Nebraska’s defense is really old.
Of the 11 starting spots, one could, before fall camp even begins, pencil in seven seniors. Cam Taylor-Britt, a junior corner who has played extensively since coming to Lincoln, could be added to get to eight.
A theme this offseason has been a growing sense of togetherness within Nebraska’s locker room. A stronger culture, stronger unity, stronger leadership. All that good stuff coaches talk about. In a lot of ways, at least on the defensive side of the ball, that’s being led by those veterans in the secondary—Dicaprio Bootle, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke.
“That first group (in the secondary) has shown the willingness to not only help themselves and help the rest of the defense but help that young group behind them,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Monday night during a brief appearance on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show. “They’re willing to hand that torch over. They’re not going to give that torch up easily but they’re trying to groom those guys to take it.”
“I think we’ve identified enough leaders to really do a good job this year.”
Just how productive that experience and leadership will be, though, remains to be seen.
For all it returns, Nebraska’s defense has been more swiss cheese than Blackshirt in recent years. NU was strong against the Big Ten’s various passing games a season ago, but it meant little because it couldn’t stop the run. At 4.8 yards per carry allowed, Nebraska wrapped a third straight year with a bottom-30 finish in that category.
In the Big Ten, if you can’t stop the run, it doesn’t much matter who’s in the secondary. So you have to focus on your front seven and your size in the trenches.
That’s where the youth comes into play.
Perhaps the defensive line in a 2020 season makes or breaks Nebraska’s defense.
It’s where Chinander started when he ran through the various groups Monday night.
“We have seven or eight guys that can rotate right now,” Chinander said. Right where d-line coach Tony Tuioti wants to be at. “There’s some length up front. There’s some size up front. I think we’re finally getting to where we need to be to compete in the Big Ten with that size up front. I really like the attitude of those guys.”
Nebraska has to replace all three starters from its defensive line a season ago, something that could prove to be a daunting task, but Chinander seems hopeful.
“I think first and foremost all of our coaches have done a tremendous job with the guys from the end of last season until now,” he said. “I think up front, cautiously optimistic those guys can play at the level the twins and Darrion (Daniels) played at last year, and maybe even more. We have a really good young group and supplemented that with some junior college guys and I’m really excited about that.”
The mix on the defensive line is encouraging. “It’s going to be hard to get on the field,” Chinander said.
Nebraska has a senior defensive end in Ben Stille who was a de-facto fourth starter a year ago. It has two juniors in Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas who have been around the program for a while. It has a pair of junior college guys from this cycle in Jordon Riley and Pheldarius Payne and a former JUCO guy from the 2019 class in Keem Green. Then there’s Ty Robinson, Casey Rogers, Tate Wildeman, and Mosai Newsom—all guys who redshirted as freshmen a season ago.
Coincidentally, right after Chinander got off the air, strength coach Zach Duval shared an update on Robinson.
Nebraska has high hopes for Robinson.
Another area lacking clarity? Linebacker.
On the interior, Chinander said he felt NU could go five or six deep. A year ago Nebraska had three guys position coach Barrett Ruud felt comfortable having out on the field in crucial moments. With one of those guys gone, depth would be a welcome addition.
“I like where they’re at in that first group of inside linebackers, but that being said, those guys have a lot of work cut out for themselves to not only get that first spot but keep that first spot,” he said. “You have guys like (redshirt freshman) Nick Henrich and (walk-on sophomore) Luke Reimer right on their tails and then there’s a host of other guys competing at those spots, too.”
Then there’s outside linebacker.
“(Position coach Mike Dawson’s) got some work cut out for him and they’ve got some work cut out for themselves,” Chinander said. “Obviously that’s the biggest question mark.”
Where does the pass-rush come from? That’s been the question on Husker fans’ minds for a while now. The answer might be Robinson. But if Dawson is able to do in his second stint in Lincoln what he was able to do at the place he left Nebraska for, NU’s defense might take that next step.
“I feel very, very comfortable with Mike running that group. What he did with some of those guys last year, I think it was the first time the New York Giants have had an outside ‘backer have double-digit sacks in a long time,” Chinander said. “So, I’m excited about what he’s going to be able to bring, not only the pass-rush, but just teaching them how to play football in general.”
Chinander’s referring to New York outside linebacker Markus Golden, who posted 10 sacks for the Giants a season ago after having only 2.5 total in the two years prior. It was the first time a Giants defender had posted double-digit sacks since 2014, and the first time for an outside linebacker in at least the last 20 seasons.
Though he didn’t go into much detail about the individual options in the room, Chinander did say that redshirt freshman Javin Wright is working with Dawson instead of in Travis Fisher’s defensive back room.
Fisher’s group is mostly set.
It has the three knowns in Bootle, Dismuke and Taylor-Britt and a guy in Williams who Nebraska thought could have been their best defender a year ago.
“I thought Deontai Williams was going to have a breakout year last year before his injury,” Chinander said, “and I think this year he’s got an opportunity to make big waves in this conference.”
So. Old, but not yet decided.
Fall camp should be interesting, if and when we get to it. Not just to see who takes the top spots at various positions, but to see who wants to commit to the third phase of the game, an area Nebraska was woeful in throughout the 2019 campaign.
“I think a lot of those guys last year that were redshirting should this year either be competing for a starting job or being a backup and a starter on all of special teams,” Chinander said. “Really all those linebackers and DBs that we mentioned, if they’re not the starter, they should be the starter on four special teams.
“My feeling is if you’re not a starter—and even if you are—on defense, you should be on a couple special teams. If you’re the backup as a DB or a linebacker, you should be a core four player. Period. I think they’ve kind of got that attitude right now.”
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.