The defensive secondary loses three-year starter and All Big 12 first teamer Larry Asante and All Big 12 Honorable Mention Matt O'Hanlon. The two had 59 starts between them and last season combined for 148 tackles, being the third and fifth top tacklers, respectively. They also combined for eight interceptions - O'Hanlon leading the team with six, good enough to finish second in the Big 12 and tie for eighth nationally. Asante finished his career third in tackles amongst defensive backs.
Despite losing two great players, the 2010 defensive secondary unit should be the best unit on the team (that's including special teams and with Alex Henery back, that's saying a lot). The biggest question - in terms of pass defense, was the 2009 season so great because of the pressure created by a historically exceptional defensive line or can the secondary unit perform at the same level again this season without one?
Note - In Pelini's defense, the line between cornerbacks and safeties is blurred. On top of that, several players moved around this spring and there's no assurance they'll play the same positions in the fall, other than the fact that they'll be in the defensive secondary unit (kind of, there's the peso).
Amukamara started all 14 games last season, picked off five passes, including one that set up the only touchdown Nebraska scored in the 10-3 win over Oklahoma. Another interception the killed a Colorado scoring drive in a game that was way closer than it should have been. Amukamara gained All Big 12 First Team honors.
Dennard worked his way into the starting position at Missouri and went on to start nine games. Dennard didn't get any interceptions last season, but he did have eight pass breakups, third behind Amukamara and Ndamukong Suh.
By the time 2010 is over, Amukamara and Dennard may be the best cornerback duo in Husker history. It's easy for opponents to avoid a single corner by not throwing to his side of the field. Having two corners who can cover man-to-man is an incredible advantage - it can have the affect of shutting down an opponent's passing game or force them to consistently throw to less reliable, less explosive receivers.
Anthony Blue should be fully recovered from a knee injury in 2008. He played on special teams as in a backup role in 2009, but should see a lot more time at corner in 2010. He started in 2007 and played well enough to be awarded First-Team All-Freshman Conference honors by the Sporting News.
Lance Thorrell played extensively last season in the nickel and dime packages and will continue that role in 2010. Justin Blatchford excelled on special teams, returning a blocked punt for a touchdown against Baylor. Blatchford may switch to safety in 2010. Jase Dean is another secondary member who excelled at special teams. He suffered a season-ending knee injury against Missouri last season, but should see his share of action in 2010.
Redshirt freshmen Dijon Washington and Andrew Green should gain experience this season. Marcus Mendoza switched to corner after trying his hand at running back last season. It's a move made to get him on the field, but given the depth at the position it prove difficult.
Lost: Larry Asante, Matt O'Hanlon
One of the biggest stories this spring has been the personnel grouping known as the peso - a grouping that puts an extra defensive back on the field playing as a linebacker. It's a good spring story, but nothing particularly amazing to note about it other than it makes sure Eric Hagg stays on the field more often. Hagg played in all 14 games last season, starting seven as the nickel back and finishing with 40 tackles, seven for loss, an interception, four pass breakups, and a forced fumble. His played gained him All Big 12 Honorable Mention honors.
Dejon Gomes and Anthony West switched to from cornerback to safety this season to provide more depth and experience at the position, having 22 combined starts. Gomes was Big 12 Honorable Mention and Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year in 2009. West saw action in 13 games, starting five, ending 2009 with four pass breakups.
PJ Smith worked well enough last season to be considered the third safety behind Asante and O'Hanlon.
Austin Cassidy played on special teams in 2009, but will see time behind Eric Hagg this season. Courtney Osborne is a wildcard - athletic enough that he should see playing time, but not experienced enough to break into a consistent starting rotation.
Rickey Thenarse is back for his fifth Husker season, after suffering a tearing his ACL against Louisiana-Lafayette. He received a medical hardship from the NCAA to return in 2010 and deliver more of the big hits Husker fans have become accustomed to.
Expect to see plenty of defensive backs on the field in 2010, with Gomes, Hagg, Smith, and West being the primaries at the safety position.
Nebraska's signing day surprise (although perhaps not to Bo Pelini - is anything a surprise to that guy?) was Corey Cooper out of Proviso East in Maywood, IL. Include Ciante Evans, Joshua Mitchell, Harvey Jackson and Bronson Marsh to this group and you end up with a pretty impressive backfield.
Expect this entire group to redshirt. There's enough depth that they can spend next season growing - getting stronger, getting acclimated, and learning how to play Nebraska football the way Pelini demands.
2009 vs 2010
In 2009, the Blackshirts were incredible. Opponents completed only seven touchdown passes, while Nebraska finished first nationally in pass efficiency defense.
The 2010 defensive secondary will be the strongest unit on the team. There's enough depth that the team could lose a starter and not drop in potential, a key point considering that Nebraska started with six defensive backs six games last season. There's plenty of experience, and there's an enormous amount of athleticism.
If there is one area in which the overall defensive performance could improve, it's in decreasing the number of mental mistakes that lead to big plays. The most prominent example was the longest opponent special-teams play of the season - the 81-yard pass from Tyrod Taylor to Danny Coale that resulted in the loss against Virginia Tech. If this unit can eliminate those mistakes, it can go from great to phenomenal.
(I know that these are a little late coming out after the spring game, but they're still viable. Note to myself to start earlier next season.)