Spring football gets underway on Monday. We’re previewing some storylines to keep track of and players to keep an eye on. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors have already gone, so all that’s left is the senior class.
Defensive tackle Darrion Daniels
Daniels played a big role for Oklahoma State during each of the last four seasons, but now he’s in Lincoln with his brother, Damion, looking have a similar impact.
An injury limited him to four games with the Pokes in 2018, though he was able to maintain his redshirt season and keep his options open. Daniels recorded seven tackles and a sack in those four games last year. As a junior in 2017, Daniels started 10 games and logged 26 tackles, five TFLs, two pass breakups and added a half sack. During his first two seasons in Stillwater, Daniels was named OSU’s most outstanding defensive newcomer, appeared in all 26 games and totaled 31 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, a pass breakup and a blocked extra point.
That’s a lot of production and experience coming to Lincoln on the defensive line. And given the graduation of Mick Stoltenberg, there’s a role up for grabs.
This is the second grad transfer defensive tackle the Huskers have added in as many seasons. Vaha Vainuku came over from Utah last season but never made an impact. Daniels feels a little different. Where Vainuku was mostly green, with only two games of experience (on the offensive line) with the Utes, Daniels has three full seasons under his belt going against some of the best offenses in college football.
That could prove invaluable to Nebraska as it looks to solve its issues defending the run. Whether he becomes the No. 1 guy in the middle or plays in a rotation remains to be seen, but the expectation seems to be that he’ll see a good deal of snaps.
The defensive line isn’t lacking in options, and there are plenty of younger guys who could challenge for playing time, but it’s very possible the starter and No. 2 positions both belong to someone named Daniels.
He’s a guy to watch in the spring if only because it’ll be the first time anyone gets to watch him in Nebraska gear.
Outside linebacker Tyrin Ferguson
Ferguson came relatively out of nowhere last season. In his first career start in the season opener against Colorado, he had a career-high 10 tackles, two more than his career total entering the game. Ferguson added a sack and another tackle for loss.
If he had played the entire season, we’d be talking about Ferguson the same way we’re talking about Mo Barry.
But Ferg didn’t. He was limited to eight appearances and four starts by nagging, season-long injuries. In those eight games, he registered 36 tackles, 7.5 run stuffs, six TFLs and a pass breakup. On plays in which he was involved, the offense averaged 2.7 yards a play. No other non-lineman on the defense posted a better number.
At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Ferguson is big enough to go up against tackles on the edge and he’s quick enough laterally to drop back in coverage. Outside linebacker coach Jovan Dewitt loves his attention to detail and effort on the practice field. If he’s healthy, he will once again find himself in a starting role for the defense in 2019.
The main question is whether he’s healthy.
Spring will be a good test of that.
Defensive back Lamar Jackson
It’s very possible everyone was wrong about the corner from Elk Grove, California.
He talked about jumping to the NFL after three years. Most thought he would. Pair his physical abilities — 6-foot-3 frame, long arms — with the promising close he had to 2018 and it wouldn’t have been crazy to see him leave for the Draft. But he didn’t. He came back for his senior season to continue working with defensive backs coach Travis Fisher.
Jackson lost his starting spot after the Purdue game, where a holding penalty wiped away an interception and drew the ire of his head coach postgame. Most thought he was done at that point. Instead, he fought and earned his starting spot back. Jackson finished the season with 20 of his 28 season tackles, six of his career-high seven pass breakups, one of his first two career interceptions and his first career tackle for loss in the last seven games after the benching.
“He’s a guy that really figured some things out last year and at the end of the year was playing at a really high level,” Frost said on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show Wednesday night. “He’s a great team guy now, he’s working hard, has all the talent in the world. He’s kind of an example of the turnaround in that room. We had a long way to go in the defensive backfield a year ago, and now I’m excited about that group.”
Jackson has all-conference potential. If he’s starting to realize that and Nebraska can pair that kind of corner with the guy who led the conference in pass breakups a season ago (Dicaprio Bootle), something special is brewing in the secondary.
This spring represents a chance for Jackson to continue that growth.
Wide receiver Mike Williams
All throughout fall camp and into the 2018 season, Husker coaches talked about the desire to have one guy grab the No. 3 receiver spot and take hold of it.
Mike Williams, a JUCO transfer from East Mississippi Community College seemed like the most likely guy.
At EMCC in 2017, Williams was the leading receiver for the 2017 NJCAA national champion, catching 30 passes for 669 yards (23.2 yards a catch) and seven scores. When he got to Nebraska, some dubbed him the toughest Husker pound-for-pound while others said he was the fastest guy in the locker room. Offseason work added up to starts against Colorado and Troy to open the season.
He had three catches for 40 yards in the opener and then wasn’t even targeted again until an Oct. 6 trip to Wisconsin. Williams appeared in every game for Nebraska, but his role lessened throughout the season as he struggled with perimeter blocking.
Walk-on Kade Warner seemed to grab hold of that third option behind Stanley Morgan Jr. and J.D. Spielman late and saw more targets and catches, but Williams still finished the season with more yardage (122 yards on 12 catches).
Warner is 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, while Williams stands just 5-feet-10, 185 pounds. They’re different receivers in what they can bring to an offense, and there’s nothing to suggest they won’t both see the field in 2019. Williams just might have more to prove and less time to do it in.
Which is what makes this spring all the more interesting. Offensive coordinator and wideout coach Troy Walters has a fully stocked room with options, unproven options sure, but options nonetheless. Two other receivers have already shown up on these watchlists. But Williams has the experience edge on all of them.
Punter Caleb Lightbourn
I’m not completely ready to give up on Lightbourn, mostly because I think he has all the physical tools necessary to be a good punter in the Big Ten. The man looks like a linebacker; leg strength isn’t the issue here.
What’s going on between his ears is. Lightbourn is a man without any confidence right now. Whether he can get that confidence back remains to be seen, but the simple fact his struggles aren’t due to lack of ability suggests there’s a path back to the field.
Isaac Armstrong was… well… strong in his relief efforts last season. Very strong. I broke down the numbers here. Lightbourn will have to work for his job back.
But he didn’t transfer and he hasn’t quit on the team, meaning there could be a position battle at punter throughout the spring.
- Running back Wyatt Mazour: Mazour can fill the Duck-R spot, be a factor in the screen game out of the backfield and runs hard. He was the only guy to find the end zone against Michigan last season. With a less-than-full-strength running back room in the spring, Mazour might be able to finally break through.
- Wide receiver Jaron Woodyard: The track star had 11 touchdowns in two seasons at Arizona Western before coming to Nebraska. He didn’t make anywhere near the same impact in his first season with the Huskers, but he’s spending his offseason tearing up the track.
- Offensive lineman Christian Gaylord: A 6-foot-6 tackle with 33 games of experience. Most of that experience is blocking for the field goal unit, but if the Huskers are serious about moving Matt Farniok inside to guard, Gaylord could be a guy worth keeping an eye on at right tackle.