When you are the Nebraska Cornhuskers and you come off a losing season, questions rightfully abound all over the team. However, one look at the roster and the those who left the Huskers program and it is easy to identify the defense as a major sticking point.
There’s a new defensive line coach in to help a unit in desperate need of exactly that — help. It’s also a group searching for consistency and growth following a season in which way too many players who weren’t ready were forced in to major playing time.
Does that playing time equal players ready to step up to the equation the second time around? Let’s take a look at each position group and dissect the 2016 Nebraska defense.
No position group on either side of the ball has more to prove this upcoming season than the defensive line. There are two big holes to fill in the middle and a brand new position coach, John Parrella, to help make those holes smaller heading in to the season.
With Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins gone at defensive tackle there’s plenty of pressure on some youthful players to make things happen quickly in 2016. After all, the two departed players were major reasons the Huskers ranked second against the run in the Big Ten last season.
Looking to step in to the starting roles will be sophomore Mick Stoltenberg and senior Kevin Maurice. However, the two were bit players last season, combining for 23 tackles (21 of which came from Maurice).
What will be interesting up front is the development and playing time of redshirt freshmen (and twins) Carlos and Khalil Davis. The two have potential dripping all over them, but asking for major snaps and consistent production early on may be asking a lot.
Help was also supposed to come at end or tackle in the form of Greg McMullen, but he chose to focus on graduate studies instead of football.
At end, the Huskers are hoping to see names like Freedom Akinmoladun and A.J. Natter to step up. The latter may not be a starter as of yet, but has fought hard this offseason with Ross Dzuris opposite o Akinmoladun.
Depth here is much like at defensive tackle, with a lot of youth looking more and more likely to be key contributors. Watch for the likes of Alex Davis (not related to Carlos and Khalil), DaiShon Neal and Peyton Newell to get plenty of looks early on in the season.
For all the question marks hanging over the Huskers defense in 2016, this position group should not be amongst them. The experienced duo of outside linebacker Josh Banderas and middle linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey are an impressive pairing. Neither played the full season last year, but the two combined for nearly 10 tackles per game when healthy.
Joining them as a starter in 2016 should be sophomore Dedrick Young, who actually might be the best of this group. He finished with 61 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and three pass break ups in his freshman season last year.
The trio of starters are about as impressive a group on paper as any in the B1G West, but they also need to show more consistency and more pressure to help elevate this defense as a group. Considering the defense forced just 15 turnovers all of last season, there’s plenty of room for improvement from this group as well.
Depth should be the interesting part of the equation for this group, as only Chris Weber (no, not that Chris Weber) really has a lot of experience and that comes in the form of finishing sixth on the team with 49 tackles while replacing Banderas at times throughout the year.
Stats can lie at times, but there were few that lied about the performance of the Huskers secondary in 2015. Nebraska ranked 13th in the B1G in passing defense and gave up nearly 3,400 yards through the air as well.
Looking to improve those numbers will be stalwart safety Nate Gerry, who seems to have been at Nebraska forever. Gerry did his part last season, leading this group with four interceptions to his name, but the rest of the group only mustered up six more INT’s on the season.
Gerry’s partner at safety in 2016 appears to be sophomore Aaron Williams, who backed up the graduated Byerson Cockrell last season and had 24 total tackles along with 3.0 tackles for loss.
The key to getting better numbers out of this group is going to not only come from a better pass rush, but more consistency out of the cornerbacks as well. That means juniors Chris Jones and Josh Kalu have to step up after their first season as starters in 2015.
Kalu did his part, turning in three interceptions but also ranking second on the team in tackles — which is never a positive thing. His partner at cornerback for 12 games last season, Jones, was able to get two INT’s to his name and racked up 25 total tackles.
It appears that Jones has become more consistent after battling much of last season to keep his starting role. Look for him to be the key to a much greater performance for this group on the whole.
Our Projected Starters
DE: Freedom Akinmoladun, Jr.
DT: Kevin Maurice, Sr.
DT: Mick Stoltenberg, So.
DE: A.J. Natter, Jr.
LB: Josh Banderas, Sr.
LB: Michael Rose-Ivey, Sr.
LB: Dedric Young, So.
CB: Josh Kalu, Jr.
SS: Nate Gerry, Sr.
FS: Aaron Williams, So.
CB: Chris Jones, Jr.