Nebraska: Beyond the Box Score Defensive Preview

Yesterday we took a look at a unit that possibly has more pressure on it than any other unit in the Big 12 conference.  If the Nebraska offense is suddenly good, holy mackerel.  If not, they will hold the Huskers back once again.  Today we look at the reason why NU's ceiling is considered so high despite the fact that their offense ranked directly between Utah State's and Louisiana Tech's on last year's Offensive F/+ list: the Blackshirts.

Since we're playing the comparisons game, let's take a look at the two teams surrounding Nebraska in the Defensive F/+ rankings the last three seasons.

  • 2007 (Nebraska's rank: 102nd): Idaho and New Mexico State
  • 2008 (68th): Miami and Bowling Green
  • 2009 (4th): Iowa and Ohio State

In two years, Nebraska's defense has gone from Idaho-level to Ohio State-level.  Damn.  Now the question facing the Flying Pelini Brothers' defense is the same one the Mizzou offense faced last year: can they achieve the same heights with a new set of stars?  The answer for Mizzou, of course, was no.  They replaced Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman with Blaine Gabbert, Danario Alexander and ... well, Danario Alexander, and the results were mixed.  Their offensive rankings didn't fall off a cliff by any means, but they did fall -- from fourth in 2007 and 10th in 2008 to 38th in 2009.  With mostly the same coaching staff (obviously there was one key change) and plenty of solid returning players (including Derrick Washington and a transcendent Alexander), they tumbled a decent amount.  Is that what we can expect from Nebraska after the loss of not only Ndamukong Suh, but also safeties Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon, linebacker Phil Dillard and end Barry Turner?  Is depth going to be a bigger problem than we think with this team?  Let's take a look.

Defense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 4th

S&P+: 5th
Success Rate+: 6th
PPP+: 2nd

Standard Downs S&P+: 5th
Passing Downs S&P+: 1st

Redzone S&P+: 3rd

Q1 S&P+: 2nd
Q2 S&P+: 16th
Q3 S&P+: 1st
Q4 S&P+: 4th

1st Down S&P+: 6th
2nd Down S&P+: 3rd
3rd Down S&P+: 4th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 10th
Rushing SR+: 13th
Rushing PPP+: 9th

Standard Downs: 9th
Passing Downs: 6th

Redzone: 15th

Adj. Line Yards: 30th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 4th
Passing SR+: 6th
Passing PPP+: 4th

Standard Downs: 6th
Passing Downs: 1st

Redzone: 3rd

Adj. Sack Rate: 8th
SD Sack Rate: 2nd
PD Sack Rate: 25th

Whereas the Nebraska offense ranked among the Top 30 in one of the 30 categories listed above, the Nebraska defense did so in every single category.  Utilizing what was possibly (probably?) the best defensive line in college football, they generated pressure and stopped the run on standard downs, then fanned out and shut down the pass on passing downs.  They faced seven teams that finished with winning records in 2009, and they allowed more than 16 points only once -- they gave up 31 to Texas Tech, but they only allowed 259 yards in that game and were hampered significantly by an offense that had five punts, two field goal attempts (one missed), a fumble (returned for a touchdown) and a turnover on downs in their first nine drives.  Even including Tech, Nebraska allowed just 12 points per game against the good teams on their schedule.  Aside from an odd 403-yard glitch against Colorado (they always give up more points and yards to Colorado than should be expected -- in 2008-09, Missouri gave up 17 points to the Buffs, and Nebraska gave up 51 ... go figure), this defense was untouchable, especially as the season progressed.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 28 102 68 4
S&P+ 41 29 77 41 5
Success Rate+ 27 19 72 23 6
PPP+ 54 38 77 53 2
Rushing S&P+ 56 22 98 60 10
Passing S&P+ 30 35 51 28 4
Standard Downs S&P+ 22 23 52 51 5
Passing Downs S&P+ 34 50 102 31 1
Adj. Line Yards 53 10 64 48 30
Adj. Sack Rate 3 51 110 3 8
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

