2017 Nebraska Cornhusker Defensive Preview

They say fortune favors the bold. If that is true then Mike Riley is due for a few lucky breaks going into his 3rd year in Lincoln. Riley shook up his staff in a major way last winter firing lifelong friend Mark Banker and hiring hot shot DC Bob Diaco. It would have been easy for Riley to stick with Banker. The defense made significant strides in 2016 and while it wasn’t the 85 Bears, it was more than adequate. There were a few games that the defense held up the offense. Then there were games like Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee where the defense, like the offense, was absolutely overwhelmed. This prompted a move that nobody saw coming. January 11th Riley called Banker and told him he would not be retained. The hunt was on. Riley found a fit in newly unemployed Bob Diaco who has a rich track record of producing top defensive units. The two met and mutually agreed that it would be a good fit. The NU brass opened up the pocketbook to make Diaco the highest paid assistant in Nebraska Football history. Clearly, this is a move that took vision. Diaco’s defensive scheme is extremely versatile which will be useful in a league like the Big 10 that sees such a variety of offensive attacks. As usual, there is no time for a learning curve in Lincoln. Expectations exist and Diaco must get this unit up to speed and in a hurry. How he teaches his scheme and molds it to the talent on hand will ultimately determine how successful this team can be.

Defensive Line

I really like this group. Going forward, the defensive line is going to be a strength of this defense. It all starts with #44 Big Mick Stoltenburg. He is mountain on the interior. At 6-5, 315 the Gretna product will be counted on to soak up blocks and wreak havoc. He is the cornerstone for this defensive line. Junior Freedom Akinmoladun led the team in sacks in 2016 and while his numbers need to improve, he has potential aplenty. Then there are the Davis twins, Carlos and Khalil. Every report I read from camp has something complimentary to say about one or both of them. The term explosive is routinely used. The twins will be the breakout stars of 2017 and are the future of this defensive unit. Peyton Newell, Daishon Neal, Ben Stille and true Freshman Deontre Thomas will provide solid depth on the defensive line. The greatest variable for the defensive line is how they will adjust to the new scheme. Not all 3-4/multiple schemes are the same. Some require their defensive linemen to basically wrestle with O-lineman and let the linebackers make all the plays. From what I have seen from Diaco’s days at Notre Dame and Connecticut, that is not the approach the D-line will take. I look for this unit to rotate heavily and be disruptive. A big reason for my bullish disposition is DL coach John Parella. I’m a bit biased, being from the same high school, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about the job he is doing both on the recruiting trail and on the practice field. We saw returns last season when his unit more than held their own despite being substantially undermanned. I think Parella is a rising star in this business and I’m pleased he is on this staff. His mantra of “All gas, no brakes” is perfectly suited for this program and his energy is second to none. This defensive line may be overlooked going into 2017, but I suspect that will change, and quickly.

Linebackers

This is where the success or failure of the newly installed defense will lie. This unit has far and away the most question marks. Inside Dedrick Young and Chris Weber look to be the starters. Weber, in particular, is a program guy who the coaches trust, but must step up big time. He had just 17 tackles in a smaller role last fall. He will need to have a big jump in production to keep that job. Avery Roberts and Mo Barry backup those two in the middle. Both have sizable potential and could push for playing time should either Weber or Young prove ineffective. On the outside for Big Red, Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby man one spot. Those 2 are the best tandem the LB unit has to offer. I’m not worried about them.  Both bring experience and athleticism. Diaco and LB coach Trent Bray will get good production between those 2. The other side is a major unknown. Reports have Alex Davis getting reps with the 1st team. He has a terrific frame at 6-5 255 but played last year as a pass rush specialist at DE. Also, Davis has limited experience playing the game of football. According to his NU bio, he only started playing football his Sr. year of high school!! So by my count this is his 4th year, and we are counting on him to be our starting OLB. That makes me very queasy. Sedrick King, who has limited experience as well will back him up. This unit makes me nervous. While there are some returning experience, there isn’t a lot of production. This unit badly needs the emergence of a star. Someone fans and coaches can look to to lead this defense. Could it be Weber? Young? Gifford? It is a major question make for this team. This is where Bray and Diaco will earn their pay this fall.

