Nebraska: Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

Yesterday: The Offense

Before we get to the defense, an aside.

I'm in an interesting position here.  Nebraska is absolutely in the North's top tier of teams (as has been covered previously, there appears to be a rather large "proven talent" divide between KU/NU/MU and KSU/ISU/CU), and if they can win in Lawrence or Columbia (or maybe even if they can't), they can take the North.  As you'll read below, the defense should be incrementally better while the offense could be incrementally worse, and while there are few true stars (Ndamukong Suh, Roy Helu, maybe Mike McNeill or a defensive end), there is decent experience at RB, DL, and DB.  And Bo Pelini certainly acquitted himself relatively well in year #1.

As I've mentioned previously, my problem comes with expectations and with the casual nature that national-level analysts continue to just assume that Nebraska is now "back" despite little evidence to support that.  Since making the national title game in 2001, Nebraska has gone just 28-28 in conference with a point differential of -68.  As means of comparison, here are the North standings in that time frame:

Big 12 North Standings, 2002-08
Team Record Pt. Diff
Missouri 29-27 +235
Nebraska 28-28 -68
Colorado 27-29 -104
Kansas State 25-31 +189
Kansas 22-34 -297
Iowa State 15-41 -718


(Yes, that's right--ONE North team is over .500 combined in the last seven seasons--barely--and the North is, as a whole, 44 games under .500 in that span.  Granted, Iowa State is responsible for 26 of those games, but...well...Baylor and their 10-46 record still reside in the South, and the division has still managed to be 44 games over .500.  Yikes.)

Anyway, the frustration here lies in the fact that, every year we get to hear about Nebraska being "back" and Colorado being a "sleeper," and yet Missouri, who has been a smidge better than both of them over a 7-year (not just 2-year) span, is pronounced dead at the first possible moment.  Just odd.  But the good news is, as always, this is the offseason.  The real season will give us all the answers we're arguing about or getting annoyed about at the moment.

/aside

Anyhoo, time to talk defense.


Nebraska pulled off an interesting feat in 2008.  While winning six of seven games to end the season, they gave up 29.1 points per game in that span (23.7 in the wins), and yet the basis for most of their North title predictions this offseason come from how good the defense is going to be.  They gave up 35 points to Virginia Tech, who had the #79 offense in the country (according to S&P+).  They gave up 52 to Missouri and 62 to Oklahoma...37 to Texas Tech (not bad, actually)...35 to Kansas...28 to Kansas State...an egregious 31 to Colorado (S&P+ rank: 114th)...and yet the defense is going to carry them to the North title?  Never mind how disrespectful that is for Kansas (and to a lesser extent, Missouri) fans to hear...how disrespectful is that to Joe Ganz?  Nate Swift?  Roy Helu Jr.?  These were the guys who, along with Ndamukong Suh's big plays, carried the Huskers to a strong 2008 finish.

Now, before I go any further, make no mistake: the Nebraska defense has probably the best shot at being the North's best D in the fall.  The point is, it's not going to be so good that they will get by Kansas and Missouri (both on the road) simply on the heels of the dominant Blackshirts.  They're not going to be that dominant.  In going for only their second North title since Eric Crouch was running the show, the onus will be on not only Zac Lee and an unproven receiving corps, but also a decent-not-great defense, which alternates between experienced guys with low ceilings and inexperienced, highly-touted players.  Maybe Bo Pelini will push all the right buttons, but we shouldn't assume it will happen.

Defense

Overall Stats

S&P+: 108.9 (#41)
Success Rate+: 111.9 (#23)
PPP+: 105.7 (#53)

Standard Downs S&P+: 103.9 (#51)
Passing Downs S&P+: 114.0 (#31)

Redzone S&P+: 114.4 (#23)

Q1 S&P+: 95.5 (#75)
Q2 S&P+: 121.2 (#22)
Q3 S&P+: 82.7 (#105)
Q4 S&P+: 144.3 (#2)

1st Down S&P+: 96.8 (#71)
2nd Down S&P+: 120.6 (#17)
3rd Down S&P+: 115.9 (#32)

Rushing Stats

Rushing S&P+: 102.0 (#60)
Rushing SR+: 104.4 (#47)
Rushing PPP+: 98.9 (#65)

Standard Downs: 91.5 (#86)
Passing Downs: 138.5 (#15)

Redzone: 96.4 (#74)

Line Yards+: 103.4 (#48)

Passing Stats

Passing S&P+: 112.2 (#28)
Passing SR+: 118.0 (#10)
Passing PPP+: 107.1 (#50)

Standard Downs: 113.1 (#39)
Passing Downs: 105.4 (#51)

Redzone: 141.3 (#7)

Adj. Sack Rate: 8.6% (#9)


As a whole, Nebraska had a pretty efficient defense in 2008, but they struggled with the big play.  Their success rates were quite solid, but their PPP+ numbers were lacking.  They knew how to leverage an offense into bad situations (15th in Passing Downs Rushing), but they ended up occasionally letting teams off the hook (51st in Passing Downs Passing).

