Nebraska has a tough act to follow this year. There are some big questions, albeit not as big as what the offense faces, that face this defense despite them being picked to be one of the better defenses in the country. Here are some things that need to be sorted out and should begin to shake out in fall camp.
SOMEONE NEEDS TO TAKE A STEP FORWARD WITH TURNER
Coach John Blake got his man at defensive end in Barry Turner. Turner is a beast off of the edge. A physical freak with the speed of a running back. Turner seemed unblockable at times and he was just a true freshman. Turner will get a good look again this year in passing situations, but he needs someone to accompany him.
The incumbents at defensive end are as nice of pair of ends since possibly Grant Wistrom and Mike Rucker. Jay Moore and Adam Carriker both stayed healthy last year and showed that they can apply pressure from the outside in, but had great help up the middle with guys like Titus Adams and Le Kevin Smith.
This year, Carriker and Moore return as seniors with Turner as one of the only defensive ends as a reserve that has seen a lot of playing time. There are some guys that will get some looks this year, but they haven't seen the field a whole lot and some are even true freshman.
A few of the names that will get a look to step up seem to be Kevin Luhrs, Zach Potter, Mike Smith and Pierre Allen. From a recruiting standpoint, many won't have heard from Luhrs, but he was a standout on the scout teams and showed some promise. He has a motor off of the edge and that is a position where you just can not take plays off.
Potter made a name for himself last year as a PAT and FG blocking extraordinaire a la Kyle Vanden Bosch. Potter does have the frame to at least stand next to Carriker and compare similarly, but Potter needs to really put it all together, be a little reckless and come off of the edge hard.
Smith is a person that, if he doesn't push Potter for time this year, will definitely push Potter for the starting position at base end for years to come. While Allen is believed to be more like Turner and Moore. A little more of the pass rusher and with a bit more athleticism.
Bottom line is that at least two out of Luhrs, Potter, Smith and Allen need to be ready to go this fall to at least get some rest for Carriker and Moore. Additionally, they will need to start building for the future here losing their top two players to graduation.
REPLACING A PAIR IN THE MIDDLE
I mentioned Adams and Smith before and like DE next year Nebraska finds itself trying to replace at least a pair of consistent defensive tackles from last year. In a year that was praised for getting sacks and getting tackles for loss, these two might have been a couple of unsung heroes being key cogs to the defensive front.
Ola Dagundero is no slouch though. He played extensively last year as a junior college transfer and played solidly. Ola is probably built more for a one technique, but could come out to a three and be effective because of his athleticism. He is a real square body that can handle the double team.
Opposite of Dagundero this year will be Barry Cryer another junior college transfer from a year ago. Cryer didn't get as much playing time as Dagundero did last year, but is known to be fueled by his emotions and is a vocal leader across the front. He will liven things up and looks to replace Smith this year.
Behind them though seems to be the future at DT. Ndamukong Suh is a name that few can probably pronounce correctly, but a player that just about everyone wants to see this fall. Suh got praise from Jon Gruden in the spring and continually gets rave reviews by his teammates. He's a monster and this could be a fun year to see him really take off.
After Suh though there is The Beast, Brandon Johnson. Now, Johnson was in Lincoln earlier this summer only to have to return to Compton to finish some things up to get qualified to return to Lincoln for the fall. Johnson is built similarly to Dagundero, but is probably a better athlete. Dagundero is strong like an ox and might be able to deal with double-teams a bit better, but Johnson is a guy that could, I stress could, come out and play a 5 technique potentially.
Behind that though you have Ty Steinkuhler, Craig Roark and Seth Jensen. From the sounds of it, there may be some acclimation that is necessary for Jensen to get up to the division one style of play. Steinkuhler is a guy though that I would expect to make some noise this fall. Roark had the freshman bench press record until Matt Slauson broke it so his physical strength will help, as will his build, playing the one technique.
Bottom line there is a situation that is very similar to DE at DT losing the #1 guys. There are a few less questions at DT though because of the JC influence of Johnson and a player like Suh that can play either DT position. Still need Steinkuhler and Craig Roark to come into their in a bit as contributors and to get groomed to play DT.
THE BEST LINEBACKERS IN THE NATION? MAYBE.
There probably isn't a more anxious group of players on the team than the linebackers. Anxious because we saw bits and pieces last year and they would want to put it all together. You know that has to be the case for senior Stewart Bradley. It's obvious he thinks that he is as ready as he would ever be for the season.
