March 8, 2011

New look Blackshirts could be as good as ever

While the bulk of the attention focused around Nebraska's offensive changes during Tuesday's spring football press conference, there was plenty of news coming from the other side of the ball as well.

Just like their offensive counterparts, the Blackshirts are also adjusting to some new faces on the coaching staff as well as preparing for the new challenges of the offenses of the Big Ten Conference.

Head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini talked about how the defense has adjusted during an off-season that has presented more changes than ever.

Two of the most significant changes for the defense this winter have been the move away from the peso package and focusing more on the base 4-3, as well as Carl Pelini handing the defensive line coach responsibilities to John Papuchis and now serving exclusively as defensive coordinator.

Carl said not having to spend time working as a position coach has allowed him to focus much more on the overall defense as a whole, and that he's excited about his expanded role. In particular, Carl said he would be handling the majority of the defensive play calling duties, though he and Bo would both have input during games.

"That's the agreement, but we'll see," Carl Pelini joked. "Honestly, I don't think - especially last year and the year before - I don't think there was a call made that there wasn't discussion between Bo and I. We've really grown comfortable with each other and learned to anticipate each other's thoughts. Whether it's coming out of his mouth or my mouth, it's coming after a great deal of discussion between us."

As for the peso, both Bo and Carl stressed that the package would still be a part of the defense, and they would continue to utilize it against opponents who run more of a spread offense such as Northwestern, Purdue, etc.

However, after watching film and scouting the offenses of the Big Ten, both said the Huskers would go back to using primarily the four defensive linemen, three linebacker set it ran during their first two seasons in Lincoln.

The good news with that is NU's talented linebacker group will likely be featured much more this season, as the unit returns senior All-American Lavonte David and juniors Will Compton and Sean Fisher, who Bo said has fully recovered from last season's leg injury and is having a great off-season.

"(The peso) will be a part of it, but like always we'll have the ability to play three linebackers, two, one, whatever," Bo Pelini said. "We were probably about 90-percent peso last year. We won't be that high (this year)."

Along with David and the rest of NU's talented linebackers, Bo and Carl said they were extremely excited about the all-around depth of the defense, saying this unit could be the best they've had yet at Nebraska.

On the defensive front, senior defensive tackle Jared Crick obviously anchors the unit, but junior defensive end Cameron Meredith will sit out the spring after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery. Bo said Meredith would be back ready to go for the start of fall camp, and Carl said his absence would actually benefit the d-line because it will allow for the Huskers' younger ends to get a shot to prove themselves this spring.

"You never want to see a guy get hurt, but I think this gives us tremendous opportunity at the defensive end position, because we've got some great talent there," Carl Pelini said. "I think Josh Williams, Jason Ankrah, Kevin Thomsen, Eric Martin - those are all guys who could and probably will be on the field for us at some point next year.

"We've got some younger guys, and they're all going to be fighting for the second and third and even first group in some respects, and I think that position as much as any other will be interesting to me to see how it plays out and who steps up and who wins the starting spots coming out of spring."

In the secondary, Bo as well as senior defensive backs Alfonzo Dennard and Austin Cassidy raved about new secondary coach Corey Raymond, who they say has brought an increased emphasis on technique to the unit this winter.

While all were upset about the departure of Marvin Sanders, they said the addition of Raymond and a slew of returning depth should more than make up for what the secondary lost from last season in Prince Amukamara, DeJon Gomes and Eric Hagg.

"I love Marvin," Bo Pelini said. "He had to do what he felt was the right thing to do for his personal family situation at the time. We've done a lot together. We shared a lot together. We're good friends. We'll always be good friends. I support him and the decision he made.

"Fortunately I was able to go out and hire a good football coach that I have full and utmost confidence in and tremendous respect for. The personal side, obviously it's hard to see (Sanders) go, but football wise I feel we got the guy who was best for our football team."

While there was definitely much more intrigue surrounding new offensive coordinator Tim Beck and what would happen with Nebraska's quarterback position on Tuesday, it was clear after hearing from NU's coaches and players that, once again, the Blackshirts would be the strength of the team this season.

"We have a lot of guys back on defense," Bo Pelini said. "We lost some good football players… but we feel really good about our depth coming back and the quality of our depth coming back on defense.

"I feel real good about where we are, and having those kinds players - (Alfonzo), I feel he's going to be as good as any corner in the country, same with Crick and same with Lavonte. Then you surround them with the type of talent that we have and the depth we have, we have a chance to be pretty formidable on that side of the ball."

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