Photo Credit: John Peterson

Counting Down Nebraska’s Most Important Newcomers: Nos. 3-1

June 05, 2022

We’ve made it.

Nebraska brought in a rather large number of scholarship newcomers this offseason—18 of them to be exact. That includes 15 transfers from Division I schools and three from junior colleges. We’ve been ranking them from least to most important for the 2022 season, and this is the sixth and final installment.

This isn’t a ranking about talent or what kind of statistical production the player had at his previous program. In this exercise, we ask ourselves questions like these: How important is he to the position he’ll play at Nebraska? How badly would it hurt the position if this player wasn’t there?

If you missed the previous rankings, here they are:

Nos. 18-16 | Nos. 15-13 | Nos. 12-10 | Nos. 9-7 | Nos. 6-4 

Without further ado, let’s finish this. Here are the three most important scholarship newcomers to Nebraska for the upcoming season.

No. 3 | Stephon Wynn Jr. | 6-foot-4, 307 pounds | Defensive line

Stephon Wynn Jr.’s numbers won’t blow anyone away. To put it bluntly, he was a backup for four seasons at Alabama. He played in 21 games and made 16 tackles. No sacks. No tackles for loss, either.

Fans have a right to be skeptical about Wynn. Playing the wait-and-see game with transfers instead of immediately crowning them and expecting better than the previous guy is a smart move.

But it’s important to remember where Wynn was playing and who is teammates were in Tuscaloosa. DJ Dale, Bryon Young and Tim Smith—all future NFL defensive linemen—were ahead of Wynn on the depth chart in 2021 and are back for another season with the Crimson Tide. Phidarian Mathis, who was picked in the second round of the NFL Draft last April, is a former a teammate, too. Wynn also played with Christian Barmore (second-round pick in 2021) and Raekwon Davis (second-round pick in 2020).

This isn’t breaking news or anything, but it’s not easy to crack the defensive line rotation at an elite program like Alabama. Yet, Wynn stuck it for four years. He didn’t leave after not playing early, but continued to grind in a Nick Saban-led program. Now that he has two years of eligibility left, it makes sense that he wants to go to a program where he can play and put what he can do on film for the next level.

Wynn ranks as highly as he does because Nebraska badly needed someone like him at the interior of its defensive line. The addition of Texas Tech transfer Devin Drew helped, but he alone wasn’t enough. The Huskers lost much of its inside rotation with the departures of Damion Daniels, Ben Stille, Deontre Thomas, Casey Rogers and Jordon Riley. Only Ty Robinson remained in late April. Behind Robinson are a group of inexperienced defensive linemen. In the Big Ten it’s better to be old in the trenches, where giant veteran offensive linemen live.

Is Wynn going to be first-team all-conference and live in Big Ten backfields? Odds are he won’t be asked to do that. Nebraska’s defense needs a big and strong presence inside the offensive tackles who commands multiple blockers. If Wynn can be that player—and in doing so, create less traffic for the two linebackers behind him in Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich—it’s going to be a massive help for Erik Chinander’s defense.

Is Wynn a sure-fire thing? Of course not. None of the 18 scholarship newcomers really are until they show it on the field. But Wynn is important to Nebraska in 2022. We know that much.

No. 2 | Ochaun Mathis | 6-5, 257 | Outside linebacker

No one in this 18-man countdown commanded more attention during his recruitment than Ochaun Mathis, and for good reason.

Mathis has shown he can do what college programs—NFL organizations—greatly value: harass quarterbacks. Like proven quarterbacks and left tackles, edge rushers are gold in the transfer portal. Everyone wants them but not everyone can have them. Nebraska beating the Texas Longhorns, Mathis’ home-state program, for his talents was a huge recruiting success story in the name, image and likeness era for Big Red.

At 6-5 and nearly 260 pounds, Mathis has the first-man-off-the-bus look to him, and his past two seasons on the field at TCU backs it up. Mathis was a second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, he had nine sacks (tied for fifth-most in the nation) and 14 tackles for loss (tied for 14th). The numbers regressed in 2021—he collected four sacks and seven tackles for loss.

Though lucrative NIL deals likely played a part in Mathis’ decision to play for the Huskers, it wasn’t the entire reason. Putting himself in position to compete against the best offensive linemen in college football played a role, too. Between the Big Ten and the Big 12, the Big Ten wins.

During Mathis’ livestream of his commitment, the backdrop behind him revealed an NFL Draft logo. Mathis has a goal of playing in the NFL, and he chose the team in the conference that will better prepare him to achieve it.

“I appreciate all of the support from both sides. But at this point, I’m ready for my next journey preparing me for the next level. Right there is what I’m seeking, right there,” Mathis said, pointing to the NFL Draft logo.

Like Nebraska badly needed a big and strong veteran between offensive tackles with Wynn, it needs a true threat off the edge like Mathis. Nebraska hasn’t had that since 2013 and 2014 when current Denver Bronco Randy Gregory was racking up a combined 16.5 sacks.

Nebraska already had a solid base on the outside of its defensive line with returning starters Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor. Backups Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler are waiting in the wings. With Mathis now in the fold, Chinander can play around with different looks to get Mathis, Nelson and Tannor on the field at the same time. Creating one-on-one situations for that trio, and others on the inside like Robinson and Drew, on passing downs is the name of the game.

Like Wynn and all the other newcomers, Mathis will need to prove himself on the field. He’s shown he can rush the passer in the Big 12, but how will he hold up against a Big Ten rushing offense?

No. 1 | Casey Thompson | 6-1, 200 | Quarterback

It’d be hard to name anyone other than the projected starter at quarterback No.1, right?

From day one, Casey Thompson has carried himself like the Huskers’ starter, even when he hasn’t been named that publicly. He took the offensive line out to eat and picked up the tab. He was the one new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple surprisingly admitted looked the best after the first spring practice in February. He was the one who was only allowed to play two series and throw four passes during the spring game, which gave off the signal that he was the leader in the clubhouse to win the job and didn’t need to be on the field much that day, despite 55,000 fans packing Memorial Stadium to see the Texas transfer throw a football.

Thompson is a veteran and natural leader, which makes him a good fit to operate a new offense in a make-or-break season for fifth-year head coach Scott Frost. It also makes Thompson, without a doubt, the most important scholarship newcomer of the offseason.

Thompson began last season behind redshirt freshman Hudson Card, but moved into the starting role following an early-season 19-point loss to Arkansas. Thompson spent most of the season playing with a thumb injury on his throwing hand that he sustained in the Oklahoma game, but still managed to throw for 2,113 yards and 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions with four rushing scores. For his career at Texas, Thompson passed for 2,422 yards and 30 touchdowns with nine picks.

The Oklahoma City native is a bright, mature kid—that much can be seen when listening to him at a podium. Whipple’s offense will be Thompson’s fourth system he’s had to learn. Last year Thompson played in Steve Sarkisian’s offense. Before that, he played in the spread offenses of Mike Yurcich and Tom Herman.

“I was looking for a great offense and a good offensive mind (Whipple). The research that I did, honestly it was just film study, just trying to watch and see what teams around the country have potential and where the good receivers were at,” Thompson said in the spring of why he chose Nebraska. “And honestly, I think that we have enough talent and plenty of pieces in place here to win ball games and to compete at a high level, so that’s ultimately why I decided to come here.”

Frost is entering the 2022 campaign with a restructured contract that drops his salary from $5 million to $4 million and his buyout from $15 million to $7.5 on Oct. 1, the day of the Indiana game. Much is riding on how quickly new parts to the program—and there are a lot—jell.

The quarterback of the offense is one of those parts, and a pretty important one at that.

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