Big Ten Breakdown: Nebraska Cornhuskers, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)
In the first part of this series, I looked at Nebraska's offense, as well as the overall team outlook. In this part, I'll look at the defense, as well as the measurable parts of the special teams.
***With the 11 other Big Ten teams the conference rankings were based on Big Ten numbers. This is impossible with Nebraska. In effect, it is based on Big 12 rankings, as conference rankings such as this are only telling when taken in context with a given team's opponents.***
2010 scoring defense: 17.4 PPG (second in the conference), total defense: 306.8 YPG (second), rushing defense: 3.90 YPC (fourth), passing efficiency allowed: 96.31 (first).
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 4.6.
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: first (2009).
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 12th (2007).
Returning starters: DE Cameron Meredith, DT Jared Crick, DT Baker Steinkuhler, LB Lavonte David, LB Will Compton, CB Alfonzo Dennard, S Courtney Osborne, S Austin Cassidy.
Open positions: DE, LB, CB.
Bo Pelini (and his elfin brother Carl) run a simple defensive scheme that is a variation of the Tampa-2 defense. As with any Tampa-2, it starts up front with a disruptive front four that play assignment football.
This site does an excellent job of breaking it down in more detail than I could.
Whatever questions there are about the Nebraska offense under Pelini, the defense has worked. The last two seasons have seen the Huskers amongst the top two in the Big 12 in scoring defense.
This season's defense will look to continue the trend.
There are legitimate All-American candidates at each level of the D, along with multiple all-conference candidates sprinkled throughout.
The one question I have concerns what Pelini calls his Peso back. The Peso back is a linebacker-safety hybrid that was manned by all-conference "safety" Eric Hagg last season.
Pelini started his Peso back (in place of a third linebacker) in all 14 of the Huskers' 2010 games. He also started a sixth defensive back in seven of the 14 contests.
My contention is that this is a successful strategy in the pass-happy Big 12, where less than 50 percent of the offensive plays last year were of the rushing variety. On the other hand, in the Big Ten, where teams ran more than 57 percent of the time, he would hurt himself by not playing a base 4-3, or even a variation of a 5-2.
One has to assume that Pelini, who played safety at Ohio State, knows what the Big Ten is about and knows what works. Furthermore, he certainly has the personnel to play either a 4-3 or a 4-2-5. However, until I know differently, I am left to make my own assumptions based on past actions and tendencies.
Huskernation breathed a sigh of relief when defensive tackle Jared Crick decided to hang around Lincoln one more season.
Crick will be a three-year starter. In 2009, he was overshadowed by Ndamakong Suh but had a pretty solid year playing next to him. Crick had 73 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
Heading into 2010, there were questions about whether Crick would falter with offensive coordinators scheming against him. He responded with 70 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
Walterfootball.com ranks him as the second-best defensive tackle in college football (after MSU's Jerel Worthy) and projects him to go in the first 20 picks of the 2012 draft.
Junior Baker Steinkuhler will start alongside Crick. He is not the monster that Crick is or Suh was, but he is solid and can play assignment football.
Senior Terrence Moore will push Steinkuhler hard for playing time. If he doesn't win the starting job, he will be the first tackle off the bench.
Also, redshirt freshman Chase Rome has turned some heads in practice and will likely see some playing time.
The starting weak-side end will likely be junior Cameron Meredith. Meredith is a two-year starter that is a specialist at stuffing the run. He also displayed versatility in switching to a stand-up end in NU's occasional 3-4 scheme.
Moreover, he has a stellar mustache.
The strong-side end will probably be manned junior Josh Williams or JUCO transfer Joseph Carter. Williams played in spot time last season.
Finally, sophomore Jason Ankrah and junior Eric Martin may earn playing time as well. Martin, who has played linebacker for the past two seasons, made the move to end during the spring. His chaotic approach to football is probably better suited for a three-point stance, especially on passing downs.
In closing, this will be the best front four in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the country. The only conference defensive line groups that might be in the same ballpark are Michigan State and Ohio State.
As previously mentioned, last season Nebraska used the linebacker much less than most Big Ten teams. In fact, only one Cornhusker linebacker had more than 30 tackles last season. There is not another Big Ten team that can say that. There is not another Big Ten team that can say it had fewer than three linebackers with fewer than 30 tackles.
