We begin with six names: JoJo Domann, Caleb Tannor, Garrett Nelson, Pheldarius Payne, Niko Cooper, and Nick Henrich. Nebraska’s pass-rushing prowess in 2020 very well might begin with those six names, too.
Clarity at Nebraska’s outside linebacker positions begins with those six names as well. Those were the names offered up by defensive coordinator Erik Chinander Tuesday when asked about the top guys for those two spots.
“There (are) a lot of different faces probably going to play, depending on packages,” Chinander said during a Zoom conversation with the media. “We’ve got a few guys that are better in different situations right now.”
Nebraska needs better production from its outside ‘backers in 2020. It needs guys who can be consistent producers. In the three years since switching to the 3-4 defense, Nebraska has searched high and low for that dominant edge-rushing presence, and to no avail.
Domann, a senior, doesn’t have prototypical size for the spot, but he makes up for it by simply making plays. Health permitting, Domann will have all the snaps he can handle.
That leaves one other spot, though.
Domann’s antithesis is Tannor. The Georgia native is a guy who physically looks the part. He’s a guy who seemingly was exactly the kind of player Chinander and Co. want to recruit for their scheme. But he’s a guy who has shown only brief flashes of promise.
A 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior, Tannor looks to have all the tools. He’s long. He’s got great athleticism. He can bend. He’s had three years now in Zach Duval’s weight room. But he’s played in 24 games as a Husker and only has 27 tackles. What’s more, he only has four career tackles for loss.
“He’s going to have to help us, and he’s going to have to help us early,” Chinander said in the spring. “And if he can’t, you know, once you get to be that junior age, if you can’t help anymore, some young guy has to get a shot.”
So what is it that’s held Tannor back?
“He’s got to be an all-the-time player as far as ‘Hey, on this rep I’m going to be perfect at whatever this situation calls for,’” his position coach, Mike Dawson, said.
The two have talked about this extensively. Nebraska needs Swiss army knife kinds of defenders, not utility guys who can come in for a specific package but need subbing out after the play.
Can you drop into pass coverage with the proper technique on first down?
Then can you set the edge properly on second? Dawson teaches setting the edge at less than 90 degrees, close to where the ball is snapped. Don’t get pushed out, don’t get widened, maintain your leverage.
And if you do those things well, can you pin your ears back and try to make life hell for the other team’s quarterback on third down?
“Just getting better at really hammering down those techniques and not only knowing where he’s supposed to go and how he’s supposed to fit but also knowing how the way he plays is going to affect the guy behind him, the guy inside of him, the guy outside of him, wherever it may be,” Dawson said. “Your play is going to affect the guys around you.
“If he can understand what those guys are doing and kind of the concepts of the entire defense rather than just memorizing ‘Hey, if Coach Chinander calls this, I better be in this gap.’ If you can learn concepts rather than memorize where you’re going to be, I think that helps and I think that’s something that I think he’s trying to get a lot better at, not only understanding what he has to do but why he has to do it and how it affects the guys around him.”
The language might be different with Dawson now running the outside ‘backer room, that much of it is true. Tannor’s career so far hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.
The plan for him as a freshman was to just add weight and learn the scheme best he could. Technique and detail would come after. But that sophomore season had to be tough. It began with his position coach, Jovan Dewitt, limited as he battled a form of throat cancer. It ended with a true freshman Garrett Nelson stealing his snaps.
Nebraska has added enough players to threaten Tannor’s spot if he doesn’t take a step.
Fortunately, though, early returns have been positive.
“Caleb is closing the gap, if you will, on where he was last year to where he needs to be,” Chinander said. “That gap is closing, but there’s always room to grow and I know Coach Dawson is going to push him every single day to get better and better and better until he’s one of those top guys in the country, which I think he has the ability to be.”
Tannor has done what his coaches have asked.
“Caleb’s done a nice job of trying to dive into being a complete football player—not just a pass-rusher, not just a pass-dropper, not just a run-defender—trying to do all three of them,” Dawson said. “He’s going to have a big role.”
“We’ll get in and out of our base and nickel personnel and that will do different things to the room, but he’s a guy that’s got to kind of be a Swiss army knife for us where he’s got to be a bunch of different tools, and he’s done a really good job of that. I’m looking forward to seeing him play fast and get out there and see what he can do on Saturday. He’s done a good job so far with it and he’s just got to keep learning it, keep working to really fine-tune his craft.”
Nebraska kicks off its season on Saturday against the fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. What awaits them in the Horseshoe is arguably the best player in the Big Ten conference: Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields.
Fields led the Big Ten in touchdown tosses last season (41) and had the fewest interceptions of any quarterback who played at least half his team’s games (three). He added 10 scores on the ground.
No rest for the weary, and no ease-ins for the Blackshirts. That front seven will be tasked with trying to contain Fields. And those six outside ‘backers will need to make him as uncomfortable as they can.
We’ll begin with six names.
If Tannor can take that next step, Nebraska fans might have a new favorite one.
“If he can kind of be in all those positions and get really good at his skill,” Dawson says, “I think the sky’s the limit for Caleb.”