NCF Nation: Jonathan Rose

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Let’s face it, the Nebraska defense played at an average level in 2013.

Early in the season, the Huskers were below average. Remember the 38 consecutive points scored by UCLA and the 465 yards surrendered to South Dakota State? Later, Nebraska rated better than the norm, winning away from home against Michigan, Penn State and Georgia largely on the back of the Blackshirts.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory expects the Nebraska defense to reach new heights this fall.
But in 12 of 15 key defensive categories, Nebraska ranked no higher than third in the Big Ten and no lower than ninth.

So yes, as a whole, the group was average.

All-league defensive end Randy Gregory and his teammates want a new label for 2014.

Dominant or suffocating -- either is fine. How about being the strength of coach Bo Pelini’s seventh team?

“Definitely,” Gregory said. “Let’s be physical. We can dominate. If we play our game, we can play with anybody.”

The defensive performance and growth this spring appear to substantiate Gregory’s claim. This Nebraska defense looks stronger, deeper and more physical than any of the past few seasons.

Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska in 2009 and as coordinator in 2003 stand out as the best of the post-championship era in Lincoln. Both units ranked among the top two nationally in scoring and passing yardage allowed. They both featured a play-making All-American among the front seven. And both units surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. They were the only Nebraska defenses of the past 12 seasons to reach the threshold that was commonly crossed in the 1990s, when the Huskers contended for five national titles, winning three.

“I think we can be a top-10 defense,” linebacker Zaire Anderson said. “If we keep working and making progress, we can be a great defense.”

Why such optimism? Well, first of all, it’s spring; positive energy abounds in April. But such talk did not flow from Nebraska camp a year ago as the Huskers attempted to replace several key pieces.

“They learned a lot last year,” linebacker Trevor Roach said.

Through the growing pains emerged a mix of experience and athleticism from front to back. Much like its dynamic mixture at I-back on the offensive side, the Huskers did not necessarily concoct the diversity of this defensive lineup.

It just kind of happened, with Gregory, an All-America candidate in his second season at Nebraska, anchoring a front four that has turned the heads of many observers this spring. At linebacker, seniors Anderson and Roach and junior David Santos have grown into the elders, but youth still rules.

In the secondary, where the Huskers need it most, cornerback Josh Mitchell is the vocal leader of the entire defense. And perhaps more than anywhere else on the field, the maturity of young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry -- in the absence of injured veteran Corey Cooper -- has rated as a key surprise.

At all three levels, positive storylines have emerged this spring.

The evidence of defensive chemistry was on display Wednesday in Nebraska’s 10th practice of the spring.

Late in the workout in a sequence between the top offense and the Blackshirts, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Anderson and Gregory pressured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. on three consecutive plays, the last of which resulted in a Gerry interception that had the whole defense abuzz.

“As much as I’ve seen, I know we’ve got a lot of upside right now,” said cornerback Jonathan Rose, who is competing with newcomer Byerson Cockrell for a top job opposite Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s like a whole 'nother defense coming out this year.”

Gregory said he liked what he saw, too, on Wednesday, but the junior warned that a few practices in the spring can mark only the beginning.

Even early in the season last fall, the defense possessed plenty of talent, he said. It just wasn't making plays.

“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.

“It all starts, really, in the film room.”

Gregory notices more teammates studying film. They’re “taking it upon themselves to put in the work,” he said.

The Huskers could use a highly rated defense to help ease pressure on the offense, which will work with a reconstructed line and an inexperienced group at quarterback. Behind third-year sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games as a substitute for the injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, no quarterback has handled a collegiate snap.

"We have faith in our offense, certainly,” Roach said, “because we have a ton of weapons. But we have to focus on us. We have to worry about what we’re doing. I get the vibe that we have the potential to do great things.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- How’s this for a surprise on the opening day of spring football practice? Nebraska has a new quarterback.

Well, Jamal Turner is not new; the 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior caught 60 passes over the past three seasons. And he has played quarterback -- in high school.

[+] EnlargeJamal Turner
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJamal Turner will workout at both receiver and quarterback this spring.
Turner shared time at QB on Saturday with several others behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. as the Huskers completed the first of 15 spring practices at their indoor practice facility.

Coach Bo Pelini said Nebraska plans “significant reps” for Turner in March and April.

Turner has tried the position in the past at Nebraska, Pelini said, but never in such an expanded role.

“This spring is a time for us to experiment and maybe take it to a different level," Pelini said. "He likes it. He thinks he’s [NFL quarterback] Russell Wilson. Jamal isn’t lacking for confidence.

“I thought he handled some things pretty well. He was further ahead than I thought he’d be. But when you play wideout, you kind of get how the offense runs.”

Turner also spent time at receiver on Saturday. He accounted for more than 10,000 yards in his high school career at Arlington (Texas) Sam Houston.

Armstrong performed well on Saturday with the top offensive unit. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton also worked at the position in addition to walk-ons Ryker Fyfe and Tyson Broekemeier. Freshman Zack Darlington, who joined the team in January, wore a green jersey to restrict contact in his first workout.

Senior I-back Ameer Abdullah said he liked the element that Turner adds.

“We’re just trying every new wrinkle we can to make this offense more dynamic,” Abdullah said.

Pelini said he was pleased with the opening day.

“I liked the tempo, the enthusiasm,” the seventh-year coach said. “Obviously, different guys are at different levels right now, as far as their knowledge, but I thought it was a good start.”

The Huskers have installed changes this spring to terminology and other logistics in an attempt to simplify aspects of the offense.

Pelini said he expected more mistakes than occurred.

“I was surprised how smooth it went,” he said. “There were very few missed assignments and alignment errors.”

Other Notes

Secondary matters: Senior safety Corey Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler in 2013, sat out on Saturday with turf toe, Pelini said. Cooper suffered the injury last week in a conditioning drill.

“I’m not going to push Coop at this time of year,” Pelini said. “We want to make sure he’s 100 percent.”

Sophomores LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry, a converted linebacker, played safety with the top defense in Cooper’s absence.

Pelini said the Huskers used juniors Charles Jackson and Byerson Cockrell, a newcomer out of junior college, at nickel, the spot manned last season by versatile defender Ciante Evans. Junior Jonathan Rose performed well at cornerback opposite returning starter Josh Mitchell.

Getting bigger: All-Big Ten defensive end Randy Gregory has made important strides in recent weeks, Pelini said, as the junior attempts to add weight.

The 6-6 Gregory, who recorded 10 sacks last season, looked especially thin in January. But Gregory is back up to about 235 pounds, the coach said.

“His offseason has only begun,” Pelini said. “He’s got a long way to go before we play a game.

“Every day is important for Randy to get bigger.”

Time to reflect: Senior receiver Kenny Bell caught 52 passes for 577 yards last season and remains on track to shatter school records in both categories.

He’s not resting on his accomplishments, though.

“I was disappointed in my year last year, for selfish reasons," Bell said. "I wanted to perform better.”

Bell’s production dropped from his sophomore season, when he caught 50 passes for 863 yards and a career-best eight touchdowns.

“I had a lot of time to self-reflect and think about it over these past three months,” he said.

Spring football is often unenjoyable, Bell said, but he’s determined to improve.

“I’m here to work, definitely. I want to win football games with my team. I want to do something that hasn’t been done here in a long time, and that’s win a conference championship."
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

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