Harmony for Nebraska's Front Seven Means Chaos for Opponents
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Harmony for Nebraska’s Front Seven Means Chaos for Opponents

September 18, 2019

Collin Miller’s life is a lot easier right now. So is Mohamed Barry’s. So is Will Honas’.

Not completely unrelated: those three are Nebraska’s leading tacklers after three games. The three-man rotation Nebraska has working at inside linebacker right now is something position coach Barrett Ruud is pretty happy with. It’s been great, he says. 

Miller has 15 tackles in three games, 2.5 tackles for loss and he’s been around the ball virtually whenever he’s on the field for the defense. Barry has 28 tackles to lead the team and a sack to his name. Honas has 20. This, Ruud says, was absolutely expected. 

There is no difference in play between a pairing of Barry and Honas or Miller and Barry or Miller and Honas. 

“That’s the whole key, there can’t be any difference when any combination of those guys are out on the field,” Ruud said. “And the goal is to hopefully keep them fresh through the entire season because it’s a long season, and in the Big Ten you play a ton of snaps and you’ve got to make sure you’ve got guys fresh for the stretch run.”

Last year, there was a problem with opponents climbing guards to linebackers. Barry still finished third in the Big Ten in tackles, but Nebraska’s run defense was yielding 5 yards a carry. A lot of Barry’s usage was him acting as the last line of defense between a ball-carrier that had gotten through the line of scrimmage no problem and was a Blackshirt or two away from green grass. 

Ruud said the Huskers tweaked a few things schematically in the offseason to help with that (though he wouldn’t say specifically what; maybe later), but the biggest difference is in line play. 

“When you see these defensive linemen holding up these offensive linemen and those gaps just start to widen up, you just see the ball clear and you can just play fast because you know you've got this d-lineman here,” Miller said. “Darrion [Daniels], I think he’s the best one we've got. Him and the Davis twins, those guys are unbelievable.”

Nebraska is 12th in the country in run defense, giving up just 2.18 yards per carry. It hasn’t posted a season-long mark below 3 yards a carry since 2009. I asked Daniels if he knew what the number was last season, and when he shook his head “No” and I told him, his face scrunched up in disgust. 

Nebraska hasn’t given up 100 yards total on the ground in a game yet this season and a lot of that has to do with plays being made in the backfield. Nebraska’s linebackers feel cleaner. They look cleaner. Ruud sees the difference. “They’ve been really good up front,” he says of the line. Barry and Miller and Honas can shoot those gaps now. 

“And if I’m not, [the defensive line is] making the tackles in the backfield,” Barry said. “If teams want to climb guards and centers, which they’ve been doing lately, now these d-linemen, they’re not playing them and they’re making TFLs. You can’t just climb guards to me and expect nothing to happen in that backfield.”

The 27 tackles for loss the Huskers have through three games is tied for ninth nationally. Assuming NU makes a bowl, it’s on pace for 117 over the course of the season; the Blackshirts have hit 90 in a season once this decade. The linebackers alone are on pace to post more tackles for loss this year than the entire defense did in 2017. 

Watch the defense and the overall takeaway is, “Man, these dudes are flying to the football,” but when you focus in on who those dudes are, a lot of times there is one of Ruud’s linebackers right in the middle of the action. The collective play from that group has been encouraging to begin the season, from the coaching staff’s perspective, but the players themselves continue to say it’s all about the guys up front. 

“The defensive line is a brick wall up there,” Miller says. “You've got the Davis twins holding it down, Darrion, Damion [Daniels], Ben Stille, all those guys. They do a good job of letting the linebackers — me, Mohamed and Will — just run free. You've got those guys up front, it makes life easier.

“I’m just glad [Darrion] came to Nebraska because he’s making my life real easy.”

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