husker defense line collides with wisconsin offensive line as they try and tackle the running back
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

10 Most Intriguing Huskers of 2020: A Nebraska Native at No. 9

April 15, 2020

We’ve started this a little earlier than usual, but with the content wheel still churning even though football has stalled out, we thought it would be a good idea to just pull this up the calendar. Normally this series runs in the summertime, with the benefit of spring football to guide some of the thinking.

Not only have we not gotten to see spring football, the coaches haven’t gotten to conduct spring football. This is going to run once a week over the next several weeks, and hopefully it’s as therapeutic for the reader as it is for the writer. As has been the case in years past, we’re working from the bottom up to run through 10 of the most interesting Huskers heading into the 2020 football season.

Already covered:

No. 9: Garrett Nelson

What to do with those starting outside linebacker spots. . .

That’s a pretty significant question I assume the Huskers have been trying to answer over the last four-ish months. The kind of player defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants at that spot probably isn’t going to be readily available on the transfer market because, well, everyone else in the country wants that kind of player, too. Nebraska’s group right now is probably the group we’ll see in the fall, barring any unforeseen departures.

And that’s either worrisome or exciting, depending on your general outlook in life. You a glass half full kind of person or tend to lean the other way?

Alex Davis played more at outside linebacker last season than any other player in the room. He had one side on lock while the other spot rotated between JoJo Domann, Caleb Tannor, and Garrett Nelson.

Davis produced 18 solo tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one pick, and one forced fumble with zero sacks, zero pass break-ups, and zero fumble recoveries.

Domann on the other side produced 38 solo tackles, nine tackles for loss (second-best on the team), six pass break-ups, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. And he was in a timeshare. And even that might not be good enough production for a starting outside linebacker in an attacking 3-4 defense. At least from a pass-rushing perspective.

Granted, Domann was more of a nickelback than a true outside ‘backer, but Nebraska currently doesn’t have an edge rusher on its roster that both fits the aesthetic and is ready for the big time. True freshman Blaise Gunnerson can and may very well turn into that player, but expecting it as a true freshman (a less-than-100-percent true freshman at that) is a gamble position coach Mike Dawson might not be ready to make with other options in the room who have been around a little longer.

But options right now include: Domann the senior, Tannor the junior, Nelson and David Alston the sophomores, Jackson Hannah and Jamin Graham the redshirt freshmen, and Jimari Butler and Niko Cooper the summer arrivals.

Alston has zero career appearances after two seasons. Hannah was buried at inside ‘backer and moved out as a result. The summer guys will get good looks, according to Chinander, but are in the same boat as Gunnerson. Redshirt freshman defensive back Javin Wright got some praise from Chinander for his football IQ, but if he’s having to come play outside ‘backer that says more about the room than the player.

That spot needs someone to step up and lock things down.

Tannor, the Georgia native who came to Nebraska with what looked like an enormously high ceiling, just hasn’t been able to put the pieces together.

“He’s going to have to help us and he’s going to have to help us early, and if he can’t. . . once you get to be that junior, if you can’t help anymore then some of the young guys need to get a shot,” Chinander said. “He’s going to have a chance to do it and he’s either gonna or he’s not.”

Look for the Nebraska native who plays with his hair on fire to force the issue.

Nelson, a 6-foot-3 youngster who physically looks like he was carved out in a football lab, played in 11 of Nebraska’s 12 games last season. He had just four solo tackles but was in to help on 11 others, with 1.5 tackles for loss.

The Scottsbluff native earned a Blackshirt towards the end of the season not because of his on-field production, but because of his effort and his determination. The saying hard work beats talent when talent isn’t working hard feels appropriate here, not to suggest others aren’t working hard, but when you’ve worn your position coach down enough to the point where he lets you workout with the defensive line on the field before games and then join the outside ‘backers when they come out, you’re doing something right.

Nelson does a lot of things right.

The Midwestern kid who doesn’t have the physical gifts but grabs his lunch pale and goes to work everyday is a horribly overused cliche but it’s straight-up hard to ignore with Nelson. Kinda like Nelson himself.

“He’s super intense, he cares about it a lot, I think he wears his emotions on his sleeve that way, and he wants to learn how to do it and get better,” Dawson said of Nelson.

“I had Markus Golden this last year (with the New York Giants), and he’s not 6-4, but he got double-digit sacks because he’s got different assets that he uses,” Dawson added. “I think certainly everybody wants to be bigger, faster, stronger, I don’t think that changes anywhere, and if you’re quick-twitch it can be different, but he probably has to be a total work of a guy. … Some guys just have a knack. What is that? Like some guys use with quarterbacks, ‘Oh, he has it.’ That probably goes along with pass-rushing and finding the ball and playing the game.”

Golden has the exact same measurables as Nelson. Even wears the same number. He went from 2.5 sacks with the Cardinals in 2018 to 10 sacks with the Giants and Dawson in 2019.

Who’s to say Nelson isn’t the same kind of player? Figure out the throttle—when to slow down and read what you’re seeing, when to attack—and develop a go-to move and who knows? He’d have to earn his keep with on-field production, but right now it’s all about opportunity.

Even if Domann keeps a hold of one spot on a more permanent basis, that still leaves another open. Why not Nelson?

“I think they probably read the Internet as well as anyone and they don’t want to be the group that gets singled out — hey, we’ve got to get better at pass rush, we’ve got to do a better job of setting the edge,” Dawson said. “We have a lot of work to do, there’s a lot of work ahead of us. I think any time after a season you work your self-scout and you kind of go back and see what you did well and see what you didn’t do well and try to improve it. Whether it was Jovan [Dewitt] sitting here or me sitting here, I think that it would probably be a similar type of story — we need to get better at doing what we’re doing and these guys are eager to get that done.”

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