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2017 Year in Review: Defense

December 29, 2017

We continue our look back at the 2017 Huskers with a look at a unit that struggled mightily: the Blackshirts. You can read the first piece of our Year in Review series, on the Nebraska offense, here.

What Nebraska Needed to Do

Nebraska really just needed to be average on defense this season. The Huskers were looking to replace senior starters like Nate Gerry, Josh Banderas and Ross Dzuris but there was plenty of talent left on the defensive side of the ball and the Husker offense was finally getting a quarterback that perfectly fit what the coaching staff wanted to do.

With Bob Diaco replacing Mark Banker at defensive coordinator and bringing a new 3-4 style defense with him, people expected that talent to be strained and stretched in new and unfamiliar ways, but predicting anything worse than an average year from this unit would have been met with some raised eyebrows.

What Nebraska Did

Well, this unit definitely had something worse than an average year.

Let’s open with this first, though, the Blackshirts absolutely faced some adversity in 2017. Bob Elliott, brought in to, among other reasons, help smooth out the transition for Diaco, passed away before the season began. Late in the season, Diaco started to touch on his loss, saying it took a bit of time for the staff to recover from that.

All-Big Ten cornerback Chris Jones was lost to a torn meniscus before the season even started. He didn’t return until early October and was never the player anyone expected to see. Safety JoJo Domann missed the entire season with an injury. Here's a list of players who were starters at some point in 2017 who missed at least one game because of injury: safety Joshua Kalu, safety Aaron Williams, Jones, corner Eric Lee Jr., linebacker Luke Gifford, linebacker Marcus Newby. And in all fairness to Diaco, 14 underclassmen saw playing time.

Still, the numbers were brutal.

The Huskers gave up 50 points or more in four games, the most in program history. They gave up 200 yards or more on the ground in six of the final seven games (Purdue finished with 199 rushing yards). They allowed 438.1 yards per game, the most since 2007, and opposing offenses averaged 6.34 yards per play, only better than 19 FBS programs. The Huskers had 14 sacks in 12 games (119th nationally), 44 tackles for loss (129th nationally) and only 12 turnovers (tied for 115th nationally). Diaco’s defenses have never been high-sack, high-turnover units but bottom-of-the-barrel was not expected.

Feels like a good time to add one of those “make it stop” GIFs, huh?

Nebraska’s tackling was suspect all season long, eventually sparking “he said, he said” spats between coordinators past and present, the coverage in the secondary was questioned constantly with 10-yard (and sometimes larger) cushions given to opposing receivers on any given down and defenders sometimes looked like they were either lost or thinking too hard about what they should do rather than just doing it.

In short, absolutely nothing worked

What it Means Going Forward

The Huskers have talent on the defensive side of the ball. That’s a hill I will gladly die on and it appears that new head coach Scott Frost feels that way too. During comments made on the early signing day on Dec. 20, Frost said there was more talent on the Husker roster than what the 2017 record indicated. Given how the season played out, you can’t help but think a large portion of that sentiment is geared towards the Blackshirts.

Dicaprio Bootle and Marquel Dismuke, two redshirt freshmen defensive backs, came on strong late. Safety Antonio Reed grew with an expanded role. Freshmen Ben Stille and Deontre Thomas flashed big-time potential throughout the season. Stille might even grow into a star if the new staff sticks him in a position and stops moving him back and forth. Linebacker Mohamed Barry looks ready for a starting role and then there’s Gifford, who might have been the best defender Nebraska had last season.

Central Florida under Erik Chinander, the Huskers’ third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, was statistically better than Nebraska in almost every category. The Knights weren’t defensive stalwarts but they ranked 30 spots ahead of the Huskers in defensive S&P+ ratings, according to FootballOutsiders.com, and played three of the country’s top 13 scoring offenses in Memphis (No. 2), South Florida (No. 12) and SMU (No. 13). When they face Auburn on New Year’s Day, it’ll mark four opponents inside the top 25.

I’ll let you be the judge of which program has more blue-chip talent between the two, but don’t let the 97 points the Knights gave up in the final two weeks of their season fool you into thinking the Huskers shouldn’t improve on defense moving forward.

After all, when you’re at the bottom there’s nowhere left to go but up.

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