I began by taking a broad overview of the Nebraska program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Cornhuskers will do this season.
Last week, I scanned at the 2012 Nebraska offense and how it projects.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Nebraska defense.
2011 scoring defense: 23.4 PPG (seventh in the conference)
Total defense: 350.7 YPG (seventh)
Rushing defense: 4.00 YPC (seventh)
Passing efficiency allowed: 120.42 (fourth)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: seventh (2011, Big Ten), 5.25 (2007-2010, Big 12)
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: First (2009)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 12th (2007)
Returning starters: DE Jason Ankrah, DE Cameron Meredith, DT Baker Steinkuhler, SLB Sean Fisher, MLB Will Compton, CB Ciante Evans, CB Andrew Green, SS Daimion Stafford
Open positions: DT, LB, S
Defensive formation: multiple
Defensive philosophy: conservative
The Blackshirts came into their inaugural Big Ten year as one of the most experienced defenses and defensive lines in the conference. This prompted me to predict that "Nebraska [would] have the best defense in the Big Ten."
It didn't work out that way, as the above statistics attest.
Some of the more obnoxious Big Ten fans were quick to attribute this fall-off to the change in conference, and it is true. Adjusting played a part, as the Lincoln World-Herald's Jon Nyatawa noted after last season's drubbing at the hands of Wisconsin.
Still, "adjustment" doesn't account for 29 points given up to Fresno State or 38 to Washington—both out-of-conference foes and both point totals above said opponents' season averages.
It also doesn't account for conference collapses against Wisconsin (48 points), Michigan (45 points) or even Ohio State (27 points) in a win. And again, all of those point totals were above those teams' average PPG.
In short, last year, Nebraska's defense underperformed, which is arguably the first time the Huskers can say that from a full-season perspective since Bo Pelini took over in 2008.
Even worse, it underperformed with the Big Ten's Linebacker of the Year in Lavonte David and the Big Ten's Defensive Back of the Year in Alfonzo Dennard.
This year, the defense has plenty of experience—as will be detailed below—but no proven playmakers.
Moreover, former defensive coordinator (DC) Carl Pelini has taken the head coaching position at Florida Atlantic. The new DC (via KETV) will be former NU defensive line coach John Papuchis, with former Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski taking over Papuchis's spot.
Recently, The Daily Nebraskan posited, "The Nebraska pass rush is not what it used to be."
After all, this was the program that produced Rich Glover, Jason Peter, Danny Noonan and, more recently, Ndamukong Suh.
Yet, Suh, in 2009, was the last Cornhusker to record double-digit sacks.
And there is no getting around it. The biggest issue with the 2011 Nebraska defense concerned an underachieving defensive line.
The season-ending injury to would-be all-conference defensive tackle Jared Crick played a part, but injuries are part of football.
In effect, the Huskers are out to prove that the Big 12's most dominant defense—and more specifically, the Big 12's most dominant defensive line—between 2009-2010 can be just as dominant in the Big Ten.
Nebraska returns all but three key contributors from 2011—Crick, Terrence Moore and Josh Williams, the last of whom was recently dismissed from the team.
Defensive end Cameron Meredith and defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler are multi-year starters and seniors that must be the leaders of the defense. Meredith was All-Big 12 in 2010, but as with the entire defense, he wasn't as successful in his new conference.
Junior Jason Ankrah got most of the starts at strong-side defensive end last season, but had mixed results, tallying one sack, 2.5 tackles-for-loss (TFL) and 17 tackles. He will be pushed by pass-rush specialist, Eric Martin—2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFL—and second-year JUCO transfer Joseph Carter.
The other starting defensive tackle spot will be manned by sophomore Chase Rome, who picked up two starts last season, or veteran journeyman Thaddeus Randle.
This group needs a big comeback year to set the tone for the entire defense, and the talent is there.
Big Ten Position Ranking: Five
Nebraska returns a lot of talent and experience in the linebacking corps, but one pretty notable player is missing—Lavonte David.
David spent two years in Lincoln, during which time he racked up a number of records and awards.
He is gone, and the remaining linebackers—most notably seniors Will Compton, Sean Fischer and Alonzo Whaley—are expected to pick up the pieces.
All three are quality linebackers with starting experience.
Compton is a three-year starter and will reprise his role as the middle linebacker. Fisher is a two-year starter and will man the strong-side position.
Whaley has two career starts to his credit and will likely man David's vacated weak-side spot, though he will be pushed by redshirt freshman David Santos and JUCO transfer Zaire Anderson.
Also, senior Graham Stoddard and sophomore Trevor Roach add depth.
According to linebacker coach Ross Els (via HuskerExtra.com), one thing all of his linebackers have in common is that, "They can really run."
But up to this point, none has shown anywhere near the playmaking ability of David.
If one of them breaks out, this could be a Blackshirt group to rival some of the great Nebraska linebacking corps of the past.
If not, it is still a solid and deep, if unspectacular, bunch.
The Big 12's best pass defense in 2010 took a step back in 2011.
What was expected to be a strength for the Huskers turned into a weakness, particularly against teams with rushing quarterbacks.
The Huskers allowed 32.4 PPG in conference games in which the Huskers faced a "dual-threat" quarterback.
Of course, issues with the pass rush compounded this problem.
This year, the Huskers return a number of key members of that secondary, but as with the other levels of defense, there are no returning game-changers.
Junior Andrew Green will lock down one cornerback spot. Last year, he was picked on due to playing opposite Alfonzo Dennard. This year, he will be the veteran member of the group.
The other cornerback spot could go to any of the following juniors: Ciante Evans, Stanley Jean-Baptiste or JUCO transfer Mohammed Seisay.
Evans was supposed to be the next great Husker cornerback, but his play in 2011 (courtesy of Omaha.com) was less than inspiring.
Daimion Stafford—a JUCO transfer in 2011—will reprise his role as starting strong safety.
Meanwhile, seniors Courtney Osborne and P.J. Smith or sophomore Corey Cooper will be the starting free safety. All have recorded starts in their careers.
Despite a good deal of returning experience and talent, the NU secondary has a lot of questions.
New secondary coach (via Huskers.com) Terry Joseph will hope to find the answers to those questions.
This year's defense will have a lot of highly recruited players that have to come to Nebraska via the traditional route (non-JUCO). Many of them have made substantial contributions to the team, but it is arguable if they've lived up to their potential.
For example, Baker Steinkuhler was the No. 2 offensive guard in the country (according to Scout) in 2008. Will Compton was the No. 13 middle linebacker in the country. Chase Rome was the No. 22 defensive end in 2009.
Obviously, recruiting rankings don't mean everything, and Nebraska fans know this as well as anybody. As former Nebraska linebacker/current Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez recently noted (via Sports Illustrated) about the Badgers' successful walk-on program, "I really stole the idea from Nebraska."
Nonetheless, 2012's Cornhusker defense, on paper, looks long on experience but short on game changers, and it is those potential game-changers that will be the difference between a good Nebraska defense and a great Nebraska defense.
If some of those game changers step up, then Bo Pelini will be able to get his defense back into the top 25. If they don't, the defense will be about the same as last year—dependable, but unable to put the big offenses away.
Coming next Tuesday, an overview and breakdown of Nebraska's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Huskers will finish the 2012 season.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com