Lets take a trip down memory lane. September 26th 2015, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles came to Lincoln as a 21 point underdog. After 3 quarters, the Huskers led 29-7 and looked to be cruising. Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken threw the game plan away and started simply hucking the ball downfield at a vulnerable Nebraska secondary. The Husker pass defense was utterly helpless against Nick Mullens and spark plug WR Casey Martin. This game turned into a dog fight in the 4th quarter. Southern Miss had the ball in Husker territory in the game’s final minute down just one possession. This is all due to the terrible pass defense that was on the display each Saturday last year. The Nebraska pitiful pass defense cost them at minimum 3 games last season. The stats are every bit as bad as the anecdotes. The Huskers ranked 121st nationally in pass defense, surrendering 288 yards per game. NU picked off just 10 passes while allowing 22 passing TDs. It was depressing. If the Huskers hope to reach their goals in 2016 this must be shored up. Otherwise, the Huskers are sunk, and my liver will be in for a very rough fall.
One way NU can expect a better pass defense this fall is through its personnel. Corners Josh Kalu and Chris Jones both took their lumps, repeatedly, but also showed some promise by years end. I like Jones, he is a big physical corner who showed his inexperience but also flashed some skills. Josh Kalu was the most hot and cold of any NU defender. He had 3 INTs and was tied for the team lead for passes defended, but was burned plenty of times. Still, his improvement through the year was easy to see. If he and Jones can learn from their experiences in 2015 and build upon their successes, this defense will be improved considerably. The biggest X-factor for this entire defense, not just the pass defense, is Safety Nate Gerry. Full disclosure, Gerry is one of my favorite Huskers, but he was bad last year. Painfully bad. Too often he was in poor position, or would miss a tackle. He was not himself. Often it looked like there was an impostor wearing number 25. Gerry has all Big 10 capabilities. His vision, physicality and smarts should make him one of the best in the conference, if not the country. If he can return to form, I think this pass defense improves considerably and this defense has a good chance to be good enough for NU to win this division.
In order to take some of the pressure off the Nebraska secondary, the pass rush must improve this fall. The Huskers front 7 were exceptional against the run, but they were mediocre, to God awful, creating pressure. 6 times last fall the Nebraska defense recorded 1 or fewer sacks, amassing just 24 all season. Nebraska ranked 10th in the Big 10 in sacks in conference play. Those stats make me cringe, but accurately high-lite the ineffective pass rush. The lack of a pass rush gave opposing QBs all the time in the world to pick apart the beleaguered Husker secondary. It seemed to happen every Saturday. Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker must find creative ways to get to the QB and rattle them. The good news is it appears NU has a bevy of options at Linebacker. Last fall the injury bug was relentless. Michael Rose missed 6 games, Josh Banderas missed 4, while Chris Weber missed 3. That is horrendous luck. This year the Big Red return the top 8 at that position. This group will be a strength and Banker must manipulate their talents into production, something that wasn’t done in 2015. Nebraska’s top 5 LBs recorded just 1 sack last fall. That is completely unacceptable. Banker must be more creative this time around. Blitzes, packages, whatever can be done to put the likes of C.J Bethard on their ass. Defensive Lineman like Freedom Akinmolodun and Ross Dzuris must also do their part to help the pass defense. If the Huskers can get to opposing QBs with their front 4 that is a recipe for success. That’s a lot to ask for from a unit trying to break in 6 new members in their 2 deep. Its Mark Banker’s job to work with the experience at LB and inexperience up front to find a way to have a productive pass rush. The success of the 2016 Huskers depends on it.
I have very real and very grave concerns about Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker. Based upon what I saw last fall, he is not a great DC. It took the defense far too long to gel and even when it did there were glaring holes. Perhaps part of that was personnel, injuries, transition to a new system, etc. We have all heard the excuses. Its put up or shut up time for coach Banker. This unit simply cannot be as atrocious as it was against the pass. That must change. The returning experience and improvement made toward the end of the year indicate that is possible. Likely even. Call me jaded, but I need to see it. The tools are there for this defense to be better against the pass and be far more productive overall. That’s all sunshine and rainbows but I’m here to tell you that if this pass defense isn’t better in 2016, the Huskers will not be competing for anything meaningful. If this is the case, heads should roll. It starts with Banker.