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  • State of the Husker Union - Part II - The D and Special Teams

    If you missed the first installment, the State of the Husker Union is a three part series that grades each aspect of the first half of the season on a radically complex, glass Ďhalf-fullí or Ďhalf-emptyí scale. After taking the edge off by filling up and knocking down the three glasses of offense, defense, and special teams in Parts I and II, weíll be primed to walk a crooked line into the surreal netherworld of Husker Football in Part III. Normally that would be a joke, but the rising tensions all around and their potential impact canít be ignored. Todayís pours however are the D and Special Teams. Warning: While one of the two goes down pretty smooth the other is very difficult to swallow.

    Where are the Blackshirts (literally and figuratively)?
    Where the fan outcry on offense has been a finger pointing conviction at a perceived guilty few, the defensive mystery is more mumblings and mutterings. Fans in disbelief compel each other for answers like the Grinch wringing his canine reindeerís neck to explain how Christmas still came without tags...without packages, boxes, and bags. However, the Blackshirtsí arrival, that for three years has been as reliable Christmas, havenít shown up and Husker Nation isnít buying into the Whoville way of happily singing and hand holding around something that isnít there. So the Seussian question in the sky is why oh why, and golí darnit says I, thereís nary an answer-canaryan up high, only more questioning whositwhatsitbirds, oh my! So, uh, anyway, if there arenít ready answers letís try asking different questions.

    How synched are the new coaches with each other and the players?
    Itís easy to trivialize assistant coach changes when your heralded defensive HC and DC are in tact, but these roles get paid better than most of us for a reason. Assistant coaches hammer nitty gritty fundamentals and equally important, they connect with their players daily, becoming father figures and emotional growth mentors to many of them. Itís too soon to judge what kind of coaches NU acquired with Els and Raymond, but itís easy to lament the losses of Ekeler and Sanders. Mike and Marvin were repeatedly heralded as two of finest mentors and motivators in the game and were arguably the two NU assistants you least wanted to lose. Ekelerís insanity was tailor made for coaching LBs and Sanders coolly taught the DBs fearlessness on the next play, amnesia on the last. They fit Peliniís visions as tight as the new unis fit Yoshi. Change invariably means adjustments, but at what cost to performance? Overall confusion seems up as even stalwart LaVonte David appears more frequently out of position on pass plays and confidence is seemingly down in players like last yearís rising star Ciante Evans; all of which could potentially be tied to adapting to new mentors.

    Is Pelini magic on D as much talent-based as it is systemic?
    An absurd question at first, because the Flying Pelini traveling show has been a success everywhere itís landed and we know the D schemes work, but just how talented do the players need to be to run Boís D effectively? Bo didnít take the Urban Meyer road to the top. Lincoln to Norman to Baton Rouge and back to Lincoln is almost a touring circle of the whereís-where in college pigskin. OU and LSU were stacked with blue-chippers, but perception is that Bo still worked miracles by playing the cards he was dealt at NU in 2003 and 2008, but how good were those hands?

    Even the most ardent followerís memory gets a jolt when looking back at the 2003 D roster. Bernard Thomas, Bingham, LeKevin, Trevor Johnson (backed by Carriker), Hollowell, Ruud, Demorrio, Fabian, both Bullocks, Bland and Ricketts backed by McPherson. In poker terms thatís at least a Full House. The instant impact of 2003 was astounding in great part because of takeaway machine the Blackshirts became, but the same turnover production has never been remotely replicated. Is it possible that the next-level talents of Ruud, Demorrio, Washington, and the Bullocks were just exceptional athletes with noses for the ball? Youíd think NU would still be hell bent for turnovers if it was systematically as easy as it seemed in 2003, right?

    2008 wasnít the same prize closet of 2003 on day one, but an emerging Suh was surrounded by very serviceable players and already finding the depth chart were Hagg, Gomes, Dennard, Prince, and Crick. Not to discount the swift turnaround in 2008, but with far fewer takeaways it never felt quite as dramatic as 2003. Ironically, the total D resurrection really gathered steam in parallel with the rise of the above players. Every championship D needs a few All-American worthy playmakers, but does a Pelini D need five or six NFL bound talents spread across all three levels and how sustainable is that model when recruiting from Lincoln, Nebraska?

    It would be harder to accept this talent theory if it werenít perhaps more difficult to explain how a truly effective, repeatable system could be floundering in year four when the hand-picked, existing talent level seems better than just OK. More validity can also be derived from the scary slow start to recruiting (only three D commits) that is attributed to placing more bets on the blue chip lottery and waiting for the inane, last minute hat choosing pressers for self-aggrandized teenagers. Itís tough to imagine betting those odds if the gamble werenít deemed necessary.

    Did the New O Hurt the D?
    The last time hesitancy and poor tackling were epidemic at NU was during the Callahan reign of terror when light duty practices were widely accused for soft play. We know the offense doesnít practice cut blocks, the Red/White Game was an admitted farce, and the rare footage from non-vaulted practices is always at half speed in half-packs. Has the need to walk through the implementation of a new offense dramatically limited the amount of spirited, full-padded practice time the D has gotten against the first team and how much could this impact the Blackshirts timing and tackling? Like licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

    Speculation and Verdict
    Maybe the answer is as simple as breaking in a few new coaches and needing a little extra time to season replacements for key guys that rarely came off the field in 2010, namely Gomes, Hagg, and Amukamura. Maybe it all turned around Saturday night in Lincoln or maybe the only thing that really turned was a Buckeye ankle, because for weeks before that moment, confusion seemed to ravage the entire D including the staff. You hope for a quick fix, but there's almost the leaky dam feeling that once one hole gets plugged another will spring. There seems little faith in the Peso against a run threat without a true Hagg replacement, the DBs look tentative in the nickel, and the LBs in the 4-3 look cramped and confused. The front four are neither getting pressure nor slowing the run, Carl canít seem to figure out how to best utilize Stafford or Martin, and all the experimenting at CB doesnít breed confidence even if Jean-Baptiste did look like natural on the INT.

    The confusion alone is enough to say the D glass is half-empty, but worse yet is that NUís rumored youth doesnít pertain to the D. NU will lose, without question, its three best players in David, Crick, and Dennard as well as key guys Moore, Cassidy, and May. Sometimes it feels like the Huskers wouldnít have any tackles without ĎVonte and Itís rough to ID which players will make those losses only hurt a little, especially when the losses of Suh, Gomes, Hagg, and Amukamura are still smarting. In short, if the D issues donít get fixed this year, thereís no tangible reason to believe next year wonít be even worse. The good news? I saved Special Teams for last...

    Special Teams
    Iím sure youíre dying of thirst after that half empty glass of D, so go ahead and drown your troubles in a robust, half-full glass of Special Teams. What more can be said other than Abdullah and Maher have both been brilliant and overshadow the lack of disciplined kickoff and punt coverage. Ahhh, now wasn't that was refreshing?

    Next up, a frothy glass of Angst

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