Three weeks into the new season, the consensus among just about everyone who has watched the Nebraska Cornhuskers play is that the defense isn’t “all there.” That something just isn’t right about a unit that has traditionally been recognized as the calling card of the program’s rough-and-tumble playing style.
Surrendering 38 points to the Washington Huskies last week, a game after giving up 29 to the Fresno State Bulldogs, certainly pounded that point home with emphasis.
Well, the truth is, the Huskers haven’t been “all there.” Literally. In fact, they’ve been missing one very key component of their secondary: preseason All-American cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
Dennard, of course, was out for the first three games of the year because of an injury to his quad muscle that he sustained part of the way through training camp. He finally got cleared to return to practice recently and, mostly as a result of his own desire to get back on the field, and recovered quicker than anticipated and ahead of the schedule laid out for him.
According to numerous Nebraska insiders, including head coach Bo Pelini, Dennard will make his official return this week against the Wyoming Cowboys. How much -- if at all -- the talented cornerback will play, though, is anybody’s guess.
"It depends what the coaches want to do," he told reporters after a recent practice. "If the coach wants me to play, I'll go out and play."
As he’s shown with his ridiculously speedy recovery, Dennard is in tip-top physical shape and would probably make a fairly smooth transition if asked to contribute immediately. And, given the notable concerns that the 78th ranked passing defense in the country has at this point, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Pelini pull out his trump card against Wyoming.
Still, while Dennard may be on the right track to recovery physically, he has admitted that he’s still not at 100 percent in other facets of the game.
"Physically, yes, but mentally, no," he replied, when asked if he was ready to play. "I'm kind of like favoring my leg. I go out there and think about my leg too much and forget about what I have to do out there.
"It kind of like stopped me from doing a lot of things," he said. "The trainer just told me, 'Go out there and don't think about it. Just go out and play.' Through practice, it got better. I didn't think about it as much."
More likely than not, Pelini will refrain from overusing Dennard this Saturday. Although the team desperately needs their shutdown cornerback whenever they take the field, demanding too much from him too soon is a recipe for disaster. Instead, the coaching staff will likely play him in spurts, allow him to feel out the game and get back into the swing of things, and then save him for the squad’s highly anticipated showdown against the Wisconsin Badgers in just over a week.
It's not all good news for Nebraska, though.
With the prognosis looking better and better for Dennard over the last few days -- in true “take one step forward two steps back” fashion -- the Huskers found out that other preseason All-American Jared Crick might out be out against the Cowboys this week. Due to an injury he sustained last week versus Washington, Crick has been ruled “questionable” for this week’s outing.