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Posted on Sun, Aug. 17, 2003

Defense can only improve at Nebraska

The Kansas City Star

Among the more stunning developments in the season of discontent for Nebraska was the collapse of the defense.

When the Cornhuskers absolutely needed a stop last season it didn't happen. Third quarters were especially leaky. Losses to Oklahoma State, Texas, Colorado and Mississippi turned after halftime.

The defense was battered for 24 points and 362 yards per game, and the figures are worse if only Big 12 games are included. Kansas State gleefully rolled up 507 yards of total offense. Penn State passed the Huskers into submission. Colorado ran it down their throats.

The program that had produced such standouts in recent years as Grant Wistrom and Mike Brown didn't have an all-conference defender for the first time since the 1960s.

"Defensively, we've had our problems," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said.

Lessons that were supposed to be learned after the disasterous end of the 2001 season -- when they surrendered 99 points in losses to Colorado and Miami (Fla.) -- didn't sink in. It was more of the same in 2002.

Which meant less of the old coaching staff and a vow to improve in 2003.

"You'll see a much more physical style," Nebraska defensive end Trevor Johnson said. "Things are going to be different."

They already are. Bo Pelini, an NFL assistant for the last decade, replaced Craig Bohl as defensive coordinator. Former Huskers free safety Marvin Sanders and defensive end Jimmy Williams join the staff.

The new staff's influence was felt soon after the veterans arrived for fall workouts. Previously, all defensive starters received black shirts before the first game. That's not how Pelini works. He wants players to earn their shirts based on performance. Nebraska usually poses those players for a schedule poster, but publicists must find another concept this year.

Linebacker should be the unit's strength. Demorrio Williams and T.J. Hollowell, who shared the weak-side spot and combined for more than 150 tackles will start at the outside positions. Barrett Ruud, who started all 14 games last season and was second with 91 tackles, returns in the middle.

Nose tackle Ryon Bingham joins Johnson as a returning starter on the line. Johnson recorded two sacks in the first half of the Independence Bowl loss to Mississippi but sat out the second half with a concussion.

Fabian Washington, who led the Huskers with four interceptions as a freshman, could follow the likes of Keyuo Craver and Ralph Brown in the line of recent excellent cornerbacks.

Depth has greatly improved. It helps that Nebraska is welcoming back three defenders who missed either spring workouts or last season because of injuries. Nose tackle Jason Lohr started all 11 games in 2000 and the first three in 2001. He hasn't played since because of knee injuries but was granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Willie Amos started six games at free safety in 2001, including the Rose Bowl and had four interceptions. He missed all of last season after tearing a knee ligament in a 2002 spring practice session.

Strong safety Philip Bland missed all of spring after recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. He's penciled in as the starter.

Players like Lohr, Amos and Bland remember when Nebraska's defense ranked among the league's best. That's also when the Huskers ranked among the league's best.

"We've learned from our mistakes and moved forward," Solich said.

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