Countdown to Spring: Linebacker

Not sure about you, but I bet that while people can't wait to see some of the changes on offense, the only change they want to see on defense, at least most of it, are guys just staying healthy. It makes the mind wonder just what this group could have looked like if Octavien, Bradley and Ruud would have all stayed healthy the entire year. That's water under the bridge, though, so it's back to the future and we start with that one group, who sponsors expectations galore: Linebacker

What if?

How many times did you ask that throughout the course of the season when talking about the linebackers Nebraska didn't have for most of the year? I bet you were really saying that after Missouri and Kansas.

Well, you can say that again, but only about what this group can do IF everyone stays healthy.

Go on, I'll wait while you find some particle board to slap your knuckles on.

If they are healthy? IF they are healthy? Steve, how dare you even mention that, even THINK that all these guys won't be 100 percent by the fall.

Yeah, shame on me and you are probably right. But chances are none of those that were out will probably be in for spring. At least you can expect that if they are, it won't be in the capacity that you would have liked to have seen.

So, this is going to be kind of a half spring/half fall sort of deal, because outside of junior college transfer Steve Allen, there's not much that's going to be different about this group and I figure there's only one way this is eventually going to stack up, but that's depending on an even bigger IF right now.

4-3 or 3-4?

Nebraska used that defense against Texas Tech with pretty good results. They actually started the game against Missouri in that formation with somewhat less than pretty good results.

Just to give you a real basic rundown of the difference, much of it comes down to the line and the linebackers.

First, you have one true nose tackle, so that means they have to be versatile enough to cover two gaps instead of one. The rush ends have to be bigger, because they are going to be lined up inside of the tackles, versus lining up outside in the 4-3. Their primary job is to stop the run. Yes, you'll take pressure on the QB any way you can get it, but their first job, their most important job is to clog up that line and make sure nothing gets through.

Again, it didn't work so well against Missouri.

As to the linebackers, here's your bread n' butter of the 3-4 defense, because if these guys are good, you have a good chance at success. The "zone blitz" is more effective, you can mix up your blitzes even more and if that nose guard is the presence he's supposed to be, even a mobile QB like Brad Smith isn't going to know what in the heck to do.

This defense can hit you literally from anywhere and the quarterback has a much harder time figuring out just where it's coming from.

All you need then is speed, speed and more speed. Oh, and being physical is always a nice plus.

You can consider both of those checked with this group of linebackers and IF Nebraska does opt for this defense, even if it's just in certain situations or against certain teams, they have the combination at linebacker for success.

Which brings us to making sense out of this combination, Nebraska now looking at a whole lot of experience IF everyone is good-to-go come fall.

Let's break it down into two categories, but it's not going to be about performance, it's going to be about projecting the depth chart by fall and the two different categories will be what I think this group will look like with the two different defenses.

So, IF, IF, IF everyone is healthy (Ok, I will stop now), this is how I think it will shake out.



Stewart Bradley (6-4, 240) – Bradley has already proven his worth at the position and he should come back as hungry as he's ever been. He's got good instincts, pretty good speed for his size and he's always very physical. The one thing I really like about him is that he's as good coming from the down position as he is from the traditional linebacker stance. Because of the speed on the other side of the linebacking group, he's not the favorite for blitzing situations, but Bradley does have that potential. He's good in coverage, has the size to play with most tight ends and oh yeah, he's got a screw loose most of the time, which I happen to love.

Lance Brandenburgh (6-1, 230) - Not a bad job he did in the Alamo Bowl, eh? I think that Brandenburgh gave us the two hardest hits of the game. Well, except for those Zac Taylor was taking. D.C. and LB coach Kevin Cosgrove said it over and over again: All this kid needed was to stay healthy and it was going to be a battle for anyone to fight him off. I think he may not win that battle this year, but he'll match most of the guys on the team in being able to make the plays when needed and if a starter goes out (sorry, had to throw that in), you aren't going to see as much drop off as you did from say a Bradley to an Ickes. He's going to be solid. Now, the question is where? I figure here is as good of a spot as any……..right now.


Corey McKeon (6-1, 225) – No analysis needed here, this job is his, hands down, forget about it




Phillip Dillard (6-2, 250) – Here's a kid itching to get in there and put a hurtin' on someone. He actually got a chance to start against Missouri, when Nebraska lined up in the 4-3. As it is, though, he's got a mountain to overcome with the last name McKeon and based on what Corey did last year, this mountain is Everest in proportion. Dillard will get more time this year and he may even move around, but he's a middle linebacker. He just needs the time.


