Nebraska enters 2012 with question marks at every level defensively but the biggest one, the linchpin to Bo Pelini’s entire scheme, is at defensive tackle.
This is the first year since Pelini arrived in Lincoln where he doesn’t have either a burgeoning or bona fide superstar at defensive tackle. In 2008 and 2009 it was Ndamukong Suh. In 2010 and 2011 it was Jared Crick.
In 2012, Nebraska has one solid starter in Baker Steinkuhler and two leading contenders – Thad Randle and Chase Rome – at the other spot. Redshirt freshman Kevin Williams, the favorite to give Nebraska at least a two-deep rotation at defensive tackle, has yet to play a down of college football. There are a lot of unknowns just at that position and that’s important for one very big reason: Nebraska asks their defensive tackles to do more than most.
Pelini plays a two-gap scheme up front. There are two major schools of thought among defensive coordinators, one-gap and two-gap, and the easiest way to explain the difference is this: In a one-gap system defenders just attack a spot, the gap between the guard and center (A-gap) for example, and are responsible for handling whatever fun happens there.
The two-gap system asks a defender to stand his blocker up, read where the play is going, and handle one of two spots, the A-gap or the guard-tackle gap (B-gap). The two-gap player, in essence, goes looking for his own fun. As Chris Brown from Smart Football put it, it “sounds physically impossible.”
It’s not impossible but it does require very smart and physical tackles. Ask former Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.
“(The two-gap player) has to be able to have great strength,” he told Hail Varsity Radio earlier this week. “You have to have good hand strength, good position and you have to be ready to play both of those gaps. The thing is with it, you can’t make a mistake.”
Picture Ndamukong Suh. (If you can’t here’s a helpful video.) He was, perhaps, the epitome of the two-gap player at the college level. Good speed and incredible upper body strength. Those images you have in your head of Suh tossing blockers like rag dolls? That was him playing two-gap defense to perfection. The pass rush he, and Jared Crick for that matter, we’re able to provide was just a bonus. A happy accident of superior athleticism.
You’re not always going to have a guy like that. It’s fair to ask if Nebraska has anyone like that right now. Critics of the two-gap system point to those extraordinary requirements as one of the primary weaknesses of the system, particularly at the college level where talent levels fluctuate yearly.
“It’s not an easy deal but it does do one thing,” McBride said. “If you’re over the center, it really makes it tough for him to get off on the linebackers and that’s key. The linebackers have a chance to move better when he doesn’t have people on him or coming out after him.”
Now picture Lavonte David. (Here’s the Michigan game highlights where he seemed to make every play.) He cracked Nebraska’s top five in all-time tackles in two years in this system and that’s by design. For special linebackers like that, playing in a two-gap system is like getting seated at a Brazilian steakhouse – you’ll be served as much as you can handle. It’s fair to ask if Nebraska has that player right now too.
Regardless of talent level, the one thing a two-gap defense must have collectively is discipline McBride said. Most of Nebraska’s current staff will tell you that it was the missing ingredient last year. The Blackshirts had it in spurts, but spurts aren’t enough.
“When you’re playing two-gap, of course, you’re a team that reads,” McBride said. “You’re really not a terrific attacking team. The strength factor is huge. You have to be a really strong person to do that.”
Strength is something you can build and we’ll find out in a few weeks if Nebraska has their relatively green bunch of defensive tackles ready enough. It is, perhaps, the biggest question the Huskers have to answer heading into 2012.
For McBride, the mastermind behind some of Nebraska’s best defenses, it’s even more black-and-white than that.
“If you don’t have a defensive line, you can go home,” McBride said. “To me, they better be your better football players in most cases. If they’re going to let people off on linebackers, if they’re not going to play their gap responsibilities, you can’t win.”
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