The offense is mostly settled. The defense mostly isn’t. And on special teams, Nebraska’s trying to continue its legacy of top field-goal kickers. As preseason practice opens, Husker fans can zero in on these positions to watch in the next month. The progress NU makes at these spots could determine if it rattles off seven straight wins before November.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini probably wishes he could narrow it down to one specific position in the trenches. But aside from senior defensive end Jason Ankrah (6-foot-4, 265 pounds), there is no proven player on NU’s front four. Not fifth-year senior Thad Randle (6-1, 290) or sophomore Kevin Williams (6-2, 275), whose careers have been hampered by injuries. Not four fourth-year juniors — Walker Ashburn (6-2, 260), Jay Guy (6-1, 290), Tobi Okuyemi (6-2, 280) and Donovan Vestal (6-5, 275) — who haven’t made a dent in the depth chart. Not fifth-year senior walk-on Brodrick Nickens (6-5, 310), who hadn’t played defense before this spring. And certainly not a group of untested freshmen who have yet to see much game time.
So who emerges? Look to Randle and Nickens as part of the solution; they’re more mature and plenty strong in the upper body. Coaches have long been confident in Williams, who has quickness and decent pursuit skills. Among the redshirt freshmen, Aaron Curry (6-1, 280), Greg McMullen (6-3, 285) and Avery Moss (6-2, 270) all seem to have the coaches’ confidence. Another redshirt freshman, Vincent Valentine (6-3, 325) may have the most potential, but Pelini admitted he wants Valentine to work harder and fight through mistakes. True freshman Maliek Collins (6-2, 285) from Kansas City, Mo., was one of the most dominant tackles in high school football, period, last year.
The biggest name on paper, though, is sophomore junior college signee Randy Gregory (6-6, 230), who has the length and speed to change the way NU rushes the passer. He’s quick enough to get around an offensive tackle and tall enough to knock down passes. Coaches think Gregory can be a special all-around player, but he’s a pass-rushing specialist now, and Pelini has to find a way for him to play on third down, at the very least.
Senior Elkhorn walk-on Jake Long (6-4, 240) appears likely to earn a scholarship and hold down the starting job in the wake of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed’s departures. Since NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck often likes multi-tight end formations, several candidates will compete to join Long in the lineup. Redshirt freshmen Sam Cotton (6-4, 235) and Trey Foster (6-0, 240), sophomore David Sutton (6-3, 240) and true freshmen Greg Hart (6-5, 225) and Cethan Carter (6-4, 230) are top contenders. Sam Cotton possesses a similar skill set to older brother Ben — and perhaps a little more speed. Hart also played receiver in high school, while Carter is a converted fullback and one of the best pure athletes in the 2013 recruiting class. Don’t sleep on Foster, a strong-blocking walk-on who flashed on scout team last year.
No. 1 linebacker
Though it’s fair to assume that junior Zaire Anderson (5-11, 220), sophomore David Santos (6-0, 225) and redshirt freshman Jared Afalava (6-3, 230) will play some role in the Huskers’ defense, which of those three is the rock, the guy who stays in the game every down regardless of situation? In 2009, that guy was eventually Phillip Dillard. In 2010 and 2011, it was Lavonte David. In 2012, Will Compton. When NU goes small and fast with a dime defense — especially early, when spread teams dot Nebraska’s nonconference schedule — who’s that one guy? And could redshirt Michael Rose (5-11, 230) make a push into that group?
The Huskers got inconsistent play last year from starting seniors P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford at one of their most important positions on defense. Big interceptions and hits were offset by perplexing tackle angles and confusion in the secondary. Nebraska wants to improve from last year with players who don’t know the defense as well as Smith and Stafford did. Tall order. But with a strong spring practice, junior Corey Cooper (6-1, 210) has an inside track to playing time after spending two years at corner and dime spots closer to the line of scrimmage. Senior Andrew Green (6-0, 195) and junior Harvey Jackson (6-2, 210) will get a crack at a starting job, too. But don’t count out sophomore Charles Jackson (5-11, 175), who packs a punch and impressive length for his frame, or freshmen D.J. Singleton (6-1, 200), Nate Gerry (6-2, 210) and Drake Martinez (6-2, 200). If any of them progress quickly, the Huskers can always move Green back to corner, where he’s started 22 career games.
Nebraska’s been spoiled for five years. Alex Henery handled both jobs from 2008 to 2010. Brett Maher handled both in 2011 and ’12. The Huskers now appear ready to have a separate punter and a field goal-kickoff specialist. The front-runner at punter is Grand Island walk-on Sam Foltz (6-1, 200). At placekicker, sophomore Mauro Bondi (6-0, 205) will battle Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith (5-11, 185). Bondi’s made one PAT in college. Smith made all 10 of his field goals last year at WIU. The competition between them may last through the preseason and into the season.