Photo Credit: John Peterson

Husker Defense Makes Progress in Scrimmage, Starting Nickel Still in Question

August 16, 2022

This week marks the final week of practice before Nebraska football leaves for Ireland, and on the defensive side, things are coming into focus.

For starters, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Monday that his unit was strong in Sunday’s scrimmage. This was an improvement from Nebraska’s first scrimmage, where players and coaches said only the first unit played well. Chinander specifically said he was impressed with the pass rush, tackling and personnel changes, while there were only a few errors.

“We had one really big bust that led to a touchdown, so that’s got to get cleaned up, a few communication errors,” he said. “Personnel, subbing, packages, those went in a lot smoother than the first scrimmage. We had a little sticky point transitioning from base to nickel and nickel to dime, those types of things, and we got that worked out. So I thought the scrimmage was good for us.”

The Huskers also hoped for a bit more clarity on their depth chart following the scrimmage, and it seems there’s been progress in that regard. That being said, Chinander said some positions have yet to be decided, pointing out the nickel spot in particular.

“Right now it’s or, or, or, and I gotta see who’s gonna have the best practice. And it might be that all year,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got three competent guys right now. And it might be whoever practices the best that week gets to go out there first snap.”

Chinander called it a “luxury” to be in that dilemma at nickel, and all three players are expected to at least play on special teams. Isaac Gifford, Javin Wright and Chris Kolarevic currently stand as the three candidates.

This is a much different situation than last season, when JoJo Domann, who is now in the NFL, was the clear starter. Gifford filled in at that spot while Domann missed the final two games of the year, and said he’s learned a lot from his predecessor.

“(Domann) got to play that for four years. And he figured it out,” Gifford said. “Like he knew exactly how to play each spot in the nickel position and each defense in each coverage we play. He just really figured out his weaknesses and his strengths and he played to them.”

Gifford hasn’t had quite as much time to learn the position. He joined the team in 2020 and said he knew nothing at all about playing nickel, although he had experience at both safety and linebacker.

The playing time he did receive against Wisconsin and Iowa to finish out the season helped in his growth. Gifford said it took a little bit to get in his “groove” as he filled in for the first time at nickel, but he felt comfortable in his role by the Iowa game. Going into this season, he’s made his pass coverage an emphasis.

The sophomore also had praise for Kolarevic and Wright, and how they’ve worked together.

“I think we’re all on the same page,” he said. “We all know the defense very well. I think all of us could play. Honestly, I do. So I think we’re a special group. And we got a lot of talent in the room.”

As Chinander said, all three do have a shot at starting against Northwestern, and all three need to be ready. Gifford certainly has confidence that the nickels and the team as a whole will be prepared.

“I think we could go play right now,” Gifford said. “There’s obviously stuff we still need to clean up but we’re ready to go.”

More news and notes

>> The team hasn’t yet decided when it’ll give out Blackshirts. Chinander said it’ll either happen right before the team leaves for Ireland, or right when they arrive.

>> Chinander said the team began introducing some things specifically in preparation for Northwestern today. He praised the Wildcats’ discipline and said he has respect for the team and head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“I really respect what they do on offense. They have one of the best tackles in the league, and they’ve got a running back that’s really good. So I expect them to come out and try to run the ball and be physical, and their quarterbacks now got a lot of experience in this league too. So I think that he’s going to be able to deliver the ball where it needs to go.”

>> Redshirt freshman Blaise Gunnerson has impressed coaches with his work ethic and mental preparations. Nebraska front coach Mike Dawson said the Iowa native “gets physically upset” at mental errors and works to fix them. That, along with his size, should take the defensive end a long way, Dawson said.

>> Special teams coordinator Bill Busch mentioned Kolarevic as a potential breakout candidate. The senior nickel played in every game last year, his first year at Nebraska, after transferring from Northern Iowa.

“I anticipate him doing really well for us in that spot.”

>> Sophomore running back Rahmir Johnson collected praise once again as a special teams standout.

“He does everything for us,” Busch said.

Arizona State transfer Tommi Hill has also impressed, along with Isaac Gifford and Luke Reimer. Busch credited offensive players for jumping into coverage roles as well.


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