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Steven M. Sipple: National pundits evidently think Huskers can overcome deficiencies on ‘D’

January 14, 2019

They apparently don’t lift weights in Oklahoma State’s football program with as much oomph as they do these days at Nebraska.

“At Nebraska they be LIFTIN liftin ... this is BEYOOOOOOOND me,” Cowboys transfer defensive tackle Darrion Daniels tweeted last week. “No pain no gain right?”

Nebraska student-athletes are back in class, and Husker head strength coach Zach Duval is teaching pain tolerance to Scott Frost’s players. Or something like that.

This is the time of year when players can build good habits, former Nebraska defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg says.

“If you really put everything you’ve got into winter conditioning, there’s nothing you’re going to do on a football field that’s going to be tougher than what coach Duval’s taking those guys through right now,” he said.

I can think of one thing that might be somewhat difficult for Nebraska to accomplish in 2019.

Living up to expectations won’t be a picnic.

You perhaps saw the slew of “Way Too Early” rankings for the 2019 season that came out last week. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports pegs Nebraska at No. 18, as does the Orlando Sentinel’s Matt Murschel. USA Today’s Paul Meyerberg has the Huskers at No. 21, and ESPN’s Mark Schlabach at No. 24.

It’s almost as if Nebraska finished 8-4 this season instead of 4-8. It’s almost as if the Huskers had a top 25 defense instead of one that finished 94th nationally in average yards allowed. Perhaps the pundits actually like the fact the defense lost five of its top six tacklers to graduation.

Yeah, I get it. Nebraska has a rare talent in sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez. In an interview Friday on “Sports Nightly,” he made it clear he’s trying to establish himself as a leader. You can bank on that happening.

You probably can bank on the Huskers being potent on offense, although some of that hinges on junior college running back Dedrick Mills eventually making it to campus and a slew of skill-position players stepping up to help make up for the losses of Stanley Morgan and Devine Ozigbo.

We all know the 2019 schedule is much more manageable than the 2018 version.

We also know Nebraska’s fervent fan base is good click bait for media organizations near and far. That has to be a factor in the Huskers turning up in all the “Way Too Early” rankings. It’s probably a good business move to ride the Big Red wave resulting from a 4-2 record down the stretch.

But hey, what about that defense? Nebraska scored 30.0 points a game last season (58th nationally) and allowed 31.3 (88th). If the Blackshirts can reduce that number to say, 25.5 -- which would have ranked 50th in 2018 -- it probably could win nine games or so. This season, four nine-win teams made the final Associated Press Top 25: Texas A&M (16th), Penn State (17th), Northwestern (21st) and Iowa (25th).

West Virginia was No. 20 with an 8-4 record and a defense that ranked 67th in points allowed (27.2). But the Mountaineers scored 40.3 points a game. So, there’s a formula that’s realistic for Nebraska to crack the top 25: Lean hard on the offense. It’s what we expected anyway from a Frost-led program, particularly in the early stages.

In year two, you expect a jump forward on both sides of the ball. It’s not a given, though. One thing we all should’ve learned in the past several years of watching the Huskers is to proceed with healthy skepticism.

Bottom line, Nebraska’s high-risk, high-reward defense got pushed around much of last season. If Frost is eventually going to have a championship-level program, that has to stop.

“It’s one of those defenses with a ton of nuances,” Stoltenberg said of Erik Chinander’s system. “You need guys, especially at the linebacker spots, that can be the quarterback back there. With another year in the defense, a guy like Mohamed Barry is going to excel that much more. You saw he was all over the field this year.

“I think going forward into the spring, guys will be able to kind of build on the foundation, maybe make the calls we weren’t able to make last season, that we didn’t know how to run yet or didn’t perfect yet. It’s all going to lay on the players and how well they study it. I know they’re going to be meeting on their own, without the coaches, throughout the winter and try to figure things out.

“I think the defense could make a huge jump.”

That would inspire even more confidence in Frost’s overall product -- although new-look Nebraska already is receiving plenty of national respect.

It probably makes sense. Whatever the case, it’s “way too early” to count your chickens, especially if your favorite team struggles to stop the run.

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