Monday, April 13, 2009
For Nebraska to improve on its #2 ranked Big XII defense a year ago, they are going to have to rely heavily upon a group of young, talented linebackers and defensive backs. And assuming the defensive line performs to their capabilities, these two units will have ample opportunity to shine. Exactly who is going to get that chance and where remains to be seen.
Nebraska's Position Breakdowns: QB, RB, WR, TE
Nebraska's Position Breakdowns: OL, DL
Mike (middle): No question that Sr. Phillip Dillard (6'1, 240 lbs.) holds by far the most experience here with 33 games played. You would think that this spot is Dillards to lose, but after last season, I don't see it that way and the coaches don't either. In 9 games in 2008, Dillard accumulated only 13 solo tackles (38 total) and half of a sack - not going to cut it at middle linebacker for a defense this good. Dillards' inconsistent play and knack for injury will leave the door wide open for competition. Enter walk-on Sr. Colton Koehler (6'1, 230 lbs.) and R-Fr. Will Compton (6'2, 230 lbs.) Koehler had to fill in at Mike during Dillard's injury-plagued 2008 season and started the Gator Bowl. Although Koehler didn't miss a beat on the field when compared to Dillard, I still have a hard time buying he is the best we have. I'm starting to get the feeling that this is Will Compton's time. Last season, Bo Pelini and Mike Ekeler said on more than one occasion that keeping his redshirt on became increasingly more difficult. After practice two weeks ago, Ekeler said, "it's go time, and it's got to be perfect. I don't think on Saturdays (next season) you're going to put an asterisk by it and say, 'Aw, you know what, Will Compton's a freshman. We'll let that one go. He missed that play.' It's all for keeps. We've got to demand and expect perfection." What I take from the that is that Ekeler is working overtime to groom Compton as the undisputed #1 by September. Compton was ranked as the #34 best athlete in the country by Rivals when he was recruited out of Missouri and has the most athletic ability of this group. You'd be crazy if you aren't smiling when you think about four years with Will Compton.
As far as the Will (weakside) and the Sam (strongside) linebacker positions go, Ekeler recently said, "we're looking for the best three. Whoever emerges, that's who we're going to play."
Jr. Blake Lawrence (6'3, 220 lbs.) and R-Fr. Alonzo Whaley (6'1, 225 lbs.) appear to be going to head to head at the weakside. With one year at the strongside and one year at the weakside, Lawrence appears ready to step into a more prominent role. Lawrence, who I consider another victim of Callahan's redshirt philosphies or lack thereof, improved dramatically as his sophomore season progressed and finished with four tackles and an interception in the Gator Bowl. Whaley, who was twice named to the first-team Class 3A all-state teams in Texas, had a whopping 162 tackles in his senior season as a two-way starter. And with one year to grow in the program, Whaley will be ready. Speedy walk-ons So. Matt Holt (6'0, 200 lbs.) and So. Matthew May (6'1, 200 lbs.) were forced to play significant roles last season with the lack of depth and both should see the field often this season, although it is unlikely either will start. Holt had an outstanding game against Texas Tech with 8 tackles (7 solo) but saw little action at the end of the season while May appeared in 5 games and recorded 5 tackles. R-Fr. Sean Fisher (6'6, 225 lbs.) and R-Fr. Micah Kreikemeier (6'3, 210 lbs.) have both been practicing primarily at strongside linebacker this spring and both are impressing coaches. Fisher appeared in one game last season before an injury which allowed to gain a medical redshirt. At 6'6 and 225 lbs., I'm more than interested to see what this former high school quarterback can contribute at outside linebacker. Both of these players will be on the field early and often, and whether or not one of them can earn a starting spot might depend solely on Alonzo Whaley's readiness as Blake Lawrence can and will play both outside positions.
Easily two of the better recruits in Nebraska's 2009 class were linebackers Chris Williams (6'0, 230 lbs.) and Eric Martin (6'2, 216 lbs.) - both inside linebackers in high school. One, if not both of them would have been on the field last season, but with the plethora of linebackers this year, I'll be more than interested to see what becomes of their redshirt decision.
Unlike a year ago, Bo Pelini should be feeling pretty good with what he has here. In fact, moving former LB LaTravis Washington to QB is just one example of how much depth the Huskers have. There are currently 15 players (2 Seniors, 2 Juniors, 2 Sophomores, 9 Freshmen) that sit in at linebacker meetings this spring and it's no secret that probably only two of them will see the field together at any given time due to the dynamic Big XII offenses. Speed baby, speed. Although it's great to have two veterans in the middle with Dillard and Koehler, I expect to see Compton move into the starting role by September 5th at the earliest, October 8th in Columbia at the latest. The outside is going to be crowded come fall. All of the six aforementioned outside LBs will play with the Blackshirts (we're saying that again, right?) hardly missing a beat. As far as who gets to start, I expect that to come on a week-to-week basis throughout the season. And if I had a preference, I'd hope that Williams and Martin redshirt this coming season, further proving to the rest of us that we are in fact loaded here.
