Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is blunt when he grades his team's run defense.
"Average," he said.
Average run defenses don't stop Daniel Thomas. Teams that don't stop Daniel Thomas run a high risk of losing to Kansas State.
Nebraska plays Kansas State on Thursday night in a nationally televised game on ESPN for its conference opener.
The Blackshirts don't need to be told that improvement is needed if they don't want a campaign for a second consecutive North title to get derailed before it gets rolling.
"All the things that’s happened to us, as far as wrong things in the run game, have been our fault," said defensive tackle Jared Crick. "They’ve been busts, misalignments, things that we can fix. Despite what people are saying about our run defense, I’m still very optimistic about what we can do as a unit when we’re clicking."
A year ago, with Ndamukong Suh plugging the middle of the defense, the Huskers ranked ninth nationally and second in the Big 12 against the run. So far in 2010, they've been the definition of Pelini's assessment of average. Through four games, Nebraska has slid to sixth in the Big 12 and No. 52 nationally out of 120 teams.
Fixing the problems that have precipitated the fall starts with communication.
"Even if it’s not defensive coaches’ call, as long as we’re on the same page we’re going to be fine. That’s just communication, making sure everybody’s talking to each other and everybody knows what’s going on. That’s the biggest thing we need to improve," Crick said. "Once we get that done, we can be a dangerous group."
The Huskers have one of the Big 12's most talented defensive lines, headlined by Crick and defensive end Pierre Allen. Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler and spectacularly mustachioed defensive end Cameron Meredith fill out the line. The Huskers are also breaking in new starters, Lavonte David and Alonzo Whaley, at linebacker. They've made plays but have also made mistakes, which is what raw first-year starters do.
"We have guys who know what they’re doing, it’s just this is their first season starting. It’s a little different, your first season. You’re not as confident in yourself; you’re trying not to mess up instead of going out there and playing a good game," Crick said. "I definitely saw improvement from our linebackers throughout the whole season."
Nebraska faced Thomas in its final regular season game last year and kept him out of the end zone, but he rushed for 99 yards on 19 carries in the Huskers 17-3 win.
"He ran extremely hard, he didn’t take the sideline," Crick said. "He fought for every yard he got and that’s very respectable out of a running back. A lot of guys will take the sideline when they get it or won’t stand up in case another dude will come and hit them and injure them or something."
Thomas has been even better this season, and his 628 yards in four games are more than half his production in 12 outings a season ago.
"We’re up to the challenge," Crick said. "The biggest thing is just going to be us have to play our game. It doesn’t matter what they run at us, we have to be on our game and play our roles. If we do that, we can stop any running game in the country. That’s what we’re looking for and hopefully we can execute."