2009 Nebraska Football Spring Preview: Defensive Secondary Depth Means Flexibility

The 2008 Husker secondary wasn’t nearly as thin as the linebacking unit, but it entered the season with only two consistent starters - cornerback Armando Murillo and strong safety Larry Asante. Murillo started every game in 2007 and in 2008 started every game but Western Michigan when he was hampered by injury. Murillo is gone now but the Huskers enter 2009 with vastly more experience in the secondary than the previous season. Asante returns to provide leadership in the secondary.

No less than eight players have starting experience, compared with two a year ago, including Larry Asante, Rickey Thenarse, Matt O’Hanlon, Eric Hagg, Prince Amukamara, Anthony West, Lance Thorrell, and Anthony Blue, who started two games in 2007. Between them the defensive secondary has 57 starts.

Depth is a key for the Huskers as they look ahead into the 2009 season. Like the linebacking unit, competition will be heavy for the starting positions. The more defensive secondary players that are available, the more flexibility will be afforded Bo Pelini. Nebraska opened with the nickel package in five games; Western Michigan, San Jose State, New Mexico State, Oklahoma and Kansas State. In five other games; Missouri, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas and Colorado, the Huskers opened with the dime package. Considering the high octane offenses of our Big 12 opponents, the more prepared defensive secondary, the better.

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Matt O'Hanlon (#33) had a great season in 2008. O'Hanlon has a tough battle to win a starting safety spot in 2009.
Photo by Dennis Hubbard.

2009 Spring Season

Cornerbacks

Murillo was the only senior amongst the cornerbacks. After his departure the Huskers enter 2009 without a single senior at the position, but with a healthy amount of depth.

At cornerback, juniors Prince Amukamara and Anthony West enter 2009 with 14 starts between them. Amukamara finished with 34 tackles and forced two fumbles and in the process gained valuable playing time as he entered 2008 having never played the position. He played in all 13 games in 2008, starting against Western Michigan, New Mexico State and Virginia Tech.

West started 11 games in 2008, missing one due to injury. He finished with 29 tackles, a sack, and two interceptions. He tied for first in pass breakups with Murillo with nine. He will be expected to be a steady starter in 2009.

Anthony Blue is the big unknown. Blue sat out the 2008 season recovering from an ACL injury, suffered during spring practice. If Blue can recover his speed and agility, the Huskers add another key player to secondary as Blue was recognized by the Sporting News as a first-team freshman All Big 12 player.

Lance Thorrell found time as the starting dime back in 2008. He played in 11 games, including five starts and finished with 24 tackles. Thorrell began his career as a walk-on.

Alfonzo Dennard was one of only three true freshman who played in 2008. Although he played in 12 games, most of his playing time was on special teams. Dennard saw time as a kick returner, returning eight kicks for a total of 150 yards, an 18.8 average, with a long of 31 against Clemson.

Junior Dejon Gomes is a JUCO transfer from City College of San Francisco who has joined the team early for 2009 spring practice. He has three years to use two seasons of eligibility.

Safeties

Strong safety senior Larry Asante is the most experienced returner in the secondary, finishing 2007 as the second leading tackler and in 2008 starting every game but Missouri where he was replaced by Matt O’Hanlon. Asante finished second in total tackles with 67 and had two tackles for loss, a sack, four pass breakups and an interception. He appeared lost at times early in 2008, but came on later in the season, recording nine tackles against Texas Tech, and 13 against Oklahoma. Asante was one of two defensive players to receive Big 12 honors, making the Honorable Mention list (Ndamukong Suh finished first team Big 12).

Fellow seniors O’Hanlon and Rickey Thenarse split starting at free safety with nine and five starts respectively. O’Hanlon began his Nebraska career as a walk-on, but was awarded a scholarship in 2008. He finished third in tackles with 52, including 33 solos. He had two tackles for loss, five pass break ups, and an interception. He is best known for his play in the Gator Bowl when he slapped a pass away from Clemson running back CJ Spiller to preserve the Husker win.

Thenarse started against Missouri, but battled injuries early in 2008 and then took over the starting free safety role from O’Hanlon for the last four games of the season. He finished with 24 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks. His best game came against Colorado when he recorded eight tackles, two for loss, and a sack. Thenarse remains a fan favorite in a different capacity on special teams where he blocked a punt against Clemson

Eric Hagg garnered starting experience as the starting nickel back in 2008 for a total of ten starts. Hagg’s big plays came in the Gator Bowl against Clemson. In two consecutive plays, Hagg broke up a pass when the Tigers had a first and goal, then sacked Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper for a 16-yard loss to help preserve the victory. Due to the depth at cornerback, Hagg will switch to the safety position.

Mason Wald played on special teams as a true freshman in 2008 and will battle for playing time at safety in 2009. Known for his hard-hitting play, Wald had six tackles, four  solos.



Class Breakdown:


Safety

Larry Asante - Sr
Matt O'Hanlon - Sr
Rickey Thenarse - Sr
Adam Watson - Jr
Mason Wald - So
Austin Cassidy - So
Major Culbert - Sr (dismissed/left team)
Jim Ebke - So (former QB)
Jase Dean - RFr

Cornerback

Prince Amukamara - Jr
Dejon Gomes - Jr  (JUCO)
Eric Hagg - Jr
Anthony West - Jr
Lance Thorell - So
Anthony Blue - So
Alfonzo Dennard - So

DB's

Justin Blatchford - RFr
Courtney Osborne - RFr
PJ Smith - RFr
Andrew Green - Fr
Lazarri Middleton - Fr
Dijon Washington - Fr

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