To get an appropriate appreciation for both the Pelini Brothers and Ndamukong Suh, one only has to look at where this defense was as recently as 2007.  In Bill Callahan's and Kevin Cosgrove's final season in Lincoln, the Huskers couldn't rush the quarterback (even with a sophomore Suh) and couldn't stop the run, and when they did stop the run, they couldn't keep from giving up big play after big play on passing downs.  Granted, that was a one-year outlier -- they were solid in 2005 and good in 2006 -- but still.  It was comical how, even with decent talent and athleticism, they allowed good offenses to do whatever they wanted.  As mentioned yesterday, Missouri and Kansas combined for 117 points and 1,178 yards against the Huskers' defense in 2007.  And even though Nebraska improved in 2008, they still gave up 87 points and 884 yards to the Tigers and Jayhawks.  In 2009?  A whopping 29 points and 560 yards.  Yes, Missouri was doing alright before Ndamukong Suh assassinated Blaine Gabbert's ankle, but while they might have won with a healthy Gabbert, they still weren't going to move the ball that much.

Defensive Line

2009 Unit Ranking: 5th (2nd in the Big 12)

Projected DE Depth Chart
Pierre Allen (6'5, 265, Sr., 35.0 tackles, 12 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 5 PBU)
Cameron Meredith (6'4, 265, So., 17.0 tackles, 1 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU)
Josh Williams (6'4, 255, So., 2.5 tackles)
Faron Klingelhoefer (6'2, 265, Jr., 1.5 tackles)
Jason Ankrah (6'4, 260, RSFr.)
Conor McDermott (6'2, 255, So.)

Projected DT Depth Chart
Jared Crick (6'6, 285, Jr., 52.0 tackles, 15 TFL/sacks, 2 FR, 4 PBU)
Baker Steinkuhler (6'6, 290, So., 11.5 tackles, 1 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU)
Terrence Moore (6'3, 285, Jr., 1.5 tackles)
Justin Jackson (6'3, 270, So., 0.5 tackles)
Jay Guy (6'1, 305, Fr.)
Josh Molek (6'3, 245, So.)

How much of a difference can a single player make on a defense?  We will find out the answer this season.  Here were Ndamukong Suh's numbers in 2009:

  • 68.5 tackles, 24 TFL/sacks, 1 INT (you remember this one), 1 FF, 10 passes broken up, 26 QB hurries, 3 blocked kicks.

As a frame of reference, that's more tackles than Andrew Gachkar, more tackles for loss than Aldon and Jacquies Smith combined, more interceptions than Carl Gettis, more forced fumbles than all of Missouri's defensive tackles combined, more passes broken up than Gettis and Kevin Rutland combined, more QB hurries than Missouri's entire team*, and more blocked kicks than Missouri's entire team. Complete insanity.

* Note: I don't focus much on QB hurries because everybody records them COMPLETELY differently ... but it's still a fun tidbit.

When we read about how the Pelinis have figured things out, and how the defense was more than just one person, and Nebraska can expect to be just as good or better on defense despite the loss of House of Spears, all I can say is ... prove it.  I don't mean that in a smack-talking way, I just mean that ... damn, Suh was amazing last year.  He commanded double- and triple-teams, opened up the blocking for the rest of the line, and still put up those stats.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Nebraska coaching staff had something to do with his success, and that they can be expected to coach up Jared Crick and other tackles in the future ... but that was a once-in-a-decade type of performance last year.  And the thing about once-in-a-decade performances is ... they don't happen every year.  (Brilliant observation, I know.)