Defensive Backs

It pains me to write about the defensive backs because I am immediately reminded of Chris Jones’ injury. I was looking for Jones to have an outrageous season and move up draft boards. I feel terribly for him. In his absence I am pleased with what remains. CB Lamar Jackson is long and lanky with all the potential you could ask for. Eric Lee on the other side is equally promising. There was talk of making a place on the field for Lee even with Jones in the lineup. I feel good about these two as well as Dicaprio Bootle, who has made a bid for playing time. In the wake of the Jones injury I was very concerned about the CB situation, but at this point my mind is at ease. Tony Butler has moved from Safety for depth as will Avery Anderson. CB is in good shape and if Jones were to return, it will be even better. You can’t have too many good cover corners. Safety is in great hands with Aaron Williams and Josh Kalu. You will remember Kalu from his role as a CB the last 3 seasons. Diaco praised Kalu recently, calling him All-American caliber. I don’t know about that. Perhaps the new DC was trying to pump up one of his Sr. leaders. I’m not sure. I really don’t see a scenario where Kalu could earn that kind of acclaim. Still, I expect a solid FS, capable of covering whoever is thrown at him. We also know he can tackle. Safety is a good fit for someone with Kalu’s skill set. I also trust Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams back there. Safety is in really good hands between those 3. They will be counted on to coordinate the defense and make the correct adjustments. They are also capable of making big plays. The 3 of them combined for 9 Ints last year. Safety may be the strongest position this team has to offer. While I do not expect anyone to make the All-American team, I do think these defensive backs will the backbone of this defense. There may be some growing pains from the corners, but by Halloween this entire group should be fast and disruptive. They will be loads of fun to watch.

Key Themes for the 2017 Defense

How is the install going? Surely Diaco’s defensive scheme and principles can’t be fully implemented in less than a calendar year. So how does he simplify things so that this defense can be successful this season? I’m sure he has an answer. He better. Diaco has been very complimentary of this team to this point, but I am not sure that means anything. How many mental mistakes are made by a unit that has yet to play a game within this new system? Breakdowns result in big plays and points. That could cost games. How much of that kind of thing we see could be the difference in a good or bad season.

Can NU improve their sub par pash rush numbers? I feel like I ask this every year. Last year Big Red had 26 sacks. That is tied for 65th nationally with the likes of Army and Middle Tennessee and behind powerhouses like UTSA and 4-8 Misery. Yuck!! 2015 was even worse with 24 sacks. The term horrendous comes to mind. You can blame Mark Banker’s scheme if you wish, but I won’t. I thought Banker drew up several interesting looks last year that produced pressure. NU was simply not getting to the QB without some kind of blitz. No doubt, Bob Diaco has ideas of his own for how to create pressure up front. But some of it comes down to winning individual battles. Beat the man in front of you!! There simply hasn’t been enough of that in the last couple of years. If NU wants to make a move toward contention in the Big 10 this has to change and in a big time way.

The buzz word out of camp is energy. Energy from the coaches, the players, from Diaco himself. The BTN crew noticed it on their visit and Riley has mentioned it several times in interviews. It is even palpable in the interviews with players. Energy is a very positive sign that things are going well for this defense. As we are so often reminded, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Will the grind of the regular season wear down that energy? Will the team run out of juice before the meat of the schedule arrives? It is something to keep an eye on.

The Chris Jones saga. Personally, I am not counting on him at all. I think it is best to think of it that way. If he does get back, great. That is all gravy. Jones himself has made it a point to be seen by the media not walking with crutches or wearing a knee brace. I question how much of that is authentic. Jones is a competitor, a team leader. You love that about the guy. But at some point it is counter productive. If he is not physically ready to play I would rather him stay on the sidelines. We will not hear the end of this. It will be a lingering storyline throughout the year. Again, I remain extremely skeptical about his return or the quality of play if he does.

