Nebraska Cornhuskers 2010 Football Preview: Overview and Defense

Last year, Elusive Shadow did a fantastic job keeping us up to date on Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, in most eyes the top two challengers on Texas' 2009 schedule. This year, we're going to be keeping dibs on three teams: OU, Nebraska, and Texas A&M. Elusive Shadow already checked in with a first report on the Sooners, while Dime and 40AS took a close look at Texas A&M.

And I've got Nebraska.  Let's go to school.

Lesson No. 1: Do Not Bother (With) Bo Pelini.

Bo Pelini is a busy man. He has practice to run. Gum to chew. Stuff. Things. Anything could happen. The computer you're reading this on could grow tentacles and rip out your intestines. Who knows? Why ask?

Is Bo Pelini an intelligent guy? Probably. Does he need to be like Mack Brown to be successful? Probably not. But after I finished laughing, that clip made me shake my head.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that Q&As with the media are generally a waste of time. But what stands out about that clip is that Pelini can't be bothered to treat the reporters with even a modicum of respect. No a shred of politeness or courtesy, and if he had no intention to answer any questions, it wouldn't have been any trouble simply to say, "I'll issue a statement later. No questions now, guys."

I've been in those reporters' shoes, and believe me, it sucks as much for them as it does for the coaches. And Pelini goes out of his way to make a bad situation much worse. He's being paid way too much money not to do better.

Lesson No. 2: Underestimate Nebraska At Your Own Peril.

At least among Texas fans, I've noticed the buzz about Nebraska -- which peaked after they throttled Arizona on the heels of nearly ruining Texas' season -- begin to fade a little bit as the season approaches and people start to look a little closer, hunting for chinks in the armor. That's good, that's healthy, but the temptation is to carry it too far.

They were a great defense last year, with one of the highest impact defensive tackles ever to play college football. They were a miserable offense against every respectable defense they faced, with one of the worst starting quarterbacks in college football. Suh is gone, Zac Lee is back. Ergo, Nebraska won't be as good this year.

It's a tidy little argument, built on two valid premises, but the conclusion is reached too soon. After the jump, I'll preview the Huskers in some detail and explain why.

NEBRASKA 2010: THE DEFENSE

Okay, let's acknowledge the elephant in the room: Ndamukong Suh is gone. And it really is the defensive tackle equivalent of losing Vince Young. You may not be able to win a national title on the back of a mind-boggling DT alone, but before you argue, just consider that -- as a defensive tackle -- he led his defense in virtually every category in the stat book: tackles (85), tackles-for-loss (20.5), sacks (12), QB Hurries (19), and blocked kicks (3). His 10 passes broken up were second on the team, and he chipped in an interception and forced fumble for good measure. All while facing double- and triple-teams for entire games.

Of course, the flip side is that the impact of losing an otherworldly DT isn't likely to be as severe as losing a superstar QB. So let's take a look at what they've got.

OVERVIEW

There was so much focus last year on the mediocrity of Nebraska's offense that the dominance of their defense was probably overlooked a bit. Or at least it was until the Big 12 title game, when they smothered Colt McCoy and Texas. Some context might help (national rank in parentheses):

CATEGORY Texas '09 Nebraska '09
Total Defense 252 (3) 271 (7)
Yards/Play 3.8 (1) 4.0 (3)
Rush Yds/Att 2.2 (1) 2.8 (4)
Pass Yds/Att 5.5 (8) 5.1 (1)
Sacks 42 (3) 44 (2)
Tackles-for-loss 114 (1) 93 (16)
Opp. score% in red zone 53% (40) 39% (1)
Turnovers gained 37 (1) 28 (21)
Scoring Defense 16.7 (12) 10.4 (1)


Yes, Texas had offensive issues last year, but Nebraska fielded a genuinely dominant defense. And it was right in line with previous Bo Pelini defenses -- between 2005-07, with Pelini at defensive coordinator, LSU finished third nationally in total defense.

Although Nebraska's media guide generously classifies seven players as returning defensive starters, the Cornhuskers lost five of last year's top seven tacklers (368 total tackles). Along with Suh, Nebraska will miss end Barry Turner (12 TFLs in '09) on the defensive line, while the back seven will be replacing linebacker Phillip Dillard (83 tackles and 10.5 TFL, second most behind Suh), as well as safeties Matt O'Hanlon (69 tackles and a team-high 6 interceptions) and Larry Asante (79 tackles, 2 picks).

