Friday, February 13, 2009

2009 Nebraska football position outlook: Linebackers

One story in a Wine Country Husker series, looking at position breakdowns for the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the 2009 season. Today, we look at linebacker:

Looking back: The Huskers entered the 2008 season having to replace virtually its entire linebacking corps (Steve Octavien, Lance Brandenburg, Corey McKeon, and Bo Rudd). In one respect, those losses could have been viewed as a good thing because all you have to do is watch the 2007 defense get shredded week after week. On the downside, however, it meant having to start over at this position with a lot of inexperience.

The Huskers were so thin at this position that they had to covert running back Cody Glenn to linebacker. Part of that dearth of depth can be attributed to the Bill Callahan regime focusing a heavy emphasis of recruiting on offense. After all, why else would you be so desperate enough to move a running back that had never played linebacker before (not even in high school) to linebacker?

Glenn promptly became Nebraska’s starter at WILL linebacker and shined, totaling 51 tackles (six for lost yardage) before being suspended for the final four games of the season.

If that wasn’t enough, starting MIKE linebacker Phillip Dillard missed four games because of an ankle injury. Senior Tyler Wortman enjoyed a solid season while youngsters such as Blake Lawrence, Colton Koehler, Matt Holt and Matthew May gained valuable experience.

That quartet filled the void more often than not but also had its share of assignment busts. The biggest disappointment, however, was junior-to-be LaTravis Washington not distinguishing himself as a key player as some people thought might happen.

One thing was for certain, this unit never lacked in effort and much of that credit is attributable to first-year linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, who did an excellent job coaxing production out of a limited group. This group should continue to feed off his infectious enthusiasm.

Looking ahead: Despite losses of Glenn and Wortman, the Huskers should be in solid shape with this unit because many young players return already having gained experience and the quality depth will be better along with having more athleticism. It will need to be solid if Nebraska wants to keep ascending defensively. One thing is for certain, the competition will be fierce.

As much as he shined considering he had never played linebacker before, Nebraska played without Glenn the last four games and actually improved defensively, therefore, softening that blow. Wortman made some plays at linebacker but is replaceable.

Dillard and Lawrence have to grab this unit by the scruff of the neck and lead the way. Despite Nebraska’s struggles at that position, first-year head coach Bo Pelini resisted the temptation to burn redshirts from talented freshmen such as Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher and Will Compton. The premise behind that decision is such that while those players might have been talented, they simply were not ready to step in and play at the level necessary to be contributors.

That extra year of development should prove vital. Of that group, my money is on Compton to impact matters the soonest.

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