Schedule Analysis/Season Prediction

This schedule is a Bear. An absolute bear. It is very possible that NU could be better in a number of areas and still come away with a worse record than it had a year ago. For starters there are 3, yes 3, teams on NU’s schedule in the preseason top 10!!  I am not sure any schedule in the country can make that claim. Ohio State and Wisconsin come to Lincoln, while Big Red takes its show on the road to Happy Valley the week before Thanksgiving. We all know that Ohio State is playing on a different level than Nebraska. But Wisconsin has beaten NU by a combined 8 points the last 2 seasons. I expect that game to be a dogfight, and it is in Lincoln. I like Big Red’s chances. There is also a week 2 trip to Eugene Oregon to take on the Ducks. That is a team that will be much better. We will see how quickly NU can adapt to its new scheme/personnel. That game is a coin toss. Throw in visits from Northwestern and Iowa and a trip to the twin cities and it is easy to see, this season will be no cakewalk. The Huskers are going to have to get it together and fast and avoid major injury at critical positions. While the schedule is rough, I do not expect this season to go in the toilet. I’ll spoil the fun and say NU isn’t a contender for the playoff, but I do think a quality season that this program can build upon is on the table. The floor is 6-6. That would be awful and would make me question the leadership of this program. I don’t think that will happen. If NU catches a few breaks I could see the ceiling being 10-11 wins. That would be glorious. The planets would have to align just perfectly. This too is unlikely. I will say this team will perform closer to the ceiling than the floor. Give me Big Red to win 9 games, with losses to Ohio State and some combination of Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, Oregon and Northwestern. The record could be 8-4 pretty easily, but I’ll call for Big Red to go 3-2 in the previously mentioned games. No Big 10 West title. That will go to Wisconsin. A more favorable schedule gives them the firm edge over the Huskers. Still, this will be a quality season that ramps up toward next fall where I believe NU will contend for a playoff spot.

Thanks for reading, and of course GO BIG RED!!

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

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Big Loss For Big Red

A seemingly calm and relaxing Saturday afternoon nap was shattered with some truly horrible news. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s top CB, and my personal favorite defensive player is out 4-6 months with a bad knee injury. This is a major blow to the whole defensive unit. A unit who is already short on playmakers. Jones is a true ballhawk who was poised for a big fall before this setback. Jones’ absence leaves most of us scratching out head. This injury has a ripple effect on the defensive backfield, but it also poses an interesting question about Jones’ career path. It’s very possible we never see him in scarlet and cream again.

I’ve heard plenty of talk about moving Josh Kalu from Free Safety back to corner where he has played his 3 previous seasons in Lincoln. I could, potentially, get behind this. But there are a few factors. First, how do you feel about Eric Lee? Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams was quick to heap praise on Lee for his play this spring. If you feel good about Lee at that spot, lets see what he can do. Secondly, the eligibility of incoming recruit Elijah Blades is in jeapordy. Blades is still not in Lincoln and you have to wonder if he ever will be. Lets assume Blades does not qualify, who does NU for depth purposes? Dicaprio Bootle and Tony Butler are both young players who have yet to see action. Boaz Joseph has been a fixture on the 2-deep, but is light on experience. Are any of them ready for a role of any considerable size? If not, you really have to look hard at Kalu. Finally, how does Josh Kalu feel about it? I really dislike moving players repeatedly. Its not good for their development. Kalu has spent upwards of 6 months getting ready to play Free Safety in NU’s new 3-4 scheme. It is unfair to completely shift gears and expect him to play CB and not miss a beat. If he is alright with the switch, and you don’t feel good about the others, then do it. If he is even the least bit apprehensive, I keep him at Free Safety and get the youngsters ready to play.

