This IS NOT OKAY!!!

First and foremost I should acknowledge the fact that I missed last week. Yes, I saw the game. But sue me, I’m busy. Believe it or not these posts take time. Sometimes I do not have much of that. Big Red hung tough last week before having their pants pulled down and their ass spanked for all the world to see. Some of that was completely palatable, not to mention predictable.  Wisconsin was indeed the better team, and the Huskers hung tough before eventually getting exposed. While that sucks, it happens, particularly when you are as flawed as this team is. Saturday night was a different story altogether. Ohio State walked into our building and put an ass kicking on us like I have NEVER seen. Look Ohio State is good, but they aren’t nearly as freaking good as we made them look. Not even close in fact. That was an awful performance, a pathetic effort. What I saw was a team mailing it in. It was an abhorrent effort, particularly defensively. The whole thing is extremely tough to stomach.

I’ll spare you the offensive and defensive breakdowns. In a nutshell, it is bad, real freaking bad. What I will tell you is that this is not acceptable. Look, I don’t expect Tommie Frazier and Grant Wistrom to walk through that door and save us. That fairy tale shit isn’t going to happen. The 90’s are not coming back. That is reality. Regardless, letting anyone outside of the New England Patriots walk in to our house and eat our lunch like that is not acceptable. Period. As far as I’m concerned Mike Riley is a dead man walking. I take no pleasure in that. While I was never a fan of that hire, I did grow to like the man. Mike Riley is extremely likable. I felt a connection to him, as odd as that seems. He runs a good, clean program. His players conduct themselves with class. That matters, believe me. Particularly in this state. But this is a results driven business. Losing at home by 6 touchdowns doesn’t fly in Lincoln, or at least it shouldn’t. A program that has had just 2 losing seasons in nearly 50 years before the current administration’s tenure is now staring down its 2nd in 3 seasons. Not for nothing, losing to a team from the MAC is also unacceptable. More than that, the way this team conducted itself between the white lines was troubling. I would like someone out there to give a shit. I saw very little of that Saturday night. If you don’t think the effort was questionable, well, I have nothing for you. You clearly did not see the same game I saw. Or perhaps your own narrative has made you blind to the glaring reality. No matter how you cut it, this was not good. It was atrocious. Horrendous. Embarrassing. Unacceptable.

Where does that leave us? Well, first and foremost I am willing to concede that barring significant improvement and tangible progress this staff needs to go. I take no pleasure in this. This program needs stability. Something it has not had in a very long time. It is true that you can’t fire your way to stability. Still, if the process is broken, and it sure as hell seems that way, you have to fix it. On Saturday night, with my ass sore from the kicking the Buckeyes administered, it is obvious that what we are doing is not working. Year 3 is the year where a coaches program starts to see real progress. That is typically how that goes. I see very little positive signs going forward. I see a program that is light on both talent and direction. The results are ugly. Very ugly. From the ass kicking by the Bucks to the loss to Northern Illinois, this thing is clearly going in a negative direction. It has to stop!! When Sean Eichorst was fired I thought it would send a message to the players. I have no doubt the message was received. Saturday night it appeared that they simply did not give a shit.

Follow on Twitter: @jakeanderson884

Advertisements

Reason to Believe

In the topsy turvey world of Husker football you never really know what you are going to get. Particularly this season. This team has been incredibly inconsistent on both sides of the ball. As the season began it was the defense that was horrid. Painful even!! Then as the defense molded into shape, it was the offense that was awful. This team has been all over the map through 4 games. So what were we to expect going into a road game on a Friday night in Champaign where the opponent has 14 days to prepare vs just 6 for the Huskers? From there my pessimism took over. Horrible, awful thoughts about NU losing to the lousy Illinois Illini crept in. What would that mean? Where would we go from there? All of that was complete and total nonsense. The Nebraska Cornhuskers firmly handled the Illini. They never stood a chance. The Huskers took care of business and wore out this undermanned squad. This was a complete effort by the Big Red. It is something that was extremely encouraging to see going forward.

