It's a hypothetical question, but it's about to be played out in real life.
If you had to build a major college football defense from scratch, would you rather have three All-America-caliber studs supported by several dependable starters and a few untested players? Or would you prefer 11 steady Eddies, none of them even a preseason all-conference selection, but who can play well together?
This has been one of the big preseason questions in Lincoln: How will the Blackshirts deal with the departure of Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard? I think the end product will be better, mostly because there is experience and depth across the board. I think we'll see better communication and cooperation on the field. In short, their mental game will be much improved.
Dennis Hubbard photo
The Husker defense will be solid this fall. Sure, it's year one of the John Papuchis regime, but the defense took a step backward in year four of the Carl Pelini regime, and I'm ready to move on.
The 2011 defense was erratic. We caught a glimpse of how good it might have been last year against Michigan State, when the Blackshirts played disciplined, tough defense for 60 minutes. Alas, too often we saw it all fall apart against weaker opponents like Fresno State, Washington and Northwestern.
My philosophy is that a mediocre defensive backfield can look good if the front seven consistently get pressure on the quarterback. Carl Pelini's philosophy was that a good defensive backfield allows a mediocre front seven to get pressure on the quarterback. Both, of course, could be true, but a dominant front is more desirable because it can shut down both the running and passing game. That's why I was very interested when Bo hired Rick Kaczenski last winter. He already shows promise as an effective recruiter.
Everything I've seen and heard about Kaczenski is good – especially this Lincoln Journal Star quote from defensive end Jason Ankrah – one of those untested players who saw a lot of playing time last year:
“His philosophy is attack," said Ankrah. "Everything is attacking. Everything is you delivering the blow before the O-lineman gives you the blow.” If that indeed becomes the theme this fall, it will be a major step up from last year. I recognize there were multiple problems in the secondary, but I put much of the blame up front, where the play was anything but disruptive to opposing offenses.
The hope here is that Papuchis turns out to be a good big-picture thinker and planner as defensive coordinator, and Kaczenski turns out to be a great motivator and teacher of technique – in short, a step up from Papuchis as d-line coach.
The Huskers didn't shut down anyone very often last year. With Crick backed by two of the Huskers' most dependable players – Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith – up front, I expected a good pass rush, but that rarely materialized, even before Crick's season-ending torn pectoral muscle. The Blackshirts ranked 84th in sacks and 112th in tackles for loss in 2011. When you consider that NU forced only 18 turnovers – 91st in the nation – that made for a drought of explosive plays.
Sure, injuries were a problem last fall. Northwestern ran the ball with ridiculous ease against the Huskers in the fourth quarter when the d-line got worn down. But if you get enough stops early in drives, getting worn down is not an issue, whether or not you lack depth. Nebraska allowed way too many third-down conversions, even with Crick, David and Dennard on the field.
With Ankrah a year older and Eric Martin fighting for playing time, defensive end figures to be improved this year. Chase Rome, Jay Guy and Thaddeus Randle should solidify the tackle position. Will Compton appears to be the vocal leader of the Blackshirts, as well as the signal caller at middle linebacker, and I look for at least one other senior – either Alonzo Whaley or Sean Fisher – to have a good season. At least one underclassman – maybe Trevor Roach, redshirt freshman David Santos or junior college transfer Zaire Anderson – needs to have a solid year.
Damion Stafford has all kinds of potential at safety, but he struggled with the mental part of the game. I think he will be dependable. P.J. Smith and Courtney Osborne both have significant experience. I look for Andrew Green to solidify at one cornerback spot and either JUCO transfer Mohammed Seisey, Ciante Evans or Stanley Jean-Baptiste to be dependable at the other.
There may be fewer standouts, but I look for better communication and continuity. To me, the defense appears headed for a better season than last year. But if guys like Steinkuhler, Meredith, Compton and Stafford can somehow step up their game, advancing beyond "steady Eddie" status and become disruptive forces as seniors, then things could get very interesting.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org