2011 Nebraska Preview – Defense
Nebraska LB Lavonte David
Nebraska LB Lavonte David
Posted Jun 24, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Nebraska Cornhusker Defense

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini didn't put together quite the killer of a defense he had in 2009 – losing Ndamukong Suh will do that – but the Huskers finished 11th in the nation in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. Even though the overall numbers were great, the pass rush was mediocre and there weren't nearly enough big plays made. Now the D will go from a versatile 4-2-5 alignment that changed by the week to more of a basic 4-3, and that's a plus with the potentially great linebacking corps waiting to shine. Lavonte David is one of the nation's best tacklers, while Sean Fisher is back from an injury and Will Compton should be great with a bigger role. The line needs pass rushers on the outside, but Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler form one of the nation's best tackle tandems. The secondary takes the biggest personnel hit and needs some help at corner, but it's a big group that'l be fine in time.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Lavonte David, 152
Sacks: Jared Crick, 9.5
Interceptions: Alfonzo Dennard, 4

Star of the defense: Senior DT Jared Crick
Player who has to step up and be a star: Sophomore CB Ciante Evans
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Sean Fisher
Best pro prospect: Crick
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Crick, 2) LB Lavonte David, 3) DT Baker Steinkuhler
Strength of the defense: Tackle, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rushing Ends, Corner

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The defensive line had to try to go on without Ndamukong Suh, and the results weren't always pretty. The Huskers finished seventh in the Big 12 against the run allowing 153 yards per game, and it was awful at getting into the backfield on a regular basis. The Huskers weren't awful at rushing the passer, but they were 112th in the nation and last in the Big 12 in tackles for loss after finishing second in the nation in sacks and 28th in tackles for loss. Three starters are back and there's hope for even more production, especially from the tackles.

6-6, 285-pound senior Jared Crick went from being Suh's sidekick to being the main man on the defensive interior, and he proved he could handle the workload finishing third on the team with 70 tackles to go along with 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. The 6-6, 285-pound senior has a knee problem, but he's expected to be back and ready to go full-tilt to start the season and should be on most All-America short lists. A superior interior pass rusher with the bulk and strength to hold up against the run, he's active, quick, and a dream of a 3-4 NFL end who'll make a ton of dough in a big hurry. He'll be backed up by 6-1, 300-pound sophomore Thaddeus Randle, a squatty run defender who saw time this offseason when Crick was out and showed he could potentially handle the work. He bulked up over the last few years to get up to his current weight, and if nothing else he'll make more noise after coming up with seven tackles.

Also back on the inside is junior Baker Steinkuhler, who went from good to great as he lived up to his immense promise and potential making 46 tackles with 3.5 sacks and four tackles for loss earning Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors. The 6-6, 290-pound son of Nebraska legendary tackle, Dean Steinkuhler, Baker has the strength and toughness to hold his own on the nose, but he can work as a one-gap tackle or as a 3-4 end; he has the quickness and versatility to do a little bit of everything. He's not exactly an anchor, but he's a very active, very good star in the making. Working as a backup is senior Terrence Moore, a good-sized, smart 6-3, 290-pound veteran who made 16 tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss as the team's top reserve interior lineman. He had a hard time finding a spot in the rotation over the last few years, but now he should do even more as an active pass rusher as well as a tough, stubborn run stopper.

Back to his starting spot at right end, eventually, will be junior Cameron Meredith, who overcame an injury early as a freshman to be a good reserve and eventually a 14-game starter who made 64 tackles with 1.5 sacks, ten quarterback hurries, and eight tackles for loss. At 6-4 and 260 pounds the Second Team All-Big 12 performer has great size and a good burst off the ball, and now he has to get past a shoulder injury that kept him out this offseason to be the team's best pass rushing threat from the outside. If Meredith isn't 100%, then 6-4, 265-pound sophomore Jason Ankrah will play a bigger role after making two tackles in an underwhelming year. He came in from Maryland a few years ago as one of the Big 12's top end recruits, but he has yet to show off his tremendous quickness and dangerous pass rushing skills.