Steve Octavien (6-0, 235) – When this guy takes the field, how many of you will be crossing your fingers and knocking on wood at the same time? Athletically, his potential is off the charts and he's probably the one guy Nebraska has right now that can give you that Demorrio-like effect on the outside blitz. No, he's not as quick as Demorrio and won't be, but he shouldn't have to be either. With the ultra-experience at defensive end, Octavien should have opportunities galore.

Bo Ruud (6-3, 230)
– To say that if Octavien wasn't there, Ruud would be the starter, says to some that Ruud isn't as good as Octavien. I wouldn't go quite that far, because I would rather choose to say that he's not as physically developed as Octavien, which I think is key in this regard. If there is one thing this youngest Ruud lacks, it's a little more beef, giving him a little more ability to not just take on blockers, but get off of them as well. This kind of log jam at the position will remind some of the situation with Demorrio and T.J. Hollowell. It's a great problem to have.

Ok, now that the 4-3 depth chart is in, let's look at the 3-4 and it does change things quite a bit. I'll go with giving you who I think will be the top guys and not the two deep across the board.

Left Outside Backer

Bo Ruud – Want to know how to get Ruud on the field at the same time with Octavien? The 3-4 is a good way to do it and Ruud's physical ability fits this position of the defense to a tee. He's quick, a ferocious hitter and he can be just as good in pass coverage as he is in pinning it back and getting to the QB. Speed has never been the issue with Ruud, because he's got enough of that to be dangerous on the outside. And it's his versatility due to his athleticism that makes him a lock for the spot.

Left Inside Backer

Stewart Bradley – I love Bradley from the down position, but at 240 pounds, he fits the mold of what you need from your LBs in this particular formation. He's able to stop the run, but versatile enough to blitz, break off in pass coverage and he's savvy enough to make solid reads at the line. It's the combination he has in everything he needs, but it starts with his ability to be physical, which is a great place to start when you are one of the inside backers in a 3-4.

Right Inside Backer

Corey McKeon – Well, you knew he would be at one or the other and this is as good of a spot as any. And you know there might even be guys on the team that could be more physical than he is at the position, but there is nobody that can say they have better instincts. Corey makes great decisions and as any good middle linebacker does, he makes sure everyone else is on the same page as well.

Right Outside Backer

Steve Octavien – I wouldn't want to be a quarterback with this guy coming from the down position in this type of defense. That has hell written all over it, for them. A 230 pound anchor man for a national championship 4 X 100 meter relay team? And he's a linebacker? Yeah, that's scary if you are wearing a different color than he is.

Some might think that with the linebackers Nebraska has, go with the 3-4 and let the quarterbacks beg for mercy. But it's usually not that simple. If the 3-4 was that great, everyone would be using it.

First, you need a killer at nose tackle. He absolutely has to demand the double-team every snap of the ball. Does Nebraska have that right now? Next, the zones are wider in a 3-4 and the secondary has a bigger space to defend. It's logical to assume, though, that the quarterback will have less time to figure out just what he's going to do against this defense, plus with the ability to disguise the zone blitz that much more effectively with this formation versus the 4-3, it will be harder to figure out even if he does have a little more room to work with downfield.

That's really another discussion at another time and what matters is how this thing shakes out and what does this mean come the fall?

Because we are not likely to see much of the entire group this spring, fall is going to be their RE debut, so to speak. It certainly is for Octavien. It will also be that for Steve Allen, another potent linebacker, who from his video you see likes to take people's heads clean off when he gets the chance.

I'd figure Allen to have a good opportunity for time in the 4-3 as he's obviously got the athleticism to fit in right away. But with the 3-4, opportunity becomes necessity, because the more linebackers you have on the field starting, the more you need on the bench to give them a rest when needed. Yes, even linebackers need rest, too.

As for recruiting, it almost seemed like icing in the cake, whoever Nebraska got at the position, because when it came to priorities, this was one of the few that were not in dire need.

And believe it or not, it won't be a position on a respirator next year, only Bradley graduating from the two-deep. Still, if there's a good one out there like Allen, you take them even if you don't need them right now. Recruiting is, after all, not for now, but for then, whenever "then" might be.

Either way you want to look at this group, they are going to be scary and not because you are scared of what they can't do, rather opponents scared of what they can. They will give Cosgrove a luxury he hasn't had since he arrived and that's the ability to blitz from anywhere, at anytime, and unlike what happened against Missouri, most of the time it will work.

This is a flat out intimidating group and yes, IF THEY STAY HEALTHY, they could be one of the top linebacking corps in the country.

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