Luke Gifford is currently turning heads at the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp and replacing his production is a big key if the Blackshirts want to take a step forward this season. Nebraska needs somebody — preferably more than one somebody — to emerge at outside linebacker during fall camp.
Early returns through summer and the start of fall camp are positive, according to outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt.
“I’m pretty excited so far,” Dewitt said. “I’ll be extremely disappointed if we don’t see a huge output from Alex Davis, from Ace. I think [he] has progressed as far as anybody I’ve ever seen. Caleb Tannor is back to being fully healthy and ready to go in terms of practice and being able to take all the reps; his ability to run right now is different than all the other guys, I think that’s obvious on the field. [Tyrin Ferguson] is back to being healthy. It’s fun to watch some of the older guys being healthy again and not being hamstrung by certain injuries. Also you’ve got Garrett Nelson who's in his second semester of college; he was here for the spring so you’ve got to feel good about his knowledge base.”
Safety-turned-linebacker JoJo Domann will factor into the discussion as well, but he hasn’t been cleared for camp yet.
Davis is the most experienced player in that room, and although his junior year was fairly underwhelming, teammates and coaches alike are expecting big things from him.
“He really attacked the weight room,” senior defensive end Carlos Davis said. “His figure has changed so much since he was a freshman. He dedicated this whole summer just to pass rush and focusing on the fundamentals for the season. He’s just been working.”
Alex Davis arrived at Nebraska a raw, 6-foot-5, 230-pound converted basketball player who spent his redshirt season bulking up to 255 pounds and learning how to play defensive end. Then, during his third year on campus, Nebraska switched to a 3-4 defense and the coaches moved him to outside linebacker. Last year, he played in all 12 games but managed just five tackles. Now down to a trim 250, Davis believes he’s ready to make a leap.
“I’m very excited,” Davis said. “I put a lot of work in on myself, honing in on just getting comfortable, knowing what I need to do and how I can affect the ball every play. I’m just really excited to get started and show that.”
Davis’ name keeps coming up from players and coaches alike when discussing the defense.
“That’s big,” Davis said. “That’s the biggest thing from my teammates. These are the guys that I’m playing with, that are next to me, so for them to be able to say they can see me getting better and stuff, that means the most to me. My coaches saying that, that mean’s everything. It’s just another confidence booster just to keep after it and know I’m doing something right.”
Davis isn’t the only fifth-year senior in that room. Tyrin Ferguson has been through a lot as well, from playing on special teams as a true freshman to redshirting his second season and working at inside linebacker to sliding back outside and fighting through injuries the last couple of years.
“It’s his last year,” Davis said about Ferguson. “It’s only right to want to go out with a bang. This is his last year. We’ve been together since we got here and are still pushing each other, still wanting to see the best out of both of us. Nothing is going to change now. We’ve just got to go out with a bang and show everybody what we’ve been working on … I’ve gone through a lot of different things, a lot of coaching changes, a lot of stuff that just brought me to this point. At the end of the day, this is my last year, last ride, and I’m going to go hard. Every snap of mine, I’m going to go hard.”
Dewitt said it’s impossible to overstate the value of having those seniors in his room.
“What I think is coming to fruition is it’s their first time having the same coordinator, same scheme, same position coach from season to season,” Dewitt said. “So I think there’s a huge comfort level. It’s not just me getting to know them and them getting to know me, it’s them delving into the deeper details of the defense and understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished on a day-to-day basis and for them, now they can teach it to the younger guys instead of trying to learn it themselves. So they have a way higher comfort level with stuff.”
The stability has been big for the defense in general, but the offseason wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for the outside linebackers as their position coach was in and out while battling throat cancer. Dewitt is back at work now, however, and had nothing but praise for how the team handled his absence in the spring.
“I think they did a great job,” Dewitt said. “We had [defensive coordinator Erik Chinander] there, we had a couple of guys on staff that had worked with outside ‘backers before and we all speak the same language, so it’s really a continuance of what we were doing before I was sick and when I was back. So I was able to sit in on one or two of them and then catch all the meeting notes since we do everything digitally anyway so I can really listen in on everything and be a part of things even though I’m not physically there. I was able to watch film and do all the things that I needed to do to make sure I was staying up to date with everything that was changing.”
Player leadership was part of that as well as Davis has embraced that role in what is a pretty young and inexperienced position group outside of the two seniors.
“I feel like I’ve been a good leader for the group,” Davis said. “All the guys, everybody’s asking questions, everybody’s helping each other out and I can honestly say I don’t feel like anybody feels they can’t talk. I feel like it’s a family first and that’s the main thing that we try to do, make it open. If somebody doesn’t know what they’re doing, that makes our whole room look bad. So we just try to make sure everybody knows what they’re doing and push each other as much as possible.”
Luke Gifford has left some big shoes to fill in the outside linebacker room, but Nebraska’s seniors are doing what they can to fill them heading into the 2019 season.
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.