Spring break is wrapping up and will give way to spring football on Tuesday as the Huskers are getting ready to truly begin the Scott Frost era.
Nebraska has quite a few players with starting experience returning, and Frost and his staff hit the recruiting trail hard to bring in a number of newcomers who could factor into the rotation in 2018. However, a coaching change is often a chance for forgotten players to get a fresh start.
Here are five under-the-radar players on the defensive side of the ball who could vie for significant playing time next season with a strong showing in spring ball and fall camp.
Sophomore OLB Quayshon Alexander (6-3, 245)
People in Husker land were excited when Quayshon Alexander stuck with his commitment to Nebraska after late overtures from other programs, but the pass rusher from Prospect Park, New Jersey, all but disappeared after he set foot on campus.
Alexander redshirted during his first year in Lincoln. Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Alexander did not make the travel roster or appear in a game. However, word out of early strength and conditioning work is that Alexander is finally healthy and has slimmed down some, increasing his speed.
Erik Chinander’s defense is focused much more on getting after the quarterback than Bob Diaco’s, and Nebraska is going to need guys that can rush the passer. Alexander has a great shot to be one of those guys with a strong spring.
Redshirt Freshman OLB Guy Thomas (6-3, 200)
What was that I was saying about pass rushers? Thomas originally landed himself on Mike Riley’s list of freshmen who were going to play right away according to Riley’s preseason press conference, but that was pretty much the last time we heard from him as he ended up redshirting after all.
Thomas showed off his athleticism in fall camp last season, but for whatever reason the coaches decided they couldn’t play him last season. Frost’s staff showed much more of a willingness to play young players at UCF, even if they hadn’t completely grasped every part of the scheme. Even if Thomas is only able to contribute on passing downs as a rusher, Jovan Dewitt and Chinander should be able to use his talents this year.
Sophomore OLB Collin Miller (6-3, 235)
Oh, hey. Another pass rusher.
Miller was a force as a senior in high school at Hamilton Southeastern in Fishers, Indiana, racking up 25 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and 25 quarterback hurries. He redshirted during his first year on campus, earning scout team defensive MVP honors as a defensive end prior to the shift to a 4-3. The coaches moved him to linebacker last year, but they shuffled him back and forth between inside and outside linebacker.
Miller played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman as he was part of the kick and punt cover teams, but he also saw some action on defense later in the year and showed some flashes. He recorded 11 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Miller is another one of those players who could have his true talent unlocked playing in Chinander’s more attacking style of defense.
Redshirt Freshman NT Damion Daniels (6-2, 310)
With the transition to a 3-4 last year, Nebraska needed someone to play nose tackle. Mick Stoltenberg, a 6-foot-6 junior from Gretna, added a significant amount of weight to hold his own at that position, and Nebraska turned to Deontre Thomas, a true freshman listed at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, as a change-of-pace back-up. Meanwhile, Daniels — the other defensive lineman Nebraska signed in its 2017 recruiting class, redshirted.
However, Daniels is the closest thing to a true nose tackle that Nebraska has on its roster as the heaviest defensive player on the team. Mike Dawson could potentially move Thomas to defensive end where he’s not so undersized, which would open up snaps for Daniels at the nose. He’s still raw, but his size, strength and ability to hold his ground and eat up blocks could be very valuable for the Huskers next year.
Sophomore S Marquel Dismuke (6-2, 195)
Dismuke is by far the most proven player on this list as he played quite a bit last year and even started a game. He recorded 34 total tackles and recovered a fumble as a redshirt freshman after sitting out his first year in Lincoln.
Dismuke was one of the highest-rated players in Nebraska’s 2016 recruiting class as a 4-star prospect and the original commit from Calabasas. Reports out of winter conditioning have him looking every bit the part of a 4-star prospect. With a year of experience under his belt, the game should slow down just a little bit and allow him to be in the right spots more often.
Aaron Williams will likely lock one of the starting safety spots down once the football starts again, but the spot next to him is wide open with Joshua Kalu’s graduation. Antonio Reed appears to be his primary competition, but Reed is a bigger safety than Dismuke is and could be used differently. JoJo Domann would likely be in the conversation as well, but a set-back during his recovery from a torn ACL has his return to the field up in the air.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.