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Perhaps you already know that Nebraska gave up 77 plays of more than 20 yards last year, and that the pass defense ranked 121st nationally.

Those numbers have been told and then repeated often enough since the Huskers last stepped on the field. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said limiting explosive plays is his chief concern.

As we preview the Husker D on the eve of Thursday's first call camp practice, we might note one other item this unit needs to improve on: stealing the football.

Nebraska's offense seems to get most of the heat for the team's turnover woes, but the Blackshirts caused only 15 turnovers themselves. That ranked 105th nationally. NU forced just seven fumbles all of last season. That ranked 108th.

If turnover margin is going to turn Nebraska's way, it's just as much on the D as the O.

With that thought, we move ahead with our fall camp preview of Nebraska's defense and special teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Lead dogs: Kevin Maurice, Ross Dzuris (seniors); Freedom Akinmoladun (sophomore).

Better be ready: A.J. Natter (junior); Mick Stoltenberg, Sedrick King, Peyton Newell (sophomores); Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Alex Davis, Daishon Neal (freshmen).

Only three Husker defensive linemen have played more than a handful of snaps, and even that trio is just entering their second year of being relied upon heavily. There are high hopes for Maurice at defensive tackle. He's the old man in the room, and when he got his one chance to start last year against Illinois, he stood tall. But now he'll have to be the man who does it every week and holds up physically through the grind of the Big Ten.

Who emerges at the tackle spot next to him seems up to four men: the Davis twins, Stoltenberg and Newell. Mike Riley said at the end of spring he likes that group and Nebraska might be "better than fine" when it's all said and done. But at least two, if not three, from that group have to make those 2 percent gains each day their coach John Parrella is asking of them. It's going to take a committee effort. It probably is going to take accepting some growing pains along the way, too.

Same goes for D-end. Freedom Akinmoladun has some serious upside, and he showed it this spring in some good back-and-forths with NU's most talented O-lineman Nick Gates. His development, and health, is as critical as any Husker on this roster.

The big question is who steps up behind Freedom and Dzuris? Mark Banker was upbeat this summer about both Natter and King, and also thinks the redshirt freshman Neal and Alex Davis can contribute, though it may come down to finding specific situations that gives young players the best chance to succeed.

There is upside here. Guys with high ceilings to be reached. There's excitement with that. But there's also anxiousness and no denying this D-line is a big unknown until some data on Saturdays in the fall is accumulated.

LINEBACKERS

Lead dogs: Josh Banderas, Michael Rose-Ivey (seniors); Chris Weber, Marcus Newby (juniors); Dedrick Young (sophomore).

Better be ready: Brad Simpson (senior); Tyrin Ferguson (sophomore); Mohamed Barry (freshman).

If you want to feel more optimistic about Nebraska's D-line, perhaps you need not look further than the linebackers. A year ago this was the group that everyone wondered about. Even coaches voiced their concerns publicly.

Now, it's the strength of this defense on paper. Trent Bray basically has the equivalent of five starters to work with. If there was a silver lining to Banderas and Rose-Ivey working through injuries last year, it was that everyone realized Weber (17 tackles against Illinois) and Newby (probably NU's best backer in pass coverage) can step in without water overtaking the boat.

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Then there's Young. The true freshman started 11 games last year, setting a school record for tackles by a freshman along the way.

Still, your eye wanders back to those seniors. Banderas and Rose-Ivey. A lot of headlines have followed both in their times here. But Rose-Ivey recently said he feels like he's underachieved. The beauty for both is there is this final chapter to write. And wouldn't it be nice for all if good health followed them to the final sentence of their Husker stories?

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Lead dogs: Nate Gerry (senior); Joshua Kalu, Chris Jones (juniors).

Better be ready: Kieron Williams (junior); Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed (sophomores); Avery Anderson, Eric Lee, Lamar Jackson, DiCaprio Bootle, Marquel Dismuke, Tony Butler, JoJo Domann (freshmen).

One of the more challenging position groups on the field to dissect, Nebraska's pass defense was woeful a year ago. And yet, by the end of the season, there was this positive vibe that floated around Gerry, Kalu and Jones. The transition was tricky for all involved, but they followed it up with strong spring camps and heavy praise from their coaches. They are the leaders back there, make no mistake. Wounded from last year's lessons, but still standing and seemingly better from them.

The battle for the safety spot next to Gerry is worth close monitoring. Kieron Williams got the biggest crack at it this spring, but Aaron Williams and Reed should be in that hunt. Aaron Williams is going to factor in somewhere. If not safety, then likely at nickel, where he could see many game reps. Reed? He's coming back from a knee injury. We'll see quickly if he's ready to fight right away or needs some time to ease back into it.

As for corner, Nebraska is returning its top two guys. It's within reason that this could turn out to be a position of strength. But building depth will be key. And when you talk about that, you wonder if the Huskers may need to call on a true freshman or two to play right away. Most will bring up Lamar Jackson first. He was the biggest recruit in NU's last class and signed with the intention of playing right away.

But a good rule of thumb is to not assume. Let the competition sort itself out. The most talked about recruit isn't always the one who makes the biggest impact off the bat. No one made a big deal about Aaron Williams last offseason but he was on the field for the first snap in the opener.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lead dogs: Drew Brown, De'Mornay Pierson-El (junior), Jordan Ober (sophomore).

Better be ready: Brandon Reilly, Spencer Lindsay (seniors); Joshua Kalu (junior); Mikale Wilbon (sophomore); Caleb Lightbourn, Isaac Armstrong, JD Spielman (freshman).

You can't arrive to this section without a lump in your throat. There's no mistaking the late Sam Foltz would have been one of the best punters in the country this year. He had an NFL leg and a work ethic admired by all.

No replacing No. 27.

Likely options going forward are scholarship true freshman Caleb Lightbourn, who was likely to redshirt, and redshirt freshman Isaac Armstrong of Lincoln Southwest. While there talents are unknown by all, junior Drew Brown should provide a reliable leg at place-kicker, though he'll carry the heaviest of hearts into the year. He was very close to Foltz, who also was the team's holder.

NU's punt return game was pretty much a no-go last year. The Huskers had just 11 returns total. If Pierson-El is back to his old self, that pattern shouldn't hold. One of his greatest gifts is tracking down punts other guys don't get to.

And kick returner? Interesting names special teams coordinator Bruce Read mentioned in the spring included Joshua Kalu, Mikale Wilbon and … Brandon Reilly. Yes, Read has said he really liked the idea of Reilly as a kick returner.

As for guys who do the grunt work on special teams, names worth highlighting include Chris Weber, Graham Nabity, Brad Simpson, Christian Bailey, Avery Anderson, Eric Lee, Mohamed Barry and a walk-on named Jacob Weinmaster who teammates have raved about.

Read has a very tough job ahead. Foltz was a leader in his room. Everyone involved on special teams will have to lean on each other in a major way.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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