Sorting out the secondary
“We’re light years ahead of where we were last year.”
That’s how Bo Pelini described his 2012 secondary last week. “Light years” is a phrase he likes to use a lot. A quick search through last year’s notes from fall camp shows that it was used to describe the progress of Lavonte David, Taylor Martinez, and the Blackshirts’ readiness for the season as a whole.
Judge for yourself what “light years” looked like in those cases, but the truth here is this – Nebraska’s secondary battles are going to be perhaps the most intriguing part of fall camp. The Huskers have 13 returning letterwinners to choose from at corner or safety. Nine of those guys have started at least one game in their careers. There is talent everywhere but figuring out how it all fits together was a problem that plagued Nebraska last season as the Huskers gave up the most passing yards per game (192.2) since Pelini’s first year in Lincoln.
It was far from a catastrophe in 2011. The Blackshirts still ranked 18th nationally in pass defense last year, but the Huskers had been better against better passing offenses in the Big 12. The top-ranked passing offense in the Big Ten belonged to Northwestern last season. The Wildcats’ 254.4 yards per game passing ranked only 38th nationally.
But Pelini likes the hand he’s dealt himself.
“Our secondary is going to be good,” Pelini said in Chicago. “We’re deep at a lot of spots. I know what I have and there’s great competition going on back there. I don’t even know who’s going to line up at cornerback for the first game.”
We’re now less than a month away from finding out. Here’s a rundown of the players in contention:
With Alfonzo Dennard off to the NFL – the fifth defensive back Pelini has sent to the league in four years – the relative rocks at corner are Andrew Green and Ciante Evans. The pair of juniors has combined to start 18 games. The light seemed to go on for Green midway through the season last year. Four of his eight pass breakups came in Nebraska’s final four games.
Evans appears locked in to the nickel spot, leaving the other corner position wide open. Pelini said that if the Huskers had to play a game coming out of the spring that senior Antonio Bell would have made the start. Junior college transfer Mohammed Seisay should also be in the mix. Seisay is a proven talent at the FBS level – lettering for Memphis as a freshman – and the timeline is always sped up for JUCO transfers. Seisay has been with the Huskers since the spring.
Converted wide receiver Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 215) and sophomore Josh Mitchell (5-11, 155) offer raw athleticism in very different packages. True freshman Charles Jackson is one to watch closely. Originally a member of the 2011 recruiting class, there were whispers that the highly touted Jackson was the sort of player who could play right away.
There are five seniors on the roster currently listed at safety. The only sure thing in that group is Daimion Stafford.
Stafford announced himself to Husker Nation in week one last year with a monster hit on Tennessee-Chattanooga’s running back. He didn’t leave the field much after that, starting 12 of the remaining 13 games in 2011. Stafford lead the Huskers in pass breakups and was third on the team in tackles. He could be in line for All-Big Ten honors by December.
At the other safety spot Nebraska has four guys who truly look the part. Courtney Osborne (6-3, 200) has started five games in his career and should be locked in a tight race with P.J. Smith (6-2, 210). Sophomores Harvey Jackson (6-2, 210) and Corey Cooper (6-1, 210) are the future at safety and could battle for playing time. Senior Justin Blatchford will likely continue to see some snaps in certain situations.
As a unit, the cupboard appears to be stocked in the secondary but Nebraska fans might have to wait a month to find out what’s for dinner.
The hits will come quick for the newly built secondary. Even with a new offensive coordinator on board in former high school coach Steve Buckley, Southern Miss has some weapons back from the 17th-ranked total offense last season.
Two weeks later comes the true test for the Blackshirts secondary. Arkansas State already had the 16th best passing offense in the country last year. Then the Red Wolves went out and pried passing savant Gus Malzahn away from Auburn.
“Light years” could be needed there.