The credit for this victory should be widespread. Everyone deserves a bite of that cake. But this defense absolutely needs a sizable piece. The Husker defense, who just a few weeks ago was much maligned, was again outstanding. The Illinois offense never stood a chance. The Fighting Illini offense failed to cross 200 yards on the night. Early in the game it became abundantly clear that Illinois did not trust its passing game and would lean heavily on the ground. While they found bits of success, nothing was sustainable. The Husker defense held Illinois to an average of 2.5 yards per rush and under 100 on the game. When the Illini dared to throw the ball, the NU pass rush was ferocious, recording 5 sacks on the night. Carlos and Khalil Davis along with Freedom Akinmoladun lived in the Illinois backfield. It was beautiful. Don’t look now but after an extremely rocky start, this unit has transformed into a really good defense. Credit Bob Diaco for coming up with a scheme to match the talent on hand and produce a quality defense. Sure, this crew has yet to play a prolific offense, but over the last 14 quarters they have allowed just 2 TDs. I don’t care if you are playing the marching band, that is outstanding. Tougher days are surely ahead, but if this defense continues with this trend, NU will be in every game they play.

This offense has taken more than its share of lumps thus far. They have earned it!!  Turnovers, horrible offensive line play and awful 3rd down conversion rate have doomed this unit all year. Friday night this offense came out with a different approach. Danny Langsdorf clearly aimed to keep keep QB Tanner Lee out of bad situations, opting more for intermediate throws than deep ones. The thought was that this strategy would cut down on costly turnovers and increase efficiency. Go figure, it worked. Tanner Lee was very good, throwing for 246 yards on 17/24 passing with 3 TDs. That is an average of 10.3 yards per attempt. It was hands down his best game. This offense was also 7-11 on 3rd downs. An emphasis on the running game also contributed to the improved efficiency. For the 2nd week in a row, Devine Ozigbo bullied his way to over 100 yards. His emergence has been a real shot in the arm for this offense. I’m not real sure why he wasn’t getting any playing time before last week, but it is clear that has to change even when Tre Bryant returns. He adds a unique dimension that the other RBs cannot match. Even a 3rd quarter fumble can be overlooked, when you see #22 running as hard as he does. Overall it was a great night for the offense. NU scored TDs on each of their first 3 drives and took a 21-3 lead into the locker room. Along with a feisty defense, this productive offense gave the Illini no chance to hang with the Big Red.

Lets be frank, Illinois is not a quality outfit. I highly doubt that Lovie Smith is going to be around for too terribly long. That team is short on talent and direction. Time may prove them the worst team in the Big 10. But as I said last week, all conference wins are good wins. Give Big Red credit for beating the pants off an inferior opponent. They could have come out and played around with Illini like they were the family pet. We have seen this team do that in the past. Instead, their no nonsense approach made for an easy night for Husker fans. In that way this was an impressive business trip for a relatively young team. Be advised, bigger games are here. Next up is the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that has owned the Huskers since their arrival in the Big 10. The Badger’s credentials are well known. However, a defense that is getting better every week and an offense with a renewed emphasis on the ground game gives this Husker fan a reason to believe that NU can hang with Badgers. Mix in a little Memorial Stadium magic and, well, next Saturday night could be special.

 

Follow on Twitter: @jakeanderson884

A (small) Step Forward

It has been a crazy week in Huskerville. From perhaps the worst loss in program history to the dismissal of AD Sean Eichorst, to the job security of Mike Riley, I think we were all ready to get back to the field. Luckily, some chicken soup for the Husker soul showed up in the form of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. This team is not good.  So the Huskers rolled, right? Not quite. NU fumbled and fooled around with Rutgers for most of the afternoon. It was extremely distressing. I doubt a loss would have sent Mike Riley out the door, but it might have. Fortunately, that is not a conversation we have to endure. NU made some key plays in vital moments to beat a lousy Rutgers team. That is a step forward, albeit a small one. Still, all conference wins are good ones. There are bigger games ahead and NU must get better, but Saturday NU evened up their record and improved to 1-0 in Big 10 play. After the week we have seen, that is something to be pleased with.

