Dienhart: Huskers have one of 'best-looking' fronts

LINCOLN, Neb. – It’s difficult to believe that this is Bo Pelini’s sixth season in Lincoln. Time flies. He has done many good things, highlighted by last year’s trip to the Big Ten title game. But to get over the hump and to the program’s first league title since 1999, the defense needs to improve.

[ PROGRAM ALERT: Watch the Nebraska Preview Show at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on BTN/BTN2Go ]

And in Monday’s practice, the players looked good. Especially the d-linemen. Now, to be fair, today’s practice wasn’t overly physical. The latter part of the drills were devoted to seven-on-seven work and “green zone” work, which offensive coordinator Tim Beck described to me as working between the 10- and 4-yard lines into the scoring end zone. Speaking of Beck, he had trouble speaking today, as he recently underwent another procedure on his jaw as he looks to solve a sleep apnea issue.

The Huskers have their best offensive line of the Bo Pelini era. Guard Spencer Long is the bellwether. Again there wasn’t a lot of heavy hitting today, but he moved well. Beck said he has three legit tackles in Andrew Rodriguez, Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale. Jake Cotton is the other guard. If there was a game today, Beck told me Cole Pensick would start over Mark Pelini at center. Beck likes his depth, mentioning Mike Moudy and Ryne Reeves. He also likes true freshman David Knevel, a 6-9 product of Canada. The guy is huge; so is Zach Sterup.

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Before arriving in Lincoln, I thought Nebraska had the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. And that thought hasn’t changed after watching practice. Kenny Bell is long, lean and fast. And his hair is in midseason form. Quincy Enunwa is big (6-2, 225), physical target who can go get the ball. Ex-quarterback Jamal Turner showed me good hands and feet. He showed me big-play moxie too. It’s a nice trio. But the riches don’t stop there. Alonzo Moore is an impressive redshirt freshman that Beck likes. Ditto Jordan Westerkamp. True freshman Kevin Gladney actually may earn a spot in the rotation. He’s impressive. So many options at this spot for the Huskers, an embarrassment of riches. Receivers coach Rich Fisher does a great job.

Taylor Martinez never will throw a consistently pretty ball, but it doesn’t matter. He’s improved his accuracy and is a killer runner. The backup job is up for grabs between Tommy Armstrong, Jr., and Ron Kellogg III. It was too close for me to call. Stay tuned.

[ RELATED: Yarina: My preseason All-Big Ten Offense | And Defense ]

The tight end spot lost key players in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton. The top two options are banged up and didn’t work today: Jake Long and Sam Cotton. A kid that Beck likes is Cethan Carter, who doesn’t look or play like a true freshman. Nebraska will be OK here.

Yes, Rex Burkhead is gone, but Nebraska still has a nice collection of running backs—but experience is iffy. What Ameer Abdullah lacks in size (5-9, 190), he compensates for with speed, moves and savvy. I really like true freshmen running backs Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor. Beck described Newby’s style as being similar to Abdullah’s; Beck said Taylor is a faster Imani Cross. Speaking of Cross, the guy is a flat-out beast. He caught my eye last season, and he continues to progress. There may be no more physical of a runner in the Big Ten.

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I paid close attention to the defensive line, which has a lot to prove this fall. Line coach Rick Kaczenski gets after it and is a great, intense teacher. End Jason Ankrah is the lone starter back up front. He’s big and fast. He said after practice that he’s worked as a de facto coach for the young guys over the summer. Ankrah is a leader, doing more post-practice work with his guys today. Overall, this was one of the best-looking fronts I have seen on the tour. I liked what I saw from guys like ends Avery Moss, Randy McMullen and Randy Gregory, a lean athlete who gets up the field. McMullen is also an impressive specimen who brings the heat. Inside, John Papuchis likes Thad Randle. He’s a bankable commodity. Vincent Valentine is a prototype run stuffer, but he also can move. Aaron Curry and Brodrick Nickens showed me some athletic ability. And keep an eye on true freshman Maliek Collins. He’s a 300-pounder who coaches say may play.