That's a lot of production lost, but the Cornhuskers are far from rebuilding. Let's talk about the names to know. (Note: Bo Pelini hasn't released a depth chart for the season opener because he hasn't settled on a quarterback yet, and has told the media he won't until game day. Make of that what you will.)

DEFENSIVE TACKLES

Jared Crick (JR)  6-6, 285
Terrence Moore (JR)  6-3, 285
Baker Steinkuhler (SO) 6-6, 290
Thaddeus Randle (R-Fr) 6-1, 280

How much of Jared Crick's sophomore success was the result of playing next to Ndamukong Suh? Bo Pelini would have you believe none at all, arguing this week, "Let me tell you, I've watched all of the film, they didn't treat Suh any different than they did Crick. Teams can't do that. That is a misconception out there that they would just go ahead and just take this guy and account for him every down."

Let me tell you, Bo: you're full of sh**. Offenses did everything they could think of to deal with Suh, and that necessariy meant less attention paid to Crick. Pelini may be right that Crick is going to similarly thrive in their scheme, but the idea that Crick didn't benefit from the attention paid to Suh is comical, akin to arguing Cedric Benson didn't benefit from running with Vince Young.

In any case, Crick is the known commodity at tackle, and he's a good one. So long as he's healthy and productive, the Huskers should be fine, but without him -- like Texas without Randall or Oklahoma without Taylor -- the outlook is dicey. Expectations are very high for sophomore Baker Steinkuhler, who's greatest accomplishment thus far is being the son of Dean Steinkuhler, the former Nebraska offensive tackle who in 1983 picked up both the Outland and Lombardi awards, as well as quarterback Turner Gill's intentional fumble in the Orange Bowl, taking it 19 yards for a score in the play now famously dubbed the "Fumblerooski."  Baker played in 13 of 14 games as a redshirt freshman, amassing 17 tackles on the season, and the expectations for a breakout season aren't unrealistic. Still, he's got a lot to prove, and the long-armed prospect still played too upright last year; as his technique improves, he'll be a load for interior linemen to deal with.

It's to be seen whether Steinhauer's all the way there yet, as Carl Pelini said on Tuesday that Nebraska will give equal reps to Steinhauer, junior Terrence Moore (more a space-filler than anything else), and redshirt freshman Thaddeus Randle, who reportedly had a good camp.

DEFENSIVE ENDS

Pierre Allen (SR)  6-5, 265
Jason Ankrah (R-Fr)  6-2, 255
Cameron Meredith (SO) 6-4, 265
Josh Williams (SO)  6-4, 255

Losing Barry Turner stings, but among the returnees Pierre Allen is the name to know, who after offseason surgery to clean up his knee has put on good weight and is playing with power that had been missing from his game. His continued health is key to Nebraska, because there's a big drop off in experience behind him. I really like Jason Ankrah, a redshirt freshman from Maryland who's going to develop into an NFL prospect and reminds me a bit of Eddie Jones, but he's still raw. Sophomore Cameron Meredith has a very good, long first step and the likely starter opposite Allen, and while his top-end upside is less than Ankrah, he's a nice college defensive end. Likely to fill out the two deep is Josh Williams, a sophomore out of Denton, who I haven't seen or heard much about.

LINEBACKERS

Will Compton (SO)  6-2, 225
Lavonte David (JR)  6-1, 210
Sean Fisher (SO)  6-6, 235
Matthew May (JR)  6-1, 215
Eric Martin (SO)  6-2, 240

Bo Pelini insists he's playing a 4-3 defense, but it's really two linebackers and a hybrid linebacker-safety. You'll hear this called the Peso, Big Nickel, and a bunch of other jargon. All you need to know is that there are two linebackers as you traditionally conceive the position, and a third guy who's playing the third linebacker spot but is the cover man when the offense goes one-back (or empty).

Nebraska was dealt a blow in fall camp when expected starter Sean Fisher went down with a season-ending injury, prompting Bo Pelini to institute a three-day media ban, punishment for reporting the injury. Pelini's media hostility is as comical as it is myopic.