Other items of note:

  • Thanks in part to a very strong Adjusted Sack Rate, Nebraska's strength was in defending the pass.  Again, they weren't tremendous from a PPP+ perspective, but their success rates were good.  As I gather more data, it will be interesting to see which one is easier to improve with experience and better execution--success rates or PPP.
  • Strangely, as with their offense, their redzone rushing defense was awful, but their redzone pass defense was great.  You figure it out; I can't.
  • While they did indeed have a strong sack rate, what's with the line yardage?  It seems they were good at attacking and speed, but they couldn't avoid being pushed around (or, they attacked too much, and it was easy to use their leverage against them to create running lanes?).
  • Bad in Q1, good in Q2.  Atrocious in Q3, outstanding in Q4.  Again, you figure it out.
  • They were mediocre on first downs but quite strong on second downs...and decent-not-great on third downs.  This coincides with what was mentioned above--they were good at making a bad offensive situation worse, but they let teams off the hook a bit.

Through all of this info, something else interesting emerges.  For all the seemingly-justifiable hype generated by NU's D-line, it was the Huskers' worst-ranked unit in 2008.  It was a decent #42, while the linebackers were #34 and the high-efficiency-too-many-big-plays secondary was #31 (at least partially because they played against so many great passing offenses, I assume).  Kind of an identity crisis here.

But regardless of the rankings, it appears that the D-line and secondary could be better, while...honestly, I have no idea what to make of the LBs.

Defensive Line

Pierre Allen is overshadowed but solid.

2008 Unit Ranking: #42 in the nation (#4 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
DT Ndamukong Suh (6'4, 300, Sr.)
DE Pierre Allen (6'5, 265, Jr.)
DE Barry Turner (6'3, 265, Sr.)
DT Baker Steinkuhler (6'6, 295, RSFr.)
DT Terrence Moore (6'3, 285, So.)
DE Josh Williams (6'4, 245, RSFr.)
DE Cameron Meredith (6'4, 260, RSFr.)

While nobody is going to mistake this unit for that of Oklahoma, this is clearly the most proven defensive line in the Big 12 North, at least in terms of the pass rush.  Ndamukong Suh has slowly morphed from inconsistent playmaker to every-down dominant (he led Nebraska in tackles last season, as a defensive tackle, and posted 19 TFLs and two huge pick sixes), while Baker Steinkuhler, if he can gain the form of a 5-star athlete quickly, could make teams pay for doubling Suh.  Meanwhile, on the outside, Pierre Allen posted 10.0 TFLs of his own last year, and Barry Turner might be able to make some waves after following up a disappointing 2007 season (he was outstanding as a freshman and sophomore) with a 2008 broken leg that earned him a medical hardship.

They were great at attacking in 2008, but it was possible to push them around a bit.  Bo Pelini's defense has the reputation for attacking and blitzing a lot, but the strength of the attack is limited if you struggle against the run.  Derrick Washington put up 139 yards and two touchdowns against them, Tech's Baron Batch went for 97 yards on just 10 carries, and Robert Griffin posted 121 yards.  In all, NU's rush defense (#60) wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't great.  Clearly that will need to improve considerably if Nebraska is to assume a spot in the Top 25 as they are now predicted to do.

Outside of Suh, Allen, and Turner, the defensive line is thin and inexperienced, but, well, that won't matter if the starters don't get hurt.  Suh is clearly a force (though he has yet to make serious noise against Missouri, knock on wood), and Allen and Turner could make for a strong pair of rush ends.

Linebackers

Missouri fans probably know the name of Will Compton pretty well already.

2008 Unit Ranking: #34 in the nation (#6 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Phillip Dillard (6'1, 240, Sr.)
Blake Lawrence (6'3, 220, Jr.)
Will Compton (6'2, 220, RSFr.)
Sean Fisher (6'6, 230, RSFr.)
Mathew May (6'1, 210, So.)
Matt Holt (6'0, 200, So.)

So...what do you actually do with this unit?  You've got 27th-year senior Phil Dillard, who has made 75 tackles in two years and almost no plays.  You've got former 4-star stud Blake Lawrence, who has made 23 tackles in 15 games his first two seasons and made exactly one big play: an interception in 2008.  You've got new 4-star stud Will Compton, whose biggest contribution thus far in his career was to assistant coach Mike Ekeler's arm but is expected to tear things up sooner than later...and then you've got a bunch of other youngsters.  In limited action, Mathew May locked down a nice TFL, forced fumble, and fumble recovery, so he may hold some potential.  Same with Matt Holt, who made 14 tackles in nine games (and one start).

