With over two weeks of training camp in the books, head coach Bo Pelini still has several big decisions and personnel evaluations he needs to make as the Huskers prepare for their season opener against Western Kentucky.
Today we take a look at the entire defense and special teams, position-by-position, with less than two weeks before WKU comes into Lincoln.
The starting spots are set with senior Pierre Allen
and sophomore Cameron Meredith
, and there looks to be plenty of young depth behind them. Allen has guaranteed more production on his part this season, and with the way Meredith has blossomed over the course of the offseason, he should pick up where the departed Barry Turner left off without missing a beat.
Sophomore Josh Williams has reportedly had a great summer and fall camp, as has redshirt freshman Jason Ankrah, so the depth looks to be pretty good behind the starters. The key of the unit is undoubtedly Allen, though, as his play and leadership on the defense will be crucial this season.
CONCERN: The main concern has to be whether the rest of the unit can translate its offseason progress into production on the field. As much potential as the likes of Meredith, Williams, Ankrah and company have, only Allen has proven himself consistently on game day. The Huskers are extremely young at the position, and there's a chance there could be some growing pains for the position early on.
This position has been one of the biggest storylines of the offseason, and right now, no one has been officially named the successor to Ndamukong Suh. Sophomore Baker Steinkuhler
and junior Terrence Moore
have been neck and neck since the start of spring practice, and the starting job next to junior Jared Crick
is still completely up for grabs.
Word is that Moore has really turned it on the past few practices and has seen the majority of the reps with the top defense, but that could all change over the course of one practice. True freshman Chase Rome has also jumped into the mix, as he's seen some reps with the No. 1 and 2 units this fall.
CONCERN: The major concern at defensive tackle, and for the entire defense for that matter, is whether the unit can find a way to limit the impact the loss of Suh will have this season. Crick is a proven force, but for him to continue to produce like he did last year he's going to need someone to emerge and draw away some of the double and triple teams he'll face this season.
Either Moore or Steinkuhler should be more than capable, but no one will truly know until one of them establishes himself as the clear No. 1 and proves it on the field.
We know that whomever emerges as the two starters from a highly competitive pack will certainly have earned the honor. While sophomore Will Compton
is pretty much a lock as the starting Mike linebacker, sophomore Eric Martin
and junior college transfer Lavonte David
are both making serious pushes for playing time at the Will spot.
The good news is that Martin and David both bring different talents to the table, so there's a very good chance that they will end up rotating throughout the game depending on the situation. In fact, don't be surprised if all three see plenty of playing time all season.
CONCERN: Losing sophomore Sean Fisher for the season to a broken leg last week was a pretty big blow, as he brought some good experience and ability to the position. With him out of the picture, Martin and David are going to get thrown into the fire right away without having much of any experience as Big 12 linebackers.
We know that between senior Prince Amukamara
and junior Alfonzo Dennard
, Nebraska boasts one of the best cornerback tandems in the country. It's been a long time since NU has boasted two shutdown corners, and their ability to play man-to-man coverage should open up a ton of blitz schemes for head coach Bo Pelini
to finally get to use.
Senior Eric Hagg will become a full-time starter as the peso, and he could be one of the most overall athletically gifted players on the team. Behind him, junior Austin Cassidy has also been working at the peso.
CONCERN: As good as Amukamara and Dennard are at the top of the depth chart, the rest of the position is filled with question marks. After losing junior Anthony Blue for the season after suffering his second ACL injury, the Huskers are left with only junior Lance Thorell having ever played a meaningful snap at cornerback.
After losing two starters from last season in Matt O'Hanlon and Larry Ansante, any of the depth concerns surrounding the safety position this offseason have been all but erased following the success two former cornerbacks have had at the position. Seniors DeJon Gomes
and Anthony West
have thrived since moving to safety in the spring, and both could very well be starters come the season opener on Sept. 4.
Promising sophomore P.J. Smith is definitely still in the mix, though, and word is he won his starting spot back along side Gomes last week after West had supplanted him on the No. 1 defense. That competition will likely continue throughout the season, which is definitely a good thing for the Huskers.
CONCERN: While Gomes, West and Smith have all had great offseasons, none have had the chance to prove what they can do in an actual game situation at the position. As talented as they are, there's still the worry that there will be some mental slipups down the road that could result in some big plays for opposing offenses.
With arguably the best double duty kicker/punter in college football in senior Alex Henery
, Nebraska's kicking game is the least of its concerns. Add in the fact that senior Adi Kunalic
opted not to redshirt this season and will again handle the kickoff duties, and the Huskers just might boast the best and deepest kicking units around.
Kunalic will obviously take over at kicker should Henery miss any time, but sophomore Brett Maher is the only other kicker on the 105-man roster. That's why Maher, like Henery, has been taking reps at both punter and kicker during fall camp.
In the return game, NU also has one of the Big 12's best kick/punt returners in senior Niles Paul. As far as kickoff returns go, sophomore receiver Tim Marlowe, sophomore running back Rex Burkhead and junior receiver Brandon Kinnie have all worked in along with Paul. It's still unclear who will back Paul up on punt returns, though.
CONCERN: There's not much to be concerned about at any of the kicking or return aspects aside from the chance of Henery or Paul getting injured. The Huskers do have to replace their long snapper, and Sam Meginnis and P.J. Mangieri are still competing for the job.
Another overlooked void to fill is the impact Suh had on the field goal block unit. Suh blocked six kicks over the past three seasons, including three last season.
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