Even though Nebraska's linebackers this fall will be almost completely unproven, I like the direction the Blackshirts are headed. It may take them some time to put things together, but a youth/speed movement is exactly what this team needs.
Shortly after the University of Nebraska joined the Big Ten, we started hearing that the Cornhuskers would have to beef up their defense. Get bigger linebackers so you can stop the downhill running game of Wisconsin, Iowa, and pretty much everyone else in the Big Ten – that was the standard argument. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard it on a sports talk show. And I fell for it – at least for a few months.
NU was joining the league known as the "Big Slow." So a lot of folks figured, to beat these guys, you have to muscle up and stop the running game between the tackles. Even though Nebraska was coming off the excellent Suh/Hagg/Gomes/Amukamara/Dennard years of 2009 and 2010, I was sucked in. Why couldn't I see that speed was the key to the success of those years? Well, speed AND the excellent play of Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick at defensive tackle.
For some reason, I thought Nebraska might need to get bigger. And the Huskers did get a little bigger, with Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher all checking in at 230 pounds. But had it not been for the smallish Lavonte David – one of the 10 best Husker defensive players of all time – the Huskers would have barely stayed above the .500 mark in 2011. Compton, Whaley and Fisher didn't have the speed to keep up in the Big Slow. When David graduated, things slipped a bit more on defense in 2012, although the Huskers' improving offense helped keep the win total respectable.
If Nebraska wanted to get bigger to hold up against teams like Wisconsin, it didn't work out that well. The Badgers got the better of the Huskers because Russell Wilson, James White and Melvin Gordon beat their linebackers and safeties to the edge and turned it upfield. And the Blackshirts were still somewhat soft up the middle anyway.
To make a long story short, the Huskers had enough size on defense in 2011 and 2012, but not enough speed – not nearly enough. That will start to change this fall.
The biggest development in the Husker camp so far this spring is that David Santos – the fastest NU linebacker to finish the 2012 season – has been moved from the outside to the middle. It will be interesting to see which outside linebackers step up. The early frontrunners are Zaire Anderson – a junior coming off an injury redshirt – and redshirt freshman Thomas Brown. They will be pushed by Jared Afalava, or possibly Marcus Newby or another of the true freshmen coming in this summer.
This is a good philosophical decision. I'll take my chances with linebackers like 195-pounder Jamel Williams and 205-pounder Terrell Farley – guys who can make it all the way to the quarterback on a blitz. Remember how the quick, smallish 1991 Miami defense shut down a power-running Nebraska team in the Orange Bowl – it swarmed the ball and gang tackled. Nebraska can do the same against power-running teams. And the speed will be vital against spread teams like UCLA or Michigan – and possibly Ohio State, if the Huskers can make it back to the Big Ten Championship.
The 6-foot, 225-pound Santos may not be the nastiest hitter in the conference, but hopefully he will be fast enough to make plays from sidline to sideline. And the Huskers are banking on the ability of Anderson and Brown to shut down the corner. And sure, having a big run-stuffer at defensive tackle, plus a defensive end who can come off the edge like a madman would help.
As it turned out, the blitz was not much of a weapon for the Big Red the last two years, because it almost never got home. If you can't fluster the quarterback when you bring the house, you might as well play a soft, bend-but-don't-break defense and just try to hold teams to field goals. I'm ready to accept some mental errors this season – and there will be a bunch – to set the table for better things down the road. No matter how good the offense is, Nebraska needs a speedy defense to climb to the top of the Big Ten.
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