As we are moving now into Fall camp, there are plenty of questions which will be answered very soon. Some questions are more relevant than others. In this first part of this multi-part series, we take a look at some of the most pressing questions which will be posed to this team this year.
There's little doubt that in order for Nebraska to come back from the depths of gridiron-despair they are going to need a solid defense. Well, they are going to need A defense, something which went by the wayside for most of the 2007 campaign. With this new defensive staff, a new head coach with a track record for stellar defensive player, can the Huskers get back to being the "Blackshirts?"
That's one of the biggest questions going into Fall camp this year.
The fact that Nebraska had so many new faces on the defensive line last year was an obvious contributor to the problems which concluded with the Huskers ranking 112th in total defense out of 119 teams.
Now, you would say that there weren't that many new faces at all. Senior Ty Steinkuhler had played both defensive end and defensive tackle for the Huskers before going into last season as the starter at the three-technique. Barry Turner had played a considerable amount of time, especially his freshman season where he tied for the lead amongst all freshmen in the country with 5.5 sacks on the season. Then there is senior Zach Potter who had served some time playing back up to eventual first-round draft choice Adam Carriker.
So, there were reps, but one of the keys here is that there weren't reps together.
Just like the offensive line, continuity between those players on the line is key. There wasn't any of that last season. Part of that had to do with them playing together for the first time, but there were two major aspects as to why this group not only couldn't get on the same page, but couldn't find which page that even was.
One of those factors was physical.
With former Huskers Jay Moore and Adam Carriker both tipping the scales at 280 and 299, respectively, they had the size top be monster run-stoppers, but both also proved very capable of getting some pressure on the QB. We didn't realize just how rare a titanic-tandem they were until this last season where former D.C. Kevin Cosgrove tried the same philosophy in regard to size, but with different players.
Zach Potter actually had a solid year going into his first season as a starter, and considering the woes across the entire face of the defensive line. But it was no secret that he simply didn't have the sheer power Carriker had and even Cosgrove himself admitted that Carriker allowed him to do things in 2006 which he figured he probably wouldn't be able to do in 2007 with him now off to the pros.
Replacing Moore was Barry Turner, and rather than try and adjust some of the system around what Turner did best, the Big 10 philosophy reared its ugly head as they slapped weight and even more weight on the one-time speed rushing phenom from Tennessee. Turner went from being the deadliest edge-rusher Nebraska had to a 'tweener of sorts, not quite big enough to be a consistent run stopper and no longer quick enough to be the impact player he once was when it came to getting consistent pressure on the QB.
Moving to the interior you had Ty Steinkuhler who was almost immediately sidelined with an injury, forcing back up and junior college transfer Kevin Dixon into the game as a starter.
It should be noted that Dixon arrived on campus the day before Fall camp began. So, you literally have three weeks for a junior college transfer, someone arguably undersized for the position, not only being asked to contribute from the start of the season – but to start.
Then there is Ndamukong Suh, who had more expectations on him as a player than perhaps anyone on the entire team. We had seen glimpses of the sheer force he could be from both a strength-aspect and his impressive quickness off the ball. The problem became pretty apparent that the offenses Nebraska would face had a pretty good idea who he was as well, and while they were keying on him, he was asked to defeat the cut-blocking, the double-teaming and just about everything else to neutralize him, all the while players along side of him were simply trying to find their place within the system.
Football is like any sport, but the more players you have on the field of play at any one time, the more pronounced the effect on others when one facet isn't working.
In this particular case, if the defensive line simply can't get it done, the linebackers have to play gaps defensively they might not have had to the previous year. They might actually have to stay home more, because there were certain areas vulnerable on the line which weren't the year before.
They change and become less effective, not only hindering what they can do in regard to making plays, but it goes back to the secondary as well. Suddenly a defense becomes defensive, and rather than being able to dictate the pace of the game, putting pressure in the backfield and players simply being able to play rather than guarding against what could happen, you end up watching four quarters of a group trying to stay alive rather than trying to make things happen.
We saw an example of Cosgrove trying to take the game to the opponent for once, Nebraska blitzing Texas almost every single snap of the game. That worked for most of the game, but against talent the likes of what Texas usually has, this case being running back Jammal Charles, you are rolling the dice. Nebraska had a good string of luck going into that fourth quarter, but they hit craps during the last segment of the game. Charles, reeled off over 200 yards rushing in that quarter alone as an obviously desperate defense simply rolled the dice one too many times.
I like to think that last year was all about compensating, but instead of the system being adjusted to the change in personnel, they tried changing the personnel to accommodate the system.
Slapping 40 pounds on Turner?
So, what's going to change this year? Outside of all those players coming back this year, what is going to change to allow this group to be able to do things it simply couldn't do last year?
Some would say the situation is worse now with so much inexperience at linebacker and in the secondary. I would counter that with the fact that even with all that experience and what I believe was a talent-laden second and third-level, they still couldn't get anything done. But that's because everything starts at the line.
So-called skill position players are great. They make plays, do fantastic things and show their speed on both sides of the ball. But I don't care if you are loaded with five stars side-to-side, if the lines aren't getting it done you've got problems.
Nebraska had a nation-leading 50 sacks three seasons ago. They also led the country in tackles for loss. But take a look at the line up in the secondary:
Cortney Grixby was going into his sophomore season as a new starter in the secondary
Zackary Bowman was also a new starter, but didn't see any significant reps until the last five games of the year
Tierre Green started most of the season, but was new to the position himself as he was converted to the secondary coming from the offensive side of the ball later the previous year.
Then there was Blake Tiedtke, who came into that season having only played in one game the previous year and not having a tackle to show for it.
You look at that list going into the 2005 season you are thinking to yourself that the Husker secondary was going to have issues, they weren't going to be that good and the defense as a whole would suffer.
The blackshirts finished ranked as the 10th best in the country in regard to pass efficiency defense.
It reminds me of a famous portion of the Jack Nicholoson diatribe in "A Few Good Men" where he talked about people wanting him in that wall, needing him on that wall, when it came to defending this country.
Nebraska needs that wall as well. It's in a different realm, of course, but without the defensive line I don't care how good the secondary is, how experienced the linebackers are or how many average starts between them they had going into their Husker careers.
If the defensive line isn't working, none of it works.
The good news is that this group is intact from the last season. The better news is that they are all apparently healthy with Suh now coming back from an injury which sidelined him the entire Spring. Even better news than that is the fact that much of the line, including Turner himself, have shed the big-ten weight, the coaches bringing in a big-speed vs big-size philosophy and I think we'll finally see a little of what they can do.
That doesn't mean this defense will suddenly become a force as it was when Pelini was here in 2003 or as it was most of the season in 2005. But you can bet that there won't be as much compensating on defense as there seemed to be last year. The second one unit or even player has to do something during the course of a game, because another player or unit isn't, you have a guaranteed recipe for disaster.
Bo Pelini was never about waiting for offenses taking it to him. He was always about taking it to them instead. That will be a double-edged sword this year as it has been in past years, living and dying by your aggressiveness. With this experienced and reshaped line, though, at least it's possible. At least Nebraska will be a defense playing to the ball rather than trying to prevent the ball from getting into certain areas of the field.
If you are trying to win a division, conference or have a shot at a BCS game, that's how it's supposed to be.