This may have been the best possible year for Nebraska to join the Big Ten.
That perfect timing isn't merely because of the off-field issues that have hit six-time defending Big Ten champion Ohio State and allowed the Huskers to emerge as the conference's preseason favorite.
Even if Ohio State were at full strength, the Big Ten's run-oriented style of play makes Nebraska's defense a perfect fit for the league in this particular season.
Such a move might not seem ideal for a Nebraska program that ranked third in pass efficiency defense and just 63rd in run defense last season, but the makeup of this season's "Blackshirts" should allow for a smooth transition. Nebraska heads into its inaugural season in the Big Ten with arguably the nation's best defensive tackle (Jared Crick) and one of the best linebackers (Lavonte David).
"We pride ourselves on stopping the run, not only as a defense but as a defensive line," Crick says. "Our saying is that you've got to earn the right to rush the passer. We love playing the run. It's kind of our trademark."
They will get plenty of chances to stop the run this fall.
The Big 12 last season boasted five of the top 20 passing offenses and only one of the top 21 rushing attacks. Nebraska faced two of the nation's top three passing offenses in Oklahoma (No. 2) and Oklahoma State (No. 3). The Big Ten had only one of the top 35 passing offenses last season -- but four of the top 14 rushing attacks.
"I just think it's going to be more physical play, a lot more downhill running instead of zone running plays, a lot more physical at the line of scrimmage," David says. "The Big 12 had a lot of downhill running plays, but not as much as the Big Ten. ... I'm looking forward to it."
Last season, David often was the only true linebacker on the field in Nebraska's base defense. The Huskers often would put six defensive backs on the field to combat the Big 12's pass-happy offenses, with DeJon Gomes and Eric Hagg spending much of their time in hybrid linebacker/safety roles.
Nebraska now figures to run more of a 4-3 scheme in the Big Ten, though the Huskers still could put additional defensive backs in their base defense when they face pass-oriented Big Ten teams such as Northwestern, which visits Lincoln on Nov. 5.
The move to the Big Ten shouldn't represent much of a culture shock for Nebraska. Although only three of the Huskers' Big 12 rivals last season ranked higher in rushing offense than passing offense, all three of those schools played in the Big 12 North along with Nebraska. And it's worth noting that six of the 11 Big Ten teams last season ranked higher in passing offense than rushing offense, lending credence to the notion that the league's reputation as a run-first conference is a bit exaggerated.
"No matter what anybody wants to run at us, we'll be prepared," Crick says.
new conference, new approach
Nebraska's move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten means the Huskers will need to focus on run defense after concentrating the past few years on slowing down the Big 12's high-flying passing attacks. Nebraska ranked third in pass efficiency defense and 63rd in run defense last season. Here's a look at where each of the Big Ten and Big 12 teams ranked nationally in rushing offense and passing offense last season.
Three starters are gone from the secondary -- Gomes, Hagg and Thorpe Award finalist Prince Amukamara. But thanks to the scheme it used last season, Nebraska still has plenty of experience in the secondary. Senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, senior free safety Austin Cassidy and junior strong safety Courtney Osborne combined for 24 starts last season. Dennard teams with Crick and David to give Nebraska's defense three legitimate preseason All-America candidates.
"Even though we lost a lot of guys in the secondary, we've got guys who can step up and fill that void," David says. "It really isn't a big factor. We have a lot of great guys who can fill in."
Although Nebraska ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense and 11th in total defense last season, the Huskers dropped three of their last four games to waste a promising 9-1 start. They blew a 17-point lead and fell 23-20 to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. They followed that up by allowing Chris Polk to rush for 177 yards in a stunning 19-7 Holiday Bowl loss to Washington, a team they had hammered 56-21 on the road during the regular season.
"We just have to learn to finish off things," Crick says. "That's really been the theme going into summer conditioning -- to get the job done with no excuses and no explanations. Just get it done. That's something we've lacked over the last couple of years. We lacked -- I don't want to say a killer instinct, but that instinct of just finishing the job.
"We came close to winning Big 12 titles back-to-back years. And the same thing happened both years. We didn't finish what we came to do. This year, it's finish what needs to be done. If we do that, great things will happen."
Crick already set an example by deciding to return for his senior season after earning first-team all-conference honors in each of the past two seasons. He teamed with Ndamukong Suh in 2009 to give Nebraska the nation's best defensive tackle tandem. He showed last season he could continue to produce even without Suh beside him. Crick seemingly didn't have much more to prove in college, yet he considered it "kind of a no-brainer" to come back for one more year.
"All the guys here, we've built such a relationship that it would be really hard to leave those guys and have them asking why I left," he says. "I didn't want them to ask why I left for other things. It would make me feel more selfish."
His decision could help Crick as much as it helps the Huskers.
Although he has recorded 9.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons, Crick would have struggled to separate himself in a 2011 draft class loaded with promising defensive linemen. A dozen defensive linemen were taken in the first round of the most recent draft, and Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com, said Crick likely would have been a second-round pick this year. He considers Crick a probable 2012 first-round selection who could fit in as an end in a 3-4 defense or as a tackle in a 4-3 scheme.
"I think it was a wise move for him to return and just hone his skills that much more and wait for a crop [of defensive linemen] that wasn't quite as unique as this past year's crop was," Rang says.
While Crick is the best pro prospect on this defense, David is its most surprising success story. David originally signed with Middle Tennessee out of powerhouse Miami Northwestern before ending up at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College instead. After injuries to Will Compton and Sean Fisher forced him into the starting lineup last season, David set a school record with 152 tackles. He also had 12.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and eight pass breakups.
"I didn't know I'd make that kind of impact right away," David says. "I knew I was going to play, but not as much as I did."
David (6 feet 1/220 pounds) isn't as highly touted a pro prospect as Crick because of his size, which could necessitate a move to strong safety in the NFL. Rang projects him as a mid-round pick whose stock could rise or fall dramatically based on his 40-yard dash time and his pass coverage skills.
But there's no questioning David's status as one of the nation's top college linebackers. In fact, you could make a case that Nebraska heads into its debut season in the Big Ten with the conference's best lineman (Crick), linebacker (David) and defensive back (Dennard).
"There's no doubt we have the talent, the depth, the leadership and the schemes," Crick says. "We're set to be as good as we want to be, but it's how we're going to go about that in summer conditioning. It's the work we put in day in and day out that will dictate how good we can be, if we can stay consistent and get better every day.
"So far, I really like what I see. I just have to keep seeing improvement and that 'want-to' to get better every single day."
After saying goodbye to the Big 12 with a late-season performance they would rather forget, Crick and Co. plan to make their inaugural season in the Big Ten one to remember.