In part one, I covered the defensive backfield that was the weakest part of the 2006 Husker team and concluded that they won't be the weakest part this coming season. There are some key players on offense that we need in 2007 - the Huskers could be in rough shape if Marlon Lucky, Sam Keller, or Maurice Purify were to get injured. We'd need to rely heavily on the Blackshirts. (We haven't talked about the offensive line - I'll be leaving that for another time.)
Let's start with linebackers. We have good depth here with plenty of experience - Corey McKeon, Bo Ruud, Steve Octavien, and Lance Brandenburgh - all seniors. Ruud and McKeon finished third and fourth in tackles in 2006, with Brandenburgh and Octavien finishing 10th and 11th, respectively. The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense.
Clearly the new defensive ends have their work cut out for them - you don't replace NFL-caliber talent like Jay Moore and Adam Carriker easily. Zach Potter and Barry Turner are top candidates to be the starters here - between them they had 1.5 sacks in 2006. Turner isn't practicing this spring, being sidelined with shoulder surgery. Clayton Sievers has switched from linebacker to defensive end to learn Turner's position. There are a number of other defensive ends such as Tony Sullivan, Andy Poulosky, and Thomas Rice who will battle to get into the rotation, but that we really don't know all that much about.
You can bet that the defensive front four will feature Ndamakong Suh and Ty Steinkuhler as projected starters. Behind Suh at nose tackle is Shukree Barfield, another huge guy at 6'4, 310 pounds. Barfield is a JUCO transfer so there will be questions about him and whether he can do the same job as Suh - specifically - will he have the stamina it takes to play the position throughout the game? Size is one thing - stamina another. This is where the off-season and Barfield's work ethic will come into play. Craig Roark, Kevin Luhrs, Kevin Dixon, and Brandon Johnson may all figure into the rotation. This isn't counting the younger guys, mostly freshmen, whom I don't expect to make an impact so there could be a pleasant but unexpected surprise in the bunch.
The bottom line on the defensive front four is that we don't have a lot of experience but we have a lot of players we know next to nothing about. If I had to THE guy on the entire Husker 2007 team that we can't afford to lose it would be Ndamakong Suh. Suh must be a force in 2007. He has to be the anchor of the defensive line. As a nose tackle, he'll be playing two-gap, taking on a center and guard, and those types of guys aren't hanging around on street corners. The next important guy is the guy who'll get into the rotation to give Suh a break throughout the games.
Losing Suh puts us into a position similar to that of losing Bowman in 2006 - requiring that the entire defense must shift their strategies to make up for the loss. Without Suh the safeties and/or linebackers will be pressed into heavy run support (depending upon the situation). This means that more pressure will be placed on our corners, not a great situation for any defense.
Husker fans expect that the 2007 Huskers will be very good on offense. With Sam Keller, Marlon Lucky, Maurice Purify and an improved offensive line - why not? Unfortunately if we lose one of these guys the Blackshirts will face a tremendous amount of pressure.
I've said it before - spring football makes me nervous. Spring football gives the coaches and players time for more practice, Husker fans get a football fix so they don't go completely bonkers before the exceedingly long period from April to August, but we don't really learn that much about the team. Me, mostly, I wait and hope for no more injuries. I hate to see the names - like Kenny Wilson and Zach Bowman - listed in the media. This spring the last name I want to hear associated with an injury is Ndamakong Suh.