The conversation at inside linebacker is really split into two parts. The top of the group is good, the depth behind that is shaky. Position coach Barrett Ruud has three guys. He wants five.
We’ll start with the good. The three he has — being senior star and seemingly captain-in-waiting Mohamed Barry and juniors Collin Miller and Will Honas — he feels pretty optimistic about.
“I think our top three guys right now, I’ve been really, really happy with,” he said Monday as defensive personnel met with the media. “You can tell the work they put in over the summer and all three of them are playing, in my opinion, at a pretty high level. Way ahead of where we were a year ago.”
Barry is a guy we just don’t have to talk about very much right now. Someone asked him in Chicago at Big Ten Media Days if he felt like there was something more he needed to show NFL scouts in his final year and he sort of grinned and said if they didn’t like what they saw last year, that’s on them. Barry broke the century mark in tackles; he’s good.
But in having to replace Dedrick Young from last season’s defense, there was a question of which guy would absorb those snaps. Both Miller and Honas are making equally strong cases.
Honas tore his ACL last fall in the fourth game of the season. “If it was going to happen, I’m pretty fortunate that it happened in the fourth game so I got that extra year,” he said. Before he thought being in a Scott Frost practice was tough, but last fall he discovered it’s even harder to watch helpless from the sidelines. So he took mental reps and tried to stay sharp, gain comfort within the scheme.
“He came in straight out of JC and sometimes you think if you play JC you’re just ready to roll at the next level, and physically he probably was but he needed to get comfortable in our system,” Ruud said of the former Butler Community College linebacker.
“Not trying to bash on Will, nothing like that, but he came in real quiet, real timid, not really trying to open up to a lot of guys,” Miller added. “But as he got closer and closer with the team, you really started to see the real Will Honas. “Will Honas is a phenomenal person. … He’s opened up, he’s more vocal, he’s laughing, he’s experiencing college with us instead of, ‘I’m the new guy here, I’m trying to fit in.’ Now he’s just showing his true colors.”
Honas said he was fully cleared after spring ball ended, that he feels 100% now, is comfortable pushing off that injured knee, and playing more on instinct.
“He’s a guy who takes a lot of pride in doing things the right way,” Ruud said. “Now he’s not thinking anymore, he’s just rolling and he’s really a talented guy when he does that.”
Same goes for Miller. He remembers the first day of fall camp last season, he’s just been moved over from outside backer to inside backer and he has absolutely no idea what’s going on.
“Everybody else had the spring and the winter to get their positions down and learn how to fly around and all that stuff and I come out for the first day and I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off while everybody else is hustling and making plays and I feel like I’m the straggler.”
Now Miller says he’s more comfortable playing inside than he was when he was on the edge. Getting thrown in the deep end helps, but he credits guys like Barry and Young and Ruud for being willing to work with him.
“I think he’s made as big a leap as anybody,” Ruud said. “The talent’s always been there but now the skills are there. Skills and talent are different, skills you’ve got to develop and he had a year working solely at the inside spot and it’s paid off. He’s a new guy now.”
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has to focus on a thousand different things in a practice, but he’s noticed Miller specifically. He looks bigger, he looks faster, he looks like he knows what’s happening and what’s coming.
That top three is really close, which has helped everyone. They’re all uber-competitive people — “Mo the other day was like, ‘I’m faster than you’, just out of nowhere,” Miller recalled — and they try to out-do each other in the weight room, but on the field if Honas gets a pick and Miller is watching, Miller is cheering.
“You give them love, you give them happiness because you’re actually happy for them. We want success for each other,” he said. “Those guys are unbelievable. Outside of football I think we’ve made friendships forever.”
Now the other side, because a strong first three is fine, but three does not a linebacker rotation in the Big Ten make.
“Down at UCF in 2017 we got away with playing two guys most of the year,” Ruud said. “Last year we played two guys most of the year as well but those guys got a little beat up at the end of the year. In this conference and with the way our offense plays, we need guys that can play.”
And with the way practice is structured, there are plenty of reps to be had. It’s just a matter of finding those extra two guys to step up and grab hold of those spots. Depth, as Ruud put it, is a work in progress.
A lot of that has to do with how young the group behind Barry, Miller and Honas is. And the fact this is a hard position to come in right away and make an impact at.
“Because you’re tied into both run fronts and coverage,” Ruud said of what makes it so challenging. “We’re in charge of making the calls for the most part, and really with the inside linebackers and the safeties, they’ve got to have the greatest understanding of the defense. It’s one of the more challenging positions to come in and play early.”
Nebraska has 10 inside backers who are either redshirt freshmen or true freshmen.
Joey Johnson, a walk-on redshirt guy, is one of several making moves.
“Joe’s done great. He really has. He’s as smart a guy as we have in our room,” Ruud said. “that’s why you have the walk-on program because guys like that show up and they develop into really good players and he’s doing just that.”
Nick Henrich, the Burke product who went through spring ball before a shoulder injury put him on the shelf, is every bit the player Nebraska thought it was getting. Ruud is both incredibly optimistic about his ability to play and his availability to play this year. “He will be back,” Ruud said.
Until then, though, it’s the other two true freshmen backers the 2019 class introduced: Jackson Hannah and Garrett Snodgrass.
Ruud said the biggest thing with young guys is learning the right habits. That’s running to and through the ball-carrier, that’s tackling the right way, that’s striking blocks the right way, that’s focusing on footwork day in and day out. Scheme comes after all that. Those two are still learning, but the talent is clearly there.
When asked who’s standing out to him, Miller said Hannah, Snodgrass, and a true freshman walk-on from Lincoln North Star, Luke Reimer.
“All three of them are by far the best freshmen that came in that I’ve ever seen. Work ethic. They’re not being lazy. They want extra work. ‘Hey, Collin can you meet me in the film room, I’ve got a question.’ All three of those guys, you can tell how much they love Nebraska, how much they want to help contribute to this team.”
Ruud has three already. This fall will be finding the other two who can do just that.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.