OK, now for the defense, and honestly, there are some even stickier choices to make here. Part of that comes from seniors Dejon Gomes and Anthony West being moved to safety. And the traditional spot of starting nickel back, which was being held by fellow senior Eric Hagg, is now a hybrid role which makes Hagg a safety in the new "Peso" defense, but with the ability to switch to linebacker when the opponent is going to heavy personnel.
But let's move the back end to the back end, if you will. Let's start with defensive line, and at the defensive end spots, this is one of the few areas where not just the starting line-up, but the two-deep, seems fairly well defined…right now.
At left defensive end you have sophomore Cameron Meredith. He's an all-purpose defensive end, and his upside is considerable. He could be in the mold of a Jay Moore type as he has good quickness off the edge, but is very good in run support. Over at right defensive end you have senior Pierre Allen Sr., who has had a laundry list of injuries the last couple of years. And for right now anyway, he's healthy. What that means is that a guy who has been considered more of a run stopper with some ability to come off the edge, could be a stud in both areas. It's hard to come off the edge when you have been dealing with turf toe, tendinitis and various other ailments of the knees. I look for that guy to have a big year, maybe even an all-conference year.
If he can stay healthy.
Behind Meredith should be Jason Ankrah, who is a superb athlete and with a few more pounds has now become a more viable every-down type of player. There was a lot of buzz when he committed to Nebraska and subsequently signed, because his upside is considerable. Not sure he'll realize that his first year, but he should be able to provide some punch on that edge this season. Over at the other end spot is Josh Williams, and his issue has been more about weight than learning the system. Now up to around 260 pounds, here is a guy who is still very quick, but now can be considered someone who isn't for specific situations and won't have to worry so much about getting pushed all over the place by tackles.
At the defensive tackle spot, we have one lock and a whole lot of questions.
The lock is, of course, Jared Crick. There are plenty of people touting him as the best defensive player in the country. What is ironic is that an informal poll we did on the Red Zone showed that many Husker faithful are waiting to see what he'll do without Ndamukong Suh off to his right. I don't think there is a question about Crick's ability to dominate one-on-one. I just think there's a doubt as to whether he'll have the kind of opportunities he once had.
With defensive line coach Carl Pelini shuffling guys much of last year, and him saying all the time that he didn't differentiate all that much between the DT and NT spots, there are a lot of faces to choose from. But who and where is the question.
Let's start behind Crick. That position last year was held by Baker Steinkuhler who will be going into his sophomore year with the program. Steinkuhler has the athleticism, but does he have the kind of base you need to play to Crick's side? I don't know, but if Baker doesn't start to Crick's side, that position could probably go to Terrence Moore, who is now a junior. Moore finally looks the part, as he was at one point big, but seemingly not all that physical. He looks like he can get down and get dirty with the rest of them now. And he has played in 11 games over the last two seasons. Steinkuhler, though, saw action in 13 of last year's 14 games.
If there is one guy who I have no problem figuring him in at just one of those spots, it's sophomore Justin Jackson. And don't kid yourself thinking that he's just a nice name to throw out there so Roca, Nebraska can get some pub. At 6-3 and close to 280, he may not be a juggernaut, but proportionately he fits the bill as the interior guy with a lot of one-technique responsibility. I would throw him in at number two at NT.
As for the top spot and who backs up Crick, my theory on this is that Baker gives Nebraska the best package, athletically. With that being said, though, he has a jump to make from where he was last year. He came in to give Crick a breather, and even a fresh Steinkuhler was getting tested by offenses who took notice of Crick being out. And it worked probably a lot more than you would have liked. Does Steinkuhler just need to get bigger? Can he play with the kind of leverage he needs at his height? Was he just playing too high and getting run over because of it? A lot of questions, but the answers are going to be very important. As for right now, though, I have Steinkuhler taking the spot at NT, and if that's the case Moore moves over behind Crick, because I think Jackson will get some good reps this year.
At linebacker it could get just as interesting, because there really isn't an excuse to keep your job that you were on the field almost the entire year last season. Outside of Phillip Dillard who could say that for the second half, players like Sean Fisher and Will Compton, both going into their sophomore campaigns, were in here and there.
Now, that doesn't mean they don't know the defense. Both know it up and down, and both have done well for the most part when they did get their shots. Fisher offers Nebraska a little more athleticism than Compton. But Compton has the body to be a bit more physical at the point of attack. With the position of middle linebacker and weakside linebacker still being in play, Compton seems to be the early bet for a starting spot at MIKE and Fisher at WILL. But as we have seen, the defensive formations could be funky most of the year. When there are three linebackers, that's obviously going back to the PESO defense, with either Hagg or Cassidy taking reps there.
So, for now anyway, those two seem to be locks for their spots. At number two it's a bit of a different story. I know there has been a huge push from the emotional fan to see Eric Martin, the one-man weapon on special teams, get some time at linebacker. But Martin admitted himself that he didn't know the system all that well last year. Does he know it now? Quietly making some headway has been Alonzo Whaley, who goes into his sophomore season at 6-1 and 225 lbs. He's more than big enough to fit the role at MIKE, and all stories pertaining to the Texas native indicate that he's well on his way. Martin has his shot, but I think there's a need to see him do it perhaps earlier in the year, against opponents where he'll be able to work himself into the mix without the game being on the line. So, Whaley gets my nod at number two middle and behind Fisher I have to go with the new guy.
Yes, Lavonte David has done nothing as of yet. But this kid is so good athletically, and such a relentless ballhawk, you can bet the staff will try to get him on the field. And if his impressive physicality is combined with equally impressive athleticism, side-to-side, he may just be the heir apparent to Dillard when only one linebacker sees the field. That's a ways away, but I have to admit that I am buying into this kid's potential and his kind of playmaking ability. Now, if he is as smart and fundamentally sound in his tackling as the guy he might be replacing, you got yourself something there.
