LINCOLN — Out of the 100 storylines we peddle each signing day, I advise you to lock in a statistical weakness from the previous season and see how your team addressed it in its recruiting class.
NU’s big disaster for much of 2015 — a 6-7 season — was pass defense. Perhaps you recall how Wisconsin and Illinois breezily won games in the final minutes against NU’s secondary, or how Purdue riddled Nebraska’s back end with the same handful of rollout pass plays. Or how Miami’s Brad Kaaya had a field day.
“We did not play good pass defense,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said.
There are at least three components to excellent pass defense: scheme, coverage and pass rush.
At the very minimum Wednesday, Nebraska seriously upgraded its potential in coverage. For a team that schemes to stop the run — and generally did stop the run in 2015 — this pass defense boost was a must. The boost actually started with the 2015 class, but it reached another level with the 2016 class.
Lamar Jackson, Marquel Dismuke, Tony Butler, JoJo Domann and DiCaprio Bootle. You can cover some receivers — especially Big Ten West receivers — with that quintet. Then you add the four signees from 2015 — Avery Anderson, Eric Lee, Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams. Nebraska has four four-star recruits among those nine players.
To be so stingy against the run, Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defense is necessarily tough on defensive backs.
But this bunch just might be able to handle it.
“Obviously, with these last two groups, we’re expecting — talent-wise — to pick up the competition,” said Riley, who has often referred to good cornerbacks as gold. “...We’ll see what we get out of this group. I think there’s a great combination of speed, playmaking, physical football players in this group that somebody may surface right away. I hesitate to say who that might be.”
Jackson, a top-100 prospect from Elk Grove, California, is the most likely candidate. He has the size — 6-foot-3, 195 pounds — and sheer athleticism to help all over the field. Riley said Jackson would have a shot of playing immediately.
But don’t sleep on the rest of that crew. Go watch the tape of Dismuke — the first of what could be many Huskers to come out of Calabasas (California) High School. His senior season footage is terrific. Bootle has speed to burn. Butler is long and athletic enough to play cornerback. And Domann?
“This JoJo Domann is a bullet,” Riley said. “Interesting guy. I would imagine when he steps in, he’s a playmaker. He’s all over the field making plays.”
Domann did everything in high school — defending, running the ball, catching it, punting, kicking. He’s wise to the game — his dad is an NFL agent — and built to be an Eric Hagg-style hybrid, if Nebraska wants to use him that way.
Bottom line: Riley’s crew has answered this need. Beyond the recruiting class rankings — NU was top 25 according to Rivals and 247 Sports, and roughly top 30 according to ESPN and Scout — you have to address needs. Talented, versatile defenders who can play ball against Oregon and Ohio State for the next several years do just that.
Are there elite pass-rushing defensive ends? Aside from 2016 signee Collin Miller — who wanted to go to Nebraska for some time and landed right in the Huskers’ lap late in the process — NU kind of struck out on the defensive line. When asked, near the end of his press conference whether he’d landed top pass rushers, Riley mentioned linebacker Quayshon Alexander.
Whoever was on top of NU’s board for the defensive line, those guys aren’t in this class. Ben Stille is a grinder who will play base end and committed over the summer. Miller was a late offer. In between them, Nebraska had some whiffs.
I get that. It’s hard to recruit defensive linemen to Nebraska — or at least it is now. There are too many flameouts and never-weres to count.
As for the offensive recruits? Nebraska did well there. Very well. A lot of teams do, though, and Riley and Co. did well at Oregon State. Riley’s program has never really lacked for passers, runners and receivers, and it won’t at Nebraska. His offense moves the ball and scores points. It attracts kids.
Defense is trickier. Defense still wins championships. Defense is what Bill Callahan couldn’t figure out, and Bo Pelini had mastered until it eroded when Nebraska moved to the Big Ten.
Defense is where Nebraska needs to get better.
The secondary looks stocked. The line needs some more love.
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