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Aaron Williams

Nebraska safety Aaron Williams (right) stretches during football practice last November at Hawks Championship Center.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is an obvious focus of Nebraska's defense this week.

After all, he ranks second nationally with 1,846 all-purpose yards, including 899 rushing (5.4 ypc).

But is there a danger in a defense putting too much focus on Barkley?

"Absolutely. Anytime you're going to load up (to defend one player or position group), you've got to feel comfortable that there's an aptitude to do the other piece — to eliminate the other pieces," Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco told reporters following Tuesday's practice. 

"As you move your puzzle pieces around — I've been moving them around for years, so I know exactly where they should be, where they should go, how they should go — it creates other strain. You've got to be ready for that strain."  

Against Penn State (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten), another example of strain for Nebraska's 82nd-ranked defense could come in the form of 6-foot-6, 252-pound senior tight end Mike Gesicki, who has a team-leading 42 receptions for 419 yards and five touchdowns.

Still another example of strain for the Huskers is Nittany Lion junior quarterback Trace McSorley's ability create plays with his running ability.

"My gosh, it's weapons at all levels on offense and an offensive coordinator (Joe Moorhead) who's a great coach," Diaco said.

He described the 5-foot-11, 223-pound Barkley as the "total package."

"He's got contact balance, great speed, great vision, powerful runner, big, thick-bodied guy," Diaco said. "He breaks tackles, he makes you miss, he can jump over you. And you know what's fun to watch is his pass protection. He's an aggressive blocker.

"He's one of the best backs that's been in the league in some time."

Still disgusted: One thing's for certain, Nebraska defensive coaches won't use video of the Minnesota game to pump confidence into Husker defenders this week.

The Gophers racked up 514 yards of total offense Saturday in Minneapolis, including 409 on the ground.

Diaco was asked for his reaction to the video review.

"Disgusted," he told reporters. "You watched it. You know."

Asked what his defense needs to fix, Diaco said, "There are so many things to fix. There are so many things we've been working on. There are so many things I've alluded to for you guys (media) in terms of the gaps in defending and how hard it is to defend with those gaps and how you eliminate the gaps. … More gaps just keep opening and compounding."

In the past, he's referred to gaps defenders need to close in terms of experience in his 3-4 system. That's just one example.

He said he will continue to love his players and work hard on paying attention to details.

He said he will continue to "try harder as a coach to serve them and their needs."

"They have been wonderful," he said. "Sad for them, and like I've said, particularly the seniors. So, as they get ready to do battle (against Penn State), which they're excited about, they've shown up with energy and excitement. They want to get better.

"Everybody's straining to get that done."

'Honored to be here': With media and fans now speaking openly about the Nebraska coaching staff being fired at season's end, Diaco is taking the high road.

"For me, I have a little different perspective on everything," he said. "I'm honored to be here. I was honored to serve the team today. I did it to the best of my ability. I left no stone unturned. Personally, I gave all the energy I possibly could and was honored and glad to do it.

"If my eyes open tomorrow morning, I'll be excited to do the same thing."

Injury updates: Junior safety Aaron Williams (neck) was dressed for practice and went through warmups sporting a big neck roll under his pads. Coach Mike Riley said Monday that with Williams, "It's all about first contact," in terms of how the soft-tissue injury responds during games.

Meanwhile, freshman running back Jaylin Bradley (ankle), junior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg (knee), senior linebacker Chris Weber (stinger) and junior linebacker Dedrick Young (back) dressed for the workout, as did redshirt freshman slot receiver JD Spielman, who sported a green, no-contact jersey. All five participated in normal warmups. Sophomore cornerback Eric Lee (concussion) was not seen.

Stoltenberg speaks up: Although only a junior, Stoltenberg has emerged as one of Nebraska's most vocal leaders.

So it was no surprise to learn the nose tackle took it upon himself to speak to the team in the locker room in the aftermath of the Minnesota game.

"I just wanted to keep the guys together. After something like that, the easy way out would be to give up and kind of let the season end the way it is," he said. "But I want this team to stay together and for guys to continue to work hard and continue to get better and propel us in these next two games and into the offseason as well."

— Steven M. Sipple, Parker Gabriel and Chris Basnett


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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