In 2018, Nebraska was 12th in rushing yards per game allowed and 11th in yards per game allowed. The Huskers gave up 195.8 yards per game at 5 yards per carry.
The Huskers were a little better against the pass, but when you can’t stop the run it’s hard to pin your ears back and get after the passer. The Huskers were middle of the pack in the conference with 25 sacks last year.
Nebraska is looking to change all of that in 2019.
“We talked about defeating the block in front of us and being effective in the run game,” defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said after a practice during fall camp. “That’s first and foremost for us. In order for us to have the right to rush the passer, we’ve got to be stout in the run game. We’ve got to win early first and second down to earn the right to rush the passer on third down.”
Run defense starts in the trenches, and Nebraska returns most of defensive linemen that couldn’t find away to slow down opposing rushing attacks. However, they do have a new position coach in Tuioti, who replaced Mike Dawson after Dawson left to join Pat Shurmur’s coaching staff with the New York Giants.
“This is year two in the defense,” senior defensive end Carlos Davis said. “All camp we’ve just been working on stopping the run. From an inside perspective, it’s night and day from where we were last year. We got a new coach and they do different things. It’s still a similar defense but he’s just kind of letting us loose. He’s using our ability but with his technique and it’s going to be a difference this year.”
Khalil Davis said the combination of improved stamina and Tuioti’s technique is going to make a difference in 2019.
“Starting with us, it’s a mentality,” Davis said. “The main thing is Coach T is helping us with our technique. I think that was what got us in a lot of games, we got tired and our technique started to go away. Our technique is strong this year and I feel like that’s going to help us in the run game.”
Nebraska lost Freedom Akinmoladun, the defensive line’s leading tackler, but returns almost everyone else on the line and landed a huge pick-up in graduate transfer Darrion Daniels who will hold down the nose tackle spot.
“He’s only been here for a couple months and he’s a captain and a Blackshirt, so I don’t really have to say too much about that,” Khalil Davis said. “He’s a big dude, he’s going to handle his weight, he’s going to destroy the line of scrimmage and that helps. Any time you get a nose that can do that, it lets the ends go make plays and most importantly, he’s keeping the O-line off the ‘backers so they’re going to make plays. Hopefully the linebackers can get a lot of tackles this year because of us.”
The depth chart Nebraska released on Monday features the Davis brothers at defensive end with Darrion Daniels in the middle as the first string defensive line. Behind them it lists Ben Stille and Deontre Thomas at end with Damion Daniels in the middle. Expect to see all six of those guys on the field all season long.
“My first six, man, those guys are all starters to me,” Tuioti said. “I can throw any combination and feel good about those guys. Obviously when we get into smaller personnel packages we’ll try to get our best pass rushers in the game. You’re looking at the twins, they can play three downs. Still can play three downs. Darrion can play three downs. Snacks, two downs. First and second down, stop the run, let us earn the right to rush the passer, and then we get our guys to go hunt after the quarterback. But we’ve got to earn the right to go rush the passer.”
Jahkeem Green was a late arrival but should factor into that picture once he’s in better shape and is more familiar with the defense, redshirt freshman Casey Rogers is making progress and senior DaiShon Neal has seen some playing time throughout his career.
“It will be really awesome,” Khalil Davis said about the defensive line depth. “You can go three plays and somebody can come in for you. It will keep us fresh and keep wearing down offenses. We’ve got a heavy group, we’re heavy and light. We’ve got speed guys, we’ve got big guys to stop the run, so we’ve got a lot of combinations that we can mix up. It’s going to be fun.”
Tuioti wasn’t around to see Nebraska’s defensive line last season, but he said he’s seen quite a bit of progress in the unit from the spring until now.
“They’ve been a lot better in terms of beating the blocker in front of them,” Tuioti said. “That’s the most important thing, that’s how we try to train them is defeat the blocker number one before they try to go make a play. They’ve done a really good job just from spring to now being violent at the point of attack, establishing a new line of scrimmage and then being relentless to the football. So I’m really proud of their progress and now it’s just a matter of seeing them do it on Saturdays.”
Run defense isn’t solely the defensive line’s responsibility, however. As Khalil Davis said, the linebackers need to make a lot of tackles this season. Mohamed Barry was second in the Big Ten in tackles per game last season and he notched 10 tackles for loss as well, but Nebraska needs production from its outside ‘backers as well. Jovan Dewitt’s seen a change in his room as well.
“I think any time they’ve got a whole year to work with [Zach] Duval they become bigger and stronger guys so it allows them to be a little more physical on the edge for sure, and just a better understanding of what they’re doing,” Dewitt said. “Those two things combined allow them to be really physical on the edges.”
Alex Davis has slimmed down to a trim but sturdy 250 pounds. Caleb Tannor has put on good weight and is listed at 220 pounds now, and Dewitt has raved about his speed. Safety turned outside linebacker JoJo Domann is up to 235 pounds now but is still flying around like a defensive back.
Physically, Nebraska’s front seven seems to have made the strides it needed to in order to have more success against the run this season. Now, as Tuioti said, it’s time to translate it to Saturdays.
In week one, the Huskers face South Alabama who averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and 152 yards per game last season. In week two, it’s Colorado (142 yards per game, 3.8 yards per carry). Week three brings Northern Illinois to Lincoln (166.9 yards per game, 3.9 yards per carry).
The first real test Nebraska might face could be week four against Illinois (243 yards per game, 5.9 yards per carry) and star running back Reggie Corbin. Former Husker AJ Bush was a big part of the rushing attack as a dual-threat quarterback and he’s gone now, but 1,000-yard back Corbin led the Big Ten in yards per carry at 8.5. After that, it’s Ohio State and J.K. Dobbins. Further down the line, Wisconsin and Jonathan Taylor await.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.