The start of the college football season is just a couple weeks away, and things are becoming much clearer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Already a week and a half into fall practice, Bo Pelini and his coaching staff are starting to see which underclassmen are ready to step up and contribute, especially on the defensive side of the football.
Coming into fall practice, there wasn’t much certainty as to who would be filling in the voids in the Huskers’ depleted defense because only a few starters were returning. Seemingly only a couple players were guaranteed to start, including Ciante Evans at corner/nickel and Jason Ankrah at defensive end. After a week, senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste is playing his best football during his time at Nebraska, says Pelini, and he looks to be a lock at corner. Pelini has also been impressed with Josh Mitchell, who looks to be the other corner when they are in the nickel package.
The Huskers have plenty of depth in their secondary, and because Evans will likely play the nickel, more players will see time in the secondary rotation. They shouldn’t have many problems against the pass, as Nebraska was first in the nation in pass completion percentage last season, and depth will not be a problem either.
Junior college transfer DE Randy Gregory has been having a great camp according to coaches, who expect him to start making an impact immediately. Gregory is the second-rated JUCO prospect out of Arizona Western Community College, and has incredible potential to wreak havoc on the defensive line. Gregory has some serious talent and could probably play for any team in the country, and should start opposite Ankrah as the other end. Some other players who have been making some noise on the defensive side are freshman Nathan Gerry from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and senior Broderick Nickens. Pelini said Gerry should be a regular for the Blackshirts, as the freshman has shown ability to play safety and various linebacker positions such as will and buck.
At linebacker, David Santos appears to the guy who will man the middle for the Huskers, but freshman Josh Banderas is also making an impression on the coaches. Pelini says Banderas has the ability and leadership to be a very good middle linebacker for the Blackshirts in his first season. If not the starter, he certainly will provide an impact coming in off the bench.
The offense has pretty much been set for a while now, with only a few issues heading into fall camp. Although the Huskers have a stacked backfield with Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, they only have one running back with collegiate experience on the roster in Imani Cross. The Huskers were able to land the two best running back recruits from both California and Texas, and though they are undoubtedly talented, the lack of experience is cause for concern should one of the first two go down with injury. Pelini and his staff have said they are doing very well so far in camp, and are still working on fixing problem areas that freshman typically have, such as pass protecting.
Speaking of backups, there also isn’t much certainty behind Martinez at quarterback. Tommie Armstrong is currently nursing a minor injury he sustained last week, and has been practicing with the team, but he doesn’t have much game experience. He did come in on a few occasions last year and was productive, but not enough to be completely confident should something happen to Martinez.
The offensive line is essentially set, but there are some concerns. While the o-line helped pave the way for the Huskers’ eighth-ranked rushing attack last year, they also gave up 35 sacks, including six against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and five against Georgia in their bowl game. The line needs to do a better job of protecting the quarterback. Martinez has enough trouble holding on to the football when he isn’t getting sacked five times a game, and the defensive pressure surely doesn’t help his passing game either.
Things are looking pretty decent for the Huskers, who (knock on wood) haven’t had very many injuries yet, and are looking better as camp progresses. They seem to be finding some answers to their questions on defense, and while we’ll have to wait until the season to find out, it provides comfort to the Nebraska faithful that their Blackshirts will be in good shape when they face off against Wyoming for their first game.