While the defensive line also has to replace Barry Turner (39.5 tackles, 16 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 5 PBU ... a damn solid player himself), let's talk about what Nebraska does return.  Everything starts with Crick.  The Sporting News, who seemingly gets more senile each year (but that's neither here nor there), named Jared Crick the best player in college football this year.  Hey, no pressure.  And who knows ... maybe he really is going to be that good.  Maybe the staff has figured things out so well that whoever they place in the middle is going to be an All-American.  But I'll just say this: Crick is going to face all the double- and triple teams Suh took on last year.  And while his stats were rather outlandish themselves in 2009 (15 tackles for loss from a defensive tackle is outstanding -- we were pretty pleased with Dominique Hamilton last year, and he managed only 5.5), he was the beneficiary of consistent single-teaming next to Suh.  The whole ballgame changes for him in 2010.  For all we know, he'll be up to the challenge.  But one shouldn't assume.

One also shouldn't assume that Baker Steinkuhler is going to be a world-beater as Suh's replacement (or, really, as Crick's replacement while Crick replaces Suh).  He has the blue-chip pedigree and the best last name a Nebraska player can have, but his stats suggest more of a space-eating defensive tackle than a play-maker.  To be sure, space eaters can be tremendous weapons -- Gerald McCoy's stats never really jumped off the page at OU, but he was fantastic -- but Nebraska's defense last year was so unique because of the line's playmaking ability.  If Steinkuhler is eating up blockers instead of eating up quarterbacks and running backs, that means an untested linebacking corps is going to have to make more plays this time around.  Not saying they can't do it, of course; just saying that they're as unproven as anybody else.

Three other quick notes:

  • There's not a lot of depth here.  If Crick, Steinkuhler or Allen go down, then Nebraska is relying on an EXTREMELY young, unproven batch of players.
  • I swear, Pierre Allen has played for Nebraska for approximately 17 seasons.  That dude has been around forever.
  • I know it sounds like I'm being very hard on the Nebraska D-line.  To be sure, even without Suh this is possibly the most proven line in the conference, and it is the single reason I'm not confident in Missouri's ability to win in Lincoln for the second straight trip.  I'm being hard on them because a) everybody else is talking them up, so there's no point in me rehashing all of that, and b) there are concrete, definable reasons why this line might not be nearly as successful as last season.  With all the offseason talk of NU's defense getting better in 2010, I have to point out the fact that there are indeed a few red flags here.

Linebackers

2009 Unit Ranking: 1st (1st in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Will Compton (6'2, 225, So., 28.5 tackles, 1 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU)
Sean Fisher (6'6, 235, So., 22.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FR)
Mathew May (6'1, 215, Jr., 5.5 tackles)
Matt Holt (6'0, 210, So.)
Eric Martin (6'2, 240, So.)
Matt Manninger (6'1, 220, So.)

How oddly brilliant was Nebraska's defensive line in 2009?  Good enough to get the linebacking corps ranked No. 1 in my ratings, despite the fact that their linebackers didn't really contribute a whole lot to the box score.  These ratings are based on statistical profiles, not individual achievement, and Nebraska's defensive profile was just off-the-charts strange in 2009.

For all intents and purposes, Nebraska ran a 4-2-5 in 2009.  Maybe even a 4-1-6.  With the line so wonderfully able to create pressure on its own, Bo Pelini made a very adept move: he ran mostly a nickel package to swarm the passes that quarterbacks were actually able to get off before they got sacked.  When you think back to Nebraska's fourth-quarter run against Missouri, it was a perfect strategy.  After Niles Paul scored on the long touchdown and Suh speared Gabbert's over-the-middle pass, Nebraska took a 13-12 lead and pounced.  Gabbert was unable to put the extra zip into his passes because of his ankle, and Nebraska dropped what seemed like 17 defensive backs into coverage.  All over-the-middle routes were covered, so Gabbert had to go to the sidelines ... and without the oopmh on his passes, Dejon Gomes stepped in front of an out route.  Ballgame.  A great defensive line is the best asset a defense can have -- if you can stop the run without help, and you can generate pressure on the quarterback without blitzing, you can focus everybody else on stopping the pass.