6-4, 290-pound junior Josh Williams could be the one new starter on the line after seeing action throughout last year making 12 tackles. After bulking up, he's a huge option who should be great against the run, but he's not a top-shelf pass rusher despite the athleticism for his size. He can work at a variety of spots, while 6-2, 255-pound junior linebacker Eric Martin will get every chance to be a pass rushing terror after a dominant spring. The speedster got a lot bigger and a lot bulkier over the last two years, and now he should be a dangerous all-around factor after coming up with 26 tackles as a two-game starter at weakside linebacker.

One the way as possibly a new star for the outside is JUCO transfer Joseph Carter, a 6-5, 250-pound junior who ripped off 73 tackles and 7.5 sacks for Chaffey College in California. While he might not be a starter, he could potentially become a whale of a situational pass rusher and a third down specialist with a great burst off the line and good closing ability.

Watch Out For … injuries. Crick's knee is supposed to be fine and Meredith isn't supposed to have any problems with his shoulder once the year starts, but the Huskers can't afford to lose two of the defense's best players for any significant stretch of time. These two not only have to be on the field, but they have to play full-tilt.
Strength: Experience. With three returning starters and with Randle, Moore, and Ankrah ready for bigger roles, there should be a good rotation for a line that knows what it's doing.
Weakness: Sure-thing pass rushing end. The Huskers get good production from all the spots against the run, but there weren't nearly enough tackles for loss and it would be nice if an end could step up and become a killer into the backfield. It's great that Crick and the tackles can get to the quarterback, but Williams, Ankrah, and Martin have to be great, while Meredith has to do even more.
Outlook: As long as everyone is healthy, the line should be terrific with a great rotation working around, arguably, the best tackle pair in America in Crick and Steinkuhler. Steadier production into the backfield would be nice, and more quarterback hits is a must, but the line is deep, big, and talented.
Unit Rating: 8


State of the Unit: The linebacking corps was three wide last year, even though there was a Peso defender who was more like a fifth defensive back. Four players got the start on the weakside, not including when the defense started out in dime packages, and now the corps should be steadier in a more traditional 4-3 alignment. Fortunately, the players are there to fill out the spots.

The big question will be where Lavonte David ends up working. The star of last year's defense, the Miami native came in from the JUCO ranks and led the team with 152 tackles with six sacks, ten broken up passes, seven quarterback hurries, and 15 tackles for loss in an All-America campaign. After spending most of the year in the middle, he finished up the season moving to the outside in the bowl game and was more than fine with seven solo stops. However, even at a light 6-1, 220-pounds, he's terrific on the inside making 19 tackles against South Dakota State, 14 against Texas A&M, and 17 in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma. Very fast and very active, he has unlimited range as a run defender, and he can fly into the backfield as a pass rusher. Now he'll get more work in as a pass defender while the coaching staff does more to try to get him into open space. Unblocked, he could be a threat for double-digit sacks.

Depending on where David ends up, junior Will Compton will either start in the middle or on the weakside. He saw a little bit of time throughout last year on the outside, but he got the start on the inside against Washington in the bowl loss and made three tackles. At 6-2 and 230 pounds he has the look and the bulk to handle the work in the middle, and he's quick enough to be a decent pass rusher despite making just one sack and 15 tackles after a breakthrough 40-tackle freshman season.

Junior Sean Fisher was supposed to be a steady starter throughout last year after making 35 tackles as a freshman, but he suffered a broken leg and missed the entire season. At 6-6 and 235 pounds, the junior has great size, is smart, and was called the quarterback of the defense. Now he's back and he's expected to be a leader and one of the team's top tacklers on the strongside, but he also has the versatility to play anywhere in the linebacking corps.

