Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

A ‘Freak’ at Inside Linebacker, Up-and-Comers in the Secondary and More from Monday’s Practice

April 19, 2021

Cold weather, cloudy skies, and frigid wind whistling through the concourse area under Memorial Stadium’s Northside stands. That was the scene for defense day as Husker coaches and players from the Blackshirts met with the media after practice. Fittingly, inside linebacker Chris Kolarevic sported a loosely zipped windbreaker while the gathered media group huddled with gloves and hats and puffer coats. Tough guy, football weather.

Anyway, here are the highlights from Monday’s media availability.

>> Veteran defensive end Deontre Thomas had the moment of the day, saying this is the best spring he’s been a part of while at Nebraska. Before the gag reflex kicks in and the jokes fly, he didn’t mean in a talent way, but rather in that the team is closer, the players are taking to coaching more than he’s noticed before, and the group is just tighter-knit. It’s one thing for that kind of sentiment to come from a coach, it’s another when it’s coming from Thomas, a fifth-year junior with a penchant for straight-shooting.

>> Reigning Big Ten Kicker of the Year Connor Culp has missed practice time this spring for the Huskers. He was not participating during the open practice on Saturday. Special teams coordinator Mike Dawson shrugged off any concern, emphasizing that what Culp is dealing with (he didn’t specify) was not serious.

>> Consider Noa Pola-Gates, a third-year safety, part of defensive backs coach Travis Fisher’s 1.5 team. He’s not a second-unit guy, but obviously with super-seniors Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke atop the depth chart at safety, he hasn’t supplanted them yet. Pola-Gates has been impressive in the spring so far, Fisher said. Fisher likened the potential role, should Pola-Gates keep it up, to the next-man-up role Myles Farmer filled last season before injury. 

Fisher also confirmed that Quinton Newsome currently has his nose out in front in the race for the starting corner spot opposite Cam Taylor-Britt. The third-year Georgian is playing with a good deal of confidence right now. 

>> It’s quite possible Javin Wright has a significant role within the defense in the fall. Wright redshirted his first year, then suffered an injury prior to the 2020 season that kept him out entirely. This spring, with super-senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann seriously limited, Wright is taking advantage of the open snaps at Domann’s nickel ‘backer position. 

At 6-foot-3 with coverage ability, Wright has the requisite skillset to play that role. (He’s actually two inches taller than Domann). Dawson, who also coaches the outside linebackers, is getting time in practice with Wright and second-year man Isaac Gifford despite both players being listed as safeties. 

Nebraska won’t marry its defensive identity to a specific scheme if the personnel doesn’t match it, Dawson said when asked if the success of Domann’s altered role would lead to Nebraska making that nickel spot more permanent, but Dawson said he definitely feels Wright has the skillset to play it once Domann moves on.

>> An interesting note on second-year outside linebacker Pheldarius Payne’s first season with the Huskers: he had shoulder surgery after arriving at NU, and in trying to rehab his shoulder couldn’t bench more than 20-pound plates on either side, then he got COVID. Now he’s 250 and feeling good at outside linebacker. In spite of all that, Payne still managed to close the 2020 campaign strong. Against Rutgers in the final game of the year, he had five tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and his first-career sack.

>> Inside linebacker (and he said he’s working there permanently now) Nick Henrich called Chris Kolarevic a “freak of nature” and the perfect addition to the inside linebacker room. Kolarevic says his expectation is not just to compete for snaps, but to help develop the younger guys in the room, pretty noble considering he’s a grad transfer from Northern Iowa who probably just wants to play some football. 

Henrich said it meant the world to have Will Honas back as well. Honas is limited this spring, but between him and Kolarevic, position coach Barrett Ruud has two really knowledgable vets to help mentor the younger guys, including Henrich. 

Henrich added that briefly kicking out to outside ‘backer actually helped him learn the defense better than when he was on the interior. 

>> Kolarevic also played outside for UNI, so Ruud has some flexibility with his guys. 

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