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CN Season Predictions Rountable Part 3: Defense

What does the CN staff think is in the cards for the Blackshirts in 2021?

Nebraska v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s time to turn our predictive focus toward the defense. Erik Chinander’s unit returns a lot of starters and has renewed their focus on trying to turn up the heat and force turnovers. There is less to guess about here than for the offense, but definitely some lingering questions.

General thoughts about the defense and role they might have in keeping the Huskers competitive this season?

Todd: The defense is going to determine what this season is positive or negative for Nebraska. They are going to have to be good with the questions on the other side of the ball. I think they will answer the call, though they are still a ways away from the golden days of the Blackshirts.

Jill: There is some good returning experience on all three levels of the D and some depth emerging. I’ll take “solid” from the Blackshirts for a important year where the offense will need some time to find its footing.

Nate M: I think when you return those Super Seniors from a defense that wasn’t great then you hope it is their experience which could put them over the top. The defense was starting to play better toward the end of the 2020 season and they wanted to go to a bowl game. I think they are ready to shoulder the load for this team at least in the beginning of the season.

Mike; I don’t think the defense has to carry the load completely; they were good enough last year without a lot of help from the offense. I’m intrigued as to whether we see a positive impact from the involvement of Jay Foreman and Jason Peter on defense. Can they help install the Blackshirt attitude from the glory years, or will it be counterproductive as today’s players roll their eyes at the old guys ragging on them? It’s a mindset we haven’t really seen any sign of over the last decade.

Andy: Last year, they showed flashes - some actual pressure and nice moments against Ohio St., a decent shutdown of Northwestern that deserved better than the offense’s red zone gags and a couple of stands which saved the Penn St. game after the McCaffrey-fense shut down for good.

For success this year, they don’t have become the 90’s Blackshirts, but the flashes have to be the occasional mistakes and the good things have to become the consistency. The combination of experience and athleticism have made that possible. Will they actually believe it enough to pin their ears back and make it happen?

Bri: I am most excited to watch this defense play this year. They have the experience and were showing us good things toward the end of last season. I think they are going to be a solid unit and if they are able to stay off the field a little more (the offense is at least a little productive) they have a shot at being great.

The lack of pass rush has been an issue the last few seasons. Will a pass rusher emerge (if so, who?) or will Chinander have to scheme pressure - again?

Todd: Pass rush has been a huge problem, and from my perspective the most frustrating aspect of Husker defense in the past five, ten years. I think that there is enough size and talent up front to eat up blockers and free up linebackers. Pressure is most likely to come from Domain and Payne. I would love to see one of the big guys turn into the second coming of Ndamukong Suh, or even half-a-Suh, and pressure up the middle.

Jill: I don’t hold out a ton of hope based on what Erik Chinander has said in practice reports, but I think Pheldarius Payne might be the best chance for a true pass rush. Domann on blitzes can be very effective but I don’t know if he’ll get used very much in true pass rush situations. I agree with Todd, if the big guys up front can squeeze the pocket, who knows? It might be enough to let the secondary get greedy and grab some INTs.

Nate M: Know who’s name we haven’t heard much at all during the fall? Caleb Tannor. You would maybe think that means he hasn’t been putting in work, but he received a Blackshirt and they weren’t handing them out to just anybody. He might surprise us.

Andy: Despite not having a Broderick Thomas type of guy coming through the gaps consistently, we did get better pressure on QB’s in 2020 than we have in a few years even if the sack total didn’t reflect it and yes the schemes helped. Do we suddenly have guys who can blow through in a straight-up front rush? I doubt it.

But am I intrigued by an improving Ty Robinson or Casey Rodgers? A Pheldarius Payne’s potential blowing up? Jojo Domann unleashed? Definitely enough to where I think a combo of the talent and schemes will turn some heads.

Bri: I would say that Jojo Domann will be the best bet to break out as a pass rusher.

Which level of the defense do you expect to be the strongest? Why?

Todd: There are good players at all three levels, but I don’t know if there are any great players. Thus, there isn’t a level that easily stands out. My gut tells me the fellas up front are going to dictate the success of the defense based on the depth and competition that exist.

Jill: My money is on the line too. In the B1G, you live or die in the trenches.

Nate M: For some reason I’m feeling good about the linebackers. I think Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich are going to be studs.

Mike: I’m going to agree about linebacker. JoJo Domann has been arguably Nebraska’s most valuable defender the last couple of seasons, and the combination of Reimer and Henrich have a lot of potential.

Andy: I can’t call it. The line is strong and deep, the linebackers are freakish and the top three in the D-backfield might be best. I’m laying money my utter indecision is a good thing.

Bri: I think it’s going to be the backfield, I cannot wait to see what our corners and safeties are able to accomplish the season. I am feeling more interceptions than we’ve seen in a while.

We have a lot of known quantities on the defense but new faces too. Which new (or newer) player(s) do you expect to burst onto the scene in 2021?

Todd: Chris Kolarevic. I’ve talked to a former UNI player that is still close to the program and he said that he is an incredible player. Real tough and real smart. Hopefully he stays healthy as we have seen a number of linebackers nicked up that last few years.

Jill: I like Todd’s choice. Kolarevic seems like a solid addition. With so many veterans, it’s hard to pick a new face. So, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that if the new Australian punter (Cerni) wins the competition, he is the defensive player that makes a difference.

Nate M: Jordan m’f’n Riley. Nuff’ said.

Andy: He didn’t get a Blackshirt after impressing everyone hard in the spring, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and…..join the crowd. Kolarevic.

In 2020 (8 games) the Blackshirts grabbed five interceptions. Opponents fumbled 13 times (but Nebraska only recovered two). If you extrapolate that to 12 games, it would be 7.5 interceptions and 19.5 fumbles (three recovered). Will the Blackshirts go over/under on that in your opinion?

Todd: Over. From the beginning Chinander has preached takeaways. Now that he can put a team on the field that is very comfortable with the scheme, they can be more aggressive.

Jill: I’m not sure if they’ll force more fumbles (I hope so) but I think they’ll recover more. I’m told that fumbles lost/recovered tends to be a 50:50 proposition and things eventually regress toward the mean. If so, the Blackshirts are due to get a few bounce into their hands. As far as interceptions, Cam Taylor-Britt seems ready, willing and waiting to get more interceptions. The problem is, I don’t think teams will throw his way all that much until they have tested the guy who ends up opposite him.

Nate M: I’ll take the overs on that. How can you only recover 15% of the fumbles? That can’t continue right?

Mike: Sheer probability would lead you to take the over. I don’t know about the secondary with interceptions, but you should expect a few more fumble recoveries. And I believe Cam Taylor-Britt is ready for a huge season; I’ve seen quite a bit of disrespect going his way, and there’s only one way to answer that.

Andy: Unders. Relax, just kidding. Overs. And I was ecstatic to see we had such a huge number of loose balls because my brain was having trouble wrapping itself around finishing that low nationally in total takeaways. It felt like opponents were getting it knocked loose as much as us and hey! They were. So suck it, demon rum, you didn’t actually cloud my mind as much as I feared.

Bri: Overs. I already said we are getting more interceptions this season.