With him comes Butkus candidate Corey McKeon. Corey was a player that was challenged and really answered the call. A bit undersized in comparison to other middle linebackers, what he lacks in physical size he makes up in heart and athleticism. His abilities really are a pair to what Coach Kevin Cosgrove wants out of his LBs and that is to be active.
It seems weird to mention him last, but Steve Octavien may be the biggest question mark of all the returning LBs. It's a question about him staying healthy. It's a question about his current weight. Regardless, he is a playmaker and an athlete that you love to have at WILL. Can he put it together for an entire season?
Backing up these three the headliner is Bo Ruud. Ruud is another LB that ended up having suffering a season ending injury, albeit it was right before the bowl game, it was the third LB lost to injury. Ruud isn't as athletic as Octavien, but he is a solid player that can just about play either of the three LB positions.
Behind those four is Philip Dillard, Andy Kadavy, Lance Brandenburgh, Dontrell Moore and Nick Covey. Dillard was a heralded recruit who got some good reps last year and should see his role continue to grow with the team. Kadavy is a walk on who just received a scholarship and that has to speak to his ability. Brandenburgh stepped up when the others fell and really played well last season. Moore is a big LB that could actually play with his hand on the ground in the nickel. Covey is coming back from injury, but is athletic and could play multiple LB positions.
Bottom line, depth needs to develop here regardless of how good the top three might be. Dillard needs to come into his own. You would like to see Covey get into that fantastic shape that he was in when he attended summer camp in Lincoln as a high school senior. They may be the best unit on the team and possibly the nation as some might wonder, but behind the top three there are some that need to come into their own.
STILL MORE QUESTIONS AT SAFETY
This is the first year in a very long time that someone with the last name of Bullocks won't be playing safety. This year it will be Tierre Green and Andrew Shanle who will more than likely be your starters. In comparison of any other starting pair in Nebraska history, this pair may be the most athletic ever at Nebraska.
Shanle is the most athletic, yet the biggest question mark on the team potentially. It might have something to do with Shanle losing out last year to another walk on, Blake Tiedtke, when everyone thought Shanle could be the starter. It might also come from Tierre Green starting out at RB, moving to CB last year and then playing S this year.
Beyond those situations could be the biggest question at S and that is who are their top reserves? Word has it that Titus Brothers has been playing a lot of S this summer and has looked good. Had it not been for his hit in the Alamo Bowl maybe things wouldn't be as good as they are right now.
After those three you have converted QB Jordan Adams who was brought in after just one year of JC ball, but out of necessity to try and get depth. Enter Zac Taylor and others and after complications with mono Adams missed his first year at Nebraska. He now finds himself playing S and probably as a #2 coming into fall.
Adams may be #2 for now, but I have little doubt that one or more of the following true freshman will play at safety this year: Corey Young, Major Culbert, Anthony West and Ricky Thenarse. Young is returning from knee surgery, but is almost 100%. Culbert after legal issues is back and looks to be in great shape. West has been in Lincoln for a while this summer and could be the favorite to be the #2. Thenarse has some pending academic issues, but it's still believed that he will get qualified.
Bottom line, one and preferably more of the true freshman must be ready to play this year. Not only for depth issues this year, but to be ready for down the year and to stagger their classes out a bit. Not getting Ashlee Palmer might haunt Nebraska all year and if you have been reading he has been looking good in Washington. *sigh*
CB FINALLY A STRENGTH?
Nebraska returns their top two CBs in Cortney Grixby and Zach Bowman. These two started to play a bit more "naturally" and began making plays as the season went along. Call it comfort or whatever. The two are obviously very athletic and you should see even more improvement this year.
The questions here start with Andre Jones. This guy would bleed to death from a paper cut. He is total choice and will push for immediate playing time. With his physical make up you might prefer to have him as the CB opposite Bowman with Grixby as your nickel back. Grixby is also valued in the return game.
After that though you have Bryan Wilson who played so sparingly last year after his first play in he allowed a TD. The speed of the game is something that Wilson has had some chances now to adjust to. He is a physical CB too that can provide depth and is serviceable. He is also someone that worked at S this spring, but is back at CB.
I wouldn't be totally surprised to see one of West, Culbert, or Thenarse to work out with the CBs simply because of depth concerns. West may be the best suited to do so, but his time in Lincoln and with the pressing need for depth at S being greater than that at CB he is too valuable there.
Bottom line, Nebraska isn't weak with it's top 3 CBs. However after that, there isn't a lot of depth. There aren't even a lot of bodies to look to that can develop that have a year. The best situation you have is that Grixby, Jones and Wilson are only JRs. This is a position of need when it comes to recruiting hence their early commits here.