Play of Front Four Trumps Losses on Defense
If faced with the choice of a mediocre to subpar front four with a strong experienced healthy secondary behind it or a dominating front four with a battered inexperienced secondary behind it, give me the dominating front four every time. Nebraska lost its second most productive linebacker from a year ago, it's second most experienced safety, and it's second best returning cornerback from a year ago all in the span of three days. That's a lot to lose before a single snap against an actual opponent. But if NU's front four lives up to some very high and promising expectations, you may hardly notice their absence.
Plenty at Linebacker
While Rose is arguably the best player of the three lost, he appears to be the player the Huskers were in the best position to replace. Josh Banderas was a highly touted recruit out of high school and has starting experience at middle linebacker. Trevor Roach is an experienced veteran at middle linebacker after missing his junior season due to injury. David Santos has been Nebraska's most productive outside linebacker but also has starting experience at middle linebacker. Zaire Anderson also has starting experience on the outside. Also, in the mix at linebacker is freshman Courtney Love who was the scout team MVP while he redshirted last year. Marcus Newby was also a highly touted recruit who redshirted last season and is still a freshman. They like Newby's pass-rushing ability so much that they had practiced packages to line him up at defensive end just as they had with Demorrio Williams more than a decade ago. Linebacker is one area where if Bo Pelini says "we'll be fine", you can believe him.
Safety More Precarious
Corey Cooper was assured of one starting spot and it LeRoy Alexander and Nate Gerry were competing for the other top spot. D.J. Singleton appeared to be a top reserve in spring and now seems certain to see the field as a top backup. Beyond that trio, the Huskers will be forced to use true freshmen or walk-ons.
More Than Five Corners?
Josh Mitchell and Jonathan Rose are experienced cornerbacks as is Daniel Davie. Freshman Boaz Joseph comes off of a redshirt year and was practicing with the second team defense as a top reserve. 2014 recruit Byerson Cockrell arrived a semester early and is a top contender to start at nickel. After that the Huskers are in the similar position as safety of using freshmen or walk-ons.
When you look at the roster for 2014, it doesn't seem all that different from Nebraska's 1993 team that came a missed field goal from a national championship and was dominant on defense throughout the year. Josh Mitchell and Barron Miles have already drawn comparisons as little guys who play big. If anything, Mitchell comes in more experience than Miles was that year. Tyrone Williams manned the other corner spot but hadn't played prior to that. If anything, Jonathan Rose has a leg up on Williams in the experience department. Toby Wright played his only season at safety for Nebraska coming in as a transfer and was second on the team in tackles. They don't need as much from Byerson Cockrell but the parallels are clear. Troy Dumas bounced between free safety and linebacker. That's somewhat reminiscient of Gerry though as a junior Dumas was admittedly a bit more experienced. Then you could compare safety John Reece with Corey Cooper. Both are seniors though Cooper has been the more productive player three years in. All-in-all, the Huskers actually still appear to be in better shape in the secondary now than they were in 1993. So how did the 1993 squad acheive so much with so little experience in the secondary?
It's All About the Pass Rush
Trev Alberts had a Butkus Award season as a rush end with 15 sacks and a staggering 38 quarterback hurries. Dwayne Harris averaged a pair of sacks or quarterback hurries per game. Kevin Ramaekers and Terry Connealy both nearly matched that pace from their tackle positions. Donta Jones also was a double-digit hurry guy. By living in the backfield, the Huskers didn't give opposing quarterbacks time to exploit an inexperienced NU secondary. Linebackers Ed Stewart, Mike Anderson, and Ernie Beler also racked up tackles to spare the secondary of having to make a bunch (Toby Wright excepted).
Randy Gregory appears ready to be as pesky as Alberts was. Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, and Aaron Curry need to live up to their billing as bullrushers like Ramaekers and Connealy. Defensive end Joe Keels needs to show why he was on Alabama's wish list, Greg McMullen why he was on Ohio State's, and A.J. Natter why he was on Michigan State's. Santos, Anderson, and Newby can be the complement as edge rushers. If collectively this group can live up to that four sacks a game and a dozen hurries per game pace of their predecessors, then the 2014 defense can dominate with the secondary they have.
If the Huskers can't get pressure rushing four, then all bets are off. Once the Huskers are forced to blitz or cover for five seconds at a time then the secondary gets exposed. But don't blame the backfield. A great secondary can compensate for a weak front, but you'll seldom see a standout defense that can't create pressure with four guys up front. That will be the most important thing for Nebraska in 2014, and that was true before anyone got injured or suspended.