Unlike his boss Scott Frost’s offense, the unit coached by Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has improved each season since he’s been in Lincoln.

And Chinander’s defense in 2021, at least on paper, looks to be his best.

Nearly every starter from 2020 is returning. The only ones who won’t be back are corner Dicaprio Bootle, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, and inside linebacker Will Honas, who had the second-most tackles (57) last season but suffered an injury in the spring and won’t see the field this year.

That leaves 4 super seniors who used their NCAA-granted extra season of eligibility due to COVID — outside ‘backer/Swiss Army Knife JoJo Domann, safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke, and defensive lineman Ben Stille — to lead a defense that ranked 56th in the nation and 9th in the B1G in yards allowed per rush (4.17) last year. That 4.17 mark was the best since Chinander got to Lincoln, and it’s bound to get better in 2021, as should other areas of the defense.

Will Nebraska’s defense be better or worse than last season? Let’s dive in.

Pressuring the QB: Better

Since Randy Gregory left in 2014, Nebraska has struggled to get after the quarterback. The Huskers haven’t logged over 30 sacks since 2013, and had 13 — good for 9th in the B1G — in 8 games last season.

But there are reasons to be optimistic about this area for 2021. Depth and experience are a couple, because the Huskers have plenty of both among the front 7.

Aside from Honas, who led the team with 3 sacks last season, everyone who got a sack last year is back. With the entire defensive line returning, inside linebacker Luke Reimer (2 sacks) and outside backers Caleb Tannor (2) and Garrett Nelson (1.5) are in good situations. They should be able to take advantage of the guys up front commanding the attention from offensive lines and keeping them from getting to linebacker depth.

But it’s not just Reimer, Tannor and Nelson. Keep an eye on Pheldarius Payne, who came to Nebraska last year from Lackawanna Community College in Pennsylvania. With a full offseason, which he didn’t get in 2020, look for the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Payne to increase his production from last season, where he netted 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss and 21 tackles in a backup role. It’s not out of the question to think Payne will be the Huskers’ leading sack artist in 2021.

Run defense: Better

Nebraska’s defensive line finally looks like it belongs in the B1G — it’s big, long, strong and experienced. That bodes well against the run.

Stille (6-5, 295), Ty Robinson (6-6, 310), Damion Daniels (6-3, 335), Jordon Riley (6-6, 330), Casey Rogers (6-4, 300) and Deontre Thomas (6-3, 295) will likely be the main guys in the rotation. That’s a really solid group, one that should hold opponents to less than 2020’s mark of 169.5 rushing yards per game.

Add in the likely starters at inside backer in Reimer, Nick Henrich and Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic — as well as the aforementioned outside backers — and the Huskers’ front 7 is looking like a really good one.

Pass defense: Better

With only one starter lost in the defensive backfield, the Huskers should be better in defending the pass in 2021. The unit was OK last season, allowing 217 passing yards per game, which ranked 7th in the B1G.

At 6-0, 205 pounds, Cam Taylor-Britt is one of the best players on the team and is a physical presence at corner. He’ll likely get the duty of stopping the opposing team’s best receiver each game, and he’s more than capable of doing that. Taylor-Britt intercepted 2 passes in 2020, which tied backup Myles Farmer for the team lead.

Domann has a lot on his shoulders in the Huskers’ defense. Along with his run-stopping responsibilities, he’s also asked to cover tight ends and slot receivers. At 6-1, 230 pounds, Domann did both very well in 2020 as he recorded a team-high 58 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss while tying Bootle for the team lead in pass breakups with 5.

Williams and Dismuke are the bash brothers at safety. These two have shown they can be good defenders when they keep their heads up and see what they’re tackling. Fans would love to see the physicality that they bring to ball carriers, but in a legal way and not in a manner that results in penalties for targeting.

Nebraska also picked up former 5-star defensive back and Ohio State Buckeye Tyreke Johnson from the transfer portal. Johnson might be the guy at corner opposite Taylor-Britt, but he’ll have to beat out others like Quinton Newsome, Braxton Clark and Nadab Joseph, who have been in the program longer.

One note on the Huskers’ corner room — it’s filled with length. Everyone who will see time on the field will be over 6 feet tall. Clark is 6-4 while Newsome, Joseph and Tamon Lynum are all 6-2. Johnson is 6-1. Taylor-Britt is 6 feet. That group could be difficult to beat if they’re in position.

Special teams: Better

Nebraska averaged 39.7 yards per punt in 2020, which ranked 12th in the B1G. Will Przystup, who averaged 41.2 yards on 24 punts last season while pinning 7 inside the 20-yard line, will be in a battle with an Australian, Daniel Cerni.

Cerni was who many picked to start last year but he wound up getting hurt in the preseason and missed the season. Look for him to win the job if healthy.

Nebraska is still looking for a kickoff specialist who is able to consistently boom the ball through the end zone. If the Huskers can find one of those, it’ll help a kickoff coverage unit that has struggled in big moments for a few seasons now. Three of those back-breaking moments came in losses to Wisconsin and Iowa in 2019 and in a win over Rutgers last year.

Overall: Better

With all the experience the returning starters bring, the parts are there for Nebraska’s defense to be a well-oiled machine — and an overall better unit — in 2021.

There’s not just talent on that side of the ball. There’s depth, too. Chinander has a lot to work with in his 4th year in Lincoln. Nebraska’s defense looks like it can be leaned on as Frost tries to find the right formula on offense.