- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Defensive coordinator Mark Banker sees great possibilities for himself and the rest of the new coaching staff at Nebraska.

Having spent much of his 35-year career in the Pac-12, Banker said the situation in Lincoln reminds him of when Pete Carroll took over and revived Southern California in the early 2000s.

Nebraska’s drop-off hasn’t been as steep as the Trojans’ was two decades ago. Still, one needs to look only at the east wall in the Cornhuskers’ practice facility to see where this proud program currently stands. The national and conference championship banners haven’t been updated since the 1990s.

“Storied program, great talent, and there’s an opportunity to recruit,” Banker said, pointing to those banners after a recent practice. “They haven’t been to the national championship game, haven’t won the Big Ten or, I guess, the Big 12 in a while.

“So we’ve got an opportunity to do better. We’ve got an opportunity to fall flat on our face, too,” he said. “But we have an opportunity to try and work this group to where you see the banners and trophies around.”

Banker, who has worked with coach Mike Riley all but one season since 1997, said he’s excited to see how his defensive system translates to the Big Ten. At Oregon State, his defense struggled the last four or five years because of injuries, a decline in talent and the evolution of the Pac-12’s up-tempo offenses.

By comparison, the Big Ten offenses are more conventional, and Banker has inherited bigger and stronger defenders.

“Solid across the board,” he said.

The Huskers return eight starters from a unit that ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in 2014. Projected first-round draft pick Randy Gregory is gone, but the Huskers should still have one of the conference’s best fronts with Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish on the ends and Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine inside.

Banker is short-handed at linebacker, but he likes Josh Banderas, Marcus Newby and Michael Rose-Ivey a lot. The secondary is deep with safety Nate Gerry among three returning starters.

Since spring practice started, players have talked about how easy it is to understand Banker’s aggressive defensive system. Former head coach Bo Pelini designed a defense predicated on a complicated mix of adjustments made pre-snap, and when something went wrong, big plays for the opposing offense often followed.

Lineman Kevin Williams said now there is less thinking and more doing.

“You still have to do your assignment. It’s not all free reign,” he said. “But it’s free reign as far as what you do to get to your assignment, if that makes sense.”

Banker said, “I hear the players say, ‘Hey, we’re free in the system,’ or the system is like being in elementary school or something like that. I don’t know whether to take it as a compliment or ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’ I’m glad they feel good about it, whatever it is.”

Banker also has hit it off with the players personally.

“He’s one of those dudes who just loves the game,” Gerry said. “He brings high energy every day to practice, even in the film room. It’s contagious.”

Williams, who’s going into his fifth year in the program, said Banker’s aura is in contrast to Pelini’s.

“Bo wasn’t mellow at all,” Williams said, laughing. “Don’t take anything away from him. I liked him as a coach as well. But (Banker) is about business. He’s mellow, but he can get after it at times.”

Whether the Huskers return to playing championship football year after year will depend on recruiting, of course. Banker said the more he learns about Nebraska’s tradition, the more he likes what he has to sell.

“We need to get out there and drop the leaflets,” he said.

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