Spring practice at Nebraska starts in 3½ weeks, and our first of four countdowns has reached the halfway point.
We’re listing the position groups with most room to improve. At No. 3 is a unit flush with youth -- the linebackers:
Major losses: Jared Afalava didn’t make the offseason roster after a troubled freshman year in which he played in just four games. He started two and showed promise but was out before the Gator Bowl. Also gone are a few walk-ons, notably Colby Starkebaum, who played in every game and contributed six tackles.
Top returnees: Just about everyone, led by rising sophomore Michael Rose, who emerged in midseason to start seven games and rank third on the team with 66 tackles. Junior David Santos overcame early setbacks to record 87 tackles. Senior Zaire Anderson also showed great promise in five starts and ranks as a candidate to break out in 2014. Sophomores Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry, after starting as true freshmen, will enter their second seasons with a better understanding of their jobs and important experience.
Numbers to know: After a poor start last fall in wins over Wyoming and South Dakota State and a loss to UCLA, the Huskers -- in large part because of their improved play at linebacker -- responded with solid defensive stats in Big Ten play. Nebraska allowed 329.4 yards per game after Oct. 1 (11th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten), 4.6 yards per play (seventh and second) and limited opponents to a 30.5 percent conversion rate on third down (sixth and second).
Key question: Might Nebraska, with its sudden depth at linebacker and lack of it at defensive end, take a cue from Wisconsin and employ a look -- at least occasionally -- that features four linebackers instead of the its typical three?
The outlook: It’s bright. Despite the promising numbers from the final two-thirds of the season, there is plenty of room to grow -- as you’d expect from a group with just one senior among its top seven players.
Rose, the Huskers’ most high-profile recruit two years ago, possesses the kind of intangibles desired in a defensive quarterback. Santos, Anderson, Gerry and Banderas all ought to show growth as soon as next month in spring practice.
Just as exciting as the returning starters’ potential, the Huskers get to unveil redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby. Newcomer Jaevon Walton may find a role, too, because of his playmaking ability and readiness to contribute to special teams. The possible inclusion of three athletic freshmen presents intriguing possibilities for a position group that looks set to rank among the Huskers’ best beyond 2014.
Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve: