Just over a year ago, Phillip Dillard was clearly in Bo Pelini's doghouse. He was "down a ways" on the depth chart, and it looked like his playing days were over. He didn't play in the first two games of 2009, but started against Virginia Tech. He played well enough the rest of the season to finish as the team's second-leading tackler and garnered All-Big 12 honors by season's end.
Enter 2010 and Dillard is gone, along with Colton Koehler, who saw action in only four games in 2009 after starting the last six games in 2008. Dillard should get picked up in next week's NFL draft.
Losing: Phillip Dillard, Colton Koehler
There are no less than 18 linebackers on the roster in a defense that started in a traditional 4-3 only four times last season (which was actually one more than in 2008). Three of those starts came during non-conference play, one against Kansas State. For most of the season, Nebraska stayed with the dime package, using extra defensive backs against Big 12 "play in space"-happy offenses.
It should go without saying that playing time will be hard to come by for some of these guys, and the competition for the starting postions should be quite fierce. It does beg the question - why so many linebackers?
Will Compton played in all 14 games last season, starting eight, quite an accomplishment for a redshirt freshman. He is the top returning tackler for the unit, finishing 2009 with 40 tackles, two for loss and a half sack.
Fellow redshirt freshman Sean Fisher wasn't too far behind Compton, starting in six games and making 35 tackles last season. His best game was against Iowa State, when he had nine tackles and returned a Ndamukong Suh-blocked field goal 34 yards. He also forced a bad throw by Florida Atlantic's quarterback that was picked off by Larry Asante and returned 74 yards for a touchdown.
Eric Martin became a fan favorite because of his big hits in 2009 as a true freshman special teams player. Martin blocked two punts last season, the first of which was returned by Justin Blatchford for Nebraska's first score against Baylor. He also may have saved the Missouri game when he recovered a punt dropped by Niles Paul.
The key for these three guys is fighting to see who gets to stay on the field as Nebraska moves to their nickel and dime packages - assuming they're the top three that make it to the top of the hill.
Matt Holt had earned a starting position in 2008, but unfortunately suffered a shoulder injury against Kansas that ended his season. Holt, then missed the entire 2009 season due to another shoulder injury that occurred last summer.
Mathew May is another wildcard. He spent most of 2009 injured, but contributed on special teams. Holt and May were both originally safeties that converted to the linebacker position, so they're more likely to stay on the field when the defense moves to nickel and dime.
Recognizing the youth at a linebacker, Lavonte David is the lone linebacker recruit in 2010. David comes in as a JUCO transfer from Fort Scott CC, where he was a teammate of Jemarcus Hardick and receiver Brandon Kinnie. David is football smart, but won't be with the team until fall practice so he'll have to be a quick study to get on the field in 2010. He has three years to play two, so the possibility of a redshirt exists.
2009 vs 2010
It's almost shameful that there are this many players fighting for playing time in a unit that's seen it's role diminished over the years. One thing to remember, though - a number of these players made a huge impact on special teams and they'll continue to do the same in 2010. If you'd like to discount special teams, consider how many games Nebraska won and lost because of special teams play in 2009.
Losing Dillard's experience may not hurt as much as one might think, as the young guys got a good amount of field work in last season. The Huskers enter this position with an upgrade in athleticism and a year experience regardless of who starts. The ferociousness and athleticism in this unit must be considered nothing less than astounding heading into 2010.