What this means is that we know very, very little about Nebraska's linebackers.  The only one who produced a lot -- Phil Dillard (64.0 tackles, 11 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 INT, 3 PBU) -- is with the New York Giants now, leaving behind a super young group of players.  Of the six I listed above, five are sophomores, and the only junior recorded single-digit tackles last year.  A lot has been said about former four-star Missouri product Will Compton, about how he didn't follow Blaine Gabbert to Columbia ... and about just how strange/creepy his recruitment was; but almost none of it is in regard to the job he did on the field last season.  Basically, he made quite a few tackles while making very few plays (tackles for loss, turnovers forced, passes broken up), and while he is making a few preseason all-conference lists, it is based entirely on potential, not production.  Like Crick, Steinkuhler, etc., Compton might just be as good as everybody says ... he just has to prove it first.

Compton is the show pony of the unit -- I'm pretty sure nobody else on this list was tremendously highly-ranked in terms of recruiting.  Does that really matter?  Not necessarily.  As long as the defensive line is wrecking shop, the Nebraska linebackers just have to play smart and clean up messes.  But as I mentioned above, if the linebackers are actually required to make plays this year, we haven't seen definitive proof that they can.  Like the line, this should be a solid unit by all means ... remember, I'm looking at everything from the skeptical "They're going to be even better this year!!" eye.  But I have no reason to believe this unit will be better in 2010 than they were in 2009, when Dillard was doing his thing.

Secondary

2009 Unit Ranking: 6th (2nd in the Big 12)

Projected CB Depth Chart
Prince Amukamara (6'1, 205, Sr., 52.5 tackles, 3 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 1 FF, 11 PBU)
Alfonzo Dennard (5'10, 195, Jr., 26.0 tackles, 4 TFL/sacks, 8 PBU)

Lance Thorell (6'1, 200, Jr., 5.5 tackles, 1 PBU)
Anthony Blue (5'10, 185, Jr., 4.0 tackles)
Justin Blatchford (6'1, 200, So., 3.0 tackles)
Andrew Green (6'0, 190, RSFr.)

Projected S Depth Chart
DeJon Gomes (6'0, 200, Sr., 36.0 tackles, 4 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 3 FF, 5 PBU)
Eric Hagg (6'2, 210, Sr., 35.0 tackles, 7 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 4 PBU)
P.J. Smith (6'2, 210, So., 11.5 tackles, 1 PBU)
Anthony West (6'0, 205, Sr., 10.0 tackles, 4 PBU)
Rickey Thenarse (6'0, 210, Sr., 7.0 tackles, 1 FF)
Corey Cooper (6'2, 200, Fr.)
Austin Cassidy (6'1, 210, Jr., 7.5 tackles, 1 PBU)
Courtney Osborne (6'3, 200, So., 1.0 tackles)
Micah Kreikemeier (6'3, 220, So.)

So I've acknowledged that Nebraska is, at worst-case scenario, going to have a good front seven.  I've tried to tamp down the hype a bit, but yeah, they're certainly going to be strong.  Now let me tell you why you should maybe be as afraid of the Nebraska secondary as you are of the defensive line.

No headline made me happier in January than this one from Double Extra Point: Rumor Mill: Prince Amukamara to NFL.  While the secondary wouldn't have looked nearly as good last season without the defensive line setting them up to succeed, Bo Pelini has put together a unit of defensive backs with the absolute perfect mindset for this defense.  The line gives them a safety net, but they swarm, they take chances, and they take the ball away from the other team.  I was very excited about the thought that Amukamara might be gone, but alas, it was just a rumor.  He returns, as do Alfonzo Dennard, DeJon Gomes, and Eric Hagg.  It's amazing how many recognizable names Nebraska has in the secondary considering the fact that they lost Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon (and seriously, how in the hell does Rickey Thenarse still have eligibility??), but that shows you just how many defensive backs (particularly safeties) were on the field last season.  If the front seven can avoid a significant dropoff -- if they're just a little worse instead of a lot -- the secondary could make up the difference.  Nebraska has four all-conference contenders in this unit, though obviously they could face a tougher road if the guys in front of them aren't generating as much pressure.

