This was a series we ran last December and it seemed to be pretty well-received. So we decided to bring it back. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we’re going to score Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now.
Each day will bring about a different position group, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers in these scorings: 2019 play, returning production, and incoming talent.
Already covered: Defensive Line
Up next. . .
Returning: Jamin Graham (rFR, OLB), Garrett Snodgrass (rFR, ILB), Nick Henrich (rFR, ILB), Jackson Hannah (rFR, ILB), David Alston (SO, OLB), Garrett Nelson (SO, OLB), Caleb Tannor (JR, OLB), JoJo Domann (SR, OLB), Will Honas (SR, ILB), Collin Miller (SR, ILB)
Returning Production: 66.2% of linebacker tackles (241 of 364), 73.1% of linebacker tackles for loss (24.5 of 33.5), 87.5% of linebacker sacks (seven of eight), 89.5% of linebacker havoc plays (17 of 19), 48.9% of linebacker starts (23 of 47; Cam Taylor-Britt drew one start at OLB against Colorado)
This is where returning production can be misleading.
In a number of ways.
Over the last two seasons, Mo Barry has produced 201 tackles, 96 of them unassisted. He’s been a team captain, an emotional leader, a verbal leader and a spiritual leader in the sense that Barry is the heart and soul of that Nebraska defense.
Replacing him is going to be difficult. And that’s acknowledging that the Grayson, Georgia, product had his issues in pass coverage and would occasionally get run out of his gaps. You lived with the sporadic bad because the big plays were so big and his energy was so infectious and his effort was always dialed up to 150%.
But Nebraska’s production coming back, at least statistically speaking, would point to a group that could possibly be a strength in 2020. That doesn’t feel like the case here with these Nebraska linebackers if we’re talking strictly about what can be done in the next year.
There is returning production from last year, but it wasn’t much to begin with.
If the structure of this 3-4 defensive scheme Erik Chinander runs is so that the defensive line frees up the linebackers to make plays, the linebackers should have more to show for their efforts in the columns that matter on that table up there—the negative plays, the havoc plays.
The group just hasn’t performed the way Nebraska needs them to on the whole.
Alex Davis started all 12 games in 2019 as an outside linebacker and didn’t register a sack.
Caleb Tannor started only five games at outside linebacker and was in a massive timeshare with JoJo Domann and Garrett Nelson and Davis and led all linebackers with 2.5 sacks.
The coverage portion of this was a problem as well, as teams figured out during the season that shallow crossing patterns would lead to big gains and targeting linebackers directly in man coverage would also lead to big gains. The Huskers didn’t have the athleticism at the interior spots to keep up with slot guys and some of the league’s better tight ends.
It’ll be a big calendar year for the ones still in those two rooms.
Pause for a moment and think about Baylor. The Bears went from 11 losses to 11 wins in two years under Matt Rhule in part because that defense turned into something real nasty real quick.
Rhule’s ask was simple, not in concept or execution but in the results he wanted: 40 sacks and 30 takeaways. That would get the Bears, he said, where they wanted to go.
In 2019, Baylor tied Miami and Virginia for seventh nationally in sacks (46) and tied Clemson for second nationally in takeaways (30). The defense was tied with Florida for 11th nationally in tackles for loss (102). Nebraska had 27, 21, and 73, respectively
"I feel like ever since fall camp started, Coach Rhule just said have fun and let loose and go out there and make plays,” junior defensive lineman James Lynch said after the season ended. “We just started doing our thing and playing off each other and having fun. It's helped us get where we are."
Sound at all familiar?
The Bears had just 25 sacks in 2018 and 10 takeaways. That drastic a leap is certainly possible. And, yes, it has to start in recruiting and you have to have the personnel capable of being wrecking ball pass-rushers, but most feel optimistic about the Husker options right now, don’t they?
