LINCOLN, Neb. -- Departing receiver Quincy Enunwa, who often plays with the aggression of a defender, likes what he sees from the guys he practices with every day.
“I’m very excited about the defense,” Enunwa said.
The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1 against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., marks the final chance for this defensive unit to display the improvement that has served as a highlight for the Huskers amid a rocky season. In December practices -- Nebraska returned to work last weekend -- the promise of a dominant defense next year ranks as a driving force.
Nebraska heads into the postseason ranked No. 36 in total defense, allowing 367 yards per game, and 37th in yards allowed per play at 5.22. In the same categories at the start of October, the Huskers sat 107th and 108th, respectively.
“They’ve grown up a lot, matured,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The maturity brought the confidence out of them.”
The turnaround started, according to Enunwa, after a team meeting that followed the slow defensive start.
“We told them that we knew what they can do,” Enunwa said, “and they responded. The past three, four games, they were leading the team. They were the ones who were picking us up.”
That should continue next season with the Huskers set to return their top five tacklers in 2014, led by safety Corey Cooper and linebacker David Santos. But Cooper, a senior next year, and the rising junior Santos are just two of many reasons for optimism on defense.
An overall infusion of youth and athleticism, which figures to continue next season, tops the list.
Start with defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 9 ½ sacks as a sophomore in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. An offseason in Lincoln figures to turn Gregory from a first-team all-conference pick into an All-America caliber defender.
“He brings a kind of athleticism to the defense that we haven’t had here in a while,” Ankrah said.
But it’s more than Gregory that excites Enunwa and the Huskers.
Fellow bookend Avery Moss earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten, as tabbed by ESPN.com, along with middle linebacker Michael Rose, who emerged as a leader in the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine showed promise, as did freshman linebackers Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and Jared Afalava.
Speedy outside linebacker Zaire Anderson returns as a senior. Throw in Courtney Love, the defensive scout team MVP, and Marcus Newby, both of who redshirted, and you’ve got a deep and versatile group of linebackers.
Up front, Kevin Maurice and Maliek Collins played as true freshmen this year. Commitments from junior college tackle Terrell Clinkscales and end Joe Keels show that the Huskers aren’t slowing in their bid to stockpile man power.
“We have a lot of guys with a lot of great ability,” returning defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “We’re losing the most in the secondary, so that’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re going to fill in.
“But I think we’re going to be very explosive and very fast.”
Regardless, the challenges look minimal in comparison to the hurdles cleared this year.
And this month -- and New Year’s Day -- should only help springboard the Cornhuskers into next season, Mitchell said.
“It’s going to give us a jump on next year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to remember their last couple practices. So whatever you learn now and whatever we can improve on now, it will carry over into the spring.”