Eye-opening loss to Vols reveals Huskers need more work on defense

Linebacker Dedrick Young, left, and cornerback Chris Jones are among 12 leading tacklers who will return for Nebraska in 2017. Jones, Young and cornerback Joshua Kalu have all started at least 20 career games.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mark Banker mentioned a little bit of everything as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator handled the last questions of the year, which just finished Friday with his unit having one of its tougher afternoons.

Scheme. Talent and athleticism. Strength and speed.

The Huskers soon will evaluate them all. With a better idea where each needs to be.

There were no illusions after Nebraska was hit for 521 total yards in a 38-24 loss to Tennessee, and 2017 will bring the challenge of making old and new pieces fit — and work a little better.

“I thought we made some strides in that in the offseason last year, and got us into this position this year,” Banker said. “But obviously it’s not enough, and we need to continue to move in that direction.”

Nebraska will have the Music City Bowl if it requires any motivation for the offseason. Asked what needs to be done to start taking another step, sophomore defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun said: “Just a lot of work.”

“We need to thank our seniors for everything that they have done for us, and basically setting a foundation for what this team has to be,” Akinmoladun said. “And now we just have to go on from there, and progress.”

Banker said the defensive staff is prepared to take “a good, hard, long look back” at this season, but probably will spotlight the losses to Tennessee and Ohio State. The Volunteers and Buckeyes hurt the Huskers with similar systems and dual-threat quarterbacks, and with athletes Nebraska needs to find more of for itself.

It was apparent to Husker players Friday, too, with cornerback Lamar Jackson — a freshman who looks the part of a big-time player — referring to Tennessee personnel as “grown men” with “grown men strength.”

“We need to add, obviously,” Banker said. “And we’re in the process of that.”

In terms of immediacy, though, it will have to start with the returnees, and Nebraska played a good chunk of non-seniors this season.

Of the Huskers’ 17 leading tacklers, 12 will be coming back. Cornerbacks Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones along with linebacker Dedrick Young have all started at least 20 career games.

Those returning, Banker said, need to make offseason strides like Jones did a year ago, adding about 10 to 15 pounds and increasing his strength. Banker also mentioned the potential of somebody like defensive end DaiShon Neal, who played little as a redshirt freshman but could change that with another offseason of development.

The current recruiting cycle and those that follow will be part of the ongoing process of Nebraska trying to restock the cupboard. An SEC opponent Friday showed NU what it could use on the shelves.

“We just really need overall team speed,” Banker said. “And I think at the same time, we need to just increase the size of our overall team.

“I think we’re close in the defensive line, but I think we lack the height that we would like overall. The linebacker situation, just a more defined group, that 215 to 230 (pound) group that can just absolutely run and is strong. And in the back end, we just need to continue to become more physical back there.”

Nebraska slipped to No. 32 in total defense after the Music City Bowl, giving up an average of 363.7 yards per game and 5.53 a play. Even with some of the late-season hits, those improved from 400.4 and 5.88 a year ago, helped by eight games where opponents managed 337 total yards or fewer.

But Ohio State stung the Huskers for 590 total yards and Iowa ran for 264. NU thought it had prepared well for Tennessee and expected better.

“I’d say it opened our eyes to some stuff we still need to improve on,” defensive tackle Carlos Davis said.

Davis, Akinmoladun and nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg will give Nebraska a solid base next season after the defensive line was a huge question mark going into this fall. That trio combined for 13 tackles for losses, 7.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hurries.

As with there and everywhere else, though, Banker said the name of the game is stockpiling talented players.

“The bottom line is just strength and speed is what is necessary,” he said. “And that’s what happens when we get against these more elite teams. And if we’re going to be an elite team, that’s what you need to be.

“I mean, you need to be big, strong and fast, and to dominate people physically. It’s not just a finesse game. And we need to improve in that category.”

Senior linebacker Josh Banderas struck a melancholy tone as he stood in the hallway outside the locker room at Nissan Stadium. The outcome was regrettable but he was appreciative for one last game with his teammates.

But Banderas spoke with confidence in what Nebraska was doing, this season and into the future.

“We got set on a good path,” he said. “We had a couple games that didn’t go our way, and one game that’s a split second away from being ours (Wisconsin). So continue the path we’ve gotten and only improve on the things that we did well.”

Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.