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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A Look Around the CFB Landscape 9/10

The biggest crotch kick, at least for me, was the OKState/Central Michigan game. CMU did a great job of hanging in there. But at the end OSU was running the clock out. On the final, or so we thought, play, Mason Rudolph hucked the ball downfield as time expired. My dumb ass, figured his money was safe and turned the channel. Later I was watching another game and saw the final was CMU 30 OSU 27. I thought it was a damn misprint!!  Turns out Rudolph’s pass was called intentional grounding. The Chippewas proceed to throw a hail mary lateral that wins the game. But wait, that’s not all. It turns out that play should have never been run. The MAC officiating crew screwed it up and the Big 12 replay crew (shockingly)also screwed it up. So everyone freely admits OSU should have won the game, but didn’t and the results wont change. What a bunch of shit.

 

The TCU/Arkansas game was classic. This old time SW conference matchup was worth every drunken minute of my time. For the bulk of the game the pigs were in command. Then TCU got ole MO on their side and couldn’t be stopped. The game went to double OT with Arkansas ultimately prevailing. This thriller will go down as one of the best games of the year. It was truly fantastic and was a reminder of what makes college football so great. I’ve got no dog in the hunt. Although I live in Fort Worth I would not call myself a Frog backer. Don’t misunderstand, I’ve got nothing against them, it’s just not my team. Additionally I’ve always identified somewhat with the Arkansas style of ball. It was an interesting matchup and a thrilling game. If you missed it, well, its your loss.

 

Florida has now beaten Kentucky 30 straight times. Think about that. I dont care how good one program is or how bad another is. To defeat a team you play annually 30 times is extremely remarkable. The last time Kentucky beat Florida Ronald Reagan was in the white house, Money for nothing by Dire Straits was the top song, Back to the future was the top movie, and gas was 1.17 per gallon which for them was astronomical. This blogger was a year old. That was a long freaking time ago.

 

Tennessee and Virginia Tech met at Bristol Motor Speedway in what I will describe as a farce. The only reason they met here is to set the attendance record. Its obscene. That place may have 150K good seats for a race, but I’m here to tell you there are tens of thousands of terrible seats that were sold for this game. Look at the venue. There is no way someone sitting in the endzone has any kind of view. Lets call this what it is, a money grab. I shouldn’t be surprised by this and yet my feeling of disgust is strong. I just don’t get why folks would pay good money for terrible seats. Someone help me here.

 

To see Lamar Jackson Friday night against the Orange was to awe in him. He was fantastic, and that’s putting it lightly. However, let me put a wet blankey on that performance. I think Syracuse has a miserable defense. I need to see Jackson perform admirably against a defense with a pulse. Not some soft, limp, defense like Syracuse. If he can create similar heroics against a decent team I will sing his praises from the mountain tops.

 

Toward the end of a 28 point home victory Nick Saban was seen going berserk. He was all over Lane Kiffin. Asked after the game about the argument, Saban replied “There was no argument, that’s called an ass chewing.” I know a lot of people don’t care for Saban, but this quote is classic. Ha!!

Can anybody play some damn defense in the Arizona State/Texas Tech game?  Goodness gracious.

Checkpoint #1

Its always tough to gauge the first game of the season.  There is so much expectation and speculation that rarely matches reality. The season opener needs to be taken for what it is, a starting place. This is the beginning. Each game is another checkpoint. This team will evolve. That is not to say I wasn’t pleased with what happened Saturday night in Memorial Stadium. The Big Red did some really good things. But this team, and all others, are a work in progress. This is far from the final product. Likewise there were areas that need work. The good part is I think the problems that I saw Saturday night are largely fixable. Still, it is important not to read too much into a first game. Those results can be extremely misleading. Remember 2007 when the Huskers smashed Nevada on a sun soaked opening Saturday 52-10? That team won 4 more games. Take the opener at face value. This is a week by week process. This is simply checkpoint 1. By and large, NU passed.

I want to make this clear. Fresno did not stop the Huskers offense one freaking time Saturday night. When NU got serious, pounded the rock and stayed focused, it was 6. The various drive killers were penalties, poorly executed plays or cutesy play calls. On the whole, the Huskers were able to grind out yards with ease, rushing for 292 and an average of 5.7 yards per rush. It wasn’t an explosive ground attack by any stretch. Rather it was a steady pounding that the Dogs never had an answer for. The Big Red flexed some serious muscle in this department. Devine Ozigbo led the way with 103 yards on 17 carries. Ozigbo is a lot of fun to watch.When he gets a head of steam and squares his shoulders, he’s tough to stop.  The offensive line had a good showing Saturday night, opening holes routinely for whoever the ball carrier was. Those boys kicked some serious tail. I was impressed. It was a heavy ground attack that some Husker fans have been craving. Tommy Armstrong threw just 10 passes on the night, completing 5 of them for 108 yards and a TD. Armstrong wasn’t at all sharp in his passes. Set aside the beautiful 57 yard bomb to Alonzo Moore on a well time play action pass, and I was pretty underwhelmed with his passing. He easily could have completed a few more of them and really stressed the Fresno defense. It mattered little. When NU set their mind to running the ball and stayed out of their own way, they were unstopable against a woeful Fresno defense. There will be much stiffer tests ahead, but for tonight, this unit passed with room to spare.

Overall, I was fairly pleased with the defense. I think they were put in some tough spots, some of their own doing, but hung in there to produce a pretty decent opening outing. Let’s start with the defensive line. This group was pretty stout against the run. In particular I was impressed with Mick Stoltenberg. He was disruptive and tough to move. This group wasn’t particularly productive in the pass rush department, but were terrific in the run game. Fresno had nowhere to run all night gaining a meager 31 yards on 26 attempts. The defense wasn’t perfect. NU was off the field before a Luke Gifford targeting call kept the drive alive. That led to a Fresno field goal. Also, it appeared freshman Lamar Jackson was getting picked on in the nickel package. Fresno QB Chason Virgil seemed to target Jackson and found success against the freshman. Looking at the big picture its tough to be too critical of the defense. The lone Fresno TD came after a blocked punt on a drive that spanned just 32 yards. They produced 2 turnovers and was exceptional against the run. This defense did allow 243 passing yards, but it took FSU 43 attempts to obtain those yards. That’s an average of just 5.7 yards per pass which isn’t bad. There were just 2 deep balls, a bugaboo for last years secondary. One of those came in junk time. Personally, I was happy with the NU pass defense as a whole. The balls that Fresno WRs did catch were contested and there were several sound plays by NU defensive backs. There was some sloppy play, which is true for the entire squad, but generally I feel good about the NU defense and this initial outing.

Make no mistake, this was far from a perfect debut. Then again if you were expecting perfection perhaps you should re-calibrate your expectations. Still, there was some sloppiness all the way around. There were too many penalties including 2 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that were completely uncalled for. Stupidity like that gets you beat. I don’t want to see any more of that trash. Additionally, there was a blocked punt, leading to Fresno’s lone TD. Jordan Westercamp fielding punts seemed pretty wheels off all night long. Where is Demornay Pierson-El? Armstrong wasn’t very sharp throwing the ball, and the playcalling was a bit unfocused at times. Mike Riley in his post game interviews was underwhelmed with his team’s performance. I find that encouraging. That means he expects much more than we got Saturday. That’s good news. For now, from my armchair, I was pleased with this first game. It was a pretty good jumping off place. This is just one of 12. Punch your picket at this particular checkpoint and get ready for next week.