This weekend on twitter, Chris Jones implied that he will beat the 4-6 month timetable. While I appreciate the attitude and enthusiasm Jones possesses, I don’t think its a good idea. This is his future we are talking about. He needs to do whatever it takes to get right in order to continue his career, whether it’s in Lincoln or in the NFL. I remember when Jerry Rice blew his knee out it 1997, rushed to get back, only to further injure it. I don’t want to see that happen with Jones. He needs to do what is best for him. There is some thought that he has a redshirt season to burn. So he sits out 2017, gets his knee in order, and comes back in 2018. If that is what is best for him, great. If he determines that going to the draft is his best path, fine. It is possible that Jones could rejoin the team after 4 months and be available for Penn State, Iowa, maybe Minnesota and the bowl game. Is that worth it for him? Again, I leave that up to him to decide. Personally, if I were him I would look long and hard at getting back to 100% and getting ready for workouts in preparation of the draft.

Let’s not mince words. This is a disastrous injury. One of the best players on this team is lost for  75% of the season, in all likelihood. That stinks. The hires of Bob Diaco and Donte Williams were roundly applauded by the Big Red faithful. Both bring serious moxy to the coaching staff. Well, the honeymoon is over for both of them. Diaco will more than likely have to adjust the way he calls defenses without a rock solid, lock down, playmaking corner on one side. Williams is charged with the task of getting youngsters ready to play, and in a hurry. What if there is another injury at that position? We have seen Williams recruit, but can he develop the talent on hand? If NU doesn’t have corners ready to play, Big 10 quarterbacks could have a field day. How much does that change the outlook of the 2017 season?

 

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

2016 Nebraska Football Season Preview

The only thing that saves the month of August from being a complete crotch kick is the excitement of the upcoming football season. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. This particular season is completely unique from any I’ve ever experienced. There is very real optimism and excitement for this upcoming campaign. This is odd for a fan base, accustomed to nine or ten win seasons, coming off a six win season. Mike Riley has managed, through his own personal charm and off-field successes, to create a real buzz without winning a single game. It’s really quite remarkable. It’s as though folks have forgotten the numerous blown games last fall. There will be no hiding once the season kicks off in a couple weeks. There will be weekly reminders of exactly how the Mike Riley era is progressing. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Holes may exist on this roster but so does a solid core of experienced players set to make their mark on Husker lore. From Tommy Armstrong, to Jordan Westerkamp, to Michael Rose-Ivey, and Nate Gerry, these guys seem intent on breaking through and making 2016 one to remember. There is a hungry fan base that would absolutely love to see that happen. In just two weeks’ time, we will release the red balloons and we will be underway. I’m absolutely stoked, as I imagine you are. Here is one man’s guide to the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Five Keys to Success in 2016

Vastly superior turnover margin
A young, yet ferocious, pass rush
A solid, go-to, Running Back emerging from the committee
Better game management from the coaching staff
A difference-making LB corps and their mark on this defense

Five Breakout Players

Josh Banderas
Kevin Maurice
Tanner Farmer
Cethan Carter
Chris Jones

Defensive Backfield

This group is looking to bounce back after an extremely rough 2015. The defensive backfield certainly took it on the chin, ranking 121st nationally in pass defense. That experience has folks feeling oddly optimistic about this group going forward. Cornerbacks Josh Kalu and Chris Jones both showed promise despite their struggles. Sophomore Aaron Williams will man one Safety spot. Williams has a nose for the ball that you just can’t teach. 3rd year starter Nate Gerry will continue to occupy the other safety spot. Gerry also struggled in 2015 and must return to form for this unit to be a strength. There is a lot of talk about being in year two of Mark Banker’s scheme and how the experience gained from their struggles will pay off in spades. Maybe there is truth in that, but I don’t buy it as enthusiastically as they are selling it. I look for this unit to improve dramatically. I simply don’t believe the defensive backs are as bad as the stats from last year indicate. I see plenty of athleticism as well. Look for the defensive backs to surprise some people with their play this fall.

