McKewon: Eager, young Husker defense is worth watching — growing pains aside

Junior-college transfer Randy Gregory could help Nebraska's defense get off to a good start in 2013.

LINCOLN — When a 4-month-old lab pup bolts from the back seat of a pickup, he wants to explore everything with abandon. He's eager to please — once you get his attention. And, boy, can he run. He may not be ready for a pheasant hunt — and he may tromp on the tomato plants — but he'll swipe a few bluejays out of the sky, too.

When Nebraska's young defense emerges from its 30-day “zero-distraction” chamber into a Memorial Stadium louder, bigger and more magnificent than it's ever been, expect wide-eyed grins, flashy plays and blunders. And if there aren't many of the latter, the Huskers are headed for my Associated Press top 10 soon, for they'd be way ahead of where logic tells you they should be.

So whether you pack into the newer, taller digs Saturday night or have the Huskers on the biggest of three TVs in your basement, keep the expectations in check. Knowing fretsome NU fans, they'll regard coordinator Tim Beck's explosive offense with a jeweler's eye — he has formations that resemble diamonds and rubies, after all — and pucker when Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith hits a 25-yard drag route in the first quarter. Air leaves the house of five national titles faster than that of a popped balloon.

NU coach Bo Pelini need only stick to the plan he and his assistants have consistently touted throughout training camp. Play a lot of guys, play them often, play them in different combinations. The chemistry experiments might produce a few smoking beakers, but this collection of athletes might make a few plays last year's defense didn't. Or couldn't.

“I like 'em — I like these kids,” linebacker coach Ross Els said. “They're tough. They run. If we get them going in the right direction — and that's my job — you're going to like what you see.”

That affinity is uniform among defensive assistants. Rick Kaczenski and Terry Joseph are building on a year of their teaching instead of introducing it. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis appears more comfortable with his role as Pelini's right-hand man. Pelini remains the architect of Nebraska's defense — he told Tom Shatel in Sunday's column he's paying more attention to the defense this year — but Papuchis shopped for more of these groceries.

Unlike the 2012 bunch — seasoned, a little starchy — this is a downhill, go-get-it front seven, no matter who's in the rotation.

Nebraska wants to play more on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The Huskers have two interior guys north of 300 pounds — Brodrick Nickens and Vincent Valentine — if they want to go especially big. They have long, lean, pass-rushing hybrids if they choose that route. NU's front four may at times be out of position — a danger in itself — but it shouldn't be static, four guys dancing with Cowboys.

Pelini publicly insists on projecting certitude about his players' ability to start this season fast — loyalty's not a fad with him — but he seems willing to explore the ceiling of his players, which takes some risk. The more acceptable, survivable risks Pelini and Papuchis take on the front end, the better Nebraska will be prepared for a November slate that's tough — not impossible — to navigate.

How they coach and develop this unit is the story of whether NU reaches the Big Ten title game, and whether it wins it. Because the NU offense will deliver the lion's share of victories needed to reach the threshold.

NU has a 40-point, 500-yards-per-game kind of crew. Beck is in his third year. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is in his fourth. The skill players, collectively, are the Big Ten's best. The offensive line is experienced and healthy. This is the attack Pelini, Beck and an oft-questioned offensive staff spent three years building in the rubble of Shawn Watson's tenure.

Has a split ever been better for both parties? Watson's landed in Louisville with the best quarterback of his career (Teddy Bridgewater) and a tofu-soft league. Nebraska got Beck — less prone to Watson's exclamatory spasms of praise, which led to Watson's scoldings of anyone who held him to his words — and an offense that's like a great cut of beef, grilled to pink. It looks good just trotting onto the field.

The one concern — tight end — can be masked with more spread sets and more passing. If Martinez stays upright — he's taken every hit imaginable and started the last 29 games — few teams on Nebraska's favorable schedule should be able to keep pace.

If — if — the defensive pups play well in those few swing games, the Huskers could be in for the season few outside the state expect. As for the 90,000 packed into that walled city Saturday night, you know their standard. It's the same one that built that walled city.

On with the Rewind:

I See You

» Martinez: He'll throw more — passing for 3,000 yards — and run less. He averaged 14 carries last year. He cuts that to 10.

» Defensive tackle Thad Randle: Whether he ends up the best defensive tackle this year is immaterial to whether he leads the unit through good games and bad.

» Running back Ameer Abdullah: One of the Huskers' toughest competitors will be an asset as a receiver this season. His ball security will improve, in part because it's been poor.

» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: The media hopes to hear from the junior this week after he declined interview requests all camp. You see natural, vocal leaders sometimes go through this transition, of figuring out when and how to mete their words.

