Grading the Huskers......Defense

Spring games are what they are. Part scrimmage, part showcase with a big emphasis on the showcase. You can only learn so much, but there was something to learn from this year's Red/White game. The tests are done, the papers are checked and here's how I graded your Spring Nebraska Cornhuskers – the defense.

DL – B+

Defensive Line.jpg - 45618 Bytes
Not even holding was helping in trying to slow
down the white defense.
The Good: Double-teams and the fact that he line was forcing them in the middle. That frees up the outside guys to take advantage of one-on-one situations, something Jay Moore took full advantage of, going off for four sacks in the game.

 

Another good thing is the depth and you could see the effectiveness of the interior line players when they didn't have to play an entire game. That's something neither Le Kevin Smith or Titus Adams could identify with last year, both having to be out there for 60-plus snaps a contest.

 

Ola Dagundoro and Barry Cryer are a great fit for this group and the depth is going to help everyone stay sharp, energetic and in a year last season, where we saw some late-game collapses inside, that shouldn't be an issue, because fatigue should now be an afterthought.

 

The Questionable: With all this gushing, you are wondering why this grade didn't hit an A and I'll tell you simply why that is: First, this spring game was a cartoon. If you thought the offense couldn't learn too much, because the game was set up for success, the defense learned even less.

12 sacks by the number one defense?

 

When it gets to that point, there is nothing to learn. When you are getting that kind of penetration, you know that you are quicker off the ball than the offense. You are getting better than average penetration and it gets to the point where there aren't enough sacks and tackles for losses to pass around. Let's see what they do against an offense capable of stopping them and right now, I don't think they are going to see that until possibly September.

 

LB – B –

 

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Bo Ruud is proving to be one of the players
to watch for the future.
The Good: Unlike last year, you have a good amount of versatility in this group, that being speed AND physicality. I don't care how they tried to sugar coat the play last year, but the loss of Demorrio Williams affected NU's speed-rushing capability on the outside.

 

Corey McKeon proved that he has some of that, plus he's physical at the point of attack, leading all first-team defensive players in tackles with 5.5, only one of those being assisted.

 

The linebackers as a whole didn't get a lot of work in as far as seeing what they could do in a lot of blitzing situations, as the front four was doing an ample job, all but one of the 12 sacks being tallied by a defensive lineman.

 

What you can learn from this, though, is how these linebacker pursue side-to-side and how physical they are at the point of attack. To that end, this group ran the field well, especially Bo Ruud, who continues to show that he's maturing into this frame, but isn't losing a lick of speed. The stats weren't great for most of the linebackers, but more of this was due to the fact that much wasn't getting out of the backfield of the red team.

 

The Bad: Well, it doesn't get much worse than losing the most prolific tackler in Nebraska history. Along with that, you are losing one of the smartest players that has graced the field turf in a long time. Barrett Ruud led all defensive players last year in tackles, but what his vacancy leaves is a question that Kevin Cosgrove has yet to answer.

 

You couldn't learn much out of this spring game when it came to how the middle linebacker position was going to be in regards to making the calls. The familiarity everyone should have by now with this offense they are facing gives a decided advantage to the defense.

 

That's what still seems to be missing right now and while Corey McKeon led all players in tackles, I don't know that Cosgrove feels he's found yet the perfect combination of physical play along with being able to manage the defense before every snap.

 

Overall: Inconclusive. That's about the best rating you can really come out of the spring game with, when it comes to this linebacking core. The defensive line was dominant, giving the linebackers the luxury of being able to roam around at will.

 

They proved physical and at times, fast, but in all reality, when you are facing an offense you have faced this much, the defense should dominate, the pass rush should be effective and the linebackers are going to find themselves in run-support more than anything. The red team couldn't even get that going, so the grade is good, but you can put an asterisk on it, because I just don't know how much we could have learned from trying to put it all together.

 

Secondary - D –

 

Cornerback.jpg - 49567 Bytes
Titus Brothers spent much of the game
looking at receivers from behind.
The Good
: You can look at the safeties as the best part of this group, Daniel Bullocks proving as opportunistic as his brother, reading Joe Dailey, jumping a slant and taking it back 58 yards for the score. You can add Shanle as one that should be taking the field as a starter come fall, as he plays fast, is very physical and is grasping the nuances of pass-coverage, little by little.

 

You get to the cornerbacks and the one thing that this group shouldn't be lacking is speed, Tierre Green able to make up at times for his lack of experience at the position, with sheer blazing speed, Green tying for the team lead in pass break ups with two.

 

Cortney Grixby is also fast, but it's his explosiveness that gets him high marks, Cortney able to hit top speed in a just a few strides. His jumping ability serving him well, Grixby also tallying 2 pass break ups during the game. And, while smallish in stature, Grixby managed to rank amongst the leaders in tackles, totaling 4 in the contest, all of them unassisted.