The starting linebackers are all new, but there are some nice, athletic options who will be upgrades. Believe me. Zaire Anderson is strong at the point of attack. David Santos and Michael Rose are fast. Jarad Afalava is physical. Papuchis pointed out true freshmen Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. Each is fast and active and likely will play.

[ VIDEO: Watch Taylor Martinez sign the BTN tour bus ]

The secondary could be the strongest part of the defense. Terry Joseph says he likes his unit. I do, too. Corners Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Josh Mitchell bring savvy and smarts to the unit. Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a physical corner. Joseph says Mohammed Seisay is on track after falling behind last year after getting hurt. He’s a big corner. The safeties need to be watched. Corey Cooper, Charles Jackson, D.J. Singleton and Harvey Jackson. Evans told me after practice that Cooper is the best hitter in the secondary.

There is competition at kicker with Brett Maher gone. Touted Mauro Bondi is dueling with Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith, a fifth-year transfer who began his career at Missouri. He told me the staff has given no indication when a decision will be made on a winner.

View our tour schedule and relive all the stops:

SHOW ON BTN (8 p.m. ET)
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Monday, Aug. 12
Ohio State
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Tuesday, Aug. 13
Penn State
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Wednesday, Aug. 14
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Friday, Aug. 16
Michigan State
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Saturday, Aug. 17
Monday, Aug. 19
Tuesday, Aug. 20
Wednesday, Aug. 21
Thursday, Aug. 22
Friday, Aug. 23
Saturday, Aug. 24
Tuesday, Aug. 20
Sunday, Aug. 25


About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (8 Comments)
shookwriter27 on 8/19/2013 @ 2:27pm EDT Said:

Nebraska seems like once again it will be a powerhouse team.

huskerfanbb on 8/19/2013 @ 2:41pm EDT Said:

This offense will be good–and maybe great. Outside of some experience (not talent) issues at tight end, there are no real weak spots on this offense.

Defense? Remains to be seen. Most of the new players will probably be a talent upgrade on last year’s versions–especially speed at linebacker. However, Pelini has not, in the past, shown a willingness to simplify his defensive schemes to get less experienced kids on the field sooner. He has no choice but to play the kids this year–but will they understand his schemes?

Still, though, even with a suspect pass rush last year, this was the #1 pass defense in the B1G. If they can show even marginal improvement against the run, they should be alright.

Heck, if they can hold most teams under 30 they’ll have a good chance (Nebraska scored 30 or more points in all 4 losses last year).

bob jones on 8/19/2013 @ 3:08pm EDT Said:

Great rundown, Nebraska does look loaded at this point and it appears they have several new frosh who will be major contributors, that class looks better by the day. Cut down on turnovers and get the young defense on track and this could be a championship season. I think the DL’s name is Greg McMullen.

chris on 8/19/2013 @ 4:12pm EDT Said:

This Nebraska squad is set to be the dark horse of college football, with defense being the biggest surprise. B1G will regain street credit this year.

JoeW on 8/19/2013 @ 5:04pm EDT Said:

Lots of love here for the Huskers. Will be interesting to see if BTN crew changes their predicted order of finish in each division after all the visits are done. From what I have read to date I am staying with Cornhuskers and Buckeyes meeting in championship game.

Stephen Johnson on 8/19/2013 @ 6:00pm EDT Said:

Contrary to the general opinion of the defense this year, I think the focus will be there by the coaching staff and the youth will make up for the lack of experience. The offense will cruise and special teams will do well. Added to a great reduction in fumbles and interceptions. Oh and Bo has one more years experience.

Old Man and the Sea on 8/19/2013 @ 10:19pm EDT Said:

I am really concern with the oline’s ability to pass protect. With elite pass rush they don’t buy Taylor enough time. Sure they are big boys, but they lack technique and ability to contain the pass rush. On defense, I believe we will be strong up the middle, but I wonder on the edges and how well, or poorly can do. Playing against fast teams was a major issue last year.

carl on 8/19/2013 @ 11:56pm EDT Said:

If the defense can stop the run and keep from imploding when times get tuff, Nebraska will be back in CCG. And #3’s turnovers of course need to be limited. Nebraska needs to pound the rock with this O-line!