The Blackshirts went into last week’s game against North Dakota without a key piece on the second level as captain Nick Henrich was in street clothes with a hand injury.
That opened the door for true freshman and Columbus product Ernest Hausmann to log his first start in his second career game. He missed a couple of tackles early on but settled in from there and finished with six tackles while logging 40 snaps.
“Ernest had his first start and did a good job,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “Obviously, there’s going to be some mistakes from from a young guy in his first time out there and especially in that environment. It’s a little different going in Memorial Stadium in a packed house, especially when you’re from Nebraska. So Ernest made some mistakes. We’ll get those cleaned up. Like I said the other day, he’s going to be a fantastic player. He’s going to continue to get better and better and better.”
Coach Scott Frost said the freshman has a chance to be a special player, and Hausmann’s inside linebacker partner on Saturday, senior Luke Reimer, agreed with that assessment.
“He’s a beast,” Reimer said. “As a true freshman coming in and playing how he played was impressive. He knows his stuff extremely well and he’s a really athletically gifted player. He played really well. There were some plays he wanted back, but I had some missed tackles. We played a really mentally clean game. We just needed to finish through tackles and finish plays. That was across the room for the inside linebackers. Overall he played really good.”
Reimer played nearly every snap despite dealing with an illness that went through the team leading up to the game. Eteva Mauga-Clements subbed in for the final drive after logging 13 snaps against Northwestern. With Henrich and Garrett Snodgrass both unavailable, Frost, Chinander and inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud opted to slide Chris Kolarevic back from nickel to inside linebacker to spell Hausmann when he needed a break.
“We moved Chris to inside for the game to make sure we were good there,” Frost said. “Feeling good about that position … It is great to have a guy like Chris who can move inside or out.”
Kolarevic spending most of his time inside opened the door to more playing time for Isaac Gifford as the starting nickel. He logged 45 snaps (after 33 against Northwestern) and tied for the team lead with eight tackles including one for loss. Gifford stepped into the starting nickel role late last season when JoJo Domann shut it down for the season and he’s continued to improve since.
“Much more comfortable with his role, being out there with the starting group,” Chinander said. “Communication-wise, feeling like he has some say — kind of last year, you’re a young guy and you get thrown in as a quote-unquote, non-starter that takes a starting role at the end of the year and you’re kind of listening and waiting and having other people help you out. Now he’s able to communicate with everybody else. But I really liked what Isaac’s done the last couple weeks.”
Despite two solid performances to open the season, Gifford is still working towards earning a Blackshirt alongside cornerback Tommi Hill. Chinander said on Tuesday the coaches had not yet handed out any more of the special practice jerseys.
Chinander did not have an update on Henrich’s status, saying it was in the trainers’ hands, but he’s hoping to get his captain back soon, both for his play-making and the presence he brings to the field.
“Obviously when you when you don’t have Nick out there, you don’t have the same rotation,” Chinander said. “I think Nick makes everybody on the field feel at ease a little bit, which can’t be the safety blanket, but I think he just he brings a calmness to everything because he’s very calm in switching calls, making checks. He’s just a really good communicator and the guys trust him. Not they don’t trust the other guys but it’s just a very calming factor when he’s out there.”
Despite missing a key piece in the middle, the Blackshirts held North Dakota to 17 points in after giving up 31 to Northwestern in game one. Nebraska limited North Dakota to 3.5 yards per pass attempt and forced one turnover, but the Huskers also allowed the Fighting Hawks to average 5.3 yards per carry. Chinander said the defense’s performance hasn’t been good enough.
“Not good enough yet,” Chinander said. “Once again, not up to our standard. But I feel like this is a young group that’s hungry, that wants to be good, that wants to win, wants to do things the right way. And I think that they’ll continue to get better and better each and every week and that’s the exciting thing about this group.”
A big area in need of improvement is tackling, and Chinander highlighted leveraging the ball as one of the areas he stressed to the team this week.
“We still had a few out there and, unfortunately most of the misses we’ve had the last couple of weeks have led to extending drives,” Chinander said. “We’ve got to do a better job leveraging the football right now. All levels of up the defense — d-line, linebackers, DBs — everyone’s got to do a better job leveraging the football and when you leverage the football, those missed tackles — if you do get a missed tackle — they turn into one extra yard instead of five or six or plus. So we’ve just got to do a better job leveraging the football right now.”
Tackling is especially important for the linebackers, the position most often around the ball in this defense. Each of the key ‘backers has missed at least one tackle this season.
“It’s always just training to finish,” Reimer said. “Just grabbing cloth when you get to that runner. It’s all how close can you get to that ball carrier when I’m running up to him. It’s all just about finishing the play.”
Finishing will continue to be the theme for the defense as they look to get off the field more consistently moving forward and the linebackers will play a big part in that. They’ll likely be tested in space even more on Saturday as the Huskers welcome a pass-happy Georgia Southern team to Lincoln.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.