Zaire Anderson for Sipple column, 4.14.14

Nebraska linebacker Zaire Anderson (13) celebrates his sack of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. during Nebraska’s annual Red-White Spring Game on Saturday, April 12, 2014, at Memorial Stadium. Anderson reportedly had the best spring in the Husker linebacker corps.

FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star

Things I know and think I know:

Asked Saturday to identify his primary concern on defense, Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini first cited the obvious: lack of depth at defensive end.

His second concern was something he hadn't mentioned this spring (that I know of). Don't overlook what Pelini said about the linebacker corps.

"I like the group as a whole, but we need a couple guys to really separate themselves from the competition and continue to develop and work and clean up their techniques and fundamentals," he said.

Nebraska lacks a linebacker who has played consistently at an All-Big Ten level, which is worth noting. Look at the past decade of Big Ten champions. Only one of the title teams — Wisconsin, which shared the crown with Michigan State in 2010 — failed to feature a first- or second-team all-conference linebacker.

Many of the linebacker greats are very familiar names: Max Bullough, Chris Borland, Greg Jones, James Laurinaitis, A.J. Hawk, Chad Greenway. The best teams in the rugged Big Ten almost always feature at least one consistently excellent linebacker. Someone who often dominates. A bad you-know-what. A game-changer in the mold of Lavonte David.

When Nebraska last captured a conference crown — the Big 12's in 1999 — the irrepressible Carlos Polk was a first-team pick at middle linebacker.

Nebraska currently has a deep stable of linebackers, but nobody jumps out as a surefire all-conference pick.

The Huskers have four linebackers who started at least four games last season: senior Zaire Anderson (five), junior David Santos (10), and sophomores Michael Rose (seven) and Josh Banderas (four). 

The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Anderson, by most accounts, enjoyed the best spring out of all the backers. He had five tackles Saturday, including a sack. He's the most explosive athlete in the group, and the most consistent of late, Pelini said.

Can Anderson take his game to a significantly higher level and become a consistent force? History shows it would greatly increase Nebraska's chances to end its conference title drought.

* Nobody asked me, but I'll take a stab at the pecking order behind All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah. Junior power back Imani Cross is the obvious No. 2, followed by sophomore speedster Terrell Newby and redshirt freshman Adam Taylor.

Instead of getting hung up on the order, we should enjoy the versatility in the group.

"They're all kind of a little bit different, but very unique and effective in their own way, which is good. There will be a lot of change-of-pace going on," Pelini said.

* Cross is a gem. Although he's not necessarily the best fit for Tim Beck's offense, he's an excellent fit for veteran Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown's meeting room. Like Brown, Cross is a thinker.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Cross, of Gainesville, Ga., was asked about the importance of improving his speed.

"It's not about being a track runner," Cross said. "It's about being able to outrun angles. That's all about acceleration. So, speed isn't my main focus. My main focus is my acceleration. How fast can I get from Point A to Point B? That's doing it in a straight line, and that comes with explosion.

"Acceleration and explosion are two things I'm going to take into this offseason and work really hard on."

Somewhere Brown is nodding in approval.

* I like NU's de-emphasis on the quarterback position. Yes, de-emphasis. Pelini made sense Saturday when he said his quarterbacks have plenty of talent around them and shouldn't feel pressure to shoulder too heavy of a load. We've seen what can happen when even a veteran QB tries — and is allowed — to do too much.

Bo's ongoing message to his quarterbacks: Don't force the issue.

"I think Tommy (Armstrong) made a huge jump in that regard over the last two weeks," the coach said.

* You often hear it suggested Nebraska should mimic reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State's winning formula. That is, rely heavily on a consistently wicked defense (and special teams), and reduce risks with a relatively conservative offense. Sounds wonderful in theory. But, two issues:

First, I'm not convinced Nebraska's defense is ready to shoulder such responsibility — especially to the extent MSU's defense does. What's more, Bo's right, the Husker offense has talented skill players galore. Let them do their thing.

"I feel like we can probably be the best offense in the Big Ten," Armstrong said. "Our offense has done a lot (this spring) against the veteran guys on our defense."

There's a balance to be struck in this discussion. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Pelini and Beck discuss overall program philosophy.

* Last April, it was Jack. Saturday, the cat. What next? I'm guessing 60,000-plus fans will be dying to find out. That's called excellent marketing.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.​

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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