Nebraska looking to shore up underperforming line

Updated: August 7, 2012, 5:42 PM ET
Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The numbers show Nebraska's defense has lost its intimidation factor.

The job of getting it back starts on the line, which has been a shell of its former self since Ndamukong Suh left after the 2009 season.

Opponents last season rushed for the second-most yards against the Cornhuskers since 1977, and Nebraska's 21 sacks were its second-fewest since the statistic was first officially tracked in 1981.

"Certainly we have to be a little better up front, more consistent, more physical inside," first-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "That's a big point of emphasis this camp."

The lack of production in 2011 could be chalked up to injuries -- including one that knocked star Jared Crick out of the last seven games -- or to the fact Nebraska was going against unfamiliar offenses in its first year in the Big Ten.

The bottom line: Nebraska finished a disappointing third in the Legends Division after being the popular choice to win it.

Though ends Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah and tackle Baker Steinkuhler have locked up starting jobs, the line remains one of the biggest question marks.

Those three started nine games together last season, when Nebraska allowed an average of 158 yards on the ground to rank 64th nationally. That number ballooned to 176 yards against Big Ten opponents. Only 11 of the Huskers' 21 sacks came in the eight conference games.

Those statistics are a far cry from the abysmal showing of the 2007 unit, one of the worst outfits in school history and a big reason for head coach Bill Callahan's firing.

But Bo Pelini's defense-first coaching mantra makes last year's performance intolerable.

Rick Kaczenski, hired away from Iowa in December to coach the line, doesn't believe it's a talent issue.

"To be honest with you, when I came here and saw these guys practicing, I said, `Man, I'm walking into a pretty good situation,' " he said.

The first thing Kaczenski addressed with the linemen was their intensity.

"Coach Kaz's main philosophy is to attack," Meredith said. "I think that's the main thing we have to do on the D-line. Instead of reacting, we are attacking. All summer we have worked on getting vertical, and I think it's really going to help us out on Sept. 1."

The Huskers open that day against Southern Mississippi, which ranked 20th nationally in rushing last season.

That's the first of many tests Nebraska's run-stoppers will face.

UCLA's Johnathan Franklin is on the Doak Walker Award watch list after averaging 5.9 yards a carry and just missing a second straight 1,000-yard season.

Arkansas State's Ryan Alpin is considered the best running quarterback in the Sun Belt Conference.

Heisman Trophy hopeful Montee Ball of Wisconsin, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint all return after having 100-yard games against the Huskers last season.

Kaczenski, who coached nine first- or second-team All-Big Ten linemen at Iowa from 2007-11, said the Huskers have the makings for a solid front four.

"I think this is an underrated group," he said. "I think there's a little bit more talent than people think, possibly."

Meredith, who has started 27 straight games, is the most versatile linemen. He had five sacks last season playing a stand-up, linebacker-type role in addition to firing out of a three-point stance on the end.

Ankrah started nine of 12 games, finished the regular season with five tackles against Iowa and was one of the Huskers' top performers in spring practice.

Steinkuhler started all 13 games last season, finished with 40 tackles and two sacks and is being touted for conference and national honors.

Chase Rome and Thad Randle are competing for the other tackle spot along with Kevin Williams. All three of those players missed spring because of injuries.

"I feel like our defense is going to be top 10 in the nation, just because of the depth," Ankrah said.

Tackles Jay Guy and Todd Peat and ends Eric Martin and Joe Carter are among the backups who also could play a lot.

"Coach Kaz said we would have nine guys that can play on the line, so we will rotate all nine guys into the game," Meredith said. "But if there is only four, then we will only rotate four. Whoever he trusts will play."

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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