Nebraska finished 92nd nationally against the run last season, giving up an average of 192.50 yards per game. They gave up 26 plays of 20 yards or longer on the ground. UCLA pounded them for 344 yards, while Ohio State ran for 371. Wisconsin racked up 539 yards in last year's Big Ten title game, breaking the previous record of an opponent's single game rushing yardage previously held by Oklahoma on November 24, 1956 when they racked up 506. Worse yet, Wisconsin did it in only 50 attempts while Oklahoma had 73.
Last year's Big Ten title game left a smell that won't wash off the Husker defense until they prove they can stop good teams from manhandling them on the ground. I wouldn't expect that to turn around in a single season but there is good news. Nebraska's offense should be the most explosive scoring machine Husker fans have seen since 1983.
This season may resemble MACTION more than Husker fans would like, but the upside is that the defense doesn't have to be great for Nebraska to have a great year. The defense has to only be average.
This is our first attempt at projecting this season's defensive depth chart. There's a lot of hope in it, particularly up front.
|9||Jason Ankrah||DE||6-4||265||Sr.||Gaithersburg, Md. (Quince Orchard)|
|90||Greg McMullen||DE||6-3||285||RFr.||Akron, Ohio (Hoban)|
|53||Thad Randle||DT||6-1||290||Sr.||Galena Park, Texas (North Shore)|
|98||Vincent Valentine||DT||6-3||325||RFr.||Edwardsville, Ill. (Edwardsville)|
|96||Aaron Curry||DT||6-1||280||So.||Keller, Texas (Fossil Ridge)|
|92||Kevin Williams||DT||6-2||275||So.||Holland, Ohio (Springfield)|
|69||Brodrick Nickens||DT||6-5||310||Sr.||Alliance, Neb. (Alliance)|
|99||Jay Guy||DT||6-1||290||Jr.||Houston, Texas (Eisenhower)|
|44||Randy Gregory||DE||6-6||230||Jr.||Fishers, Ind. (Arizona Western CC) (Hamilton Southeastern)|
|94||Avery Moss||DE||6-2||270||RFr.||Tempe, Ariz. (Corona Del Sol)|
Perhaps I'm cheating by listing everyone who has the potential to start (although Nickens and Guy are a stretch, and I've left off Donovan Vestal, Tobi Okuyemi, and Walker Ashburn), but the point is that this is a fairly thin group. Add to it that Randle seems to held together with bubble wrap, duct tape and bailing wire and you realize there's a lot of pressure being placed on only a few young guys.
|13||Zaire Anderson||LB||5-11||220||Jr.||Philadelphia, Pa. (Riverside CC) (Frankford)|
|40||Max Pirman||LB||6-5||230||So.||Orrville, Ohio (Orrville)|
|41||David Santos||LB||6-0||225||So.||Spring, Texas (Klein Collins)|
|15||Michael Rose||LB||5-11||230||RFr.||Kansas City, Mo. (Rockhurst)|
|33||Jared Afalava||LB||6-3||230||RFr.||South Jordan, Utah (Bingham)|
|52||Josh Banderas||LB||6-2||220||Fr.||Lincoln, Neb. (Southwest)|
The linebacking corps seems to be fairly athletic and deep but inexperienced. Anderson showed a lot of promise before a season-ending knee injury last year just three games in. Santos played in 13 games last year, starting one, making him the most experienced linebacker coming into the season.
Afalava's importance became more pronounced when Thomas Brown was dismissed from the team along with freshman defensive tackle Ernest Suttles.
Bottom line - like the defensive front, we know nothing about this linebacking corps except their inexperience. Lose a player or two to injury or acts of stupidity, and things can turn bad quickly.
|17||Ciante Evans||CB||5-11||190||Sr.||Arlington, Texas (Juan Seguin)|
|16||Stanley Jean-Baptiste||CB||6-3||220||Sr.||Miami, Fla. (Fort Scott (Kan.) CC) (Westlake Prep)|
|14||Jonathan Rose||CB||6-1||190||So.||Leeds, Ala. (Auburn) (Leeds)|
|5||Josh Mitchell||CB||5-11||160||Jr.||Corona, Calif. (Eleanor Roosevelt)|
|4||Mohammed Seisay||CB||6-2||200||Sr.||Springfield, Va. (Eastern Arizona JC) (West Springfield)|
|1||Harvey Jackson||S||6-2||210||Jr.||Fresno, Texas (Hightower)|
|21||Charles Jackson||DB||5-11||175||So.||Spring, Texas (Klein Collins)|
|19||Wil Richards||S||5-11||190||Sr.||Lee's Summit, Mo. (Lee's Summit West)|
|6||Corey Cooper||S||6-1||210||Jr.||Maywood, Ill. (Proviso East)|
|11||Andrew Green||CB||6-0||195||Sr.||San Antonio, Texas (Madison)|
There's more than just development of a young defensive line that's at work here, although that's obviously important. Depending upon how fall practice goes, Pelini may be forced to adjust his defense. The constant complaint that "Nebraska doesn't have DT's to run his two-gap defense" is misplaced as it is a simplification of the subject. It would be more accurate to say "Nebraska doesn't have DT's" and leave it at that as that may be the case again this season.
At Big Ten Media days, Pelini mentioned that last year he wanted to play more three-man fronts. We may see that frequently this season with an extra linebacker walking up to the line in run support. Don't take that as going to a 3-4, which, again, is a simplification. Much of what happens here will be determined by how quickly Moss, Curry, Valentine, and McMullen come along in fall camp, and heaven forbid that anyone in that front seven group go down because of injury.
In terms of experience, the front seven and secondary are complete flip-flops of each other. Next year we'll be worried about a young secondary. It's always something.
Husker fans are looking for the next Ndamukong Suh or Lavonte David. While Suh was a physical freak of nature, what really made David special was his football smarts. That tends to get overlooked, and if this defense is going to be better than last year's version, it may be smarts that gives them the edge. Pelini's defense is complex (which begs the question "Why doesn't he dumb it down?") and when it comes to "development", making the correct pre-snap reads and knowing assignments will more important than being the best athlete on the field.
Fall camp is imminent and soon we'll be hearing nothing but good things about players, which is fine. Fans need to prepare for the season as much as the players. This year's defense will be interesting to watch - how they mature, how well they tackle, get takeaways, and what they do when under pressure.
There can be joy in simply watching those things and perhaps that's the best approach to take given that we know nothing about a good number of players who will be expected to start and more expected to contribute. That approach might save you a lot this season - indigestion, hangovers, heck, strained relationships with others as they openly wonder about your mental state.
Of course, it's easy to say that in August. As they come - September, October, and November - then all bets are off.