Jr. Anthony West (6'0 205 lbs.) and Jr. Prince Amukamara (6'1, 200 lbs.) will likely enter the spring game as the starting corners. Both provide much needed big game experience, which is something this group needs. West is the most physical back of the group and is an excellent open field tackler. In 2008, he had 23 solo tackles and 9 pass break-ups. Amukamara, like West, can also bring a physical presence to the position and is the more athletic of the two. While racking up 21 solo tackles, 3 pass break-ups, and a pair of forced fumbles, Amukamara also excelled on special teams which is something he will more than likely be relied upon again this season. I expect Jr. Eric Hagg (6'2, 205 lbs.) to play one of the more important roles on the defense at nickel back, although he is getting reps this spring at safety. Along with his heroics late in the Gator Bowl to seal the win, Hagg had an outstanding season with 29 solo tackles and 7 pass break-ups and played in every game. Said Marvin Sanders, “Eric’s a guy who I think needs to be on the field every single play" - whether he moves to safety or not is still up in the air. As one of the few true freshman to play last season, Alfonzo Dennard (5'10, 190 lbs.) averaged almost 19 yards/return on kickoffs and will more than likely see action there again. Much buzz has been created this spring with his play and I fully expect him to get his share of snaps this fall. R-So. (and former walk-on) Lance Thorell (6'1, 195 lbs.) settled into the starting dime back position last season, and although I expect to see him get extensive action, I'm not sure if he will be among the top four backs. R-So. Anthony black and Blue (5'10, 185 lbs.) hasn't played a down since he was a true freshman in 2007 when he was named to the Big XII All-Freshman team. According to the OWH, 'Sanders said he doesn't consider Blue a whole year behind, but said it won't be easy cracking back into a starting lineup as he competes against guys who have had more time with the system.' Juco transfer Dejon Gomes (Jr., 6'0, 190 lbs.) arrived in Lincoln in January and could possibly see time at safety along with the corner. True freshmen Dijon Washington, Lazarri Middleton, and Andrew Green are all highly touted backs, but they will not arrive until fall camp.
With Armando Murillo as the only key loss from the 2008 unit, the cornerback position will be vastly improved. Each and every one of the names above will be on the field throughout the season as playmakers on defense and special teams. Amukamara, West, and Hagg (provided he stays here) should be the three primary backs to start the season with either Dennard or Thorell filling in at the dime. It seems as if Anthony Blue still is learning to adjust to game speed and will see time as a back-up to start the season. As I mentioned, Gomes is still a little of question mark with little being said about him and he could very well land at safety. Whether he will contribute much remains to be seen and the spring game should give us an idea of where he stands. I highly doubt that the coaching staff will redshirt all three incoming scholarship freshman as all three have the capabilities to contribute immediately. Expect Dennard to shine on special teams this fall where he was a standout as a true freshman.
After two years as the starting strong safety, Sr. Larry Asante (6'1, 215 lbs.) seems primed for a big year. Asante returns as Nebraska's second-leading tackler from 2008 (67 tackles, 45 solo tackles) and will be relied upon to do the same in 2009. Lining up alongside Asante will be either Sr. Ricky Thenarse (6'1, 205 lbs.) or Sr. Matt O'Hanlon (5'11, 200 lbs.). Thenarse improved tremendously after an injury limited his time earlier in the season. Despite missing almost 3 full games to begin the season with injury, Thenarse adjusted quickly and took the starting role away from O'Hanlon the final four games of the year. O'Hanlon still produced big throughout the year with 52 tackles, 1 Int., and 5 pass break-ups, but expect him to back-up Thenarse. As previously mentioned, Eric Hagg remains the wild card here. Whether or not the safety experiment works out, Hagg is still the best nickelback we have. I'm excited to see R-Fr. PJ Smith (6'2, 210 lbs.) play. In high school, Smith put on an impressive display of speed and football instinct to go along with a love for making a big hit. R-Fr. Courtney Osborne (6'3, 190 lbs.) will be another youngster to see the field often next season. Osborne, who was recruited as an athlete, also possesses a knack for the big hit as well as great speed. As mentioned above, it appears Dejon Gomes will get a shot at safety and with two outstanding years at City College of San Francisco (Zac Lee, Maurice Purify), he could be a better option than either one of the redshirt freshmen here.
Expect great things this season from Asante, Thenarse, and O'Hanlon. Although it sure seemed like the learning curve proved rather steep in the first year under Pelini, all three showed very promising signs as the season progressed. And as far as Asante and Thenarse go, I want all-conference type of play from both. I do think O'Hanlon will serve most of the season as a back-up although he will see significant playing time. Gomes by all accounts should be ready to step and help this unit immediately if he remains at safety. I'm still not buying the Hagg move to safety, but the spring game will give us a better idea. The two talented freshmen, Smith and Osborne, have been earning the respect of the coaches and players alike this spring as both appear to be ready to see playing time early and often. All in all, this group should be nothing short of great this season.