Linebackers

Its funny how a year changes things. A year ago this linebacker group was considered a weakness with barely enough bodies to run a base defense. Now, depth abounds. I project Josh Banderas, Dedrick Young and Michael Rose-Ivey (providing he can stay healthy) to be the starters. They all return from a year ago and have substantial experience. They all have shown talent at some point in their careers. Backing them up are Marcus Newby, Luke Gifford, and Chris Weber who all played a lot in 2015. Then there are young, supposedly talented players waiting in the wings. In just one year’s time the linebacking corps has gone from a liability to the best unit on the defense. Mark Banker has a problem you want to have with all these talented bodies at his disposal. It’s his job to find a role for all of them and get this unit to lead the defense. There are countless ways to use them creatively. Look for this unit to break out in 2016. If they do not, and the LBs struggle, this defense is dead in the water. I don’t see that happening. The LBs will be awesome in 2016.

Defensive Line

Conversely, the last 12 months have not been kind to the defensive line. The Huskers lost five big time contributors from last year’s unit. That hurts a team that does not have a boat load of experience in the depth chart. There is loads and loads of youth within this group. Projected starters Kevin Maurice and Ross Dzuris are both Seniors. Freedom Akinmoladun started four games in 2015 and picked up 4.5 sacks. The experience drops off considerably from there. Carlos and Khalil Davis are both highly touted Redshirt Freshmen, who both pass the eyeball test, but have no playing experience. Daishon Neal is another Redshirt Freshman who figures to be in the mix. Mick Stoltenberg and Peyton Newell are both Sophmores that will likely see the field. You get the point. There is plenty of potential with this group but they are extremely short on experience.  First year defensive line coach John Parella has his work cut out for him. If this unit can be productive against both the run and pass, then this defense will have a substantial leg up. Taking up blocks and keeping the linebackers free to make plays is a winning recipe as well. There are a few ways to skin that cat. The success of this young group will go a very long way toward determining how successful this defense is.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong comes into 2016 as a four year starter. He has been largely above average but has struggled mightily at times. I like Tommy, I think he does a lot of positive things. The turnovers are as maddening as they are unacceptable. In no year has Armstrong posted a 2-1 TD-Int ratio. That ratio is the mark of any good QB. His counterpart to the East, C.J Bethard was more than 3-1 in 2015. This ratio has to improve. Tommy has a wonderful lively arm, you can’t teach that, but he simply has to make better decisions. Accuracy also factors into those turnovers. Tommy can be erratic as a passer. He has gotten better each year and I look to see him make the next step. I also look for Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley to use him more outside the pocket. Armstrong is terrific on roll outs and bootlegs. I don’t think we saw that enough last year. Calls like that use Armstrong’s best attributes and put this offense in the best possible position. That’s good for everyone.

Running Back

Husker fans have been spoiled over the last 7 years or so. The Running Back position has seen some marvelous players in scarlet and cream. From Roy Helu, to Rex Burkhead and the unforgettable Ameer Abdulah, this position has been filled with wonderful, terrific talents. There is nobody like that currently on this roster. I view this group very negatively. The RB position is up for grabs during this camp, largely due to the fact that none of them are good enough to take the bull by the balls. Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo are both taking first team reps, but I don’t consider either to be outstanding. Perhaps Ozigbo will get there, he is just a sophomore, but after three years we know what Newby is. Unfortunately, he is mediocre. The fact that fresh out of high school Tre Bryant is getting reps with the top unit tells you all you need to know about the quality that exists at RB. This unit needs either a solid workhorse or a dynamic playmaker. As of today, I can safely say they have neither. I hope I am wrong about this position group, but at this point this is the weakest unit on the team. I’m not sure it’s even close.

