Led by All-America candidate Jared Crick and a group that boasted 58 career starts, Nebraska's defensive line entered the 2011 season in attack mode.
But by the end of the season, the Huskers' front four was simply in survival mode. A torn pectoral ended Crick's season in early October, and other injuries sidelines contributors like Thad Randle and Chase Rome.
"We got really skinny toward the end of the year," defensive end Cameron Meredith told ESPN.com. "Out of the whole D-line, honestly there were only about five, six people that were rotating. That created a lot of stress on us as players. Think about if someone else had gone down, you're down to four or five players per game. Luckily this year, everyone is pretty healthy, and we're looking good."
Although several defensive linemen missed spring ball with injuries, the group looks stronger in fall camp, which began Saturday. The Huskers return a pair of multiyear starters in Meredith and senior tackle Baker Steinkuhler, and three other players with starting experience, including end Jason Ankrah, who started nine games in 2011.
Experience isn't an issue with the line, which boasts four seniors and two juniors. And the upside of the injury issues in 2011 is that younger players like Rome, a redshirt sophomore who appeared in 10 games last season (starting two).
"Truthfully, about nine guys could actually play," Meredith said. "We'll just see how it goes through fall camp and see what the rotation is Sept. 1. Coach Kaz [defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski] has talked about if there are nine people who can play on the field, he's going to play all nine."
Kaczenski typically used a smaller rotation (6-8 players) at Iowa, where he coached defensive line from 2007-11, but he has made it clear to Meredith and others that "he's going to play who he trusts." That trust must be earned in the coming weeks.
Nebraska's main D-line directive is simple: generate more sacks. The Huskers finished 84th nationally in 2011 (1.62 per game) after placing 45th, second and 14th the previous three seasons. Their pass-rushing struggles translated to a pedestrian percentage of third-down conversions against (40.2 percent, 64th nationally).
The key to generate more obvious pass-rushing opportunities, Meredith said, is improving on first and second downs.
"Last year, we were dealing with third-and-3, third-and-2, third-and-4 a lot, which is not really manageable [for the defense]," Meredith said. "We want to get into third-and-5 plus. We want to make sure we can show different looks. The first- and second-down aspect has to become more important, and then once we get in those third downs, obviously we’ve got to get a better pass rush. I think we have the people to do it, the tools to do it."
And finally, the depth to do it.