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Nebraska linebackers adapt to lack of depth

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Within days of their arrival at Nebraska in December, Trent Bray and defensive coordinator Mark Banker convened to review the Huskers’ depth at linebacker.

Bray, pegged by Mike Riley to coach the position after playing it in college at Oregon State and coaching linebackers for the past three seasons with that team, anticipated some kind of a shortage. After all, the Huskers often favored stacked looks in the secondary over the base defense that featured three linebackers under the former coaching staff.

But four guys?

Bray counted four returning scholarship linebackers after the transfer of Courtney Love and loss to graduation of Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach from a defense that ranked ninth in the Big Ten in scoring last year and eighth in yardage allowed.

“Yeah, it was surprising,” Bray said Monday after the sixth of 15 spring practices in Lincoln. “Usually, you want to carry around 12. But there was nothing you could do about it, so we just had to look forward and fill some spots in that recruiting class.”

The Huskers signed four linebackers in February, including Dedrick Young of Peoria, Arizona, who enrolled for the spring semester and may factor in as a true freshman in the fall.

Of immediate concern this spring, Bray has tried to teach the Huskers’ new defensive scheme as he manages a thin group. He’s cautiously optimistic about the early results.

“The good thing is,” Bray said, “everyone’s getting a lot of reps.”

Juniors Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey and sophomore Marcus Newby have received the majority of the work with the top defense.

Young and converted safety Luke Gifford, a redshirt freshman, provide depth, while senior David Santos -- with starting experience in each of the past three seasons -- continues to rehab a knee injury.

Banderas said he recognizes that observers may view the dearth of linebackers a weak link of the Nebraska defense.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he said.

“As soon as Santos gets back,” Banderas said, “I don’t see us taking much of a hit, if not growing a little bit.”

Banderas fought inconsistency as a part-time starter over the past two seasons. Rose-Ivey, after starting seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2013, missed all of last year with a knee injury suffered in August.

Once competitors for the middle-linebacker spot, they’re teaming this spring as Banderas mans the middle and Rose-Ivey settles outside.

He may shift inside at times, Bray said. Young also offers versatility.

Banderas likes the defensive scheme.

“Just less thinking,” he said. “Less thinking, more playing. You just play faster. It’s more reactionary. See it and go, instead of see it and think about it and then go.”

Bray’s plan for Banderas after the coach watched film of his sophomore year?

“Give him the freedom to play,” Bray said. “He hesitated, and he wasn’t quite sure of going and getting things.”

Bray told Banderas not to worry about making a mistake.

If you make it, we’ll correct it,” he said. “I want to see you do stuff fast. And he’s really taken to it. Josh has had a really good spring so far. He’s had a number of interceptions. He’s got his hands on the ball.”

Newby, at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, possesses the physical ability to make plays, Bray said. And Young, according to the coach, is “picking things up real fast for a guy who should be going to his prom.”

With more depth in the secondary, the Huskers may prefer to regularly play five defensive backs, as in recent years, though it’s not a certainty.

“That is dictated by the personnel we have,” Bray said. “We’ve had years [at Oregon State] where we’ve played a ton of base defense, because those were our best 11 guys.

“We’ve had other years where we were in nickel a lot.”

Other defenders have confidence in the linebackers.

“They’re tough,” said safety LeRoy Alexander, Rose-Ivey's roommate who also sat out last season. “I know we don’t have a lot of them, but the ones we do have, they’re doing everything they can.”

Signees Mohamed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson and Adrienne Talan are scheduled to arrive as reinforcements in the summer.

Bray plans to look for multiple freshmen to play. In the meantime, walk-ons have filled reserve roles in the spring.

“There’s guys who have been here a couple years that have never gotten a rep at a practice,” Bray said. “So this is an opportunity. Here it is. Show us you can play.”

It’s a mantra for Nebraska’s entire corps of linebackers.