August 5, 2008

Husker secondary setting high goals for 2008

Larry Asante may have exaggerated the remark a bit, but the general intention of Nebraska defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders' comment still got through.

At Monday's introductory fall camp press conference, Asante said Sanders - who filled the same position at NU back in 2003 - claimed this year's group of defensive backs could be as good or better than any unit he's ever coached, including the group from five years ago.

The same '03 group that set single-season school records for interceptions by a team (32) and an individual (10) and produced three current NFL starters and three others to make NFL rosters.

When asked for clarification, Sanders said Asante might have misinterpreted him, and he wasn't quite ready to make that comparison just yet. However, he didn't rule it out completely, either.

"What I said was that people are always trying to compare things," Sanders said. "I don't compare things. I look at these guys as a very talented group. I'm not going to compare them to anybody, but I told them I'll take this group of guys any day."

While it may not have been as dramatic of a statement as Asante might have thought, it serves as quite a contrast to the preseason assumption of many that the Huskers' secondary would be the weak point of the defense.

Last season, the Huskers were dismal against the pass, rounding out the nation's cellar in pass defense (84th), pass efficiency defense (75th) and interceptions (104th).

Suddenly, it appears the coaching staff believes that same secondary could be one of its greatest strengths. So do the players.

"Hearing a coach tell you something like that makes you want to go out and give 200 percent," Asante said. "We've been working on our weaknesses all summer, like footwork and getting to the ball. We have the talent to do it, and now we believe we can do it."

The Huskers' secondary seems fully confident in its ability to live up to the hype. In fact, they're already talking about rewriting NU's record books.

Asante said he's aiming to break the 40-year-old single-season individual interception record of 14, saying: "I think 15 is realistic." He also said Nebraska's defense as a whole should be able to rack up more than 40 total turnovers. Last season, South Florida and Cincinnati were the only teams in the country to break 40 turnovers with 42.

The school record for most turnovers forced in a season is 47 set back in 1972.

Despite the high personal expectations, Nebraska's defensive backfield seems to have unanimously bought into the new attitude.

"I believe it's realistic," junior strong safety Rickey Thenarse said. "With my playmaking ability and all the other guys' playmaking ability we showed in the spring, we have a chance to make a lot of plays this year. Last year we were nervous and scared to mess up. This year we're more relaxed."

Part of the reason Thenarse and Asante gave for their optimism was the simplification Sanders and head coach Bo Pelini made to the defensive playbook. With easier to understand terminology and less one-on-one coverage responsibilities, both players said they feel much more at ease running the defense.

Last year, Asante and Thenarse both said they felt isolated in coverage, especially on deep balls, and were hesitant to make plays on balls for fear of giving up big completions.

Or, as Asante put it, Nebraska's defensive schemes last year "just felt awkward. It felt like I was on an island on the field. It felt like I was on skates."

Senior cornerback Armando Murillo agreed, saying the new coaching staff has pushed the secondary to take more chances and go for more interceptions as opposed to simply knocking the ball down.

"It's like a whole different attitude than last year," Murillo said. "Like on deep balls, now we don't just look at the receiver the whole time and knock the ball loose when it gets there, we just turn around and try and get it.

"In drills, if a guy goes deep on us, you hear Marvin from a mile away yelling, 'Look back!'"

With a new coaching philosophy and an overall improved morale, things just might be looking up for Nebraska's pass defense this season. Whether they make it up to the 2003 team's level, though, is still a long way from being answered.

"You always have to have a reference point to show what your expectations are," Sanders said. "I'm not comparing them to 2003. I'm just showing them what we expect of them."

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