The backup situation will be fluid with several big moves throughout the year. 6-2, 235-pound junior Graham Stoddard will work as a reserve both on the strongside and the middle after making 12 tackles. Mostly a special teamer so far, the smart veteran will see more time as a key part of the linebacker rotation. Also looking for more time as another versatile playmaker is Alonzo Whaley, a 6-1, 235-pound junior who stepped in when injuries hit the corps with a start against Western Kentucky. Fast and active, he made nine tackles in his limited role, and now he'll play either in the middle or on the weakside. Also moving around will be senior Matthew May, a 6-1, 215-pound special teamer who has the versatility to play anywhere in the linebacking corps. The walk-on started his career as a defensive back and made ten tackles last year in a variety of roles.

Watch Out For … Fisher. David will come into the season as one of the Big Ten's signature stars, and Compton will put up stats, but Fisher could be the breakthrough playmaker now that he's healthy. The linebacking corps adjusted without him last year, but it's a big plus to get him back.
Strength: Versatility. The depth chart doesn't mean much position-wise. Compton or David will get the start in the middle, and then all the rest of the blanks will be filled in with production coming from all the spots.
Weakness: Proven production in the 4-3. This is nitpicking, but last year the defense used Eric Hagg in a hybrid role, and while he was really a linebacker acting like a safety, now the corps has to prove it can produce in a more traditional look. Everything will be fine, but Fisher has to stay healthy and Compton has to prove he can handle the bigger workload.
Outlook: The linebackers could be the team's strength if David, Fisher, and Compton are the starting threesome and they last the entire year, they'll combine for over 350 tackles and they'll all earn All-Big Ten honors. The starting threesome should be great, the backups are versatile, and the coaching staff knows how to turn them all loose.
Unit Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: How good was the Nebraska secondary? The Big 12 had three of the nation's top seven passing games (Oklahoma State at 2, Oklahoma 3, and Texas Tech at 7), had five of the top 20 attacks, seven of the top 50, and six of the top 50 most efficient passing games, and the Husker pass rush wasn't special, but the pass defense still finished fifth in the nation and third in pass efficiency defense. Gone is Prince Amukamara, the All-America shut-down defender who went 19th in the draft to the Giants, and gone are hybrid pickoff artist Eric Hagg and second-leading tackler Dejon Gomes. It might be a rough adjustment process for a little while, but the front seven should be good enough to up the pressure and give the secondary a break.

While he didn't get the press of Amukamara, senior Alfonzo Dennard turned in a solid, All-Big 12 season making 30 tackles with four picks and seven broken up passes. The 5-10, 205-pounder is built like a safety but he cuts on a dime and has tremendous quickness to get all over the field. Teams will start staying away from him this year after avoiding Amukamara last year, but he should still be a terrific playmaker if he can stay healthy. He had problems early in his career with a shoulder injury and was knocked out for a game last year with a concussion.

Working on the other side in Amukamara's old spot will be sophomore Ciante Evans, a 5-11, 185-pounder who made nine tackles with two broken up passes in his limited time. He came in as a true freshman and helped out against Missouri when Dennard went down, and now it's his time to hold down a spot for the next three years. He'll be backed up by 6-2, 200-pound junior Antonio Bell, a bigger option out of Florida who has mostly been a special teamer so far. The former wide receiver will likely work as a nickel and dime defender, but he'll see some time in the corner rotation.

Senior Austin Cassidy started out his career as a walk-on and now should be one of the team's leading tacklers. The Academic All-American started half of last season and finished with 48 tackles with a pick, and after taking over the job halfway through last year from Rickey Thenarse, he should be a leader at strong safety as well as a star on special teamer. Combining for the backup job will be redshirt freshman Corey Cooper, a great recruit last year with 6-1, 210-pound size and tremendous athleticism. Great in coverage and quick, he can work in a variety of roles, while JUCO transfer Daimion Stafford will step in and try to play a big role after making 62 tackles for Chaffey College in California. The high school teammate of Taylor Martinez, Stafford is quick, tough, and athletic enough to have been recruited hard by Florida, USC, and other big names.

