Nebraska defensive line coach Mike Dawson wasn't taking the bait following the Huskers' practice on Saturday. Lobbed the usual set of "who is standing out" type of questions that every coach gets this time of year (but particularly during his first availability of the spring), Dawson chose to play things down the middle.
"All the guys are pretty even right now," he said. "We just finished the second day of pads, so I’m not ready to say, ‘This is great, this isn’t great.’ I think the guys are all kind of figuring me out, figuring out my group, figuring out Coach [Erik] Chinander’s system and obviously how Coach [Scott] Frost wants us to practice."
That approach may not be just one of preference, but one of practicality. Dawson said he has not started penciling anyone in for specific roles at this point, and the players on the defensive line are learning every position across the front. "I think that it’s better if you know what the guys next to you are doing," he said.
That, too, might be more of a reflection of where things are going on the defensive line than where they stand. When you look at the roster and consider how the Huskers will presumably play, you're left looking at what could be a pretty versatile group of defensive linemen.
UCF, like a lot of teams currently, spent much of its time in the 3-4 front asking its nose tackle to play like a traditional nose tackle and its defensive ends to play like traditional defensive tackles. Now look at the roster.
Among the presumed top group of defensive linemen, redshirt freshmen Damion Daniels (6-2, 310) is the easiest to categorize. He's a nose tackle. (For what it's worth, the only player listed at 'DT' on the d-line on the official roster.) The two players who primarily filled that role last year, senior Mick Stoltenberg (6-5, 305) and sophomore Deontre Thomas (6-3, 280), could fit in the middle again, but have the versatility to be defensive ends in this scheme. I think you could argue that Stoltenberg––who was tasked with packing on weight last season, and has generally done everything that's been asked of him, sometimes to his own detriment––is most naturally a run-stopping defensive end in this scheme, but given his experience and leadership probably takes the bulk of the nose tackle snaps unless Daniels really makes a push. Thomas is talented enough to find snaps where they're available.
Juniors Carlos (6-2, 295) and Khalil Davis (6-2, 290) are athletic enough to do it all up front as well, but, in my mind at least, naturally trend towards defensive ends in 2018. Senior Freedom Akinmoladun, once Nebraska's next great pass-rushing hope, will probably be asked to be more of a run-stopper now, and I think he'll be good at it. You can keep going down the list and most of the guys have the size and skillset to challenge for snaps at the spot with the most broadly-defined duties, defensive end.
Like a lot of others, I'm really high on Ben Stille (6-5, 255) after he put together a really good debut season under trying circumstances. Redshirt freshman Chris Walker (6-8, 275) comes over from the offensive line, and is an intriguing player to watch. Defensive line in this system can often feel a little like drudge work, but Walker's approach to doing that type of work might get him on the field.
Pure pass rush may fall more to the linebackers, though there are a few intriguing hybrid options available to Dawson. Husker fans have been anxiously waiting for junior DaiShon Neal (6-7, 275) to make his presence felt, and this might be his chance. It's worth noting that Oregon was in on Neal as a recruit at a time when Chinander was the Ducks' outside linebackers coach. Junior Alex Davis (6-5, 255), listed as linebacker, has much the same opportunity in 2018.
I feel like that may barely scratch the surface of all of the potential options available to Nebraska's defensive line in 2018. Everyone knows that success on defense (and offense for that matter) starts up front.
It's too early to know exactly how the Huskers pieces all fit on the front, but there's plenty of flexibility there. Just ask Dawson.
The Grab Bag
- The Big Ten lands two games on this "Best Games of 2017" list, and UCF makes an appearance as well.
- This is interesting: A recent change to state law might help Colorado and Colorado State keep pace with rising assistant football coach salaries.
- On a slow Sunday I ended up watching pieces of the college 3X3U tournament, and came away with many of the same thoughts as Andrew Joseph outlines here.
- ICYMI: Recruiting analyst Greg Smith had a slew of updates from Nebraska's junior day (with more on the way). Catch up on those here.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.