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Aug. 20, 2001

The Desert Husker • Bill Marks

Fatherhood, Fish Sticks and Football - Part II

The Defense and Special Teams

Before I jump in to this week's column, I have to give you, the reader, a brief apology. As a kid, I always hated television shows that were two-parters. I'd get completely involved in the plot, and then "BAM" just as the story reached its dramatic peak, they'd slap "To be continued..." on the screen.

Instead of receiving gratification and closure, I'd have to wait an entire week to find out if Fonzie and his motorcycle would be able to jump 16 trashcans in the parking lot of Arnold's; if Greg Brady would overcome the curse of the ancient Hawaiian Tiki head; or if George Jefferson would finally fire Florence the housekeeper in favor of an attractive maid who kept her mouth shut.

That said, this week's column is actually a continuation of last week's column, in which I attempted to assuage my one-and-a-half year old son's concerns about the 2001 Huskers over a plate of fish sticks. Last week I gave him my preseason opinions about the offense, and while afterward he seemed a little less concerned about that side of the ball, his furrowed brow told me I still had some fathering to do.

Here then, is what I told him about the 2001 version of the Blackshirt defense and Cornhusker special teams:

Defensive Tackles
This position is big - both literally and figuratively. Last year's version of the Blackshirts couldn't produce the potent pass rush that is key for Nebraska's attacking style of defense. In my mind, much of the blame for this fell on the DTs.

In 2001, the defensive tackles should be a healthier, deeper and more experienced group. Seniors Jason Lohr and Jeremy Slechta return, and will be joined by John Clanton (a Ferrari in a tank's body), Manaia Brown, Patrick Kabongo, Casey Nelson and WWF prototype (bald, chiseled, sometimes hits people with chairs during practice) Ryon Bingham.

Dad's pigskin position prognosis -- Lohr and Slechta have earned their places in the starting lineup, but need to be more aggressive and get more of a push up the middle. In a word, they need to be nastier. Too many times last year, the rush ends would approach the quarterback from the outside, but the opposing QB would simply take a step forward in the pocket and buy himself another second to find an open receiver. If this group can establish some dominance along the interior, that won't happen, and the defense will begin to click.

Rush Ends
Prior to the 2000 season, I told a friend that Demoine Adams reminded me of former Husker rush end Travis Hill. By midseason I had changed my comparison to Benny Hill. Okay, that's a little harsh, I still think Demoine can be special, but the rush ends - traditionally the position where the best defensive talent is found - need to have a much bigger impact in 2001.

A year of experience should help Adams and fellow starter Chris Kelsay become a more intimidating tandem. Adams can fly, but lacks some size and as a result got pushed around too much last year. Kelsay is the stronger of the two, and should develop into a good one.

The coaches seem to have confidence in this duo, but if you really want to hear some excitement in their voices, listen closely when they talk about Benard Thomas. Although only a second year sophomore, Thomas has the highest ceiling of anyone at this position. Picture Trev Alberts' athletic ability with Grant Wistrom's motor, and you have an idea of what Thomas will bring to the table. But while he has All-America kind of talent, Thomas is still has a ways to go on the learning curve. Expect to start seeing his best in 2002.

In addition to Thomas, there is some solid depth at rush end. Justin Smith, former tight end Trevor Johnson, and J.P. Wichmann will plug-in nicely when the starters need a breather.

Dad's pigskin position prognosis - If this group doesn't do a better job of getting to the quarterback than they did last year, you can table any national championship talk. In order for this turnaround to happen, talent needs to turn into performance. Hopefully, by midseason 2001, I'll be comparing Demoine Adams to Travis Hill once again.

Injuries and disciplinary actions have had the coaching staff playing "musical linebackers" all spring and fall. Randy Stella, last year's starter on the weak side, is gone, and middle linebacker Tony Tata is rehabbing a knee injury. This has caused some sleepless nights as the coaches try to figure out who belongs where.

We do know who the starters will be. Scott Shanle will return on the strong side, Mark Vedral will man the weak side, and Jaime Burrow will replace Carlos Polk in the middle. Burrow and Shanle are both good run stoppers, but need to work on their pass coverage. Vedral is quick and is a good hitter. He'll help to soften the loss of Stella.

Behind the starters is a whole lot of youth. Although he's had some ankle problems in the fall, look for T.J. Hollowell to eventually be a breakout star. Hollowell, who seems to have finally found a home on the weak side, should make an impact when he gets a chance to play. Elsewhere, look for redshirt frosh Ira Cooper, and true freshman Barrett Ruud to provide the depth behind Shanle and Burrow respectively.

