LINCOLN — What kind of pace can the Nebraska defense expect during spring football practice?
That might all be up to a significant number of young and inexperienced Huskers who will have to show NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis what they can handle.
“We’re going to install and keep installing at a pace that they’re maintaining it,” Papuchis said. “If there are days where we feel like we need to slow down and review and go back, we can always do that. We’ll kind of gauge if off how well they pick up the information.”
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and his staff have never liked to slow down much, but consider the situation with spring practice, which begins next Saturday.
The Huskers lost eight defensive players who started at least five games last season. Three of those eight — Will Compton, Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler — were fifth-year seniors whose roots as starters went all the way back to 2010.
Other than when Pelini took over after the 2007 season, it will result in the largest turnover in his tenure. The Huskers had at least six returning starters each of the past four seasons.
“The No. 1 thing we’re looking for is just to find out more about these guys,” Papuchis said. “I think we have a pretty good feel for some of the skill sets of the younger guys, but the nature of the business is once they went to scout team, we never saw them much.”
More than anywhere, the new look starts at linebacker.
Thomas Brown, Michael Rose and Jared Afalava all redshirted. Sophomore-to-be David Santos played, but sparingly until the second half of last season. Former junior-college transfer Zaire Anderson is coming off knee surgery.
The most experienced of the bunch is Trevor Roach, a junior walk-on from Elkhorn who played in 11 games over the past two seasons.
Papuchis even hesitates to say who will practice where among a linebacking crew that also will add three touted recruits next summer.
“They’re all kind of flexible guys,” he said. “I would think that we’re going to kind of mix and match a little bit through the course of spring ball.”
NU also will go young at defensive tackle, where Thad Randle is out for the spring and where the Huskers lost Steinkuhler to graduation and parted ways with Chase Rome. That leaves sophomore Kevin Williams and redshirt freshmen Vincent Valentine and Aaron Curry at the top of the depth chart.
Papuchis said defensive end Jason Ankrah could get some looks inside, too. Ankrah and cornerback Ciante Evans are among the seniors expected to step up and take bigger leadership roles.
Evans heads an experienced corps at cornerback, but NU is replacing P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford at safety. Papuchis said Harvey Jackson and Corey Cooper should start showing some of their experience there and help will come from Charles Jackson and LeRoy Alexander.
“If need be, we can move some guys back and forth from corner and safety,” Papuchis said.
The March 2 start to spring practice cut into the winter program for strength and conditioning coach James Dobson, but Papuchis said the coaching staff has no problem with going two or three weeks earlier than usual.
Might as well start the rebuilding of the defense now.
“I’m excited to go,” Papuchis said. “I’m sure it’s a little bit different for James and his staff working on a little bit of an abbreviated schedule, but I think what you lose on the front end you pick up on the back end. With the spring game on April 6, the whole month of April is developmental time.”
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