Upping the sacks will, as directly as possible, help the takeaway numbers. A pass-rush means a strong group of Nebraska defensive backs is in coverage for a shorter amount of time and seeing the occasional duck thrown up because the quarterback was flushed or panicking. Making plays in the backfield on first- and second-down runs mean third downs are third-and-long. Defense at an advantage, offense pressing. Turnovers and sacks live in that kind of environment.
If all of Davis’ snaps from a year ago are now suddenly available and up for grabs, and you’re inserting, say, hair-on-fire, always-in-attack-mode Garrett Nelson for 60% of them, there has to be more production from that spot, right? If not, the Huskers have a problem, but the hope and belief is that Nelson can be a real difference-maker there.
Incoming freshman Blaise Gunnerson has a chance to be special, too. Maybe not in Year 1, but even then, the Iowa product could fill the Nelson role from a year ago. That is, play early, produce enough to become an unexpectedly-key reserve that plays too much to use a redshirt. That feels like a real possibility.
JoJo Domann is kind of a wildcard here. He’s one of Nebraska’s most impactful defenders when he’s on the field. He’s just sporadically on the field. More of him in 2020 would certainly be a good thing, but Domann has a history of injuries and he’s not a traditional linebacker in most senses. A lot of what Nebraska likes to do with him is line him up in the slot and blitz him that way.
Who’s the guy here that can consistently win a one-on-one in a pass-rush situation? Or get off his block against the run? It’ll be a big offseason for Tannor. As a freshman, Tannor’s limitations were obvious: he wasn’t physically ready. As a sophomore, you saw those flashes of the prototypical outside ‘backer Nebraska is looking for, but the Huskers need more consistency. Is a huge leap asking too much of Tannor?
Lynch’s comment feels like it applies here. Chinander preaches the same thing—play loose and play free and trust what your brain is telling you and go make plays. With Tannor now having spent two years in this system, going into a third, comfort shouldn’t be part of the conversation anymore. If he’s able to just play without thinking where he’s supposed to be, that will inevitably speed him up.
Nebraska just needs one of those guys to be a problem.
On the interior, Nebraska has, in my mind, few questions.
The main one is just who is doing what?
There are so many options here.
Will Honas and Collin Miller are seasoned. Miller grew into his own last year and Honas kinda feels poised to turn into that player everyone loved on his JUCO tape. Comfort in the system was holding him back, but after two seasons, if Honas is able to cut loose and just play, he has playmaking potential.
Henrich and Hannah and sophomore walk-ons Joey Johnson and Luke Reimer and Zach Schlager are all in the conversation. The three walk-ons very much so. And Keyshawn Greene seems likely to be afforded a chance. And Eteva Mauga-Clements is being slept on.
The interior could be and likely will be fine. Is there another Mo Barry in the bunch? That’s to be determined, but if there isn’t it wouldn’t necessarily torpedo the front seven. The Huskers saw what everyone else saw; it would be foolish not to work on the coverage ability and quickness of Miller and Honas this offseason and this staff is not a foolish one. And if those guys simply don’t have it, there are plenty of other routes to try.
Jovan Dewitt’s departure and Mike Dawson’s subsequent return, this time as an outside linebacker coach, shouldn’t cause too much strife within the room. Most will know who Dawson is, and Dawson isn’t having to learn anything new.
This may not be a position (or four different positions, I guess) of strength, but it also probably won’t be a position of real weakness. At its worst, the floor for the linebacker group is still pretty high. There’s too much raw talent here for the Huskers to have to worry about much.
The unknown lays in the group’s ceiling. Is anyone going to become an all-conference kind of linebacker? Nebraska hasn’t had one of those on the All-Big Ten first team since LaVonte David in 2012. That’s something that needs to change in a big way.
So, a relatively high floor but a completely unknown ceiling? That gets you to about “meh” levels. I’m looking for fan input for these pieces and the average score the linebacker group got from those responses was a 5.5.
I come in just a tad bit north of that, as I’m pretty high on the trio of Tannor, Nelson and Gunnerson at outside linebacker. But we’ll see.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.