This offense came into Saturday in full blown crisis mode. Last week was some of the very worst offense this program has ever experienced. I would love to report that Saturday changed all that. It did no such thing. This offense is still quite flaccid. For too long Saturday, this group fooled around and kept Rutgers in the game. A 3rd quarter pick 6 gave the Scarlet Knights a lead that lasted until nearly the 4th quarter. Yuck!! It is painful to watch this group. Tanner Lee has exhausted the patience of Husker fans, this one included. Personally, I’m sick of making excuses. His turnovers and inaccurate passes are killing drives and shortening life spans. To his credit, there were a couple of times Saturday where Lee put a ball in a tight spot at a crucial time. The 3rd quarter TD pass to DPE comes to mind. But overall Lee was poor, throwing for a paltry 109 yards on 26 attempts, for a disgusting 4.19 yards per attempt. That is simply not good enough. NU salted this game away by finding #22 Devine Ozigbo, who has been on the milk carton thus far this season. Deuce deuce ran for just over 100 tough yards. The Offensive Line was better Saturday, there was nowhere else to go, but still were not terribly productive. Ozigbo grounded out yardage and kept the Rutgers defense on its heels. This blogger is hoping to see more of #22 as the season wears on. His hard nose running style is a breath of fresh air and can maximize the holes the sub par offensive line opens up. The offense was certainly better Saturday than it was in the embarrassment last week, but that is not saying much. It was the Defense that stole the show.

Lost in the shuffle, this unit is getting a whole lot better each and every week. Despite being extremely hindered by injuries, this defense turned in a lights out effort. Gone were Josh Kalu, Marcus Newby, and after a targeting call in the first series, Aaron Williams. Still, this unit stuck its foot in the ground and shut down the Rutgers offense. The Scarlet Knights failed to cross the 200 yard mark for the day.  That was after a 75 yard TD drive to open the game. After that the Rutgers drives stalled time and again. Rutgers had 7 drives that lasted less than 5 plays. Had NU not thrown a silly pick 6 early in the 3rd NU fans would have flooded O street much earlier. Rutgers especially had a difficult time on the ground, averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt. I can’t say enough good things about this defense that is coming together to form a top flight unit. Late in the game, Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco dialed up a couple of nifty blitzes in obvious passing situations that completely stunned the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers had little chance against such pressure. I am extremely excited to see this defense progress. From what I have seen the last few weeks, I know that the sky is the limit for this unit, particularly this front 4.

Look, this wasn’t the 85 Bears, it was Rutgers. This team is hands down the very worst this conference has to offer. Still, all conference wins are good wins. Give NU credit for bouncing back and getting the W despite being extremely shorthanded. Lets be clear, it was far from pretty. There were plenty of hairy times during this one. But this team pulled through behind an outrageous defensive performance overcoming more lackluster offense. Both units are no doubt a work in progress. It was great to see an outstanding punt return from DPE that set up a Husker TD. That is the kind of help this team may require from the special teams. The Big Red train chugs along. Next up is an Illinois squad that is of a similar caliber as Rutgers. This is certainly a game NU should win. The interesting part is that it is on the road and on a Friday night. It should matter little. That is the kind of game the Huskers should win. I think we all would like to see the offense progress and develop some kind of identity. That has not happened to this point. A win like this can only do so much. The chatter will not end with a win over the Scarlet Knights. This game did very little to secure Mike Riley’s job status, but a loss would have almost certainly sealed his fate.

follow on Twitter: @jakeanderson884

Busy Week in Huskerville

Life comes at you fast sometimes. Last weekend I went back to Lincoln Nebraska for my sister in laws wedding. It was a wonderful time. It was a short, busy trip. Since then I’ve been incredibly busy with work and all that comes with it. A week later and I am just now getting my feet back under me. That’s life. As you all know it was an enormous, monumental week in Huskerville. Here are a few thoughts to get us current.

