One story in a Wine Country Husker series, looking at position breakdowns for the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the 2009 season. Today, we look at defensive line:
Looking back: The Huskers entered the 2008 season looking to prove that the 2007 campaign was an aberration under former coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. The defense was so bad in 2007 that it became a national punch-line, ranking 112th in total defense, and near the bottom in many more categories.
Thanks to its strongest line since Jason Wiltz, Chad Kelsay and Steve Warren were donning Blackshirts, the Husker defense rose to 55th overall in 2008. That ranking might not make us forget the 1993-1999 Blackshirts but it was a step in the right direction.
Despite being pushed around in ’07, this immediate unit was looked at as one that had plenty of pieces to help make the Husker defense a leap forward. Despite the loss of starting defensive end Barry Turner to a season ending knee injury in Week Two, the line turned out to be the strength of the entire team which is saying something considering the offense averaged 35.4 points per game.
Any discussion about the Husker defensive line, however, begins and ends with tackle Ndamukong Suh, who especially blossomed in the second half of the season into the dominant player Nebraska fans envisioned when they recruited him as a high school football star out of Portland, Oregon. Tackle is not normally a stat oriented position but Suh led the Huskers in total tackles (76), tackles for lost yardage (19), sacks (7.5), quarterback hurries (seven) and tied for the team lead with interceptions (two, both for touchdowns).
End Zach Potter and tackle Ty Steinkuhler were also vital cogs to the Husker defensive line. Potter enjoyed a breakout senior campaign with 54 total tackles (16 for lost yardage), 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. After an injury plagued junior year, Steinkuhler enjoyed a solid senior year along side Suh. Steinkuhler recorded 48 tackles (eight for lost yardage).
If there is a bright side to Turner’s injury, sophomore Pierre Allen got the chance to develop into a solid starter. Allen recorded 52 tackles (10 for lost yardage) and five sacks. Reserve senior tackle Shukree Barfield also came on strong at the end of the season, earning a Blackshirt in the process. Redshirt freshmen Jared Crick and Terrance Moore also gained some valuable experience at tackle.
Looking ahead: The best news is that Suh decided to return for his senior campaign instead of entering the NFL draft.
The Husker defense probably would have continued to improve even if Suh opted to apply for a job that required him to work on Sundays because a) the comfort level in head coach Bo Pelini’s scheme would be greater and b) Pelini will likely put in more intricacies into his scheme this season. However, dominant defensive tackles like Suh are the backbone of any strong defense. With that being said, Suh’s return to Lincoln for his senior season gives Nebraska’s defense a chance to ascend to the top quicker than if he had decided to forgo his senior campaign.
Suh made a wise decision to stay for his senior season. Of course, I say that for selfish reasons – hardly a confession if you are a Husker fan. However, Suh’s return not only does wonders for the 2009 defense but also if he continues to improve, he can help his draft stock even more. Most draft boards projected Suh as a late first-rounder/early second-rounder in 2009. If he dominates as a senior, he could be a potential Top 10 pick a la Jason Peter or Grant Wistrom in 1998.
Steinkuhler and Potter are key losses but Suh’s return softens that blow. The Huskers also look forward to the return of a healthy Turner along with Allen having had the chance to develop.
Throw in the unveiling of redshirt freshman Baker Steinkuhler and the line should be close to as strong as last season with the back seven figuring to improve with many pieces returning.
Allen and Turner give the Huskers two experienced ends. The question for Turner is that if he returns healthy, how effective will he be? Moore and Crick also have experience but will need to keep improving. Turner looked like he was starting to reach his vast potential as a pass rusher before getting injured. Allen performed much better than anyone could have anticipated under the circumstances and will need to keep getting better.
My money is on Crick to be a possible breakout performer.