Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker's bunch made gains in 2015, but big plays were costly. Where do the Blackshirts go from here? The World-Herald staff break down the Husker defense by position, pick an MVP and top 10 plays.
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MVP: Maliek Collins
The statistics don’t tell the full story. With defensive tackles, they rarely do. But this is particularly true in Collins’ case this year, as teams assigned extra linemen, tight ends and even running backs to ensure he wouldn’t be able to assert himself at the line of scrimmage. Had Nebraska’s defensive line been healthy all season, perhaps opponents would have paid more of a price for their commitment to limiting Collins’ production. He finished with 29 total tackles. Seven of those came behind the line of scrimmage. The league coaches still recognized Collins’ impact by naming him to the All-Big Ten second team. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound junior didn’t take plays off, held himself to a high standard and made an effort to lead those around him. His influence went beyond the numbers, and it was vital. — Jon Nyatawa
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Summary: Already harmed by some recent defections and recruiting misses, the ranks took more hits during the season with injuries denting the two-deep fairly regularly. The foursome of Greg McMullen, Jack Gangwish, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine started together just four times. The good news is that NU found out a little more about tackle Kevin Maurice and ends Freedom Akinmoladun and Ross Dzuris along the way.
Standout: The stats might not have showed it, but Collins created the kinds of problems for opponents that the Huskers had hoped. The junior was named second-team All-Big Ten (coaches) after finishing with seven of his 29 tackles for losses.
Question marks: Can NU keep Collins around for a fourth season? It’s likely that the 6-foot-2, 300-pounder will at least seek an NFL draft evaluation. It’s possible that he will be viewed as a second- or third-round talent. There also is some mild chatter about Valentine thinking about the NFL. The Huskers lost defensive end Randy Gregory to the NFL after his junior year in 2014.
Trending: A lot has to do with Collins, but it could be upward. McMullen might need to become more of a game-changer, but Akinmoladun flashed potential, Maurice played his best late and defensive tackle Kevin Williams was granted a sixth year. Mick Stoltenberg also is progressing at tackle. The ranks have started to get restocked, too, with defensive end Alex Davis catching eyes during his redshirt season and twins Carlos and Khalil Davis appearing to be as advertised at tackle.
— Rich Kaipust
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Summary: The year began with almost no depth and experience, and, by the end of the season, the Huskers had more of both. It was painful to watch at times, but position coach Trent Bray juggled juniors Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, sophomores Marcus Newby and Chris Weber and freshmen Dedrick Young and Luke Gifford. The unit got better and is poised for a big 2016.
Standouts: Banderas was Nebraska’s best linebacker in most of the eight games that injuries allowed him to play, but the emergence of Young and Newby was the season’s biggest development. It could be hard to get either off the field once they have a winter and spring to learn the defense. Young was especially impressive for a true freshman. Newby has a chance to be special.
Question Marks: Can the Huskers get healthy and stay there next season? Will Weber push Banderas for playing time, or will he settle into a backup role? How does Nebraska keep Tyrin Ferguson, an exciting athlete at middle linebacker, in the game plan?
Trending: Up. Way up. Under Bray’s leadership, the unit could be among the Big Ten’s best next season. It was much improved by the end of 2015 even after it was beaten up by injuries. Watch Newby, especially. If he puts it all together, he’s the best athlete and hardest hitter of the bunch.
— Sam McKewon
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Summary: It was definitely a rough start for the secondary under first-year defensive coordinator Mark Banker and another new position coach, with six of the Huskers’ first seven opponents hitting the 300-yard mark passing. To be fair, though, plenty had to do with NU preferring to make teams throw and then not generating any steady pass rush when they did. Even with some late improvement, Nebraska still allowed 288.2 yards per game and 22 TDs.
Standouts: The most steady performance might have come from senior Byerson Cockrell in his first season as a starting safety (65 tackles, six pass breakups). Junior safety Nate Gerry led the team with 75 tackles and four interceptions. Sophomore cornerback Josh Kalu also came along as a first-year starter.
Question marks: Can Nebraska start finding some stability and consistency under Brian Stewart, the Huskers’ fifth secondary coach since 2010? That and a high level of development need to come with so many important underclassmen in the system right now.
Trending: Level, for now. Gerry was third-team All-Big Ten (media) and joined Kalu as the Huskers’ best play-makers on the back end, but will need better week-to-week consistency as a senior. Kalu and Chris Jones emerged as the top corners as sophomores, and both should be better for battling through the hard times. Aaron Williams, Kieron Williams and Antonio Reed lead a youth movement at safety, and Eric Lee and Avery Anderson come off redshirts in 2016 looking for their shot.
— Rich Kaipust
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Top 10 defensive plays
10. Josh Kalu’s pick-six at Minnesota: The ball was thrown right to him, but the sophomore showed off his athleticism with a nifty runback. The interception sealed the win.
9. Maliek Collins’ rundown at Illinois: On the final play before halftime, the 300-pound captain pulled down Illinois halfback Ke’Shawn Vaughn 12 yards short of the end zone. An incredible individual effort.
8. Fourth-down stop at Illinois: Linebackers Chris Weber and Marcus Newby combined for the tackle on a fourth-and-1 run play in the first quarter. Collins’ post-snap surge helped create the havoc.
7. Jonathan Rose’s INT vs Michigan State: Spartan quarterback Connor Cook threw just four picks in 337 regular season pass attempts. Rose was responsible for one. It led to a field goal.
6. Chris Jones’ interception at Rutgers: How high can this dude jump? The sophomore cornerback went up over everyone and hauled in his first career pick in the first half of a 31-14 win.
5. Kalu’s pick at Miami: It looked like he knew what was coming all the way. Fade route. Kalu left his man, got there first and made the juggling interception in the end zone. NU’s rally began soon after that.
4. Ross Dzuris’ safety vs. Northwestern: The quarterback should have gotten rid of the ball. But he didn’t. NU’s junior defensive end, meanwhile, discarded a blocker and made the play.
3. Nate Gerry’s INT vs. BYU: The Cougars were threatening to run away with the game before Gerry made a leaping pick early in the third quarter and returned it to the BYU 35-yard line.
2. Freedom Akinmoladun’s sack vs. Southern Miss: Suddenly the Golden Eagles, trailing by eight, had the football at midfield with a few seconds left. But Akinmoladun’s quarterback takedown ended the game.
1. The third-down stop vs. Michigan State: Byerson Cockrell, not fooled by the tight end reverse, made the drive-ending tackle. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey disrupted the play’s timing and drew a holding flag.
— Jon Nyatawa