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  • Smaller, quicker linebackers are a good move

    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 tad.stryker@gmail.com


    Comments 10 Comments
    1. AnchorageHusker's Avatar
      AnchorageHusker -
      In my mind, one of the most exciting things about this year is that all of the real difference makers, other than the Tight Ends, are returning to the offense. Another truly exciting thing, is that we're starting fresh on the D. Anyone who watched the UCLA, tOSU, or Conference championship game, will agree that we had a talent deficit on the D. I think a change will do us good. Combine that with a soft schedule, and another round of coaching with Calhoun for Taylor, and this could turn out to be an exciting year.
    1. RobertinFlorida's Avatar
      RobertinFlorida -
      You have hit the nail on the head Tad, when you spoke of jumping on the band wagon reporting type of thing. I too questioned the 'we have to get bigger linebackers for the B1G'... It never made sense to me that just because we have a slower group of teams, that we should slow down ourselves.

      We should also remember when Alabama manhandled us in 1966 when we outweighed the Tide by something like 40lbs per lineman. Lavante David showed us that size can be overrated at times, especially at linebacker.
    1. BallField78's Avatar
      BallField78 -
      It's a good thing the coaches had your wonderful insights two years ago when they started recruiting these new guys.
    1. TonyStalloni's Avatar
      TonyStalloni -
      There is much to be excited about this year. A young fast defense that hopefully learns on the fly, a couple new talented juco O linemen to add depth. TM back to run the offense again and a fleet of talented receivers and running backs. If the starting D linemen hold up, I think we'll finally get to that top 10 niche.
    1. stevesdenver's Avatar
      stevesdenver -
      It always perplexed me why anyone would suggest bigger was better at backer. Give me speed and a guy who knows how to tackle every time. Watching Compton have to cover a back in motion versus UCLA because the other guys didn't know to "switch" was painful and very maddening. Why such a simple concept couldn't be grasped by any player, let alone a collegiate player made me conclude that something was amiss with coaching and made me question the intelligence of some of the players. Lavonte David is a prototype. Remember a guy name Charlie McBride? He visited FSU and figured out speed is key. But if you go 2 gap with non Suh typed with guys lined up a yard off the line of scrimmage, any backer is in peril. Is pelini a defensive genius or just lucky to have coached squads with talent across the board. Time will tell.
    1. URSS's Avatar
      URSS -
      I don't think the comments about smaller are appropriate. Quicker- Yes! In the article, a 5lb difference is not a difference- certainly not enough to justify the use of "smaller" being better. We need linebackers who are quick, fast and have great technique. Being smart with great peripheral vision is good too.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      I would opt for speed and quickness, but that is predicated on the ability to tackle and have more than one hat to the ball. I think Pelini's system, which Santos said this week, was "complicated" requires the "eraser" type athletes like Lavonte to make up for the scheme. If we ran simpler schemes, as many of our Big Ten peers do, you can have big, heavies like we were originally told.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Another thing they need to fix is often I would see #51 come up to the line and get behind our DT and get blocked from making the tackle by our player who was tied up with the OG. If the LB's can hang back a second and then fill to meet the RB instead of trying to guess where the play was coming. Maybe with more speed this can be accomplished. I do agree that we were beat badly on the edge all year by the good teams. I don't agree that this year's defense will be any better though as the DL talent is still too young/raw. At least the schedule will help and hopefully the Offense will score enough to win.
    1. paul's Avatar
      paul -
      I know everyone is exited about the offense this year but remember the summer before our first big ten outings. Everyone screamed about how week the offense would be and how great the defense would be. Instead we had average performance from both. Unless both units are playing at an elite level there practice will weaken one while strengthening the other. The offense is already cutting plays in practice to help out the D.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Wouldn't it be nice if we could put an elite Offense and Defense on the field at the same time? Seems like when our O has been very good the D is subpar and when the D is playing well, the O can't get out of it's own way. Maybe this is the year, although, everyone is expecting the D to take a step back. I'm not not sure, we are stacked at Corner and LB. Of course, in Pelini's D it all starts with the tackles and safeties...let's hope someone steps up and takes over at those iffy spots.
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