Nebraska's defense has been the subject of plenty of criticism for its overall play this season, and the linebacker unit has been right near the forefront of the issue.
Though the Huskers returned three starters and one All-American at the position this season, the linebackers have been somewhat invisible through the first five games. While senior Lavonte David has put up great numbers as expected, the unit has been one of the big reasons for NU's drop in defensive production.
Coming into Saturday's game against Ohio State, Nebraska ranks 66th nationally and eighth in the Big Ten in rushing defense at 152.8 yards per game and 64th in the country in total defense at 377 ypg.
The problems at linebacker definitely haven't gone unnoticed by NU's coaches. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the biggest he's seen hasn't been his linebackers being out of position, but not finishing plays once they get where they need to be on each play.
"I want them to play more recklessly," Pelini said. "I think they want to be perfect all the time in their run fits, and I want them to make plays; you know, get off blockers and not just get the right fits all the time. It's just a different mindset. They played well, but I just want them more active. We've talked about that this week, and they know what my expectations are with that."
Linebackers coach Ross Els said the linebackers have taken a new approach to practice this week, emphasizing running all the way through drills and attacking the ball carrier on every rep.
"Whenever you have a problem, you go back and look at your drills," Els said. "Are we stopping a drill too soon? There were a couple of drills that maybe we are, so we changed all that this week that not only are we fitting into a block, but we're going through that inside shoulder or outside shoulder of a block and continuing on into the ball carrier."
Els said he's been pleased with the play of David this season, but he wants to see more aggressiveness out of fellow starting linebackers Sean Fisher and Will Compton, both of whom have struggled with slowing up once they get into their proper assignments on plays.
Fisher has particularly taken some heat this season for missing on some tackles that could turned big gains into losses or short runs. Els said he's been preaching to Fisher the importance of finishing plays and not trying so hard to be perfect on his run fits all week, and he was confident the junior would learn to let loose in time.
"He's one of them that we just need to finish the play a little bit better," Els said. "Everybody sees the open-field tackles that any of our linebackers miss, and certainly he's had a couple of those, and that's been an issue for him. He just needs to come along. Again, he's not played a lot of football games. He's practiced a lot, but he hasn't played a lot. He will continue to be a very good linebacker for us, he just needs to finish plays off a little better."
David said the linebackers are well aware of what they need to do in order to be more productive on game days. He said the biggest hump for the unit now is not worrying so much about perfecting defensive assignments and just go out and play football.
"Just be aggressive," David said. "You know what you've got to do. We know what we have to do, it's just once you get it, try to make a play. Just be more aggressive and be more physical at the point of contact, and just get off blocks and make plays.
"We trying to fit up stuff so perfect instead of just trying to make plays. That's just something we have to work on."
- Robin Washut
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