6-3, 200-pound junior Courtney Osborne will get a shot at Gomes' free safety job after starting four times last season in nickel and dime packages. Very big and with excellent hitting ability, he can play either safety job and can be sent into the backfield on a regular basis after making 41 tackles with a sack, five tackles for loss, and a pick. He'll work with junior P.J. Smith, a 6-2, 215-pound veteran who was a major part of the defensive rotation early on before getting pushed down the bench late. Great on special teams, he also has the size and the toughness to be used as a run stopper after making 38 tackles with three picks.

Looking for time at one of the corner spots, at least as a backup, will be the combination of sophomores Dijon Washington and Andrew Green. The 6-0, 185-pound Washington is a smart defender with good speed, but he needs time to show what he can do. The 6-0, 190-pound Green is versatile and talented, but he has to come back healthy after getting hurt before last season and making just one tackle in his one game of time.

Watch Out For … Evans. He was decent when he got his chances, but it's asking a lot for him to be a quick replacement for an NFL first rounder. He might not be Amukamara, but he has the quickness and the upside to be a good one after a little bit of time.
Strength: Size. This is an athletic group with good speed, but the biggest plus is the size. The 5-11, 185-pound Evans has decent size for a corner, and he's the little guy in the group. Everyone is big and everyone can pop. No one will outphysical this group.
Weakness: Amukamara and Gomes. Amukamara didn't come up with any interceptions, but he was a major force when the ball was in the air and he was a big, fast, dangerous defender who had to be avoided at all costs. Gomes was a great hitter who came up with 99 tackles and three picks, and Eric Hagg came up with five interceptions and 49 tackles in the fifth defensive back role. They'll be missed.
Outlook: The Huskers might not have any special defensive backs like Amukamara, but there are several very big, very good defenders who can all tackle and will be more than fine with a great front seven up front to help the cause. The pass defense has been one of the biggest improvements in the Bo Pelini era, and while it might take a step back, it won't be a big one.
Unit Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: It's not the same as trying to find someone to take over for Cam Newton, but trying to replace Alex Henery will be as hard as replacing almost any player in America. All he did was average 43.2 yards per punt while putting 26 inside the 20, and also hitting 18-of-19 field goals with the lone miss coming from 51 yards out.

True freshman Mauro Bondi will be handed the keys to the placekicking job if he's merely competent. A late pickup out of Florida, he should make an immediate impact with a huge leg and great range. He'll be an automatic touchback on kickoffs, but he has to prove he can be consistent from short to midrange.

Junior Brett Maher will get a shot at the placekicking job if Bondi isn't up to snuff, but he'll mainly be the team's punter. He might not be Henery, but he had a great offseason and looked like he's ready to handle the work with a consistent leg and nice touch. After years as the holder for Henery, now it's his turn.

The Huskers were sensational on kick and punt returns thanks to Niles Paul, who averaged 11.4 yards per punt return and 24.4 yards per kickoff. Tim Marlowe stepped in when Paul got hurt and averaged 21.9 yards per kickoff return and 5.3 yards per punt return, while Rex Burkhead averaged 5.2 yards per punt return. Watch Out For … Bondi. If he lives up to the recruiting hype and can take over the job for the next four years, the pressure will be off Maher. It's asking too much to be as deadly accurate as .
Strength: Maher. While he might not be the ideal placekicker, he should be good enough to keep the punting production going after the Huskers finished 35th in the nation in net yards.
Weakness: Kick coverage. It's sort of shocking considering Henery's leg, but the Husker kickoff coverage team was awful allowing 23.6 yards per return. The punt coverage team wasn't great allowing 9.6 yards per try.
Outlook: The special teams was all about Henery and Paul, and now several new pieces will be involved. Other than the coverage teams, the Husker special teams were rock solid and turned out to be a major plus. All the pressure will be on Bondi and Maher to find a placekicker. That could be the difference between a good year and a Big Ten title.
Unit Rating: 6.5
- 2011 Nebraska Preview | 2011 Nebraska Offense
- 2011 Nebraska Defense | 2011 Nebraska Depth Chart
- Nebraska Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006