Now in its third year as a summer series, we’re looking at Huskers who could be major swing factors in Nebraska’s upcoming season. One a week, working from the bottom up.
- No. 10 Chase Contreraz
- No. 9 Garrett Nelson
- No. 8 Chris Hickman
- No. 7 Ty Robinson
- No. 6 Dedrick Mills
- No. 5 Matt Farniok
No. 4: Collin Miller
What a long, strange journey it’s been.
A slight defensive end in his redshirt season, an outside linebacker for his second year, then a transitional year as a sophomore where he tried to learn inside ‘backer on the fly. But with Dedrick Young being a favorite of position coach Barrett Ruud and Mo Barry full-on breaking out, Miller had time to marinate. Ruud saw an athleticism and explosiveness in the linebacker that spurred confidence in Miller’s ability to stick on the interior.
He split time in 2018 on defense and special teams—where he led all Huskers in tackles—but the split wasn’t close to a 50/50 partnership.
“When you haven’t done something, it takes a little bit of time,” Ruud said that spring. “Especially at that inside spot, there are a lot of moving parts and it moves really fast. You have to read keys, be in a box. You get used to being out in space playing outside. He’s progressed a long way.”
With Young graduating after the 2018 season, Nebraska had three guys—Barry, Miller and Will Honas—for two spots. The youngsters behind them like Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer weren’t ready for more regular roles but Nebraska managed because Miller appeared to be and Honas was back from ACL surgery.
Those three linebackers combined to produce 89, 72, and 67 tackles, respectively. In a timeshare of sorts at the heart of Nebraska’s defense, the interior linebackers were first, second, and tied for third on the team in tackles. That’s supposed to be the case, though. For whom much is given, much is expected.
In a wholistic view of the play at that spot a year ago, Miller was perhaps the steadiest.
Barry saw his level of play dip from the previous year. Nebraska as a group was eaten alive by shallow crossing patterns and teams targeting the interior guys in pass coverage. Only Penn State gave up more completions over the middle of the field. Barry and Honas, Nebraska’s more run-stopping linebackers weren’t great in space. Miller was serviceable, which is just a nicer way of saying there’s room to grow in 2020.
“I critique myself very hard,” the linebacker said in March when the team convened for the start of spring ball. “I think riding on some of those wide receivers were my strong suits. I can definitely get faster, stronger. I'm vocal out there with the d-line (and) outside ‘backers. Definitely last year was my first year as a middle linebacker playing in the game. So just picking up tendencies and keys and seeing things live was new to me. So I think having that one year under my belt really taught me a lot.”
But Miller had five tackles for loss and a sack, he had four pass break-ups, and he had two forced fumbles. That’s pretty significant disruption from that inside ‘backer position. Nebraska needs more, obviously, and it needs it across the board, but if that’s a jumping off point for the senior-to-be it’s a nice one.
Nebraska had problems fitting in the run game last season, most notably against a Minnesota Gopher team that ran all over the field (322 yards at 6.6 a pop). Nebraska had problems keying the quarterback.
“There’s a lot asked of them within the defense,” Ruud said in March.
Depth is up in the air. The group as a whole is still a work in progress. Ruud says in a perfect world he’d have six guys he can rotate in and out; defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said the search right now (or, I guess, back then) is for four. With Nebraska’s offense, the defense is going to face 80-85 snaps a game, and if one guys is playing the lion’s share of those all year, they start to add up.
The good ones though, Ruud says, stay on the field for all the downs. “When you feel comfortable playing those guys on passing situations and passing downs, that makes a big difference for the defense.” Nebraska has sure things with two guys right now. And maybe in the eyes of some, calling Honas a “sure thing” is premature, but Miller almost has to live up to that label.
“(Collin)’s more comfortable,” Ruud said, which is about as far as the coach was willing to go in terms of praise. He’s not one to offer waves of adulation or go too far to single out one guy in either direction, but he’s at least encouraged by the overall experience of the room.
Luke Reimer has the attention of many. Incoming linebackers Eteva Mauga-Clements and Keyshawn Green offer promise, as does redshirt freshman Nick Henrich. Jackson Hannah was kicked outside because there are just so many bodies on the interior.
But they’re all green. Miller showed up at No. 5 on this last season for the same reason he shows up at No. 4 now: necessity.
Nebraska needs to improve a run defense that last year ranked outside the top 100 in the country by yards per carry for the third season in a row. The incremental improvements over that time (125th in 2017, 5.6 yards allowed, to 102nd last year, 4.8) will have to, at the very least, continue even though the entire defensive line needs replacing. That puts added pressure on the linebackers to fit right and play fundamentally sound.
If Miller is able to read and react, if he’s truly comfortable enough now where he’s at to go make the necessary plays, he should be able to be that every-down inside linebacker Ruud is talking about.
Inside ‘backer might be a bit undervalued in its importance to this 3-4 scheme. How helpful would that be to have a rock at the spot who is not only consistently in the right spots but also making the splash plays from those spots?
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.