Published Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 10:08 pm / Updated at 1:25 am
Shatel: Pelini needs to put his mark on defense again

Nebraska spring football starts Saturday, and it’s never too early to come up with a theme for the 2013 season.

How about, “The Bo Pelini Comeback Tour?”

This is Pelini’s sixth spring at NU, and you hear that it’s his most important. I won’t argue that. But the reason why has less to do with the new faces who have to be sorted out in 15 spring practices.

It has more to do with rediscovering an old face.

Bo Pelini, defensive guru. Remember him?

He may not have forgotten how to coach defense, as Bo reminds us. But the fiery swashbuckler who showed up here in 2008 (not to mention 2003), and his hair-on-fire, playmaking defenses, haven’t been seen in a few years.

Pelini has been embracing his role as CEO of Nebraska football, as many in Husker Land have begged him to do. Tending to the offense. Rearranging his coaching staff. Upping the ante and game plan for recruiting. And, certainly, leading the transition into the great frontier known as the Big Ten Conference.

Along the way, an interesting thing happened. Pelini has built a football program top-heavy on offense, fast-break offense, the kind of machine that tortures guys like Pelini.

But in the process, Pelini’s rep as a defensive master has taken some big hits.

In the past two seasons, NU gave up more than 40 points in five games, including 70 to Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten championship game.

The ease with which the Badgers scored — and scored — in that one was unfathomable for anyone who remembers why the man was hired back in 2008.

Last season, Nebraska finished seventh in the Big Ten in defense, allowing 360.6 yards per game and 44 touchdowns.

Two years ago, NU’s first in Big Ten, the Huskers also finished seventh in total defense, allowing 350.7 yards and 39 touchdowns.

This, in a league where offenses looked like they were going in slow motion compared to the Big 12 track meets.

On those Big 12 fast tracks, Pelini’s defenses finished second (behind Texas each year) in the league. In 2008, the Huskers allowed 349.8 yards and 43 touchdowns, then 272 and 14 in 2009 and 306.8 and 26 in 2010.

True, the 2008 numbers are similar to those in the Big Ten. But consider the quarterbacks NU played in Pelini’s first season: Tyrod Taylor, Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford, Graham Harrell, Todd Reesing and Josh Freeman. That bunch is a little saltier than Kirk Cousins and Co.

Meanwhile, Shawn Watson’s offenses were considered road blocks, the weight holding NU down from winning a league title in 2009 or 2010.

Now, the culture has flipped back.

In fact, it’s 2008 all over again.

Pelini inherited a team with a veteran quarterback and a strong backfield and receiving corps. NU averaged 35 points a game (which still ranked sixth in the Big 12) and carried a youthful defense (with unknowns Ndamukong Suh, Prince Amukamara and Eric Hagg) that took its lumps learning the new guy’s scheme and standard.

Of course, the record that season was 9-4. That won’t fly in 2013.

But the lifting won’t be as strenuous. The Big Red won’t face that 2008 schedule, or those quarterbacks, next season. Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell should light up the scoreboard each week.

What can the defense contribute? Good question.

It doesn’t appear it will be cut any slack. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says he wants to play at a faster pace, which would be warp speed. Score fast? Sure. But a string of three-and-outs that don’t eat clock will put serious stress on a defense learning where to go.

Perhaps the old master can make it easier on the defense. On his statewide radio show the other night, Pelini intimated that while he wasn’t going to cut back on the defensive playbook this spring, he might be flexible. He wants the players reacting more and thinking less. You know, just like old times.

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis has promised spring ball will be daily brawls. Perfect. Less thinking. More hair on fire.

This will be the spring of introductions, from Vincent Valentine to Greg McMullen to Alonzo Moore to Michael Rose and many others. There’s depth and energy now, raw energy, and lots of bodies looking to make impressions and get on the field. That can only help.

What will it mean? Hard to say. Pelini inherited the nucleus that carried 2008-10. We’ll see how he can recruit to his favorite side of the ball. But we’ll see a truer identity take shape, too. Back in the wild, wild Big 12, linebackers were on the endangered species list. NU has had to spend the past couple of years building that position back up to meet Big Ten standards.

The issue of Pelini spending more time as head coach is a real thing, too. Recruiting, too. How many Blackshirts were invited to the recent NFL Combine? One (Daimion Stafford).

That doesn’t explain the lack of fundamentals, of tackling, in big games. Or the alarming lack of forced turnovers. That used to be Pelini’s calling card, the swarm of energy that chased down the ballcarrier and then the ball. Remember 2003? Remember that Pelini?

He’s still here. And now the offense is fixed. The program is up and running, jetting into year six and expectations are higher than ever. Now the defensive master is back where he started, retooling the thing he came here to fix in the first place.

Imagine if Pelini could put together a defense to go with that offense. Now that would be something to write home about. From Pasadena.

Contact the writer:


Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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