It's unclear how much potential this relatively young unit of LBs has, and how quickly they can be expected to fulfill said potential.  Clearly, the Huskers have a lot of hope in Compton, but...well, he's not any more highly-touted than Lawrence was, and Lawrence hasn't done anything of note yet.  There's something to be said for the fact that the Husker D is now in its second year under Pelini, and knowledge of the scheme and higher levels of intuition will make things better.  And there's also this: the Huskers had a respectable, 34th-ranked LB corps in 2008 despite the fact that there really wasn't a big-time playmaker among Dillard, Lawrence, and departed seniors Cody Glenn and Tyler Wortman.  Pelini clearly knows LBs, and even if none of these guys are All-Conference caliber, this unit at least won't be a liability.

Secondary

Larry Asante...starting safety (I have nothing in particular to say about him...he's solid)

2008 Unit Ranking: #31 in the nation (#8 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
S Larry Asante (6'1, 215, Sr.)
CB Anthony West (6'0, 205, Jr.)
S Matt O'Hanlon (5'11, 200, Sr.)
CB Prince Amukamara (6'1, 200, Jr.)
S Ricky Thenarse (6'0, 205, Sr.)
CB Alfonzo Dennard (5'10, 190, So.)
CB Anthony Blue (5'10, 185, So.)
S Eric Hagg (6'2, 205, Jr.)

The secondary is as experienced as the LB corps is inexperienced, but there doesn't appear to be as much upside.  Again, they gave up a few too many big plays, but I guess that is to be expected against the offenses they faced.  They posted good success rate numbers, and that helped the pass defense a decent amount.  Safeties Larry Asante, Matt O'Hanlon, and Ricky Thenarse are veterans, and that's never a bad thing for your last line of defense.  But they also combined for only 10 TFLs and 3 INTs.  Thenarse seemed to be the biggest offender in terms of giving up the big play (at least in games I watched), but he was most capable of making some plays himself.

Meanwhile, the cornerback position seems to have more potential overall--Anthony West ended up having himself a solid sophomore season, breaking up nine passes and picking two more off.  (As means of comparison, Castine Bridges had seven pass breakups from the CB position, Carl Gettis six and Kevin Rutland five.)  Prince Amukamara showed some potential as well. In all, NU's secondary was their highest-ranked unit in 2008, and gauging experience levels (and strength of schedule), you can expect those numbers to be maintained in 2009.

Special Teams

2008 Unit Ranking: #106 Net Punting, #21 Punt Returns, #48 Kickoff Returns

Projected Starters
K Alex Henery (6'2, 175, Jr.) - 56-57 PAT, 18-21 FGs
P Alex Henery (6'2, 175, Jr.)
KR Niles Paul (6'1, 215, Jr.) - 41 Returns, 23.6 Avg, 1 TD
PR Niles Paul (6'1, 215, Jr.) - 8 Returns, 10.0 Avg

Nebraska special teams in 2009 were pretty hit-or-miss.  Alex Henery was an outstanding kicker--it's hard to overstate how clutch it is to beat a main rival (Colorado) with a 57-yard field goal with two minutes remaining.  In all, he made 18 of 21 FGs, and he has by far the most proven leg in the Big 12 North.  He will also likely be trusted to assume punting duties in 2009--NU was pretty weak here last year, and while it's never a given that a good kicker will be a good punter, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

On the returns side of things, it looks right now as if Niles Paul will be the man.  He was solid in kickoff returns, scoring a clutch return touchdown in the fourth quarter against San Jose State, right after SJSU had closed NU's lead to 14-12.  Take that return out of the equation, and he still averaged 22.1 yards per return, which would have been better than average.  Nate Swift was the main man in punt returns last year, but Paul returned a handful and did fine with them.

Really, if punting isn't a liability, the special teams unit could be a major asset for Nebraska in close games, particularly in terms of kicking.  Henery really is a stud.

Summary

Iffy offense, solid defense, solid special teams.  In a division without a breakaway favorite, Nebraska has as good a chance as anybody of coming away the winner (though playing in both Lawrence and Columbia won't help their cause).

We'll take a look at projections on Friday, but for now we'll just summarize by saying that while NU's defense could be solid, I think they're at least a year away from having rock-solid personnel at linebacker, but they'll be taking a step backwards on the defensive line and in the secondary next year.  It might take a little while for all the pieces to truly come together for Pelini's defense, but he's got a good defensive mind obviously, and because of that and decent personnel, they'll certainly be in the title hunt this year.  I'm just not giving them anything yet.

---

Projections on Friday.

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