Special Teams

2009 Unit Ranking: 2nd (1st in the Big 12)

Place-kicking: 2nd
Net Punting: 81st
Net Kicking: 1st
Returns: 13th

Projected Starters
K Alex Henery (6'2, 175, Sr., 38-for-38 PAT, 24-for-28 FG, Long: 52)
P Alex Henery (6'2, 175, Sr., 77 punts, 41.4 average)
KR Niles Paul (6'1, 220, Sr., 16 returns, 27.9 average)
PR Niles Paul (6'1, 220, Sr., 38 returns, 10.7 average, 1 TD)

Now for the other reason Nebraska won ten games despite a putrid offense in 2009: their special teams unit was great.  One primary trait set them apart from Mizzou regarding the unit as a whole: touchbacks.  Alex Henery missed three more field goals than Grant Ressel in 2009, but he's got a stronger leg, and opponents were consistently starting their drives at the 20-yard line.  As if the defense needed any favors, they got one in opponents having to drive 10-15 yards further against Nebraska than Missouri.  That adds up quickly.  Henery is a great weapon (and finally a senior), as is Niles Paul, who is a better return man than he is a receiver ... more consistent, anyway.

(UPDATE: it's been pointed out to me that Adi Kunalic was the kickoffs guy last year.  I was confident enough in that being Henery that I didn't even verify it.  Whoops.  Regardless, I believe Kunalic returns this year too, so that part of their special teams arsenal should be equally strong in 2010.)

Though basically a two-man unit, Nebraska's special teams will start 2010 atop the Big 12, with Oklahoma and others taking aim.  If Henery improves in his punting this season ... yikes.

Summary

Just because there's a chance that as many Husker fans read this piece as they did the offensive piece yesterday, I want to make something very clear one more time: Nebraska's defense is going to be good in 2010.  Potentially very good.  I was relatively critical of the front seven, and for one simple reason: it's not a foregone conclusion that this defense will be a Top 10 unit again, or even Top 20.  Top 30-40?  Absolutely.  But with the losses of Suh, Dillard, Turner, etc., the depth on the front seven is a question mark, as is Jared Crick's ability to handle the double-teams that Suh faced last year.  We don't yet know what Compton, Fisher, and the other linebackers are capable of, and we don't know if Cameron Meredith, Josh Williams and the other defensive ends opposite Allen are going to be able to do a good Barry Turner impersonation.  There is a lot we don't know about this defense.

And of course, there is a lot we do know.  We know that if you have to attempt to replace Suh, doing so with a five-star recruit (Steinkuhler) is a pretty good way to go about it.  We know that Nebraska has the deepest, most proven secondary in the conference (and only Texas comes close).  We know that Crick and Allen were rock solid in 2009.  We know that the Pelini brothers will maximize the effectiveness of the players on the field.

We also know that the special teams unit is fantastic.

(Actually, one more thing we do know: Nebraska did not get screwed in the Big 12 championship.  There was a second left when McCoy's idiotic pass hit something out of bounds.  It was a tremendously stupid play on his part, but it was the right call.  Get over it.  You really don't want to play the "We got screwed" game with Missouri fans.  But I digress.)

As I mentioned yesterday, Nebraska is in line to have a very good season.  The offense only has to improve as much as the defense regresses for Nebraska to be the favorite in the North and throw a scare into Texas in Lincoln in October (damn, do I wish Missouri played Nebraska either the week before or the week after the Texas game, instead of two weeks after).  Again, where I start tut-tutting people here is when we start talking about this team as a national title contender.  For them to be a true contender, the offense and defense will have to improve, and I just see too many question marks, too many unknowns, on this defense for that to be the case.  Very good?  Possibly.  Better?  No.

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