Contrary to what the weather outside might lead you to believe, spring has sprung and that means its time for spring football.
The Huskers will hit the practice field inside the Hawks Championship Center on Monday and begin their preparation for the 2019 season. With that in mind, we’re breaking down a few key position battles on each side of the ball to keep an eye on during spring ball. On Saturday, we looked at the offense. Today, we’re focusing on the defense.
Safety was arguably Nebraska’s strongest position group on defense last season thanks to an experienced group of seniors who had played a lot of football. But all three of those guys — Aaron Williams, Tre Neal and Antonio Reed — are gone now, leaving the starting spots up for grabs.
Redshirt freshman CJ Smith is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered against Northwestern on Oct. 12 and Nebraska has a few reinforcements set to arrive in June, but for the time being the Huskers have five healthy scholarship safeties and six walk-ons.
Junior college transfer Deontae Williams, who has two more years to play at Nebraska, figures to be the safest bet to lock down one of the starting spots after appearing in all 12 games during his first season at Nebraska. Williams played in a lot of Nebraska’s sub-packages and flashed some real playmaking potential. He recorded 23 tackles, two interceptions, two pass break-ups and two forced fumbles in a limited role.
What about JoJo Domann? Where does he give Nebraska the most value, at full-time safety or at the hybrid safety/outside linebacker position where he made some splash plays during the final stretch of the season. He had 19 tackles, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a sack. He figures to be a strong contender if the coaches like him at safety with fewer bodies ahead of him on the depth chart.
The other veteran of the group is junior Marquel Dismuke. As a redshirt freshman two years ago, the former 4-star prospect out of Calabasas played in all 12 games on special teams primarily, but he made an impact on defense as well over the second half of the season, recording 34 tackles over the final seven games including one start. Last season, though, he only played in seven games and recorded nine tackles, only five if which were on defense. This spring is the time for Dismuke to make his move and prove to Travis Fisher that he belongs on the field.
Speaking of now being the time, Avery Anderson is heading into his senior year. He’s appeared in just 14 games in his career (three as a redshirt freshman, 11 as a sophomore) and missed all of last season with an injury.
Finally, Nebraska has a member of the “Black Sweatshirt Posse” at safety eager to get on the field and prove what he can do. Cam Jones arrived in Lincoln with plenty of hype and some expected him to be an instant contributor, but an injury derailed his season before it could really get started. He’s healthy now though and ready to show the talent that made him a 4-star recruit coming out of high school.
Nebraska has five healthy scholarship safeties (including Domann) heading into the spring, but they’ve got some good depth of walk-ons including guys like Eli Sullivan and Reid Karel who have seen the field in the past.
Outside linebacker is another big question for this defense after losing the leader of the group in Luke Gifford.
Nebraska used a few different players opposite of Gifford, but the most productive of those options is back for his senior year in Tyrin Ferguson. He was arguably the team’s most versatile linebacker, recording 36 tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack and one pass break-up while rushing the passer, playing the run and dropping into coverage, depending on the situation. However, he struggled to stay on the field as injuries limited him to eight games including four starts. If he can stay healthy, he looks to fill one of those starting roles.
Caleb Tannor was one of the few true freshmen who didn’t use their redshirt last year as he played in all 12 games. He started on special teams but grew into Gifford’s back-up as the season went on, but he struggled to make an impact, recording jut 10 total tackles and one sack. The coaches targeted him out of Georgia to be their 3-4 edge rusher, and with a year under his belt to adjust to the college game, it’s time to show off that talent. In an ideal world, Tannor would start opposite Ferguson, but Tannor has to show he deserves that first.
Alex Davis is still hanging around as well. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound linebacker is perhaps the one player in the room that most closely resembles what a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker looks like and he’s played in every game over the last three years since redshirting in 2015. However, he’s been on something of a roller-coaster ride in terms of his role, bouncing between special teams contributor to back-up to starter to back-up again throughout his career. He started five games as a sophomore and four last season, but he has recorded just 24 tackles in 37 career games and has just three tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks as a guy who was looked at as a plus pass rusher.
And that ends the list of scholarship outside ‘backers who have seen the field on defense. Juniors Pernell Jefferson and Quayshon Alexander have yet to see the field in their Nebraska careers, though Alexander did miss all of last season with an injury. Freshman David Alston redshirted last year and in-state true freshman Garrett Nelson has enrolled early to participate in spring ball.
Breon Dixon, the transfer from Ole Miss, arrived with plenty of hype and was granted immediate eligibility from the NCAA, but he never managed to crack the rotation and saw action on special teams in juts the final four games to maintain his redshirt. At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, the former safety is a change of pace at the outside linebacker position as more of a hybrid player whose speed makes up for his lack of size. Domann played that role over the last few games of the season, but if the coaches want him back at safety full time and if Dixon has made a leap in his development, that could open up a role for Dixon.
Nebraska needs playmakers to emerge at outside linebacker, and that starts this spring. Unfortunately, outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt has his own battle with cancer to deal with this spring, so it will be a team effort from the staff to get the ‘backers ready for the fall.
The final group I’ll focus on here is perhaps the smallest room on either offense or defense. Nebraska currently has four scholarship inside linebackers on campus, including one recovering from a torn ACL and one early enrollee.
Mohamed Barry looks like a clear captain and a star heading into his senior season after a breakout junior campaign. He’s got one spot locked up.
Across from him, however, is a lot of question marks. Junior Will Honas looks like the most likely starting candidate after playing quite a bit early last year but he’s still recovering from a torn ACL that cut his season short after four games but allowed him to redshirt. The former junior college transfer is progressing but unlikely to participate in spring ball.
So that leaves the Huskers with a former defensive end that has bounced back and forth between inside and outside linebacker throughout his career in junior Collin Miller. He saw the field last season in Nebraska’s third-down packages, but rarely in their base defense. With a full offseason to work at one position, perhaps Miller will be ready to play full-time. The coaches are certainly high on his potential, and he was named scout team defensive MVP during his redshirt year, though he was playing defensive end at the time. Either way, he has a big opportunity in front of him this spring.
The only other player on scholarship there is Omaha Burke product Nick Henrich who enrolled in January so that he could go through spring ball. Heinrich is a 4-star recruit and a big-time player, but he should also still be in high school. How much will he be ready to give the Huskers this spring?
Nebraska has a few walk-ons to add depth to the room for this spring and two more freshmen expected to start their careers at inside ‘backer will arrive in the spring in Jackson Hannah and Garrett Snodgrass, but Barrett Ruud has a lot of work to do with his group starting this spring and extending into the fall.
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.