That said, the one linebacker that did have more than 30 tackles was all-conference JUCO transfer Lavonte David. David topped the team with 152 tackles. He also had 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks.
David's stats might suffer depending upon what scheme Pelini uses. If he employs more linebackers then David will have fewer tackles. However, David is one of the best linebackers in the conference and the country. He is a lock for all-conference honors and will vie for All-American status.
According to what I've read, in 4-3 schemes David will play the weak side. The middle linebacker will be junior Will Compton.
Compton missed five games last season with a foot injury. He is not the playmaker that David is, but he is a solid, experienced linebacker.
The strong-side linebacker will one of juniors Sean Fisher or Graham Stoddard.
Fisher might be the Huskers' second best linebacker in terms of upside. He missed all of last season with a leg injury. Meanwhile, Stoddard has seen most of his playing time as a special teams ace.
Other players that will vie for playing time and fill out the depth chart include senior Matthew May, junior Alonzo Whaley as well as a true freshman or two.
Man-for-man, the Cornhuskers have one of the two best linebacker groups in the conference.
My hesitation is as it concerns whether they play a 4-3 or prefer to go with a base 4-2. If not for that question, I would have ranked Nebraska either first or second in the conference.
Nebraska graduated All-American cornerback Prince Amakumara, all-conference safety Eric Hagg and multiple-year starting safety DeJon Gomes.
Despite these losses, it still has one of the strongest secondaries in the conference and in the country.
The primary reasons for this are a good deal of players rotating, and due to the Peso defense, a lot of defensive backs got a lot of experience last season.
The first cornerback is senior Alfonzo Dennard. Last season, Dennard was second team all-conference. This season, he will be first team all-conference and will look to be follow in Amakumara's footsteps as an All-American.
Dennard has missed practice recently with a pulled muscle, but he is expected to be healthy for the season opener.
The second cornerback is sophomore Ciante Evans. Evans gained one start last season, when Dennard was out with a concussion. Reputedly, Evans played well, but it is worth noting that in the game that Evans started—Iowa State—the Huskers had their worst defensive outing of the season and let ISU score nine more points than their season per-game average.
Of course, Evans is now one year older and Pelini is very high on him.
Other cornerbacks that will push for playing time include junior Antonio Bell, sophomores Andrew Green and Dijon Washington; and redshirt freshman Josh Mitchell.
Junior Courtney Osborne will man the strong safety spot while senior Austin Cassidy will play free safety. Neither began 2010 as a starter, but both had cemented their places by the end of the season.
Also, JUCO transfer Daimion Stafford and junior P.J. Smith will compete for playing time, both at safety and as the starting Peso back.
Last season, Nebraska had the third-best passing defense in the country. This season, it might take a miniscule step back, but it will still have the best passing D in the conference and will rank amongst the best in the nation.
I would list all of Alex Henery's accomplishments as a Cornhusker, but it would take too long. If you'd like to look, please see for yourself.
Henery has been Nebraska's place kicker for the last two years and the punter for the last two. Now, he is off to ply his trade in Philadelphia, and the Huskers will have to find new players to do the job.
The most likely kicker will be true freshman Mauro Bondi. There is little to be said about Bondi except that he is a true freshman, and was Rivals 16th-ranked kicker recruit in the country in 2011.
The punter will be junior Brett Maher. Again, there is very little to be said about him other than that his first punt in 2011 will be his first collegiate punt ever.
Niles Paul was last season's kick and punt returner, for which he won All-Big 12 honors. He also exhausted his eligibility.
Last season, receivers Tim Marlowe and Brandon Kinnie got some work on the kickoff return, though neither fared as well as Paul.
Marlowe and running back Rex Burkhead got some work on punt returns, though, once again, neither did as well as Paul.
It's unlikely Burkhead will be involved with the return game, and as the only experienced receiver, Kinnie might be too valuable.
True freshmen might play a part here as receiver Jamal Turner got some work returning kicks and punts in the spring game. Also, running backs Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah have high school experience returning kicks.
In the end, the Nebraska specialists are a question mark from top-to-bottom, though it is a safe bet they will not be as good as last year.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 12
Coming later this week, a look at the Cornhuskers' schedule and final breakdown.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan Wolverines.
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