July 31, 2008

DL fall camp preview: Leaders of the defense

The Nebraska football team will open up fall camp in less than a week when they take the practice field on Aug. 4. As the countdown to practice begins, HuskersIllustrated.com will breakdown each position heading into camp with in-depth position analysis. This afternoon we breakdown the defensive line, which will undoubtedly be one of the strengths of the Blackshirts heading into the 2008 season.

Biggest question: The return of the dominant defensive line?
It's been a while since Nebraska's defensive line has been this deep with talent, as the Huskers return their top two players at every position on the line from last season. Senior ends Barry Turner and Zach Potter both started 11 games last year and combined for 74 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Behind them are senior Clayton Sievers and sophomore Pierre Allen, and both should see plenty of playing time. Senior Ty Steinkuhler started eight games at defensive tackle, while junior Ndamukong Suh and seniors Kevin Dixon and Shukree Barfield will all battle for playing time at nose tackle. As a unit, NU's returning defensive linemen accounted for 178 tackles, 34 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Last year, the Huskers needed to replace all four starters on their defensive front. This year, the problem appears to be finding enough playing time for all of them.

What we know right now: The Huskers are loaded up front

Head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini walked in on a wealth of talent with this bunch on the defensive line. One of the biggest complaints about the Huskers' defense during the past few seasons was the lack of pressure - aside from a select few individuals - applied by the defensive front. With this bunch, that doesn't look to be much of a problem. Nebraska is big and physical along the D-line, but more than anything, it's fast. Very fast. Turner said he's determined to get back to his Freshman All-America form from 2005, and Potter was an absolute beast last year with 12 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The biggest difference, though, is on the interior. While Suh is still recovering from a knee injury, when healthy he's one of the best in the Big 12. Add in the emergence of Dixon and Barfield, the Huskers should have the luxury of rotating their defensive line to create a consistently fresh front four throughout the game, similar to what the New York Giants did on their way to a Super Bowl.

Fresh fall camp faces:Josh Williams, Quentin Toailoa, Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith

If all four of the potential freshmen defensive linemen pan out, this unit could reach elite status. The biggest question marks are Josh Williams and Baker Steinkuhler. Williams' status is still unknown with unresolved legal issues, and Steinkuhler has yet to determine whether he'll join his brother on defense or move across the ball to the offensive line. Williams was one of Rivals.com's No. 12 defensive linemen coming out of Ryan (Texas) High, and Steinkuhler was a Parade All-American and NU's lone five-star recruit from Lincoln (Neb.) Southwest High. The two that will be there, Cameron Meredith and Quentin Toailoa, are no slouches either. Meredith was rated by Rivals.com as one of the nation's top 15 weakside defensive ends, and his speed and agility could allow him to occasionally line up at linebacker. At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Toailoa already stands as the biggest defensive tackle on the roster along with Suh (6-4, 300).

Early camp prediction

There's no doubt in my mind that the defensive line will be the backbone of the Blackshirts this season. As the Giants proved last year in the Super Bowl, a great pass rush from the front four can throw even one of the greatest offenses in NFL history out of whack, and that's exactly what this unit can do. If the defensive front can create pressure on its own, the rest of the defense - especially the questionable secondary - can dedicate itself more to coverage, a vital asset when facing high-flying Big 12 offenses each week. In other words, however much the defense improves from last season's disastrous performance, it'll be the defensive line taking it there.

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