» Safety Corey Cooper: The defense's most important single player. Read that again. The line is more essential, but Cooper and whoever starts next to him are going to have to save some running plays that bust through the front seven from being long, debilitating touchdowns.

» Offensive tackle Andrew Rodriguez: If he's evolved into a complete lineman as a senior, big kudos will go out to John Garrison, who upon becoming the main line coach made it a point to get Rodriguez in position to start. Pundits have written off Rodriguez more than once. They've written of his resurrection more than once, too. That's what the media does. We're holding off to see how he plays.

Three Concerns

» Jake Long's health: It's rare that a guy misses an entire training camp but still starts. Rarer still that it'd be his first start as the No. 1 guy. But Long's smart, and Pelini said the tight end will be ready for game one.

» Zack Darlington's health: In Apopka's (Fla.) 51-36 loss to Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes, the Nebraska 2014 quarterback commit suffered a nasty concussion that many Husker fans watched on ESPN. Numerous reports out of Florida suggest Darlington is fine, but the Orlando Sentinel's report that Darlington suffered a concussion earlier this summer may slow the kid's return. Which is perfectly OK news for NU. Before the injury, Darlington had shown he was plenty tough as a runner. He's a resourceful enough passer, though Byrnes never allowed him to get in a rhythm.

» September recruiting: Though I expect Hiawatha (Kan.) defensive tackle Peyton Newell to commit to Nebraska on Friday, the Huskers are still piecing together their official visit list for the first four home games. Though NU believes in evaluating senior film and offering new players after the regular season — a policy I like a lot more than panting over 15-year-olds who aren't even juniors — it's hard to think lightning strikes like it did last year, when the Huskers plucked so many good recruits late in the process. So official visit season — that is, before it gets cold — is important.

Three Questions

» What's a reasonable goal for the Husker defense? The same output as 2011: 23.4 points and 350 yards. That's slightly better than the numbers (360 and 27.6) for last year's defense against a group of relatively poorer offenses than NU faced in 2011. Because the Huskers' offense is better in 2013, Nebraska's defense will face a few more possessions.

» Who's the backup quarterback? Because minor knee surgery set back redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong's progress in the offense, it would appear that senior Ron Kellogg is currently the guy in a pinch until Armstrong's back up to speed. Kellogg didn't look sharp in spot performances last year — the fourth quarter against Minnesota isn't one to remember — but he wasn't working with the top unit, either.

Johnny Stanton seems headed for a redshirt. He's recovering from a torn ACL last fall, but he's also coming from a high school offense that operated out of one formation — Stanton under center, flanked by four wide receivers — most of the time. Beck's offense may be “user-friendly” but it's far more diverse than what Stanton experienced in high school.

» Who's your Heisman pick? Like The World-Herald's overall selection, I picked Jadeveon Clowney, the guy who tickles the fancy of SEC lovers and NFL draft wonks alike. Look for the narrative to be spun like so: In a year when the SEC had more top quarterbacks than ever before, only one guy — Clowney — could slow them down with his size and moves.

Two Stats

» Two: Number of Big Ten-area offensive line commits Alabama has for its 2014 class. When the Tide are willing to search Minnesota and Iowa for linemen, it should clue you into how good linemen are in this region, and how tireless Bama's recruiting efforts are to identify the best players.

» Seven: Walk-ons who got scholarships Saturday. A terrific day for those kids, but also a reminder that NU had a lot of open scholarships headed into the season — which means the Huskers can afford to be more aggressive on the recruiting trail for the 2014 class.

NU's committed to keeping a few scholarships open each year for walk-on upgrades. It's ingrained in Husker tradition, and it's proven to work. But seven — which doesn't count the two automatically set aside for Walker Ashburn (who retired) and Ernest Suttles (who was kicked off) — is one-third of a recruiting class.

Opponent Watch

» Iowa named its starting quarterback, sophomore Jake Rudock, by press release.

» The Los Angeles Daily News reported top UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr left the field vomiting last week after a big hit — a sure sign of a concussion. In the days after the injury, Bruins coach Jim Mora took to answering every question about Barr's injury with “he's fine.”

“That's my standard answer,” Mora said to reporters. “You can just keep asking, and I'll just keep saying 'He's fine.' … My job is to try and protect against our opponents getting information that can help them win.”

So long as coaches can get away with these kinds of answers in regard to concussions, how much progress, really, is the sport of football going to make toward better player safety?

» According to the West Lafayette Journal-Courier, Purdue coach Darrell Hazell gave his new team a 533-page players manual — it's called “A Player's Manual” — that covers a range of life topics. Hazell got the idea from Jim Tressel, who at Youngstown State started with an 86-page book.


The folks at the very top of East Stadium keep wondering “when is the sun going to set behind the press box?”

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