It’s not hard for Cornhusker fans to be jazzed about the 2016 offense and when it comes to defense, linebackers are the obvious strongpoint.
Bring up the defense line and there’s concern, but any talk about the secondary and it just gets worse. That’s probably why you haven’t heard much about who could represent the Blackshirts at those spots because last year was a season worth forgetting.
Quarterbacks looked forward to playing against Nebraska because they knew that the odds favored them having Heisman-like performances. On average, the Husker defensive backs were torched for 291 yards per game. Nebraska’s cornerbacks accounted for only six of Nebraska’s paltry 10 interceptions, so offensive coordinators weren’t exactly afraid to play against man coverage.
Fortunately, there are a couple reasons for optimism heading into this fall. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker has stepped in to help coach the safeties which means assistant coach Brian Stewart is going to give the guys on the outside more individualized attention. Like any classroom setting, this means more focus on what went wrong and why it did along with putting the cornerbacks in position to succeed and up that interception total.
The second reason is a couple of new faces.
DiCaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson give a nice boost of talent right out of the gate, especially Jackson. The 6-foot-3 195-pound Elk Grove, Calif. native was ranked as the No. 81 overall prospect in the country by 247Sports. While he made his living as a safety in high school, he has the opportunity to cash in at cornerback in a hurry.
He walked onto campus looking like a Power Five defensive back. It’s only a matter of time before he battles for a starting spot and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him lock one down (pun fully intended) in 2016.
That’s not to put down any other current members of the roster as while Nebraska did get raked over the coals when it came to defending aerial assaults last year, believe it or not, the talent is there for Banker to dial up something far more stifling.
Chris Jones is a likely pick to start heading into the fall. He began doing so in the second half of the Big Red’s season and ended up with 25 tackles (four solo), two tackles for loss, one sack and five passes broken up.
Josh Kalu is another reliable member of the secondary who had a solid season snagging three interceptions (returning one for a score) along with the second-most tackles on the team (75, 51 solo), five tackles for loss, one sack and seven passes broken up.
Should Jackson eventually usurp a fall starter, look for Kalu to head to the nickel spot as he’s played extraordinarily well there.
Should that happen, don’t be surprised to see the Huskers employ a fair amount of nickel coverage. This keeps some of the most experienced defenders out there in the linebackers and a secondary that would’ve taken a huge jump forward considering safety Nate Gerry’s looking to cap off his career in impressive fashion.
Will 2016 result in far more reasons for Big Red fans to cheer when the opposition throws the football? Stay tuned.