Fisher's injury means Nebraska will be counting immediately on JUCO transfer Lavonte David, who's drawing all the rave reviews you'd expect from coaches eager not to talk about losing Fisher. In all fairness, however, his JUCO film looks good. David's got great instincts and a nasty attitude, and I'm not so sure he wouldn't have outshined Fisher, anyway. Joining David as likely starter will be third-year sophomore Will Compton, who's got good enough speed and tackles surely.

I expect Matthew May and Eric Martin to be the back ups on the two deep, but like with Will Muschamp, there's no sense getting too hung up on the positional depth chart -- it's secondary to the approach.

UPDATE: Will Compton suffered a foot injury in the team's last practice before game day and is out "indefinitely."

CORNERBACKS

Prince Amukamara (SR)  6-1, 205
Anthony Blue (JR)  5-10, 185
Alfonzo Dennard (JR)  5-10, 195
Lance Thorell (JR)  6-1, 200

Uh, these guys are good. Really, really good. Anthony Blue went down to injury in fall camp, re-injuring his knee, but the Huskers are loaded at the position and Blue was really just providing depth. Starters Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard are arguably the top pairing in the country, right up there with Texas. Amukamara is a big time NFL prospect, a converted running back with fluid hips, and superior size, strength, speed, and quickness. Dennard lacks his elite size, but can cover as well as anyone.

The health of the pair is critical to what Nebraska wants to do, which is leave them in one-on-one and use nine guys to smother everything up front. If you want to know why so many of us are skeptical about James Kirkendoll, re-watch his performance in the Big 12 Championship Game. He gets smothered, and all but quits. His reviews from fellow players out of fall camp are glowing, but at the very least, many of us will remain skeptical until we see him against a top secondary. Again: watch the UCLA game closely.

Both Dejon Gomes and Anthony West were corners last year who crosstrained to play safety this year, but with Blue going down to injury don't be surprised to see one of them move back to corner to provide depth with Lance Thorell.

EDIT: In beginning to write about the wide receivers, I just noticed that sophomore Antonio Bell has moved to CB. It makes sense, and it makes leaving Gomes and West at safety more viable. So long as Akamura and Dennard are healthy, I'd guess the coaches will focus on using their best available talent at safety, and make do with lesser proven talent backing up at corner, re-evaluating if injury forces their hand. --PB--

SAFETIES

Dejon Gomes (SR)  6-0, 200
Eric Hagg (SR)  6-2, 210
Courtney Osborne (SO)  6-3, 200
Rickey Thenarse (SR)  6-0, 210
Anthony West (SR) 6-0, 205

The Huskers replace a pair of starting safeties with the graduations of Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon. Senior Eric Hagg will be the hybrid LB-DB and will be on the field at almost all times. The loss of Blue means either Gomes or West could return to corner, but at least one of the two is going to stay and, I expect, start, alongside sophomore Courtney Osborne -- an athletically gifted player who's still learning the nuances of the position.

If there's a weakness on the Huskers, it's here at safety, where they'll be counting on inexperienced starters, and aren't featuring anyone with the kind of top-level talent like they do at corner. And that's why Amukamara and Dennard are so important to this defense. With the duo, Nebraska's safeties can focus on run support and aren't crucial to containing the opposition's top two receivers.

CONCLUSION

Bo and Carl Pelini's media anger issues, combined with their inability to release a depth chart because Zac Lee is too mediocre to win the job outright, force us to do a good bit of speculating, even now, two days before the season kicks off. With that said, anyone who's expecting a big drop off in the defense this year is making some questionable assumptions.

This is not a group without questions, but if Steinkuhler is technically improved, Lavonte David is as good as he looked mauling community college players, and their dynamic pair of corners stays healthy, this defense will shut down most every offense they play. You'll need to be able to run the football between the tackles against this group, you'll need a tight end who can get into the seam down the field, and you'll need to be capable of using play action to keep the Huskers honest.

As we all know, that's precisely what Texas' offense couldn't do last year, and we're anxious to see this year. At the very least, the storyline is a lot simpler than, "No Suh, no problem."

UPDATE: Part 2 on the offense is posted here.

For more on Nebraska, visit SB Nation's outstanding Corn Nation.

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