No place to go but down?
Big losses mean big holes to fill
Big losses mean big holes to fill

Posted Apr 22, 2011


On the defensive side, the team could be going through some major transformations with the loss of so many standout players as well as the addition of new coaches. But just how much of an impact will that make? In some areas the Huskers should be better. In others? Well, let's take a look at one that may have some catching up to do.

Fans are eternal optimists. Yes, they complain at the drop of a hat, but when it comes to projecting what their team will do next year, even in the face of a plethora of reasons why a team might have an uphill climb the next season, they will find a way to paint a happy picture of the future.

But let's look at a number that doesn't paint a super duper bright side as of right now: 48

That's what the Husker secondary lost in terms of starting game experience with the graduation of Prince Amukamara, Eric Hagg, Dejon Gomes, Anthony West and Rickey Thenarse. That's 48 games starting experience. Amukamara, Hagg and Gomes had 42 of those starts, and you can expect Amukamara to go in the first round of the NFL Draft, Hagg to go in the early rounds and Gomes will probably be drafted in the late rounds or perhaps in free agency.

Now you have to replace that.

No wait, now you have to replace that as well as the position coach who had guided his group of defensive backs to being one of the best units in the country the last two years.

Now, the Huskers do have some experience coming back.

The most experienced in terms of starts is senior Alfonzo Dennard, who started 13 games, followed by fellow senior Austin Cassidy who started seven. Then you have junior Courtney Osborne coming off of four starts at safety, where P.J. Smith, also a junior this year started three games as well. And then there is sophomore Ciante Evans who started one game last year.

Alfonzo Dennard is now the main man in the secondary for the Huskers.

That's 28 starts. Not bad. Not great, but not bad, and it shows what kind of depth in experience the Huskers had last year.

Then there is the very obvious idea, one that we have beaten thoroughly to death and that this move to the Big Ten will signal a drastic reduction in the amount of "Nickel" and "Dime" packages we see on defense. That was the theme in the Big 12, but it will be simply a matter of situational strategy as they move into the Big Ten.

That means you will more than likely see two safeties and two corners in most situations outside of obvious passing scenarios.

Going into the Spring the safety spot was seen as a very fluid one. There was experience with Smith, Osborne and Cassidy, but in the new run-heavy mind-set of the Big Ten, you could see players like Corey Cooper, a stout looking redshirt freshman who measures in at 6-1, but if he's 210 lbs. as the official roster on Huskers.com lists him, I'd be shocked. He appears to be considerably bigger than that.

Joining him this year as a redshirt trying to find some time on the field this season is Harvey Jackson. He's a bit taller than Cooper, but isn't nearly as big.

Then you throw in a host of names with playing experience, not including the returning starter, Cassidy. junior Justin Blatchford, who had a touchdown last year on special teams. Then you have Joe Felici a redshirt freshman as well as sophomore Wil Richards, who had a solid Spring game, notching four tackles for the White Team. Bronson Marsh, a freshman defensive back, also notched four tackles in the game, that for the Red Team.

At corner,  Dennard was an automatic to start this year. He's one of the most talented corners Nebraska has had in some time, yes, including Prince Amukamara. His explosiveness, ability to break on the ball and just the tenacity in which he plays the game - makes him potentially one of the best corners this year in the new Big Ten.

Expected to start alongside him will be Ciante Evans, who didn't get much for reps last year, but what he did in those limited opportunities was prove that he's athletic as well as confident - something every corner needs to be.

Over the course of the Spring those two have been pretty consistent as far as being mentioned by coaches in regard to who is making the most growth. But redshirt freshman Josh Mitchell has found himself in that conversation, too. If you remember Mitchell in the Spring game, he showed electric quickness in the return game, albeit going a lot more east and west than he was going north and south. He had a solid effort over all, totaling five tackles, good enough for second on the White Team, as well as getting a sack on a corner blitz and then adding a pass break up as well. He isn't long on experience, but he is long on athleticism, something I remember a common opinion of Dennard when he first arrived at Nebraska.

Andrew Green is another that made steady progress over the Spring. He spent all of last year out due to injury, so I am sure this year seemed a long time coming for him. He's a solid looking corner with solid athleticism. In the Spring game he had a nice pass break up on wide receiver K. C. Hyland, as well as showing his toughness in run support as he totaled three tackles for the Red Team this last Saturday.

Ciante Evans may have just gotten his feet wet his first year last season, but this year he'll be immersed as a starter alongside Dennard.

