As the 2013 season begins, Bo Pelini has a made-to-order opportunity. To lead his team to the greatest heights of his short coaching career, the one thing he most has to accomplish is to motivate and coach up young, talented defensive players, while the college football media are talking them down.
That pitch is right in Pelini's wheelhouse. And Bo absolutely has to hit this ball out of the park.
Over the years, Pelini's defenses have performed best if they have strong secondaries, and that should be the Cornhusker defense's strength in 2013. With Josh Mitchell, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans playing tough press coverage, the safeties should be able to support the run with confidence, at least during September and October.
The young Blackshirts will have to step up and play run defense, because that's the only way they'll prevent teams like UCLA from playing keep-away against Nebraska's loaded offense. Will Husker opponents try to run the ball and shorten the game? Yes, they will. It's downright ugly to think of Kain Colter and Venric Mark chewing up 200 yards on the ground, and Northwestern controlling the ball 38 minutes.
But even with a raw, untested front seven, Nebraska should be able to hold both Wyoming and Southern Miss to 150 yards rushing in its first two games. If that doesn't happen, it could be a long year for the Blackshirts.
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A major season checkpoint will be halftime of the UCLA game. If the Bruins have fewer than 100 yards rushing at the half, consider it a good sign. If the Blackshirts hold UCLA to 75 rushing yards at half, consider it a huge success.
It would be nice to see a solid four-man pass rush, but having seen no evidence of that in the past couple of years, it's likely the Huskers will need to depend on blitzes to pressure the quarterback. Improved team speed hopefully will mean that 40 to 50 percent of the blitzes will result in quarterback hurries or better. But a good pass rush seems like gravy right now. Really, Job 1 is simply to control the run and get a few defensive stops.
Most likely, Pelini and his defensive coordinator, John Papuchis, will play at least eight defensive linemen in the first two games as they look for the right combination. Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory, A.J. Natter, Avery Moss, Thaddeus Randle, Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine and Aaron Curry will all get a look, and it wouldn't surprise me to see two or three other players taking a turn. If nothing else, playing all those linemen should help build depth and keep everyone fresh for a daunting November stretch drive.
With Big Ten sports media openly questioning the Blackshirts' toughness, Pelini should be able to summon the "us-against-the-world" mentality and put it to good use this fall. If nothing else, harnessing that sort of emotional energy should help shut down the running game. Hopefully there will be enough team speed to limit the damage if someone breaks a run clean into the secondary.
Pelini has scoffed at the idea of Nebraska having to win shootouts to stay undefeated in September and October, so either he's trying to pump up a defensive unit that lacks confidence or he likes what he's seen in practice thus far.
Of course, being highly motivated to prove the world wrong can take you only so far if you have limited talent to work with. Enthusiasm could die quickly if All-Pac-12 candidate Brett Hundley rolls up another 350 yards in total offense in Lincoln on Sept. 14. On the other hand, maybe we'll find out this fall that Nebraska has hit the jackpot on defensive speed and athleticism.
Consistency on defense may be too much to ask this season, but if the Huskers roll out a more disciplined offense that stops coughing up the football, the Blackshirts have some margin for error. A defensive unit that plays tough against the run, gives up occasional big plays but holds opponents to 24 points or less would be a big step up.
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 email@example.com