The loss to Northern Illinois was just plain awful. No way around it. There is no way this program should be losing at home to a MAC team. Never, never never!! After a week of hearing about how sick this team was about a missed opportunity in Eugene, the Huskers came out and played uninspired football for much of the afternoon. That part makes me sick. That signals to me a problem with the culture within the program. It is completely inexcusable. To be fair, the defense did their share, holding NIU to just 7 points on the day. That should have been enough for Big Red to shallack the Huskies. But the offense, oh the offense. A unit that has at times shown substantial promise was horrendous. Don’t take my word for it, look at the drive chart. NU had the ball 9 times prior to putting points on the board. It went Pick 6, 3 & out, 3& out, Pick 6, 3& out, punt, missed FG, 3& out, 3& out. I get nauseous just looking at the damn thing. Specifically troubling was the offensive line which could not handle the NIU blitzes. Tanner Lee, who himself was not very good, was battered and on his ass all afternoon. The Huskers, even with a substantial size advantage up front could only muster a paltry 2.4 yards per rush. The O-line couldn’t have blocked the freaking marching band last Saturday!! I’m confident when I say that it was the worst Husker offense I’ve seen in 25+ years of watching Husker football. That is not hyperbole. Put on the tape. Even the horrific 2004 NU offense would have been better than the Huskers were against NIU. The result was an unforgettable loss to a plucky group from DeKalb. Give those guys some credit. They earned it. But this is about a team that felt it could just show up and roll. It was pathetic.

There had to be a sacrificial lamb for that loss. Huskerville was out for blood. Since firing Mike Riley 3 games into his 3rd year isn’t really an option, the NU brass instead canned the Athletic Director Sean Eichorst. Conveniently, nobody really likes him anyway. He is aloof, awkward, and generally turns people off. So poof, he is gone. He is the head on a stick that the mob needed after such a miserable Saturday at the office. Had Big Red stumbled into a win, my shiny dime says Eichorst would still be employed. The whole thing is very reactive. Who should replace him? I am not sure. I don’t exactly have a file full of resumes for prospective Athletic Directors. I do know this. The NU brass needs to take their time, conduct a thorough and exhaustive search. Seek out all manner of candidates, and make the correct choice. Do it right. Let’s not be hasty or any more reactive than we have already been. Some say it should be someone with Nebraska ties. Others say it should be the most qualified and talented candidate. Whoever it is, they deserve our full support.

As you can imagine this has very real implications on the Husker football program. Eichorst was Mike Riley’s guy. The one who brought him in. Riley would have been on the hot seat regardless of the AD situation, but this makes the waters even more murky. This much is certain, Mike Riley and company are coaching for their jobs. There is no way around it. If they can get this ship righted, be competitive and finish the season with a respectable record, he can stay. If not, well, you know. The good thing for Riley and co. is that they have 9 games to prove it. That is more than enough time. Personally, I want to keep Riley. He seems like a great guy and I like the way he conducts himself.  But he has to give me reason to believe he has this program on the right track going forward. Right now, I am not sure he does. It starts today…

In comes Rutgers, hands down the worst team this conference has to offer. Lets hope the Big Red takes out some frustrations on the boys from Piscataway. I would think they would. But this team has been flat out weird. In one week they went from awful defensively, to awful offensively. I do not know what to expect week to week from this bipolar squad. I do know NU is about as banged up as you can be on September 23rd. There will be no Tre Bryant, probably no Stan Morgan, nor will Josh Kalu or Marcus Newby play. Also NU is down to their 3rd string Right Tackle. True Freshman Brenden Jameis will get the start. This coaching staff has to figure out a way for this offense to be consistently effective. Even when this offense has hummed, there has been no consistency. If this train is going to get going down the right track there must be some consistency. Don’t look now, but this Scarlet Knight’s squad can play some defense. Still, this is a game NU should easily win at home. Then again, I’ve said that before.

 

The Honeymoon is Over

It appears that I fell into my old trap this summer. As usual, I drank the kool-aid. I bought into all the malarkey that Mike Riley and the Big Red hype machine was selling. Hook, line and sinker. All the good vibes about energy and positivity had me feeling that this team in general, and this defense specifically, were primed for a very good fall. Through 2 games, those illusions of grandeur are long gone. That was evident as I sat in an isolated corner of my house at halftime with the score 42-14. I then wrote the following:

I spent the last 6 days looking for reasons, rationalizing why the defense was inadequate against Arkansas State. I looked at stats like yards per play and considered the new system and inexperienced players were the main reasons for NU’s relative struggles in the season opener. Rationalization can be a very powerful thing. In many ways I turned a blind eye toward their obvious shortcomings. But I absolutely believed they would come out and play much better in game #2. I did not, in any way, sense that Nebraska defensively would come out and get their doors blown off the way they did. It was completely inconceivable. Perhaps that makes me a homer. I’ll wear that label. This much is certain, the Husker defense was horrendous Saturday. There is no excuse for the sort of incompetence we experienced Saturday. None. It has been an absolute embarrassment of the highest order.

