- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Nebraska's defensive players enter their first game week feeling good vibes.
"Our confidence is high," senior linebacker Will Compton told ESPN.com. "And I think it's only going to get higher as the days go on."
All offseason, the Cornhuskers have talked about having a better understanding of the scheme and principals on defense, of communicating better and working together more. That, they believe, will lead to a much stronger performance from the Blackshirts than the disappointing showing of 2011.
Nebraska's defense had better be ready. Because it doesn't get much time to ease into things.
The season begins Saturday against Southern Miss, a team that averaged nearly 37 points per game a year ago. Week 2 brings a road trip to UCLA, followed by a visit from Arkansas State, which is now coached by former Arkansas and Auburn offensive whiz Gus Malzahn. September ends with a showdown against Wisconsin, which hung 48 points on Nebraska last season in Madison.
"We are going to get challenged right out of the gate," Compton said.
The Huskers think they're up to the challenge more than last year's defense was. Despite leaving the generally more offensive-minded Big 12, Nebraska's defensive numbers took a major tumble. To wit:
2009: 272 yards allowed per game (seventh in the FBS); 10.4 points allowed per game (first)
2010: 306.8 ypg (11th); 17.4 ppg (ninth)
2011: 350.7 (37th); 23.4 ppg (42nd)
So what has changed? More knowledge and more attention to detail. Better depth up front on the defensive line. And more experience at safety, a crucial spot in Bo Pelini's scheme.
"It's a much more mature group," first-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "Guys like Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green were in their first year of playing last year. Another year in the system gives them a greater understanding of their roles.
"Right know, our knowledge of what we're asking our guys to do is at a greater level, and we're able to progress further along in our package than we were a year ago."
It is also a defense that, at least going into the season, lacks stars. Last year's team had Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard as the defensive headliners. These Huskers don't have a single player who was a first- or second-team All-Big Ten performer on defense in 2011. But they don't expect to be a no-name defense for long.
"These guys will certainly be better well-known through their play this year," Papuchis said. "Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Will Compton, Jason Ankrah -- these guys are on the cusp of being the names people identify with and recognize.
"But at the end of the day, I believe this is a very unselfish defensive unit. I don't believe that they're worried about individual recognition and who the stars are. They want to go out there as a group and play the best defense they can. I don't think anybody needs to be the star to do that."
Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the defense this summer. Papuchis said leaders at other positions have emerged this month, including Stafford in the secondary and seniors Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith on the defensive line.
Leadership could be key early as Nebraska deals with some unknowns. Southern Miss has a new head coach in Ellis Johnson, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in Steve Buckley, who spent the previous five years as a high school coach. Huskers coaches have prepared by watching all kinds of different film, including high school games, but they expect surprises.
"You're going to see some things that we haven't seen before, and we have to be ready to make adjustments on the fly," Pelini said Monday.
Compton has seen evidence of his team's ability to do just that in preseason practice. He said the defense has done a great job of getting off the field on third downs and readjusting if it does give up a third-down conversion. In doing that and communicating on the field, he said, the Blackshirts have "made a big jump."
Nebraska's defense is eager to show that last year was a blip and that this is another dominant unit. They'll get the chance to prove themselves in September.
"We need to take care of business our first couple of games," Compton said. "It's on us to do so. We need to make a statement early."