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Nebraska Football Defensive Spring Preview 2016

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Equal parts review and preview, we revisit the 2015 Blackshirts and wonder what clues that gives us for the 2016 version.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 version of the Blackshirts was a big question mark from the beginning. A new set of coaches, new scheme, and perilous lack of linebackers and defensive ends all led to Husker fans with visions of Wisconsin running backs in their nightmares.

The statistical rankings were a mixed bag as the Huskers were a stellar run-stopping unit but miserable against the pass. Injuries and constant [necessary] tinkering with the secondary made this side of the ball look like they were in survival mode.

Here is a quick recap of observations and numbers from 2015 - the good, bad, and ugly. For most listings below, there were 127 teams ranked in all of FBS for these defensive categories.

The Good

Trent Bray, defensive tackles, Trent Bray, stuffing the run and Trent Bray. I am a bit surprised to see 3rd and 4th down defense here, but I am somewhat afraid that was due to the fact that teams generally only needed 2 downs to get a big chunk of yards. Of course, I am too lazy to calculate any advanced stats, but that is my story and I am sticking to it.

Statistic Value National rank Conference rank
rush defense 109.8 9 2
4th down conversion % defense 0.36 14 3
3rd down conversion % defense 0.34 24 5

The Not-So-Bad

Grit, determination, improvement over time. This team never gave up. Ever.

If you consider punters as an honorary part of the defense, then Sam Foltz belongs in the "good" section. The punt return defense drug down the average (#104 in the country). I put net punting here because it seemed to fit.

Statistic Value National rank Conference rank
first downs defense 246 39 7
net punting 38.28 45 3
red zone defense 0.816 52 8

The Bad

Pass rush, depth, generating turnovers. In a nutshell - this team gave up a lot of big plays on defense but did not generate enough of them in return.

Statistic Value National rank Conference rank
total defense 400.4 64 10
scoring defense 27.8 76 10
passes intercepted 10 78 10
team pass efficiency defense 132.96 78 10
team sacks 1.85 80 10
team tackles for loss 5.5 83 13

The Ugly

Injuries, Hail Mary defense, injuries, pass defense most of the season, and injuries.

Statistic Value National rank Conference rank
turnovers gained 15 104 13
fumbles recovered 5 113 12
passing yards allowed 291 121 13

Questions for 2016

Tear these apart. Argue! It is the offseason. Speculation and potential will rule the day, even when we crown a few spring football heroes destined to lead us to the promised land.

  • Can Collins and Valentine be replaced in the run defense? (And will the new defensive line coach 'click' with his new charges?)
  • Was the improvement in the pass defense toward the end of the season the sign of things to come? Or was defensive back's coach Brian Stewart's job only saved temporarily?
  • Can defensive coordinator Mark Banker manufacture a pass rush? Is FREEDOM! enough?
  • Are the signs pointing to a change to a 3-4 defense? (FWIW there is a spirited disagreement among CN staffers on this one)
  • Will another lost year in defensive line recruiting set back Banker's rebuild?
  • Will the Davis twins do backflips after every sack?
  • Can the Blackshirts cut down on the number of big plays they give up?
  • Will this defensive be more 'disruptive' in 2016? (tackles for loss, generating turnovers, harassing the quarterback)

When you add it all up, the Huskers are facing a fair bit of transition in the area that was a strength a year ago (interior defensive line). They will also be relying on a whole bunch of young contributors (outside of Nate Gerry) in the weakest area (secondary).

Defensive ends might be the biggest question mark of all with McMullen a strong possibility to move inside and no clear favorite to be the bookend opposite converted tight end, Freedom Akinmoladun.  Defensive line coach Hank Hughes was shown the door and it is logical to assume that the lack of reinforcements (recruits) played a role in that. The DE's will be critical in the pass rush improvement - something I think is needed to protect the secondary. I admit that as a Denver Broncos fan, I may be a bit too enamored with pass rushers to have proper perspective when it comes to the Big Ten.

The mushy middle of the defense is well-coached (as evidenced by the big pay raise Trent Bray received). Unfortunately, he could largely be picking and choosing between linebackers. that can do A or B but not C or a 'backer that is exceptional a B, average at C but a liability at A. Michael Rose-Ivey when healthy, might be the most complete player there, but his injury history makes it clear that Coach Bray will need to bring along his youngsters quickly.

After a largely disappointing year, this group needs to rebound enough to show positive progress overall, even if the rush defense takes a step back. The Huskers potentially explosive offense may help hide a few warts, but it would be nice if Husker fans did not collectively think "oh no" when the defense trots on the field in the last 2 minutes with the game on the line.

The 2016 season is not going to be the year Nebraskans claim "The Blackshirts are back!". It probably needs to be the year that the talent evaluation and teaching abilities that were so highly regarded as part of Coach Riley's resume become evident.