heard much about him during camp, he could be a guy who halfway through the year is getting more and more playing time as he soaks up the scheme. The young guy to watch at this position is Andrew Green, a true freshmen who was a three-star recruit out of San Antonio. According to Carl Pelini, he's been doing a lot to turn heads thus far in camp, and could see playing time eventually.
I wish I could sit here and tell you that the defense is going to take a quantum leap this year. To improve from 112th to 55th last year was quite a feat, and even then we still had embarrassing performances against Oklahoma and Missouri. The thing about total defense rankings, however, is that they don't tell the whole story.
The rankings are based off of the total yards given up per game, which can be a bad indicator when you're playing in the Big 12 and basically every team is putting up 400 yards a game through the air.
Pelini's defenses are predicated on everyone doing their 1/11th, and all it takes is one guy being out of position to make everyone else look like a horse's ass (as we saw all too frequently last year).
Film study and repetition within a scheme has a way of getting rid of that split-second hesitation that is the difference between making an interception and giving up a touchdown, and I really think we'll see more of the former than the latter this year.
Am I predicting a juggernaut? No, not by any means. We still have a pretty young team, and there will still be the occasional mental breakdown. But I do believe that this staff, and these players, have an air of confidence not seen in Lincoln in years.
While some may not see confidence as the greatest indicator of future greatness, I think that we are beginning to see the rebirth of the Blackshirt mentality, one where everyone is keeping each other accountable within the system, and nothing but perfection is tolerated. And that, my friends, will lead to the leap we are all hoping for.
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