 

For the red team, Tyler Fisher led the group in tackles (5.5) and showed a little bit of everything, which is good, because this is a group that will need all the depth it can get. Fisher plays physical more than he does fast, proving to be very solid in run-support. The pass-happy Huskers on the white team didn't manage even 3 yards per carry.

 

The Bad: I doubt Titus Brothers will take much from this game other than a pronounced sense of frustration. Being burned for what was estimated at around half (at least) of the yards put up by Zac Taylor, Brothers seemed as much of a target as the receivers he was guarding.

 

Chris LeFlore also didn't have a great game, penalties being the bane of his spring experience. Point of fact, even with the red offense facing the number one defense, the quarterbacks did manage to put up 240 yards in the air. The completion percentage left a lot to be desired, the red team hitting on just 18 of 45 passes, but if you are facing a team down the road that hinges much of its success on the big play, it's not the ticky tack completions for a few yards that kill you, but the deep ball, both Brian Hohlen and Dan Erickson catching passes for 30 or more yards.

 

As much as the second team had, the first team obviously went crazy, both Isaiah Fluellen and Terrence Nunn catching passes that went for at least 50 yards and three other receivers catching balls that went for 20 yards or more. And, Taylor 's completion percent of almost 75 is not only ridiculous, even in a spring game, but totally unacceptable.

 

Overall: Outside of the two safety spots, I don't imagine you will recognize this secondary once the home-opener arrives. There's been too much that has had to be done to address the loss of Washington , plus the fact that some of these players are just not adjusting well to their increased time. For the game, you have about 600 yards given up on both sides of the ball in passing and scrimmage or not, there's issues here, especially when on paper, the defenses had a decided advantage coming into the contest.

 

Zack Bowman, Bryan Wilson, Tyrell Spain and who's to say who else, but the face of this secondary is going to change and dramatically. And, honestly, it needs to. This group has a long ways to go.

 

Kickoff Return – B

 

Kickoff Return.jpg - 43302 Bytes
Brothers was able to take his frustrations at
cornerback out in the return game, leading
the team in total returns.
The Good : With the loss of Brandon Jackson, there were going to be more than a few people tried out at the kickoff return spot. And, what do you know, it actually worked out pretty well.

 

Marque McCray was always considered to be a guy you wanted to get the ball in the open-field, Marque proving that he was a capable runner, but was only just so effective if it was in a situation like coming out of the backfield.

 

McCray only got two returns, but averaged over 30 yards per, while Titus Brothers got to take out his cornerback frustrations, averaging almost 22 yards per return on four attempts.

 

Yeah, but: To put it simple, the kickoff coverage of the white team was abysmal. As much credit as you want to give both McCray and Brothers, they were able to get most of their yards without nary an arm trying to stop them, even before they got no less than 15 yards up the field.

 

Because of that, there's only so much you can learn from what happened during the spring game, because it's doubtful that either or any person slated to return kickoffs are going to have that kind of freedom to roam.

 

Punt Return – Incomplete

The punt return segment was not live this time around, so nothing will be known about this aspect until the Fall arrives.

 

 

 

Summing it all up: It was at points, ridiculous. The defense, especially the white, was getting so much penetration up field, it was impossible to gauge what the rest of the units were and weren't doing.

 

That's a good thing, of course, but as I said earlier, when it gets to this point, the mismatches are obviously pronounced. Even the second team defense was having some success, able to sack Joe Ganz three times out of the four times he dropped back to pass.

 

I like the versatility at the linebacker position, but see that this unit as a whole is still very much in flux. I could easily see Octavien move to the middle and Moore move to the position right behind Ruud.

The safeties should be solid this year, but there's depth considerations over the long term.

 

The cornerbacks, well, this group simply has to find a different combination. Cortney Grixby at Nickel possibly, if the in-coming players prove worthy to their expectations and Tierre Green backing up on either side.

 

I like Green, because his up-side is huge as he doesn't really have a grasp of playing this position at this level, but his speed is downright deadly. When you project his potential down the road when he does have that familiarity, I think he could be pretty darn good.

 

The defensive front is the key to the whole thing, though, and it looks like Nebraska got on the interior just what they needed to, to make the whole thing work. Depth, quickness and an ability to play both in filling gaps or getting a good push up field. That will be vital in helping the rush ends out in trying to get as many one-on-one situations as possible. If that happens, Nebraska will have the pass rush they so desperately needed last year, so that the secondary isn't on an island so much of the time.

 

I also think the zone coverage is the best change for the defense in the grand scheme of things. It does give up the short stuff, but I do believe there's enough speed inside the box that they will be able to defend it far better than if they tried matching up player for player. The basic philosophy is, if you can't beat your opponent man for man, don't challenge them man for man.

Probably for some time, they will have to adhere to this strategy.

 

Nebraska having five home games in a row to start the season is beneficial for everyone, but the defense more than anyone. They will know exactly what they can expect from each of their units, especially when passing teams like Pittsburgh , led by Tyler Palko, come calling.

 

Based on what we saw this spring, there's reason to be optimistic, but the true optimism will have to wait until we see exactly what these players coming in can do.


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