Between departures and injuries, defensive line is one of Nebraska’s shallowest position groups this spring.
With Casey Rogers on the shelf, Mike Dawson has just six healthy scholarship bodies in his room plus a walk-on in Colton Feist who is factoring into the equation. The lack of depth has both positives and negatives as Dawson seeks to learn as much as he can about a relatively green group.
“I think it’s a good and bad thing where the guys are maybe a little bit inexperienced but not a lot of numbers, so what ends up happening is they get a lot of reps,” Dawson said. “Now, when they’re out there for an extended period of time they get more fatigued, so for them as a player, I’m sure they’d like a little bit of — not that they don’t want the reps, but maybe get a blow in between a little bit more. But for me as a coach, number one, you get to get them more reps, you get to show them themselves on film more. Also, you’d like to find out how guys are going to perform when they are fatigued and it’s a little harder than they want it to be, certainly, so it’s been good that way.”
Ty Robinson is a returning starter. Rogers has played quite a bit off the bench throughout his career. Beyond those two, the other four scholarship guys combined for 32 snaps last season. Of those snaps, 26 belonged to redshirt freshman nose tackle Nash Hutmacher.
“I think the whole crew has done a lot of good things,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “Obviously Nash got some reps last year and Colton Feist got a lot of reps last year and the guys that haven’t gotten as many reps, the Mosai Newsoms and Marquis Blacks and Ru’Quan and Jailen, those are the guys we need to continue to get a little bit more out of as we move forward.”
Chinander said Newsom is the closest of that group to breaking into the rotation based on his experience in the program. He’s heading into his third season in Lincoln, and after arriving on campus at 260 pounds, he’s currently weighing in at just under 300. It can take a while to develop physically enough to hold one’s own in a physical, run-heavy conference like the Big Ten, but Newsome said he and the other underclassmen have had some good mentors to learn from.
“We’ve been behind some great guys, Khalil and Carlos [Davis], the twins, Boogie [Daniels], [Ben] Stille, Darrion [Daniels], we’ve been able to look at them and watch them come up and develop and they’ve been some great examples,” Newsom said. “It’s going to be fun to kind of fill in those footsteps.”
Hutmacher is a year younger than Newsom and has two seasons under his belt. He’s drawn rave reviews for his work in the weight room, but the next step for him is consistently translating that work onto the football field as the Huskers will rely on him to help fill the void at nose tackle left by Damion Daniels’ departure.
“The key for Nash is to put all those numbers that he has — he can benchpress this much and squat that much and power clean that much, all numbers that are off the charts,” Dawson said. “Now, can you do all three of those movements at once and bring that over the football field? Because really, when you’re playing football, are you doing that at some point somewhere along the line in the game? Are you squatting? Yep. Are you power cleaning? Yep. Are you benching? Yes. Usually you’re doing all three at once, so for him, that’s the big challenge.”
Marquise Black was in Hutmacher’s class but didn’t play as a true freshman in 2020 and redshirted last year after seeing action in just two games. Ru’Quan Buckley and Jailen Weaver both appeared in just one game in their first season in Lincoln, redshirting.
“You look at the Big Ten linemen, offensively or defensively, generally they’re older guys,” Dawson said. “It’s such a big, strong, physical league. So for guys that are still kind of young in the process, Ru’Quan, Marquis and Jailen, those guys, they’ve got to continue to develop, they’ve got to continue to get stronger, they’ve got to take advantage of all the awesome stuff that we have. We’re talking about what a great strength staff we have, what a great nutrition staff we have, the guys in the training room are the best there are. So they have all those things at their disposal and then they can’t get bored with it. They’ve got to keep doing it and then all of a sudden you turn around and go ‘Oh, I got a lot stronger, I got a lot faster.’ But it doesn’t happen overnight. So I think just not expecting the results right away and understanding that there’s a process that you’re going to have to go through to be able to compete in this league.”
Like with most young players, Dawson’s seen plenty of ups and downs while working with the young linemen this spring.
“It’s a fine line because the guys want to do well, right?” Dawson said. “No one wants to do well more than the guy that’s out there, right? So it’s not like they go through, ‘Oh, you know what? On this play I think we’re going to do the exact opposite of what he told me to do.’ But sometimes it looks like that and it feels like that as a coach. I’m like, ‘What in the world? How can you be doing that after this amount of time in practice? But it’s all about habits.”
Those habits include going to class, eating meals on schedule and everything else away from the field that goes into being a student-athlete. As Dawson put it, if you’re a “sometimes guy” off the field, you’ll probably be one on the field as well. Dawson said his group has done a good job with that, but they’re still serving for it to be an “all-the-time” thing. Dawson said he’s seen plenty of progress already.
“To see those guys kind of, I think, start off almost deer-in-headlights a little bit where they didn’t know where they’re going, what to do, just big bodies and all of a sudden maybe it takes two guys to block them to now this is a big body that’s going to take two guys to block him and all of a sudden you see him flash across because they’re starting to understand where they’re supposed to go and the different calls,” Dawson said. “Maybe they had a bunch of reps of the base calls the first week or so with the young group; Chins didn’t try to stress them out mentally too much. Now all of a sudden, they’re getting some blitzes in their repertoire, so they’re starting to move around and do some things so that’s been fun to watch.”
The Husker coaches know what they’re going to get from Robinson and Rogers. Hutmacher is coming on strong. The coaches like what Feist is doing as a walk-on. Chinander said they’re comfortable with the players that have in the room; now they’re just looking for players to create some separation as they look to build out the depth behind the veterans.