Now for the safety position, and as much as secondary coach Marvin Sanders says he doesn't differentiate between strong and free when putting starters in certain spots, I'll try to stick to that idea that there is no difference. But for the sake of wanting to match a bit what left with what is still there, Dejon Gomes seemingly made a perfect replacement for Larry Asante at the strong safety spot. I do try to stay even-keeled about these guys, but this is one guy I am super excited to watch play. Just some of the plays he made on the ball last year have to make you go back and look again, because they were just that good. On Meier of Kansas as he was streaking in for an apparent touchdown – Gomes punches the ball out and gives Nebraska possession. Against Texas he made one of the most ridiculous interceptions you are going to see as he ripped the ball out of the guy's hands after he caught it, and before he hit the ground. The guy just makes plays, but he is also very physical, a good open field tackler and he has those instincts. I can't wait to watch him go at it, and for right now I have him backed up by fellow former corner, Anthony West. I think this is about as solid of a one-two punch as you can get.
At the other safety spot, I like what sophomore P.J. Smith has done when given the opportunities. He has a long ways to go to match his predecessor, Matt O'Hanlon. And let's face it, he might not get to that point, because O'Hanlon wasn't just opportunistic with turnovers. He was perhaps the most fundamentally sound open-field tackler the team had last year. The guy just did everything the way it was supposed to be done. I like Smith for his size coming in at just a shade over 6-2 and weighing in at around 215 lbs. I think he'll take that next step, which means he should get his first shot at being the guy. But there will be some growing pains. There are always growing pains with someone so young. But he's smart, and he'll pick it up just fine.
I will make a confession here in that I really wanted to list freshman Corey Cooper. I do believe he'll get time on the field before this season is done. But you can't discount for experience in the system even if it hasn't translated to a lot of actual game reps. I think Courtney Osborne has that. And at 6-3, he's got great length and his athleticism should allow him to work in coverage, if needed. But I don't think that's his strong suit. That's probably where I have the biggest question with this group outside of Gomes and West. With all the nickel and dime we will definitely see, that's where the biggest learning curve is. That's why, while I still believe Cooper will see the field early, it's that pass coverage aspect that could keep his reps limited to certain situations. Junior Lance Thorell is another I wouldn't rule out. It depends on where they have him. If he's at safety, I think he's a shoo-in to play, though, I don't know where they would slot him right now. He could still move back to corner, if needed.
That brings us to corner, and the first string guy on either side is set in stone, done dealing, forget about it.
This may just be the best CB tandem in the country.
I'm not kidding you. We know how good Amukamara is by now, especially when you can move like he can at his size. He has it all, and his NFL frame make scouts' mouths water. But don't think for a second that junior Alfonzo Dennard is far behind, because he's not. Point of fact, you never heard about him most of the first half of the season, because everyone was throwing the other way. You think that's just a coincidence? If he stays healthy all year could we be looking at two first-team all conference cornerbacks? It wouldn't surprise me, and it wouldn't surprise me if both ended up as that by the end of this year.
Backing them up is a bit of a stickier deal though.
I'm still in the camp that's waiting for Anthony Blue to make it back. The junior hasn't been the same since his knee injury. Whether it's mental or physical, I don't honestly know. But the kind of athleticism he showed in a very brief spurt against Michigan, was enough to convince me that with his 5-11, 190 lbs. frame, he could still make a big Impact for the team. That's why I have him going second behind Dennard. Behind Amukamara I have sophomore Jase Dean. Yeah, I can see the look on your face. You don't even have to say it. But this young man's injury concerns shouldn't take away from his athletic potential, the same as you can't discount Blue's. Unlike Blue, though, Dean hasn't really had a chance to show what he can do. But let's just say that if I have a dark horse nobody is talking about who there might not be a single person to give them a chance, Dean is the guy I'm taking. At 6-1 and 190 he's got size. But I have also heard a whole lot about how just good of an athlete he is. No, that doesn't make you a corner at this level and in this conference. That takes a bit of schooling in the system. But my money is that he works himself into the mix.
I really like this defense, because it will look different than last year's. No, I am not one of those who wants something different, just because it's different. I think it will be different in a good way. Stats from the defensive ends weren't big by any stretch. But they didn't have to be. When you have Suh and Crick on the inside, the ends can play contain and keep their mind on run-stopping on the edge. But with health being on their side, I think you will get to see this group of bookends really make some noise. And like Crick and Suh did for them last year, I think the defensive ends can take some pressure off the big guys inside.
It will be a typically aggressive defense, but probably with more overall speed, front to back. That's scary when you think about it. But the big question is, what will Nebraska do when teams test them up the middle, something they almost completely gave up doing last year? You know they are going to go right up the gut and see if there's a weakness. If there is, that changes the entire complexion on the back end, especially at linebacker. You can't just have a Phillip Dillard ballhawking to the edges, because someone is going to have to stay in the middle for gap responsibility. A lot rides on who that man is going to be where Suh once was and, of course, how he does. Heck, the answer to that may be the difference between Nebraska having another dominant year on defense or having to find answers along the way.
It's that time again. It's the time where we start doing something we have been doing since the season ended, but now it's in ernest. Depth Charts and everything everyone loves about them. The coaches can't say. The players won't say. But we can talk about them all we want, and it's never too early to start putting a depth chart out there and list who we think we figure most prominently on the two-deep.
|PROJECTED DEPTH CHART - DEFENSE|
|1||Pierre Allen Sr.||Sr.|