World-Herald staff writer Rich Kaipust takes a position-by-position look at the Nebraska defense.
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Standout player: Randy Gregory. The best part about the junior college transfer is that he appears to be improving each week. Gregory also seems to be unaffected by missing all of last season at Arizona Western CC because of a broken leg. He leads the team in tackles for losses (eight) and quarterback hurries (seven), and also has returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble. He is showing All-Big Ten ability as a sophomore.
Highlight: Sophomore defensive tackle Aaron Curry got to Purdue quarterback Danny Etling on the first play last Saturday, and it was a sign of things to come as the NU defensive line recorded four of the Huskers' five sacks.
Lowlight: The Nebraska defensive front got into the backfield against Wyoming, but failed to ever get quarterback Brett Smith down. NU subsequently got burned several times after Smith eluded pressure and Smith passed for 383 yards and four TDs.
Best game: Nebraska took a shutout into the final minute at Purdue and had allowed just 161 total yards before a Boilermakers' late touchdown pass. That started with Nebraska winning up front for most of the game.
Key question: With Nebraska playing only two seniors along the defensive line, how much growth and maturity does it see from the seven freshmen and sophomores, especially when it gets to the five-game grind in November?
Quote: “I hope in four years, when they're seniors, I'm still the one up here talking to you guys, because I think it's going to be a pretty special group to watch.” — NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis talking about the freshman defensive ends and tackles at the Big Red Breakfast on Aug. 30
Biggest second-half test: Michigan. The Wolverines' offensive line has fought through its own problems, but it has an All-America candidate with left tackle Taylor Lewan and this will be the first major road game for the Husker underclassmen.
Standout player: David Santos. We'll base this pick on potential for the second half of the season rather than performance over the first half. NU needs someone to take over at middle linebacker and run its defense, and the sophomore is the most experienced option right now. Despite his highs and lows so far, Santos is second on the team with 36 tackles.
Highlight: Score one for Santos, who lost his No. 1 job after the season-opening game but fought to get it back. He returned to the starting lineup for Big Ten play and has been improved.
Lowlight: Nebraska struggled with run fits so badly against South Dakota State that it allowed tailback Zach Zenner to run for 202 yards (and 9.6 per carry) — in the first three quarters!
Best game: Nebraska started Santos (middle), Michael Rose (weakside) and Jared Afalava (strongside) together for the first time against Illinois and played its three-linebacker base defense more than it had all season. The trio combined for 28 total tackles, with Rose the most efficient of the bunch.
Key question: Really, who are the Huskers' three best linebackers? Santos and Josh Banderas have played in the middle, Rose and Zaire Anderson at weakside and Afalava and Nathan Gerry at strongside. Figuring that out might help with communication and continuity going forward.
Quote: “If you have youth at that position, you're going to go through some growing pains. But I like the future at that position. I think they're growing. I think they're learning every day. Their attitude's been great.” — NU head coach Bo Pelini
Biggest second-half test: Northwestern. The Wildcats will mix the run with the pass, switch quarterbacks, trot out an assortment of talented skill-position players and generally do a lot of things that will test an inexperienced linebacking crew.
Standout player: Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The senior cornerback has been making plays since the start of the season, building confidence and letting his instincts take over. That mental part goes well with his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame and physical style. If the four interceptions haven't been enough, Jean-Baptiste has supplemented them with 134 return yards, including one touchdown, and he also has a team-high six pass breakups.
Highlight: South Dakota State quarterback Austin Sumner was 7 for 8 and the Jackrabbits were giving NU just enough trouble when Jean-Baptiste stepped in front of a pass with 4:51 left in the first half. The interception led to a Husker touchdown that opened a 35-17 lead that was much-appreciated by an antsy home crowd.
Lowlight: NU's nonconference opponents completed 63 percent of their passes in four games, and at no point was it more clinical than when UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley went 8 for 8 for 129 yards and three touchdowns in the Bruins' 28-point third quarter.
Best game: Nebraska held Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to 13 completions and just 135 yards passing after the senior came into the Oct. 5 game ranking No. 10 nationally in passer efficiency.
Key question: It isn't for a lack of looking, but can Nebraska find the right safety to play next to Corey Cooper? Andrew Green has stayed in the lineup the past two weeks, but NU also has tried redshirt freshman LeRoy Alexander. Harvey Jackson got the first shot, starting three games.
Quote: “We have to get better at the other safety position. They're playing too tentative. To play that position, you have to be aggressive. We weren't aggressive. We played passive in that position at times. That hurt us.” — Pelini after the South Dakota State game on Sept. 21.
Biggest second-half test: Penn State. The Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten with 283.7 passing yards per game, and freshman Christian Hackenberg should only get better before NU visits State College on Nov. 23. PSU receiver Allen Robinson also leads the Big Ten in receptions (43) and yards (705).
Standout player: Sam Foltz. Nebraska had a big hole to fill at punter and the redshirt freshman so far has come through. The walk-on is averaging 42.6 yards per punt, and his net average of 39.9 ranks third in the Big Ten. For comparison, Brett Maher averaged 41.8 yards last season and NU's net was 35.4.
Highlight: Kenny Bell had kickoff returns of 37 and 35 yards in the season-opening game against Wyoming, at least teasing Nebraska fans that they might see explosive things happen there in coming weeks.
Lowlight: Pat Smith and Mauro Bondi missed extra points against Illinois. It didn't turn out to hurt the Huskers in a 39-19 win, but that didn't make NU's second and third misses of the season any easier to swallow.
Best game: Nebraska was near-perfect against Southern Miss. Bondi had touchbacks on six of nine kickoffs, Foltz averaged 46.0 yards per punt, Bell had a 63-yard kickoff return and the Huskers allowed just a total of 27 return yards on punts and kickoffs.
Key question: At what point does Nebraska decide on either Smith or Bondi as its No. 1 option at place-kicker?
Quote: “That's a big level of concern. It's inexcusable. It's not acceptable.” — Pelini after the missed PATs against Illinois.
Biggest second-half test: Michigan. It doesn't necessarily have to do with stats or rankings, but just flash back to the implosion on special teams that cost the Huskers the last time they visited Ann Arbor in 2011.