Sophomore Dijon Washington as well as fellow sophomore Lazarri Middleton seemed to disappear off the radar last year. But Washington made a nice surge back over the Spring. He had a decent Spring game, but his biggest highlight wasn't that big of a positive for him as redshirt freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell gave him a pretty good move at the line and then went right by him along the boundary for a 20-plus yard gain.

I am quite sure Kenny will be doing that to more than a few people this year though.

The thing that is noticeable right now about this group is that they lost a lot of size with the departure of Hagg, who was a defensive back/linebacker. And then there was Amukamara, who looked like a linebacker playing corner. Of course, Rickey Thenarse brought the big hits as well as anyone using his big frame at safety.

From the cheap seats where I am sitting, they just aren't going to be able to be as physical as they were last year. And let's not forget that Marvin Sanders, the former Secondary coach, preached physical, physical, physical. And it showed on the field as receivers were seemingly intimidated on some of those short patters across the field. They didn't want to get hit, at least not like that.

The other facet of being physical is just how you were able to play receivers on the line. There weren't many times that a receiver could just come off the line and physically beat his guy, creating separation with his strength. You couldn't manhandle Husker corners. Your only hope was to get by them with the first move and try to use quickness as your weapon.

Being physical with a Husker secondary was close to futile.

This brings about the question of just how physical this group is going to be.

Corey Raymond has one year of actual coaching at the collegiate level. But he has nine years competing in the pros, playing corner mostly, but he sprinkled some time at safety in there as well. Unless you are an absolute physical freak of nature, in the NFL you have no choice but to be physical. If you can't be, you aren't going to be in the league very long. It would stand to reason that we can expect a similar mentality from this group under Raymond that we saw under Sanders.

But with one slight exception.

OK, maybe it's not so slight. I'm not sure right now. We'll see.

But from his days in the pros, Raymond obviously learned how to do things a certain way. And in the pros, whether you are playing cornerback or quarterback, DT or OT, technique wins above all else. Outside of the handful of phenoms out there who can rely on talent to get them by, everyone else has to do things the right way when it comes to their hands, feet, body, hips, etc.

Coach Corey Raymond will certainly bring something different to the Huskers. But can they really top or even compare to what this group has done the last two years under former Secondary Coach Marvin Sanders?

So, when Raymond arrived, it wasn't long after the Spring started when players like Dennard, Evans and everyone else we could talk to, emphasized just how much technique was being emphasized to them.

This is the point where I started to get a bit concerned.

If we are to believe that the technique these guys learned last year wasn't exactly textbook, then this group was even better than we thought. There are more than a few games the last two years where quarterbacks found themselves sacked not because of the pressure of the line, but because there was nobody to throw too.

Ask Colt McCoy how that was when Ndamukong Suh was the bane of his existence. But much of the time Suh had in getting to McCoy for one of his 4.5 sacks in the Big 12 title game two years ago, came because the Longhorn QB had nowhere to go with the ball.

This group hasn't been just good, but great.

To think Sanders didn't have a lot to do with that, to me, that would be insane.

So, what we are looking at here is simply different styles. Raymond is a product of the professional system as he spent more time playing in the NFL than he did in college, which isn't something most players can say. His professional career was over double in years the time he spent in college when he was a starting defensive back for LSU.

Curtis Marsh would probably preach the credibility of what Raymond has to teach. He was a starting corner at Utah State last year, where Raymond had coached in his one year of coaching at the FBS level. Marsh averaged 1.25 pass break ups per game, good enough to rank him top 10 in the country. And that was with a defensive line which notched a woeful 13 sacks all year.

And, of course, he's a Bo guy.

What does that mean?

This is just me, but as far as I am concerned Hell will freeze over before Bo Pelini ever lets his defense slide into even a slight slump. He knows that with a great defense you can do great things. After all, the Huskers had two offenses which were horrendous toward the end of the last two seasons. And yet the team still make it to the Big 12 Conference Championship, almost winning them both.

Texas Tech scored a billion points a game under Mike Leach, and his team never made it to that game.

But with all that being said, and at least with the idea that Raymond's improvement as a coach will continue, I think this group is still going to need some time to adjust. But with the interior of the defensive line being loaded as well as having three linebackers on the field to help in run support, the guys in the third level may just get the time they need to gel.

They have experience, which can mean as much or more than pure talent. But chemistry is something very vital which will probably have to develop along the way.

At least with this group, though, going to the Big Ten means they will probably have more time to get that done than they would had if they would have remained in the Big 12.



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