McKewon: If guts hold up, Bo Pelini has pieces for Husker 'D' to shine

Job No. 1 for coach Bo Pelini should be to find the two defensive lineman to man the middle.


LINCOLN — As Nebraska's question-filled defense departs for its mission to the planet Multiplicity this training camp, let's set aside the usual 4-3 vs. 3-4 alignment discussions for a second.

Look at the two defensive line spots right in the guts of this thing. Call them the “guts two.” One guy lined up on the inside half of the one offensive guards. One guy on the outside half of the opposite guard. Bo Pelini and his position coach, Rick Kaczenski, have to find some combination-rotation of players who can, when Nebraska wants to run some semblance of its base defense, resist the meat grinder on run plays and push the blockers back into the face of the quarterback on pass plays. Whatever it takes, there's Job No. 1, finding these guys. Wisconsin used double teams to blast Cameron Meredith into his own teammates in last year's Big Ten title game. That can't happen this November.

Now, walk 12 to 15 yards to the safeties. Here's Job No. 2. Not only does Pelini — a former college safety — have to replace both starters from last year, those starters, despite considerable experience, were wildly inconsistent. If the new starters — whoever they are — can't support the run better than the safeties in Nebraska's four losses, they'll negate whatever progress the guts two makes.

Scan to the edges of the field and find the corners. Aside from a few busts against Georgia — where they got no help from the pass rush — these corners held their chins up last year. Let the best men win starting jobs and keep it up.

Next, look at the five spots assembled around the guts two. Yes, five. It's here where Pelini can have freedom, be creative. Through recruiting better than his critics prefer to admit, he's assembled a variety of types. He has big, stout ends like Greg McMullen and Avery Moss. Standard ends like Jason Ankrah. Hybrids like Randy Gregory, Jared Afalava and A.J. Natter. Quick, downhill guys like David Santos and Michael Rose. And jacks of several trades like Zaire Anderson, Ciante Evans and Charles Jackson.

If the guts two holds up, and the back two aren't guessing on skates, this group of five — in whatever combination Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis prefer — can be a pain for opponents. Nebraska can actually win games with this five.

Most defenses go by the “strong up the middle” axiom. No surprise there. Where NU can alter itself — if Pelini chooses — is in giving front-seven playmakers more freedom and less intricate, precise responsibility. This summer, I rewatched NU's four losses and, too often, Husker defenders resembled tin men in need of oil. They were slow to pursue or even counterintuitive at times, frozen between assignment and instinct.

“Some of those were technique and some of those we got out-athleted, at times,” Pelini said at Big Ten media days regarding his defense giving up big plays. “You've got to tweak some things. We've done that. We're looking at a couple different ways of being a little bit more multiple. That may help us. I think we're going to be more athletic on that side of the ball, which is going to help us.”

Pelini continued a few minutes later: “When I say 'out-athleted,' we had guys who could physically hold up, but we struggled in a couple instances in space with the same guys who had played maybe for a year or two. We just got exposed in a couple areas where we didn't make plays. That's my fault. I need to find a way.”

You can't have a defense of 11 freelancers. But if the middle can be dependable — not All-American, just reliable — Pelini has the schedule — six soft games and two byes in the first nine weeks — and the willing athletes to have some fun.

That doesn't mean it'll happen. Finding that guts two is a believe-it-when-you-see-it deal. The corners may regress. The safeties may never gel. But there is a way for the Husker defense to avoid the busts from 2012. It'll take a defensive coaching staff working with the same chemistry they ask of their players. They're paid handsomely to have it.

On with a modified Rewind, which is really more of a Prewind.

Five 'Time to Shine' Players

>> Linebacker Zaire Anderson: This pick is based off of coaches' projections and a handful of plays in the spring. Anderson appears to have recovered from a knee injury he sustained last season. Compact and fast, he doesn't necessarily look like some of the longer, leaner linebackers, but he's made an impression on teammates.

>> Defensive tackle Kevin Williams: When the redshirt sophomore arrived early for school in 2011, coaches raved about his potential. A knee injury and concussion later, Williams still hasn't made much of an impact. If he's back to full strength, he will. Williams is a smart, instinctive guy.

>> Guard Jake Cotton: That the middle son of coach Barney Cotton managed to recover within a year from a widowmaker-type ACL tear speaks to the junior's toughness. Cotton's big and his motor runs hot.

>> Safety Corey Cooper: Some fans had a false presumption that NU defensive coaches didn't think much of Cooper. On the contrary, the coaches thought enough of him to play the now-junior at corner and dime, where he probably didn't belong, just to get him on the field. Look for him to be solid against the run, with room to grow against the pass.

