Hot Reads: A New Way to Measure Defensive Dominance - The Suh Line
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: A New Way to Measure Defensive Dominance – The Suh Line

August 26, 2019

College football is celebrating its 150th anniversary this season, but there's arguably a more important anniversary happening here. It has been 10 years since Ndamukong Suh ragdolled the Big 12 for an entire season and almost won the Heisman.

It feels like yesterday. And though it was now 10 years ago, it's still no less fun to just go back and gawk at what Suh did.

Adam Rittenberg of ESPN did just that for a story published over the weekend. A lot of the key players spoke to Rittenberg for the story, including Suh, former Husker coaches Bo Pelini and John Papuchis and a couple of big-name coaches who were sucked into Suh's orbit––Clemson's Dabo Swinney and former Texas coach Mack Brown, now at North Carolina.

You really just need to go read the whole thing if you haven't already. I could grab just about any snippet of this story and it would serve as an entertaining example of what's in it, but I'm choosing this one from the locker room after Suh's dominant performance against Texas in the Big 12 championship game:

"My locker was next to Carl [Pelini]'s," Papuchis said, "and he goes, 'You don't appreciate it now, but that might have been the single greatest D-line performance in college football history.'"

No one in the winning locker room would argue.

"In my 43 years in coaching, he might have had the most dominant performance of anybody, specifically, but really a defensive lineman," Brown said. "We were really good. Nobody had dominated us like that. He just took over."

I don't think Suh's performance against Texas––seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks––will ever totally fade from memory, but I think we need a way to appreciate the absolute absurdity of what he did more often. That's why we're going to start using the Suh Line.

It's like baseball's Mendoza Line, but for Blackshirts. Unlike the Mendoza Line, which started as a joke but has continued to exist as a way to measure a minimum level of competency at the plate, the Suh Line is actually an indicator of a greater level of quality while underscoring the off-the-charts performance of Suh against the Longhorns.

It works like this: Once a Husker defender has tallied seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in a season, that player is above the Suh Line. "Well, how hard can that be over a season if Suh did it in one game?" you might be thinking.

Just nine Huskers have hit both numbers over the nine seasons since Suh left. Here's the list. (Again, these are season totals.)

Jared Crick, DL 2010 14.5 9.5
Lavonte David, LB 2010 12.5 6.0
Lavonte David, LB 2011 12.0 5.5
Eric Martin, DL 2012 16.5 8.5
Randy Gregory, DL 2013 16.0 9.5
Randy Gregory, DL 2014 8.5 7.0
Maliek Collins, DL 2014 10.5 4.5
Ross Dzuris, DL 2016 11.0 5.5
Luke Gifford, LB 2018 12.0 5.5

I don't think the Suh Line is just some quirky measure. I'm not totally joking here. I actually think it's important, particularly given defensive coordinator Erik Chinander's emphasis on negative plays. How many players are above the Suh Line in a given season might actually be a solid indicator of how well Nebraska is doing defensively.

Two of Nebraska's nine above-the-Suh-Line seasons since 2010 happened under Pelini. The Huskers had no Suh Line qualifiers in 2015 or 2017, so there's some work to do here. Both of Chinander's UCF defenses had two players above the Suh Line. Nebraska hasn't had two players hit those marks in the same season since 2014. 

A team has to be pretty disruptive to get two or more players to that level. There's also a scarcity of stats thing going on here. There are only so many TFLs to go around. Take your pick between Michigan and Michigan State for the best defense in the Big Ten last year. The Wolverines had three players above the Suh Line last year, the Spartans one. Last season's title-game participants, Alabama and Clemson, had four and three players above the Suh Line respectively.

What Suh did against Texas turns out to be relatively difficult to do in a season.

Let the Suh Line now exist as a tribute to that.

The Grab Bag

  • Two great features from our 2019 Yearbook are now online: Derek Peterson with an oral history of last year’s post-Purdue team meeting and Erin Sorensen spends a day with Adrian Martinez.
  • And here’s Derek’s Monday morning column, which looks at Cam Jurgens, Darrion Daniels’ remarkable leadership abilities and Wan’Dale Robinson in the return game.
  • Greg Smith caught up with Nebraska’s latest commit, running back Marvin Scott III.
  • Jacob Padilla is previewing Nebraska volleyball position by position this week. First up, the setters.

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