Here's a fun trivia question to spring on your friend who closely follows Nebraska football: Since Randy Gregory did it in 2014, who are the four Huskers who have led the team in sacks in the past four seasons.
Frankly, I'll be shocked if there's many people who can answer this off the top of their head.
Last year is easy. Luke Gifford's 5.5 sacks led the team and those are easy to remember because this time of year we're all focused on who can replace Gifford's production. Here's a hint for 2017: It was the Bob Diaco year where Nebraska didn't do a whole lot besides limit big plays. The team leader that year had 3.5 sacks (3.5!) and reached that total in just nine games. That was freshman Ben Stille, then listed as a linebacker.
Ross Dzuris was the unlikely leader in 2016 with 5.5. I say unlikely because he didn't see the field in his first three years in the program, then found a place on the line under Mike Riley, tallying 2.5 sacks in 2015 before becoming Nebraska's most consistent pass rusher in his senior season. The fourth answer to this strangely specific trivia question is Freedom Akinmoladun. The high school tight end recorded 4.5 sacks in his redshirt freshman season in 2015. Like Stille in 2017, he did it without playing a full season.
Those are your last four sack leaders at Nebraska––Gifford, Stille, Dzuris, Akinmoladun––and I don't think you would've tabbed any of them as the most likely to take that honor at the start of those seasons. Since Gregory, Nebraska hasn't really had the guy you could point to and say, "That's who gets after the passer."
And you probably can't do it in 2019 either. Maybe Stille is that player. He was just a half-sack behind Gifford last year and has 8.5 in 21 career games. If not him, JoJo Domann is probably the second choice as he tries to fill Gifford's role from last season. Point is, it's still not easy to handicap the sacks race for the season ahead. Will Nebraska have another from-the-pack winner again?
If it does, I think it's likely to come from the outside linebacker spot opposite Gifford. Linebacker coaches Barrett Ruud and Jovan Dewitt were on Husker Sports Nightly on Tuesday night to talk about their positions (inside and outside respectively), and it was full of good updates on a group that's still somewhat mysterious.
But for our purposes, let's focus on what was said about the two seniors on the outside––Alex Davis and Tyrin Ferguson. Both are packed with potential, but it's only potential at this point for a reason; there's not a lot you can prove about either guy at this moment and it's not really their fault.
Ferguson played in 10 games on special teams as a true freshman in 2015 then asked to redshirt in 2016. He was a backup linebacker in 2017 and then was limited by injuries last year but still tallied 36 tackles and six tackles for loss (including one sack) in eight games in 2018. He has yet to play in every game during one of his seasons at Nebraska.
"His health has really been the only issue that's kind of held him back," Dewitt said. "When he was really healthy against Colorado he had a great game, something like 10 tackles with a bunch for a loss. I think that's when we saw what he was capable of doing. Now it's just a matter of managing reps and managing his body so he doesn't burn himself out and create more potential for injury early or in the middle of the season."
Davis looks exactly like "you would want a person to look like that plays the outside 'backer position," Dewitt said, but the issue for Davis has been one of continuity. He was the scout team MVP as a redshirt freshman defensive end in 2015 and saw time in all 13 games as a pass-rush specialist in 2016 under defensive coordinator Mark Banker. In 2017 he had a new position (linebacker) and a new coordinator (Diaco), but posted the best numbers of his career (17 tackles, three for loss, 1.5 sacks). It was a new coaching staff again in 2018.
"The one thing that held Alex back early on was almost his doubt in himself in terms of 'should I do this, should I not do that?' Now I think you're seeing a little bit more of him turning it loose and not being afraid to make mistakes," Dewitt said. "I think that's really going to benefit him, the comfort with the system. It's the same system really for the first time, the same position, since he's been here. It'll be the first time he's had two years in a row of the same system, same coordinator, same position, same thought process, and it's going to allow a little bit better comfort level for him."
Nebraska is going to need production from that outside linebacker spot, and a combination of career years from both Ferguson and Davis would work just fine. Given their winding careers, that's on the table and hopes are high for each of them.
But if we make this a two-horse race, for the sake of intrigue, and you had to bet on a breakout season for just one of them, which one are you taking? Ferguson, who has probably flashed more in short stints, or Davis, who has been healthier and perhaps offers more upside?
Would you be willing to parlay that pick with a bet for your choice to also lead the team in sacks?
At this point given the recent history at Nebraska, it might be more surprising if we get to the end of the season and the Huskers’ sack leader is one of the usual suspects.
The Grab Bag
- Good look from Derek Peterson at how the Huskers’ offense continues to evolve from what Frost was a part of at Oregon.
- Nice recap here from Greg Smith of where the Big Ten recruiting classes stand at the end of July.
- More from Smith: Catching up with defensive back recruit Kendrick Simpkins and looking back at Marquel Disumke as a recruit. (Premium)
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.