>> Wide receiver Jamal Turner: The junior wore a fashionable blue tank top to Friday's mini-presser, showing off bigger muscles than he had last year. Turner has talent to burn out of the slot, and now that he has the confidence of a couple touchdown catches — and, more important, the confidence of quarterback Taylor Martinez, who doesn't always give it easily — he may push Kenny Bell for the team lead in total catches. I'll take Turner in the punt return race, too.

Five 'Prove-It' Players

>> Defensive end Jason Ankrah: There's never a day when the senior defensive end's frame doesn't fit the bill for a top Big Ten player. But Ankrah, saddled at times last year with difficult-to-execute duties against the zone read, hasn't had a year when he's entirely put it together. If he takes the step this year that Eric Martin made last year, he'll play his way into the NFL draft picture.

>> Kicker Mauro Bondi: He's on scholarship to do more than kick off, but Bondi could face that reality if he doesn't beat Western Illinois transfer walk-on Pat Smith for the job. When NU's searching the FCS for competition, your grip on the starting role is tenuous at best.

>> Safety Harvey Jackson: Nearly as talented as Cooper, but perhaps a shade behind in his ability to pick up plays. With young safeties like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, D.J. Singleton, Nate Gerry and Drake Martinez on the roster, Harvey Jackson had better have the training camp of his career, then carry that play over to the games.

>> Offensive tackle Andrew Rodriguez: He should have received a redshirt year, but he's not getting it at this point. Rodriguez is firmly in NU's tackle rotation, but junior college transfer Matt Finnin will give Rodriguez a good push this camp. Rodriguez will have to hold him off. It's not a question of talent, but consistency.

>> Cornerback Mo Seisay: Whatever made him one of the most coveted junior college cornerbacks in the 2012 recruiting class, he didn't have the health to show last year. Seisay has one year and a tough position battle with Josh Mitchell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste to make up for it.

Five newcomers

>> Defensive tackle Maliek Collins: If he develops like he's capable, he'll be one of the more memorable Nebraska recruiting stories in recent years, on par with an Adam Carriker or Stewart Bradley. Collins has the size, more room to get bigger, and terrific footwork from wrestling. Husker coaches didn't toot their horns too loudly on Collins until he'd signed, but they know he's a potential big steal.

>> Safety Nate Gerry: The Huskers need an infusion of speed and power on their special teams, and the fastest kid in South Dakota ought to be able to provide it. Could Gerry play gunner? Could he scream off the edge to block punts? Another recruiting steal.

>> Offensive tackle Matt Finnin: He didn't pick Nebraska over Ohio State and Oklahoma to guard the local Amigos.

>> Defensive end Randy Gregory: In terms of sheer need, Gregory is the recruit to watch most closely. NU lost its best (only) good pass rusher in Martin, who's pushing to make the New Orleans Saints roster. Gregory can not only replace Martin, but perhaps knock down a few passes, too. Yeah, so he spent the summer at home. Most recruits — and many players — did until a decade ago. Somehow, teams still fielded a defense.

>> Running back Adam Taylor: He makes this list — and Terrell Newby does not — because Taylor may possess a skill set that Ameer Abdullah does not, whereas Newby and Abdullah are comparable. Taylor's 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame is impressive, and his film shows a one-cut-and-go runner who can accelerate away from defenders. If Taylor is as fast on the college level as he appeared to be in high school, he can take some of the power carries previously assigned to Abdullah, and Abdullah can be used even more in the passing game, where he's underrated.

Three Stats

>> 2,409: If Martinez throws for that many yards — and runs for all of 142 yards — he'll join Colin Kaepernick as the only other collegiate quarterback to pass for 9,000 yards and run for 3,000 in a career. If Martinez runs for 1,142 and throws for 3,409 — Johnny Football pinball numbers, understand — he'll join Kaepernick in the 10,000-4,000 club.

>> 8-17: The combined record last year of Nebraska's two new Big Ten opponents, Illinois and Purdue. They replace Ohio State and Wisconsin, which combined to finish 20-6 last year.

>> 47.1 percent: The opponent completion rate against Nebraska's pass defense last year — lowest in the nation. Before you bail too hard on the Huskers' pass defense — it did something right last year.

Opponent Watch

Wyoming starts camp Tuesday, Southern Mississippi started camp Friday and UCLA starts Wednesday. South Dakota State holds camp, but I couldn't locate a start date. But SDSU is charging $40 a ticket for the big tilt with North Dakota State later this year. The Bison, led by former NU defensive coordinator Craig Bohl, are the two-time defending FCS national champions.

Forecast

A spot of rain and cool breeze, which will cause at least one coach to openly ask why the weather isn't hotter in August.

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