Dad's pigskin position prognosis - This group looks pretty thin. Shanle, Burrow and Vedral are all battle tested, and shouldn't make many mistakes, but none of them is spectacular. The loss of Stella hurts. However, it will be fun, and a little scary, to see Hollowell, Cooper and Ruud get their feet wet and learn on the fly.

At times last year, the corners looked pretty shaky (especially against Oklahoma). But I think this had less to do with their abilities, and more to do with the lack of a pass rush. It really doesn't matter how good your defensive backs are, if a quarterback has a lot of time, he'll be able to find an open receiver. Of course, the relationship between the pass rush and the pass coverage works both ways -- the coaching staff is going to feel a lot more comfortable calling blitzes if they feel the defensive backs will be able to perform in man to man coverage.

In 2001, the Blackshirts bring back their top three corners. Keyuo Craver will again assume his familiar spot on the left side of the line, while DeJuan Groce and Erwin Swiney (how long has he been around? Didn't he play for Devaney?) will cover the right side.

Despite what you saw last year, this is a pretty good group. Craver is quick and should have a stellar senior campaign. Groce and Swiney will do a decent job at the other corner, with Swiney being the faster of the two, and Groce the better hitter. Walk-on Pat Ricketts will battle it out with redshirt freshman Lornell McPherson and sophomore Terrell Butler (you may see him listed at rover on the depth chart, but I expect him to end up at corner), for the right to back up Craver.

Dad's pigskin position prognosis - As with every other position on the defense, improvement is needed here. Still, I like what we have coming back at the corners. In Craver, Groce and Swiney, the Huskers have three proven starters. If the pass rush can improve, expect this group to shine bright in 2001.

Throughout his football career, Dion Booker has been somewhat of an enigma (a mystery, wrapped in a riddle ... not to be confused with a "Chalupa," which is a mystery wrapped in flat bread). At times last year, Booker looked slow and confused, at other times he flew to the ball and made receivers think twice before venturing over the middle.

Last year's Alamo Bowl win against Northwestern was one of the games in which he looked awesome. If he can maintain that kind of intensity throughout this year, he will be a huge asset to the Blackshirt D.

Booker will hold down the fort at free safety, and will be backed up by sophomore Willie Amos, who many are calling the best athlete on the team. Redshirt freshman Lannie Hopkins will likely earn a Blackshirt at the rover spot, with walk-on Aaron Terpening playing behind him. Hopkins is another Husker who has plenty of talent, but may look overwhelmed at times due to a lack of experience. True freshman Phillip Brand could also figure into the mix at safety.

Dad's pigskin position prognosis - Another year of maturity should help Booker realize his talent, but there isn't much experience elsewhere at safety. Hopefully young studs like Hopkins and Amos can help solidify this position now, and make it a strength in the future.

Special Teams
Last year's special teams play wasn't so special. In 2001, look for a renewed focus on the importance of this aspect of the game.

Redshirt freshman Sandro DeAngelis will begin as the starting kicker, while Josh Brown sits out the start of the season for disciplinary reasons. The word on DeAngelis is that he is more accurate than Brown, but doesn't have as strong of a leg.

Kyle Larson will replace Dan Hadenfeldt as the starting punter. Larson has been booming punts in practice, but needs to work on getting his kicks off a little quicker. When he returns from suspension, Lance Brown will assume the ever-crucial role of back-up punter.

A bevy of speedsters are competing for the punt and kickoff return gigs. Josh Davis has emerged as a favorite to be one of the players returning kicks, and will likely be joined by a true freshman - either Cory Ross or Marques Simmons. Ben Cornelson and Groce appear to be the top punt returners. Craver could also see some time back there, although the coaches would probably rather see him blocking punts rather than returning them.

Dad's pigskin prognosis - It has to be better, it just has to. There may not be a game breaker at the punt returner spot, but lookout for Davis returning kicks. He was one of the fastest Huskers when he arrived in Lincoln, but has been battling back from a knee injury since. Larson and DeAngelis/Brown should do a nice job with the kicking duties, but the real question is whether the return teams will be more effective. I'm betting the coaching staff has learned its lesson here and will put a greater emphasis on return coverage this season.

Well, it had been a long, grueling process, but my son now seemed satisfied that things would be okay in Huskerland. He had set his concerns aside, and turned his attention to dunking his socks in his milk.

As for the Desert Husker, I left my socks on and shifted my focus to TCU. The Horned Frogs will hop into Lincoln in less than a week. I had to do a little scouting and prepare some thoughts for my next column. For that, you'll have to tune in next week -- same Desert Husker time, same Desert Husker channel.

Bill Marks, a.k.a. the Desert Husker, is a professional business writer and consultant living in Chandler, Ariz. He is a long-time Husker fan and can be contacted at [email protected].

Previous columns: 08/12/01 | 08/03/01 | 07/25/01 | 07/18/01