Everybody knows that linebackers play a key role in Nebraska’s defense under Bo Pelini. The defensive line plays the way it plays to free up the linebackers to make tackles. The secondary relies on the linebackers to communicate calls. Everything at Nebraska flows through the middle and the middle has perhaps never been as unsettled under Pelini as it is right now.
David Santos and Trevor Roach are the veterans in name though their combined experience totals just 23 games and 36 tackles over the past two years. Junior college transfer Zaire Anderson played in just three games last year before an injury ended his season. Then there’s the three redshirt freshmen — Michael Rose, Thomas Brown, and Jared Afalava — who are pushing to not just crack the lineup but find a position. The same goes for true freshman and early enrollee Courtney Love. Two more highly touted freshmen, Josh Banderas and Marcus Newby, will join the team in August.
That’s a lot of inexperience at, arguably, the most important defensive position group in Lincoln. With only five practices remaining this spring, is the Nebraska staff feeling the pressure to start figuring out how everything fits at linebacker?
Ross Els isn’t.
“I’d like to have an idea of what direction we’re going to go, more for their sake than anything,” the linebackers coach said of his expectations coming out of spring ball. “I want to see who can handle more than one position. Can this kid play a Mike (MLB) in our nickel package but a Will (WLB) in our base? Can he do some different things? Moving them around a bit will show us what he can do at that position but (also) how much of the defense he can learn. I’d like to get it settled as soon as possible but we’re not in any big hurry.”
Nebraska’s asking its linebackers to learn all the positions this spring. That’s better, Els said, than pigeonholing a guy right way and that movement will continue up until fall camp.
“If I’m a Mike but I know what the Will is doing, that’s going to help me because I know where my help is,” he said. “This summer they will be playing multiple positions. Once we get close to game time we’ll start really finding out what a kid can do and locking them in to one position.”
As will be the case at all levels of the defense in 2013, Nebraska expects to play more players this season across the board. That allows for an enticing level of specialization but it also makes finding the right blend of packages more important.
“(The linebackers) all have different attributes,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “They all have talent and athletic ability and can run, but how you use them in combination to find the best group out there, that’s really the challenge.”
Based on the coaches’ comments this spring, we have an idea of where the pieces are starting to fit. The Huskers are going with experience at middle linebacker with Santos moving over from the Will spot. Roach and Rose are also taking reps at the Mike position. Anderson might have a slight lead right now at Will while Rose, Brown, Afalava, and Love all continue to work at both of the outside spots. And it all could change before the Huskers kick off against Wyoming on Aug. 31.
Adding to the mystery is that, on paper, the Huskers have a bunch of guys who all seem to fit a similar profile. “Small and fast” Els called it. So if the positions and the players that will fill them is still very much up in the air, what is Nebraska looking for at each position?
Els uses the following criteria: ”Your Mike linebacker has to be able to play a little more physical. He’s always working on an inside-out path to the ball. A Will or Buck is outside the box so he’s got to be able to play a little bit more in space to be able to come from the outside down in.”
And while speed is good, it isn’t the first thing the coaches necessarily want to see now that they players have all been in the program for at least a year.
“It’s more of a reactionary thing,” Els said. “Your Mike has to be a little bit quicker because he is closer to the ball. When you get further outside the box, you have a little more time to respond even though things are happening around you pretty quick.”
There may not be any clear cut leaders at linebacker when Nebraska wraps up its spring practice session in two weeks. What is clear is that mental speed matters more than foot speed right now.
“We’ve been spoiled the last two years with Will Compton, Lavonte David, Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher, those guys who can tell everybody what to do and would do that,” Els said. “We’re lacking that right now.
“Most of the time you don’t make calls unless you’re sure of what you’re doing and what the guy next to you is doing. Until (our linebackers) get more comfortable knowledge-wise, they’re not going to be real vocal and we’ve got to get better at that this spring.”