Between a returning veteran, some talented additions and young guys gaining experience last season, Barrett Ruud’s inside linebacker group has a chance to be as strong as any on Nebraska’s roster in 2021-22.
Will Honas’ decision to return as a super senior provided Ruud’s bunch with a big boost. Luke Reimer stepped into the starting lineup after Collin Miller’s injury, and Nick Henrich played quite a bit at a few different positions. The Huskers also added a grad transfer from FCS Northern Iowa in Chris Kolarevic.
Garrett Snodgrass and Eteva Mauga-Clements contributed heavily on special teams and saw a few snaps on defense here and there, Jackson Hannah is still in the program looking to make a push and two of Ruud’s four 2021 signees, Randolph Kpai and Seth Malcolm, enrolled early and are going through spring ball.
“I think the competition level, that part is really fun for me because there really doesn’t need to be a whole lot of motivation right now,” Ruud said. “They can see if they’re not playing well, someone behind them is going to play well. So that part’s been really good and these guys are pretty experienced. A lot of them have been in here two or three years now. They understand football, so you can really get in-depth with them about offensive identification, specific looks, and it’s been really fun.”
Ruud said his players are eager to learn and working hard, and he said he’s having fun coaching them so far this spring. Don’t expect to hear much about Honas this month, however. He underwent groin surgery during the offseason and will be limited throughout the spring as the coaches prioritize his long-term health.
“Hats off to him for grinding through the season like he did because I’ve had that injury; it’s not fun,” Ruud said. “He kind of had to limp through practice. He really wants to be not only full speed for games, but full speed for practice all season, so we’re going to monitor him really closely this spring.”
Honas’ absence means more snaps for everybody else to show what they can do this spring. That likely starts with Reimer, who logged five starts in six appearances and racked up 40 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks as a sophomore.
“I think Luke can be as good as he absolutely wants to be,” Ruud said. “I think he could potentially play football when he’s done here. He’s been really good. He did a great job in the weight room this offseason, so he’s gotten bigger and he’s gotten faster. Then the same thing with the rest of the guys, he really understands the game. He understands the ins and outs, he understands how offenses are trying to attack us. He’s a fun guy to watch.”
Reimer joined Nebraska as a walk-on out of Lincoln North Star, but after contributing on special teams as a freshman he earned a scholarship and cracked the starting lineup on defense las season. Now he’s starting to emerge as more of a leader heading into his third season at Nebraska.
“He’s gotten past the point that ‘I’m a walk-on guy trying to earn my stripes’ where now he’s proven that he’s a good football player, could be a legit top-end linebacker in this conference,” Ruud said. “I think he’s got a confidence about him and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.”
The other young linebacker who has shown significant promise is Henrich. The former 4-star recruit out of Omaha Burke looked poised to see the field as a true freshman before an injury setback led to a redshirt. Henrich played in seven games with one start in 2020, totaling 27 tackles while splitting his time between inside and outside linebacker.
“He’s made big jumps, big strides,” Ruud said. “Number one with Nick is keeping him healthy; that’s, I guess, first and foremost. He has a little bit of an injury history, he got banged up his first year, a little bit banged up last year, so keeping him healthy is first priority. And then for him, just continuing to get stronger, which he’s going to do naturally. He’s a worker, so that will come. But he’s a natural football player, really intelligent, great football movements, and he’s going to make a big jump from his first year starting to this year.”
The spring will be big for Kolarevic who is adjusting both to a new team and a new level of competition. Ruud compared the leap from FCS to FBS to the leap from college to the NFL but said Kolarevic is handling it well.
“Everybody’s a little bit better at every position, but football is football at the end of the day,” Ruud said. “He knows football. There are a lot of good players, a lot of good teams at the level he was playing at last year. He’s adjusted very well so far.”
Kolarevic will have two seasons of eligibility in Lincoln. He redshirted in 2017 then started for the Panthers in 2018 and 2019, racking up 144 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, 2.0 sacks and to interceptions. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker did not play in 2020 as the FCS season got pushed back to the spring.
“They did a good job with him at Northern Iowa because he’s a pretty well developed guy,” Run said. “He was a great weight room guy, great workout guy this offseason and he understands the game. He knows football, he knows concepts. He’s got to learn our concepts now, but he’s a guy that the game comes pretty naturally to him. They did a good job developing him before he got here.”
Even without Honas going through a full spring, Ruud has some good options to sort through in his room this month.