Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg took the snap with a fresh set of downs inside the red zone during Saturday’s Red-White Game. He stood in the pocket and saw a mesh of bodies in intersecting colors. He rolled out and saw a defender. Haarberg scrambled backward and directly into Princewill Umanmielen. A clean hit for a 16 yard loss. The White team had the ball on the 12 but that tackle forced a field goal Timmy Bleekrode ultimately missed.
Just months removed from high school football, the early enrollee made the tackle in front of 66,045 Husker fans. His strength, athleticism and abilities wowed the coaching staff when they signed him as a 4-star edge rusher from Manor, Texas. Four months after signing with Nebraska he made his first of three tackles for loss in the Spring Game. He called that his favorite play from Saturday. Umanmielen tried his inside move but couldn’t get to Sims.
“My teammate made a good move forcing him to the outside so I ran to the ball,” Umanmielen said afterwards. “We all learn to run to the ball. So I ran to the ball and made a play.”
Umanmielen finished with four tackles, three solo, that sack, three tackles for loss and a pass breakup. Cameron Lenhardt, another 4-star edge rusher early enrollee, also had three solo tackles and one assisted with a pass breakup. Kai Wallin transferred from American River CC at semester and made four solo tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and recovered a fumble. Maverick Noonan made two solo tackles but disrupted the offense beyond the stat sheet. Those four stood out to coaches during the spring season and to Husker fans during Nebraska’s Spring Game.
“They play like older players,” Rhule said. Lenhardt plays with nonstop hands and feet, Rhule said, which allows him to pressure the quarterback. Umanmielen can shed blocks with his forceful upper body. Noonan and Wallin are versatile in where they can align within the defense. Rhule said they’ve all played among the first-team and second-team defenses.
“There’s no entitlement, they’re tough, team guys,” Rhule said afterwards. “I think the future is really bright. You look on defense, some guys who played a lot of football last year weren’t out there. To have all those guys, young players out there doing all those things was great all the way to the very last play, right up when Gage (Stenger) picked the ball off.”
Noonan played at Elkhorn South last fall. Lenhardt played for IMG Academy and decommitted from Nebraska amid the coaching shuffle before ultimately signing. Each one of them showed their value throughout spring camp. Could they find themselves in with the first-team defense in the fall? Rhule said there’s no reason they couldn’t. The head coach measures in stages and laid out how each player needs to finish the spring semester strong before going into the summer.
“I would see no reason those guys wouldn’t be fighting to start, play, any and all of the above,” Rhule said. “Especially on the defensive line. We’re going to play two hockey lines if we could, if not three, to keep guys fresh. We have a lot of young talent.”
Umanmielen said he and Lenhardt built a little bit of a connection throughout the spring. They’re both early enrollees, experiencing college football for the first time together. They play the same position and they’re both pretty good at it. They both talked after the Spring Game about the importance of getting 1% better at practice. Coaches told the entire defense, regardless of classification, scholarship or transfer, opportunity comes to those who work. Lenhardt said they took that to heart.
“Coaches, they challenged us and we just accepted it,” Lenhardt said. “The whole spring we just grinded, grinded, grinded. And I think we’re going to be really prepared for next year.”
The two worked together on defense numerous times Saturday and found a natural rhythm. In defensive coordinator Tony White’s dynamic system, players are fluid between positions. They flow and feed off each other. With each snap on Saturday, they showed the connection they built throughout the spring.
“I think we just compliment each other,” Lenhardt said while explaining with his hands. “If he comes inside I’ll naturally go wrap around him. It’s just that natural feeling.”
The former IMG Academy standout liked a pass rush where he pinched inside on Saturday. That was his favorite, although he enjoyed some plays he made in the abbreviated kickoff unit. He smiled thinking about the time he almost tackled quarterback Jeff Sims. The veteran quarterback rolled out instead and left Lenhardt with another thing to work on.
As far as big movements between now and the fall, Umanmielen wants to gain weight. He went from 223 pounds to 238 without sacrificing any speed. He wants to get up to 245. The freshman is fine with more weight but doesn’t want to lose his speed. Lenhardt wants to push 260 from his current 250 pounds. When asked directly if he felt they made the case for potential first-team reps, Lenhardt said they absolutely did.