Wide Receiver

The best term to describe the wide receiver corps at Nebraska is loaded. This group is fantastically stacked. For starters there is Jordan Westerkamp, who will hold many of the school’s receiving records by Thanksgiving. Westy is an awesome speedster with terrific hands. We will be watching him on Sundays for a long time. Brandon Reilly is a very good big-bodied receiver with good speed and hands. Reilly, himself, had over 750 yards in 2015. Stanley Morgan is a sophomore with loads of upside. He might have the highest ceiling of all, with his combination of youth, physicality and hands. Alonzo Moore is somehow lost in this mix, despite six TDs in 2015. That says nothing about Cethan Carter and Demornay Pierson-El, who are both outstanding talents. This is far and away the best position group on the team. The one negative is the DUI from WR coach Keith Williams. Williams will be suspended through the end of the month and not allowed to coach the first 4 games. Perhaps that turmoil could disrupt what is sure to be a very good fall for this group. Otherwise, the sky is the limit with this embarrassment of riches on the outside.

Offensive Line

I don’t think I am alone when I say that last year’s offensive line was mostly underwhelming. NU was middle of the pack in both yards per game and yards per carry in Big 10 play.  It seemed like Tommy Armstrong was always getting flushed out of the pocket and running for his life. So forgive me when I don’t sob over the departure of four contributors from last years OL. It’s time for some new blood up front. I really like the way this line looks on paper. Nick Gates will man the left tackle spot after gaining a year’s experience on the other side. I expect Gates to make a big jump this fall. Papillion product, Dylan Utter, moves to center from Guard, where he started every game a year ago. I think that is an upgrade over Ryne Reeves who seemed slow off the ball and consistently high on his snaps. David Knevel  is a ridiculous 6-9 315 lbs. OL Coach Mike Cavanaugh is banking that he can turn that frame into an effective right tackle. I’ll bet he is right. The two that I was the most excited about were guards Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster. Farmer is said to be extremely strong and has trimmed down. Unfortunately, Foster is lost for the year with a knee injury. That is a big loss as I had big hopes for him. In his absence freshman Jalin Barnett looks to make his mark. Like Foster, Barnett has a big upside. Perhaps I am being especially bullish on this group for no particular reason. There is no track record nor experience to speak of. I look at the bodies occupying these spots, as well as the depth being built behind them, and feel that productive Saturdays are in store for this unit. It may take a while for this unit to gel, but I think this unit will be a strength by seasons end.

Schedule Analysis/Season Prediction

Overall, this schedule is tough, but not rough. There are several challenging games along the way, including several on the road. But if you want to be a good team in this league, these are games you can’t be afraid of. Let’s start with the one unwinnable game. November 5th, our beloved Big Red go to Columbus, Ohio to take on the mighty Buckeyes. I don’t see any way this team comes out of Columbus with a W. That team is on a different level at this particular point. September 24th, the Oregon Ducks come to town. Oregon is stumbling off its worst season in 8 years, just lost its offensive coordinator, and is unsettled at QB. That does not mean that they can’t come into Lincoln and win. If the NU defense is not clicking Oregon’s skill players will take the Blackshirts apart. Still, this is a winnable game. Beyond those 2 games there are several tough, but manageable road games. A trip to Northwestern is always a test, but one I feel this team should pass. Another to Madison comes at the tail end of murderers row for the Badgers.  In a 6 week period, UW plays at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa, and then Nebraska. There is a good chance the Badgers will be totally destroyed by the time NU comes to town. Then of course there is a Black Friday trip to Iowa City. The road team has won the last 4 in this series including an awesome comeback from down 24-7 the last time this game was played here. This game is a total toss up.

There are no shortage of potholes on this schedule, but is largely manageable. If this team wants to contend for a division and conference title the door is wide open. The schedule maker has all but eliminated both Wisconsin and Northwestern, leaving Nebraska and Iowa.  Once again the schedule looks relatively easy for the Iowa Hawkeyes. They draw a trip to Penn State and a visit from Michigan from the east, as well as home games against the other West contenders.  The door is in no way closed for NU.  They will certainly need a win on Black Friday or a win in Madison, but I feel like that is realistic. If this defense can gel much earlier than it did a year ago and NU can effectively run the ball, everything is possible. I’ll play the Husker homeboy and call for that to happen and for the Huskers to be playing on Black Friday for the Big 10 west title. I’ll go a step further and say NU wins that game, winning the west and finishing 9-3.

(Pass) Defenseless

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.