In the 2011 defensive backs preview I put together some numbers about Big Ten teams and their 2010 national rankings in the passing game, or, really more like their lack of national rankings relative to Big 12 teams.
It stands to reason that if Big Ten teams are not generating their offensive production through the air, then they're getting it on the ground. A quick look at last year's stats shows a number of Big Ten teams with successful ground attacks, as Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, were ranked 11ththrough 14th nationally on the ground. Purdue was next, ranked 49th.
In the Big 12, only two teams last season were ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushing, Nebraska, at ninth, and Kansas State at 22nd. (Obviously, the Huskers movement to the Big Ten will only strengthen the disparity between the air and ground attacks in the two conferences, given that Tim Beck choses to gain his yards on the ground.)
Nowhere will the difference between the conferences be more obvious than what will happen to the linebacker unit at Nebraska. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it will be the linebackers that determine how well the Husker defense performs in 2011.
That's not bad, though, because the Huskers return a number of exceptional players at the position.
Thomas Grove, Eric Martin (moved to DE)
Husker fans took a deep breath when Sean Fisher went down with a broken leg last August. Fans wondered who would replace Fisher, who started six games and played in all 14 in 2009 as the strongside linebacker. Then they held their breath when Will Compton suffered a foot injury two days before the season opener. Some probably fainted as Will Compton, the projected starter at middle linebacker, suffered a foot injury two days before the opener that kept him out until the last eight games of the season. Fisher missed the entire season.
Enter Lavonte David, a JUCO transfer from Fort Scott Community College and a complete unknown. David would become the biggest surprise of Nebraska's 2010 season. He not only started every game last season, but finished as the top Husker tackler and third nationally with 152 total tackles, setting the single-season tackle record formerly held by Barrett Ruud in 2003 (149). He was nationally recognized by Rivals.com and CBSSports.com as a first team All-American and by the AP and SI.com as a second team All-American.
Compton returned for the last eight games of the season, starting against Oklahoma State, Colorado, Oklahoma and Washington. He finished the season with 15 tackles and one sack.
Eric Martin hasn't left the team, but he has changed to the defensive end position despite starting two games at linebacker last season. Martin has become a fan favorite for his big hits on special teams, although one resulted in a (questionable) one-game suspension by the Big 12 office.
Juniors Fisher and Compton, and senior David should be the projected starters, but they'll be pushed by some pretty decent competition. Junior Alonzo Whaley earned his first career start against Western Kentucky, playing in nine games throughout the season. He finished with nine tackles, but should see extensive playing time in 2011.
Junior Graham Stoddard has been a standout performer on special teams, playing in all 14 games and will provide depth at linebacker. Senior Mathew May also played in all 14 games, mostly on special teams, but did see the field as a linebacker. May is a converted defensive back and was the backup to Lavonte David in 2010.
2010 vs 2011
2010 was all about the defensive formation called the "peso" which featured the Blackshirts playing with six defensive backs around 90% of the time. The formation utilized only one true linebacker. The change to the Big Ten Conference will assure that the Huskers play three linebackers most of the time.
The combination of David, Compton and Fisher may turn out to be one of the best in the Big Ten next season (given they don't suffer the injuries they did last season). The linebacker unit will be key to a successful season. Their performance will determine whether or not the Huskers win their new Big Ten division.