The Blackshirts were one of the nation's best defenses in 2010, finishing 3rd in pass defense efficiency, 5th in pass defense, 11th in total defense, and 9th in scoring defense. However, they were below average against the run, finishing 63rd. That must improve if Nebraska wants to win the first-ever Big Ten Championship game.
Whether the defensive line was responsible for giving up yards on the ground could be the subject of much offseason debate. More likely is that position that the defensive scheme lent itself to allowing opponents more rushing yardage, preferring that to giving up big plays in the passing game.
As I stated during the linebacker preview, it's clear that Nebraska will move away from the peso scheme that dominated 2010 to a more traditional 4-3 set. That should shore up the run defense, that and the presence of Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler.
The Huskers lose a tremendous amount of experience in defensive end Pierre Allen. Allen started 39 games over his Husker career, gaining first-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in his final year. He was fourth in tackles with 57, had 10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and led the conference in quarterback hurries with 13.
Nebraska had the same four defensive linemen start every game last season, with the exception of Baker Steinkuhler missing the Holiday Bowl because of a DUI suspension. Terrence Moore got his first career start in his place.
Senior Jared Crick returns in his role as one of Nebraska's best players. He had 70 total tackles last season, third most on the team, 17 of which were tackles for loss. He led the team with nine and a half sacks, and also had ten quarterback hurries. He played well enough to earn first-team All-American honors from Rivals.com, and second-team honors from the AP, SI.com and CBS Sports.com.
Junior Baker Steinkuhler was solid in his first starting season, finishing with 46 tackles, four tackles for loss and three and a half sacks.
It's pretty clear that Crick and Steinkuhler will spend the next season as starters, while senior Terrence Moore appears to have the upper hand in being the first in the backup rotation. It's a combination that worked well enough last season, and everyone's got another year of experience.
Sophomore Thaddeus Randle served as Crick's backup, playing in twelve games, making 12 tackles. Randle has gotten his weight up to 300 pounds, and his shorter frame may give him an advantage over Steinkuhler (6-6, 290), but Randle will have to improve his defense against the run.
Redshirt freshman Chase Rome is the wildcard at defensive tackle. Rome spent last year practicing with the regular defensive units, but whether he's gained enough experience to unseat Randle or Moore will be the key to how much playing time he can get. Rome is another player who with a little more experience will become the next Jared Crick (if you're waiting for the next Ndamukong Suh, you're count on waiting another 25 years).
Junior Justin Jackson appears to be the odd man out.
Kevin Williams is one of three new recruits (Tyler Moore, Jamal Turner) who has already enrolled at Nebraska and will be practicing this spring. Given the depth at the position, expect him to redshirt his initial season.
Cameron Meredith is sitting out spring practice to recover from shoulder surgery. Meredith was solid in his first starting season, finishing fifth in tackles with 64, eight of which were for loss. He added one and a half sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Meredith will be a starter when he returns in the fall, but his absence will give (as they repeatedly say ) someone else a chance to "step up".
A decent crop of redshirt freshmen should be ready this spring to compete for playing time in the fall. Walker Ashburn, Donoval Vestal, and Tobi Okuyemi may break the rotation, but to do so they'll have to beat out some more experienced players as their appears to be somewhat of a logjam at the defensive end position.
Sophomore Jason Ankrah gained some valuable experience last season playing in 10 games as a redshirt freshman. He only had two tackles on the season, but should be seen as one of the favorites to win a starter position this fall.
Junior Josh Williams was backup to Pierre Allen last season, and should be a favorite to be a starter come this fall. Williams played in 13 games in 2010, totaled 12 tackles and a quarterback hurry.
Junior Eric Martin moved to defensive end after spending his first two seasons at linebacker. Martin is well known to Huskers fans as a special teams standout, and as the player who was suspended by Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe for a helmet-to-helmet hit during last year's Oklahoma State game. If the move to defensive end was made so that Martin will be on the field more often, he's going to have to work for his playing time.
Junior Joe Carter is a junior college transfer that will join the team in the fall, expecting to compete for playing time immediately. With Williams, Ankrah and Martin in place, Carter may have a hard time getting on the field.
2010 vs 2011
The Huskers came into 2010 with two first-year starters in Steinkuhler and Meredith. They'll come into 2011 with a first-year starter at defensive end.
Crick and Steinkuhler are as good a defensive tackle tandem as you'll find in the Big Ten while Meredith is a solid defensive end looking to make the jump that happens to a second year starter. There are plenty of good prospects for the second defensive end position.
2011 will bring about enormous change in Nebraska's defense - Big Ten offenses more tuned towards running backs than quarterbacks - will require it. The good news is that the Blackshirts have more depth than nearly anyone in the conference.