The Nebraska Cornhuskers defense, through the years, has had a very tough and thankless job. The group has had to consistently be great with no exceptions, and more often than not, its had to compensate for the offense’s shortcomings to the point where anything besides a victory -- or a dominant victory, for that matter -- would be regarded as a failure.
It’s gotten to the point, where the hopes and dreams of every given season are placed on the shoulders of the Huskers’ defense with no pause or consideration for what they may be going through.
The 2011 incarnation of Nebraska’s defensive unit has its fair share of strengths and weaknesses, as is the case with any other group. What’s different about this one, though, is the notable secondary holes that the team has as a result of injuries and players lost to the NFL Draft. That lack of seasoned manpower in the back has forced the boys up front to give even more effort than they traditionally have had to exert.
And when you couple all of that with the offense’s new run-and-gun plan that limits the time that group spends on the field, Nebraska’s overall time of possession and total snaps – you can see why the Huskers need every available piece back on defense.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was widely regarded as a preseason All-American before the year even began. However, he’s been sidelined since the middle of training camp because a pulled muscle in his leg. By all indications (read: Bo Pelini’s optimism) the talented youngster is progressing well (plus, supposedly ahead of schedule) and should be ready to go sooner rather than later.
In Pelini’s own words, Dennard is on a rehab regiment that requires 6-8 weeks, and at this point, the corner is in Week 5. Translation: Even if we get him back sooner, don’t count on him being the old Alfonzo just yet.
"He's as good a corner as there is in the country, so obviously that’s going to affect you some," Pelini said. "You've got to deal with that at different times in different spots. Other guys have got to step up."
Dennard’s impact comes in more than just a pass-protection format. As noted by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, he’s also a uniquely special component of the Huskers’ run defense – and a piece they sorely missed last week when Fresno State’s Robbie Rouse ran all over them to the tune of 16 carries for 169 yards.
As a team, Fresno State accumulated 190 total yards on the ground en route to 444 for the game. More important than the final numbers, however, was the way the totals were amassed. Because the defense had to compensate for a lack of a legitimate pass-protection threat in the secondary, they couldn’t get after to the quarterback like they’re traditionally used to. And, in turn, Fresno State’s passer, Derek Carr, was not sacked a single time in the game. That’s simply inexcusable, particularly when you take into account that he was being protected by four inexperienced, unprepared youngsters (sound familiar?).
Aside from Dennard’s injury, there is also a certain talent disparity that comes as a result of Nebraska losing players to the NFL Draft. Both Prince Amukamara and Eric Hagg were clearly massive pieces of the puzzle, and subsequently left behind holes that Andrew Green, Ciante Evans and Justin Blatchford simply have not yet been able to fill. Maybe with Dennard shouldering a sizeable load the transition would have gone smoother, but alas, injuries have robbed the team of that luxury.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that in the beat down that Nebraska gave Chattanooga two weeks ago, it was a slip-up by Green that ultimately resulted in the latter squad putting any points on the board. Sure, it was a mistake that could have happened to anyone in the secondary, but it does speak to a larger weakness that the Huskers have.
For now, as Nebraska continues to play against the likes of Washington and Wyoming, the flaws of this version of the defense can be masked by Bo Pelini’s strategizing and a genuine will to win by the rest of the unit. However, against the likes of the Wisconsin Badgers, what with Russell Wilson’s magical arm and all, it would be nice to have all hands on deck.