By the evening of Nov. 9 – when the Cornhusker defense leaves the field in Ann Arbor for the last time – millions of Nebraska fans will have formed a solid opinion about how much speed and talent the Cornhusker defense has, and how well Bo Pelini is shaping it.
This is the year we find out what the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes can do for the Huskers. Or else we find out that after four complete recruiting cycles, Pelini has not been able to bring in sufficient talent on defense.
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Nebraska needs some athletic young defenders to break through and become consistently disruptive this season. The defensive backfield will be solid and could be spectacular if the front seven can hold its own against the run and develop a consistent pass rush, but those qualities have been brutally hard to come by lately for the Big Red.
It seems that Pelini has finally found a few difference-makers. The Husker Nation will look closely at linebackers Thomas Brown, Jared Afalava, David Santos and Zaire Anderson. They'll scrutinize defensive linemen Greg McMullen, Randy Gregory, Avery Moss, Aaron Curry, Kevin Williams and Vincent Valentine. Whether that crop of first- and second-year defenders grows up enough to give Taylor Martinez a realistic chance to bring home an elusive conference championship is the biggest question of this season.
Opposing offensive coordinators will scrutinize those players as well, and no doubt they'll find more than a few soft spots. It wouldn't surprise me to see this defense take two steps forward, one step back throughout the first half of the season. But whenever the Blackshirts give up a big chunk of yardage with a mental breakdown, they'll need to fight back by getting a takeaway.
Pelini will talk consistency during fall camp and he'll push his young defense to achieve it, but steady improvement is the best the Huskers can expect this year. Early-season breakdowns will be understandable – especially in week 3 against UCLA , where the Huskers will need Taylor Martinez and the o-line to be in top form to win a shootout. NU will line up a raw, untested front seven this September. That much is a given. To beat UCLA, the explosive Husker offense must carry the day, and may need to reach the 40s to outscore the Bruins and their talented sophomore quarterback, Brett Hundley. If that happens, a faster, younger edition of the Blackshirts gets a few more weeks to work out some solutions before hitting a rugged late-season stretch that will either set up Nebraska for another Big Ten Championship game or break the 2013 season.
The schedule is in Nebraska's favor this year, especially with the schedule front-loaded with weaker opponents. After UCLA, the defense can learn on the job against four more opponents. And there are two bye weeks for Pelini to tutor his defense and repair leaks before Northwestern comes to Lincoln Nov. 2. The Wildcats have the talent to make any defense look bad, but overcoming the adversity that very likely awaits Nebraska's defense in the Big House will be the real test.
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