On a roster full of questions marks, the outside linebacker position at Nebraska stands out as one of the most intriguing position battles in fall camp.
Nebraska needs more production out of that spot than it got last season, but there are plenty of signs early on in camp that defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt will get just that.
A big part of that is the return of Luke Gifford, the senior from Lincoln Southeast who looked like one of Nebraska’s best defenders as a junior before seeing his season cut short by injury after just seven games. After missing spring ball, Gifford is back on the field, although the coaches are easing him back into the swing of things.
“What we’re doing with Luke a little bit is we’re not giving him the full body of reps yet,” Dewitt said. “He’s got to get his sea legs back. We call him the ‘old man.’ You could tell a little bit early on, the first couple of reps he got, he had to get his sea legs back. But he’s starting to get the flow back to it, starting to get the feel, football movements. Obviously we trained for it all summer; he did a great job in the weight room and with strength and conditioning all summer long. But with some of those sudden movements we have to do left to right, he had to get some of his sea legs back. I think he’s doing a really good job of adapting to it.”
Early as it is, Chinander has already seen flashes from “the old man” that has him excited.
“I can tell exactly what kind of player Luke is, I can tell what kind of asset he’s going to be, he just needs to get his legs under him a little bit,” Chinander said. “He did the strength and conditioning all summer, which is good, but it’s not football. He just needs to do a little football. He shows signs of really being a great football player and I kind of see what everybody’s talking about with him.”
One outside ‘backer who made the most of Gifford’s absence in the spring was junior Tyrin Ferguson, and Dewitt said the 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker from New Orleans has only picked it up even more to open fall camp.
“I think he’s accelerated it, to be honest with you.” Dewitt said. “I think he’s stepped up his game even more so than he did in the spring. I don’t know if you can find anybody on the team that’s in the meeting room more than he is. Then his practice intensity is as good as I’ve had in a really long time. He goes as hard as anybody I’ve had on the practice field. You combine those two things, over time it’s going to lead to him being a really good player for us.”
After practice, sophomore outside linebacker Collin Miller echoed Dewitt’s thoughts on Twitter.
All I got to say is… My man @tferg__ is going to eat this season. Straight DAWG!
— Collin Miller (@C_millz31) August 6, 2018
Ferguson began his Nebraska carer at middle linebacker in a 3-4 defense, contributing solely on special teams, then redshirted his second year on campus. As a sophomore last season, he was back at his more natural outside linebacker spot in Nebraska’s 3-4 defense, playing behind Gifford and Marcus Newby at the field side position. He appeared in five games, dealing with injuries of his own.
However, praise for Ferguson has been consistent throughout the spring and now fall and he appears to be poised for a breakout season as a perfect fit for Nebraska’s new defense and new culture under Scott Frost’s staff.
“Hopefully it’s part of the culture and the atmosphere that we’ve brought as a program in terms of telling guys to compete with a desire to excel and no fear of failure,” Dewitt said. “He’s not worried about making mistakes. I’ve given him the liberty to make mistakes, especially early on in camp. You’re going to make a mistake; as long as you’re making that mistake going fast, we’ll get it fixed. Ferg is one of those guys that is as hard on himself as any body I’ve seen, so he internalizes a lot of those mistakes that he makes. Once you free him up from that, it clears his mind and allows him to perform a little bit better.”
Another player that has popped so far is Caleb Tannor, the pass-rusher out of Georgia who was one of the top-rated recruits in Nebraska’s 2018 class. So far, he’s lived up to the yep and then some in Dewitt’s eyes.
“I think he’s exceeding a little bit almost some of the expectations in terms of some pass-rush ability,” Dewitt said. “He’s got some natural football acumen, which is really nice, because a lot of times when freshmen come in and you’re expecting a lot out of them, sometimes the mental aspect takes over and they kind of struggle a little bit. I think Caleb’s done a really good job of attacking the meeting room and getting an understanding of where he needs to fit.
"Now, there are some intricacies of the defense that he hasn’t quite picked up yet, but I think he’s doing a good job of getting lined up which is the first step, and then playing calm and calming the chaos that goes on in his mind. I’m teaching him right now that when practice starts to become chaotic with our tempo, when you start to play in the chaos, you have to start to calm things down in your mind so you can relax and start playing a little bit faster again.”
Outside of Tannor, a few others have jumped out to Dewitt in terms of pass-rush ability including Gifford who was something of a swiss-army knife for the defense last year.
“There was one surprising feature that I saw today and the last two days really as we’ve gotten shoulder pads on — Luke Gifford has a better ability to pass-rush than I initially anticipated,” Dewitt said. “He’s shown up site a bit. Breton [Dixon] is really slippery. Ferg is consistent as can be and Alex Davis, from his days playing D-end, has long arms and can flip his hips, so it’s been pretty fun.”
Junior inside linebacker Mohamed Barry highlighted the same players Dewitt did when asked about which outside ‘backers have stood out to him so far: Davis, Ferguson, Dixon and Tannor.
With so many players popping early and several others trying to earn playing time, how many of them does Dewitt anticipate rotating in an an ideal situation?
“It goes to a game-by-game basis,” Dewitt said. “Maybe it’s more of a throw game, maybe it’s more of a run game, maybe we’re playing a power team. So it kind of goes on a game-by-game basis. It’s hard to say, to be honest … The schedule is going to bring a lot of variety to who we play, whether it’s Purdue who throws it all over the yard a little bit more, more spread, or Wisconsin who’s a little bit more compact. It’s going to change up a little bit based on who we play. Probably five guys if you could.”
Nebraska is still a long ways off from identifying who that core five is at outside linebacker, but a handful of players appear to have made a strong case for themselves to this point.
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.