With the multitude of questions surrounding the Nebraska Cornhuskers defense heading into the season, there was much to figure out for Bo Pelini and his Huskers. One of the more blaring questions was how to replace seven regular starters from last season, including five in the front seven, and their top five tacklers.
Gone are players like linebacker Will Compton and Baker Steinkuhler, who anchored the Blackshirt defense last season. And although the Blackshirts turned in a less than stellar performance in 2012, most of those players had several years of experience, which is clearly going to be lacking from this year’s team. But although they won’t have much experience outside of returning starters like Ciante Evans and Jason Ankrah, Pelini and his staff say they make up for it with athleticism and speed, which coincidentally, is something last year’s defense didn’t have much of.
Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis are starting to get a good picture of what their defense is going to look like. It’s already been two weeks into fall practice, and some players are separating themselves from the rest of the pack and stepping up to play a big part in improving a dreadful defense.
Some of those players, like Evans and Ankrah, as well as sophomore linebacker David Santos and senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, should come as no surprise to start. Other upperclassmen who will probably start, or at least see significant playing time are Thad Randle, Avery Moss and Vincent Valentine, who are all on the defensive line.
There are others, however, who are perhaps surprising some people and showing they can make an impact immediately, such as highly-rated junior college transfer Randy Gregory, senior Broderick Nickens who made the switch from offensive to defensive line this offseason, and true freshmen Nate Gerry and Josh Banderas, who are really impressing the coaching staff.
Gregory has many of the coaches, Papuchis included, feeling excited about what he can bring to the table.
Nickens, who moved from offensive tackle to defensive tackle, has impressed the coaches with how he has been able to adapt to a totally new position so quickly. Although nobody would say he’s Suh-like, he is looking to be a force on the line and should be in the defensive line rotation.
The two true freshman, Gerry and Banderas, are both picking it up extremely fast, and look like they will both be seeing a lot of playing time this upcoming season. Banderas will play middle linebacker, according to multiple reports, and is competing with David Santos and redshirt freshman Michael Rose for the starting middle linebacker spot, and Banderas and Santos look to be the favorites right now. Zaire Anderson is also a probable starter at linebacker, but probably on the outside.
Gerry, the South Dakota native, who was recruited as a safety, has shown incredible versatility, playing at linebacker, safety, and corner for the Huskers during fall practice. Because of a loaded secondary and steady competition in the front seven, the Huskers coaching staff are trying feverishly to get him into the mix so he can contribute. Don’t be surprised to see Gerry at several different positions this season, although there’s no guarantee he’ll start.
In the loaded secondary I just alluded too, things are looking pretty clear as to who will be starting in the opener against Wyoming. Baptiste and Evans are nearly locks at both corners, although Josh Mitchell will likely be the starter when they go into nickel, which they will go to often, with Evans as the nickel. The starters at safety are a little less clear-cut, and there are still some spots up for grabs. Right now Corey Cooper, arguably the best hitter in the secondary, is a likely starter at safety, and he’ll be joined by a talented bunch in Charles Jackson, D.J Singleton and Harvey Jackson.
With all I have been reading and watching, this defensive unit will probably be much better than last year, although they are much less experienced. The Blackshirts this year will be a young, fast, athletic and physical bunch, and I think they’ll surprise a lot of people. While I don’t think they’ll necessarily transform into a top-ten defense overnight, I think they’ll learn from last year’s mistakes by not giving up big plays and making tackles. Nobody is expecting much from this group, but these Blackshirts will exceed all expectations. Everyone knows how prolific the offense is, and accompanied with a stout defense to keep teams from scoring, the Huskers could be the best team in the B1G, and maybe even turn into a dark-horse national title contender. I know that’s a big if, but it’s not unrealistic to think this squad could prove many people wrong and have a pretty solid defense. After all, Pelini is a defensive specialist, and these are the Blackshirts we’re talking about.