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Nati Harnik, Associated Press
Nebraska quarterback Brion Carnes throws on the opening day of NCAA college football spring practice in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, March 10, 2012.

LINCOLN, Neb. — Once the pieces are in place, Nebraska's defense should be better prepared for year two in the Big Ten.

The Cornhuskers began spring practice Saturday with a goal to improve their defense after a disappointing third-place finish in the Legends Division.

The Huskers went into the league with personnel better equipped to go against the spread offenses of the Big 12. No amount of film study could prepare them for what awaited on the field, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.

"Everybody we played had a physical two-back nature to their offense," Papuchis said. "We knew that going in, but going through it one time certainly helps."

Nebraska slipped to 37th in total defense and 42nd in scoring defense, and five opponents generated 415 or more yards.

The Huskers allowed 48 points to Wisconsin and 45 to Michigan in road losses, and they couldn't get a stop when they needed one in a shocking 28-25 home loss to Northwestern.

Pelini had to reconfigure his staff after his brother, Carl, left to become head coach at Florida Atlantic after serving as defensive coordintor for four years.

Papuchis was promoted to coordinator from defensive line coach. Rick Kaczenski, hired away from Iowa in December, is the new line coach. Terry Joseph left Tennessee last week to become secondary coach at Corey Raymond took the same job at LSU.

"Rick has been here a while and is pretty much up to speed," Bo Pelini said. "Because of Terry's familiarity with me and our system, he hit the ground running. It's like there hasn't been any changes at all."

Much of the attention this spring will be at weakside linebacker, where record-setting tackler Lavonte David must be replaced.

First in line for the job is senior Alonzo Whaley, who has started two of 22 career games. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Whaley is about 15 pounds heavier than David.

"He's not quite the same guy Lavonte is," Pelini said. "He's a little bit bigger and more physical. He's still learning for us. He's played mainly (strongside). But he's played all three linebacker spots the last three years, which, in my opinion, helps him."

A number of candidates are getting looks to replace cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, with Mohammed Seisay generating the most buzz.

He started his college career at Memphis and transferred to Eastern Arizona Junior College, where he ranked among the top 20 juco recruits nationally before signing with Nebraska in February. He is practicing this spring and has two years of eligibility.

Converted receiver Stanley Jean-Baptiste and converted running back Braylon Heard also getting long looks at corner.

"For the most part a lot of our corners are bigger guys, and they're not going to get pushed around," Pelini said. "We have a chance to be deeper and more versatile like we were two or three years ago. We had young guys trying to figure it out last year. We have guys who have a better idea of what's going on."

Coaches say it will be critical for the defensive line to get more push this season against the Big Ten offense. It probably will be fall before much is known about the unit, though.

The line lost Jared Crick to injury at mid-season, and then to graduation, and Chase Rome filled in. But Rome is out this spring as he recovers from injury, as are fellow tackles Todd Peat Jr., Thad Randle and Kevin Williams.

"At Nebraska you're always going to be in a situation where you're losing quality guys," Papuchis said. "Replacing Alfonzo, Lavonte and Crick — there's a void there and it won't necessarily be one guy who steps up to do it."