Bob Diaco drew sharp criticism from some for not talking to the media after the season opener. I thought that was overblown. I don’t really care if he does or not. What I do care about is a quality product. Diaco took the podium early in the week. He was defiant, even arrogant. He claimed his plan worked perfectly. He was not the least bit contrite about the performance against the Red Wolves. I was OK with that because to me it signaled that he was confident his unit would come out and perform well in this early season showdown. After getting boat raced Saturday, where is that bravado? I suggest that rather than playing Little Red Riding Hood, like he did last week, that he get to work and figure out what will make this defense work. I would not be surprised if Diaco privately was not pleased with the personnel available to him. That is fine. They were not recruited for this system, I would be shocked to learn that he was 100% happy with the tools at his disposal. But it doesn’t matter. Not one freaking bit. His job, for which he is paid handsomely, is to take the players on hand and mold them into a top defensive unit. To this point he has failed spectacularly. The proof is there for everyone to see. I don’t need to go over the gory details. He has to figure out a way to make this unit functional. I do not want to hear about youth in the secondary. Every team has inexperience in a variety of places. So what!! Coach them up. That is what you are paid so well to do. That secondary, which has been lauded by him personally several times, just got its ass pasted for 3 TD passes in the first half alone. I can only imagine the horrors of the 2nd half.

As we all know the NU defense came out and was a completely different unit after halftime. Adjustments were made and they were incredibly successful. I was shocked. Oregon failed to score in the 2nd half and the Husker D forced 2 turnovers and several 3 and outs.  They flew around and swarmed to the ball. Team defense and a commitment to stopping the run was there for everyone to see. The effort was outstanding, there is no other way to put it. Hopefully, this is a glimpse of what this defense can be. But it can’t be for just a half. You simply can’t spot a team 42 first half points and count on winning. This unit deserves a substantial amount of credit for the resolve they showed. It would have been easy to hang their heads and mail it in. I’ve seen that too many times. The grit showed enabled NU to get back into the game. However, the fact that it took until halftime, and 42 points to make the adjustments and collect themselves is appalling. Bob Diaco simply cannot sit and wait to adjust while the opposing offense lights up the scoreboard like the 4th of July. Also the total output for the Ducks is not acceptable, regardless of what was done in the 2nd half. 516 total yards including 11.1 yards per pass gets you beat every Saturday. Diaco has to figure out a number of issues with this unit. How can they successfully generate a pass rush? What to do about the secondary? How can they make adjustments on the fly? What about 3rd down defense, which was a sore spot on Saturday? Big money Bob has a whole lot of work in front of him. Lets hope he doesn’t wait until halfway through the season to do it.

The slow start absolutely killed the Huskers. It was 14-0 before you knew what happened. Husker heads were spinning far and wide. From there NU was behind the 8-ball all afternoon. That is not a winning recipe. I don’t know how good or bad Oregon is. Maybe they are a top shelf Pac-12 team that simply needed retooling. Maybe they are just a slightly above average team trying to find their way. Time will bear that out. But this is a game that NU wins if they make the proper defensive adjustments in a timely fashion. Some of the defenses troubles bled over to the offense. I have to believe that NU sticks with the run more if they weren’t shooting for the moon every possession. That contributed to 41 Tanner Lee passing attempts and 4 Ints. The offense has its own issues, worthy of its own column. But at this point I am far more concerned about this defense and what we saw in the first half. My optimism for this season was largely based on having an adequate defense. If the Huskers don’t have that, where does that leave them against one of the toughest schedules in the country? It could be a very long, and grueling fall.

 

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

Only 1 Direction to Go…..

The good news is that the Nebraska Cornhuskers are 1-0. Go ahead and bask in that. Soak it in. Isn’t that nice? Go ahead and stop now. The bad news is substantially more complicated. The Big Red escaped Saturday night in their own building by the skin of their teeth. Just typing that makes me ill. The opponent, Arkansas State, was solid, but certainly nothing to be feared. This should have been a team that was easily dispatched, despite any shortcomings. Instead, this thing was a dogfight that went down to the very last play. Big Red was not good. It was an ugly, lopsided performance all the way around. There were bright spots everywhere, but nothing remotely consistent. This near loss should be a wake up call for the entire program. Sloppy efforts like this will result in losses and an awful season. If this team wishes to compete for a division or conference title it will have to grow up substantially, and quick. This team is far more of a work in progress than anyone would have guessed.

The Husker offense experienced its share of success Saturday. 31 points produced along with 463 yards of offense aren’t bad production. But it was the inability to take control of the game that was particularly troubling to me. Several times throughout the night NU took the ball with the opportunity to provide some space between themselves and the Red Wolves. Time and time again the Husker offense let that opportunity slip away. Whether it was penalties, other miscues, or questionable playcalls, this offense could not get out of their own way. It kept the door open for Arkansas State to stay in the game. It was infuriating. Put the damn thing away!!  Overall, the offense was not all bad. Tanner Lee was mostly sharp throughout the night with a few stunningly beautiful passes to NU receivers. Also, Tre Bryant ran for nearly 200 yards and averaged over 6 yards per carry. Those two facts should have meant that NU walked away with this one comfortably. That did not happen. The maddening thing, from my couch, was some of the play calls. Just when it seemed that the Huskers had a rhythm, the direction of the offense would change. I can think of a spot pass and an end around to Stanley Morgan that both failed and put the offense behind the chains. The result was haulted drives that kept ASU in the ballgame. This is simply not acceptable from a unit that experienced its share of success Saturday night.  The NU offense could have easily put this game away several times throughout the course of the night. Instead we got a dramatic, nail biting finish that was completely unnecessary.

After all the hoopla and hype, I was completely jacked to see this defense take the field. I did not know what to expect exactly. I thought we would see defenders flying around and being disruptive. What I got was a total dud. Nebraska, defensively was completely flacid. This unit created almost no pressure of any kind. Arkansas State was able to stay in the game with short, mostly uncontested, passes. The Nebraska secondary, for some unknown reason, was content to play off coverage and give ASU QB Justice Hansen free reign to complete these easy passes. Sound crazy? It absolutely was. I, frankly do not understand why Bob Diaco continually allowed ASU those easy throws against soft coverage. The Red Wolves did not complete a single deep ball that would scare you into playing soft coverage. Instead it was a steady diet of short, quick throws that kept NU off balance. Give ASU credit for a solid game plan. They had a wide variety of quick looks that Nebraska was not at all prepared for. But also take the NU coaching staff to task for not properly adjusting. I kept waiting for press coverage. While there was some of it, they never stuck with it. In fairness, there were stretches where the Husker D appeared to have a handle on things, but like the offense it never lasted. There was zero consistency. As a result we were all left holding our breath as Arky State had one final down from the 10 with an opportunity to tie the game. While that situation was not solely the responsibility of the defense, they sure didn’t do a damn thing to prevent it.

This was one of the very worst season openers that I can remember. The 2013 opener against a horrendous Wyoming team was definitely worse. But this was bad.  Really bad. Embarrassing. The defense that we have been waiting so long to see went over like a fart in church. Offensively, they were never able to seize control of the game despite their various successes. The game management too was awful. Nobody deserves a pass for this near catastrophe. This team has to get its act together, and fast. A trip to Oregon is next week. The Ducks would love to eat NU’s lunch and repay them for the loss in Lincoln. This defense, in particular, needs to get it together otherwise this team could easily get its doors blown off. Beyond that there are much bigger games on the schedule. This team has to improve substantially. They say the biggest jump for a team is between games one and two. Lets hope that jump covers the damn Grand Canyon after the performance we seen Saturday night. If it doesn’t, it could be a long fall.

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

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