Fall camp is just over a week old and starting positions are still very much up for grabs throughout the team, but perhaps nowhere more so than at outside linebacker.
However, don’t call them “position battles,” especially at the field outside linebacker spot headlined by senior Marcus Newby and junior Luke Gifford.
“Both players are doing a wonderful job,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “I’m not sure that we’re really seeing that as so much a battle as a cooperative performance between the two of them to put together the very best outside linebacker position and production. So I think they’re doing a beautiful job getting ready and cooperating. I don’t feel a lot of angst and anxiety with the competition at that spot.”
The players seem to be on the same page as their coordinator.
“We work so well together, honestly,” Gifford said about the dynamic with Newby. “We watch film together, we bounce things off each other. If I don’t know something, then he knows it; if he doesn’t know something then I know it. It’s really nice being able to coach each other and work together because Dog’s not an easy position. We’re out there in space, we’ve got a lot of jobs to do. We use each other as much as we can.”
Sharing time is nothing new for Newby. Last season, senior Michael Rose-Ivey started eight games and racked up 70 tackles, while Newby started four games with 18 tackles. Rose-Ivey recored eight tackles for loss, while Newby contributed a pair of sacks and showed strong coverage ability. Nebraska looks poised to have a similar time share at the Dog position this year.
“At the end of the day, we’re both going to help the team win,” Gifford said. “When he’s in there, there’s no drop-off when I come in and when I’m in there there’s no drop-off when he comes in. It’s nice to have that.”
One thing that will help Gifford see the field as a junior after playing in just four games as a sophomore is an improved ability to rush the passer, according to linebackers coach Trent Bray.
“I’m super excited about that role, actually,” Gifford said. “It’s something that I want to keep working really hard on. Coach [John] Parrella’s awesome, I love working with Coach Parrella, so Ive been trying to get with him as much as I can. If I can make a home there and really devote some time to that, I’d love to do that. Whatever I can do to help the team, but that looks like a good spot to do it.”
Overall, Bray said he is happy with what he’s seen from the Dog position to this point.
“It’s been great because they’re both playing at a high level,” Bray said. “Luke is really stepping up his game every day. He’s getting his hand on the ball just about every day in practice multiple times. It’s good to see Luke pushing Marcus and Marcus pushing Luke. It’s been great.”
Add in Tyrin Ferguson, the sophomore who took the unconventional route of redshirting last season after playing on special teams as a true freshman, and the Huskers look to have good depth at that position.
Things are far from settled on the other side of the defense as well as redshirt sophomore Alex Davis and junior Sedrick King are battling for snaps at the Cat after playing defensive end last season.
“Me and Sed are right there; we help each other out, force each other to get better every day, and that’s just something we do, push each other every day,” Davis said.
The biggest change for Davis has been learning how to drop into coverage, something that is rarely asked of a defensive end. He said he feels like he’s getting there, however.
“It’s an everyday thing, getting better,” Davis said. “I’m feeling more confident in it every day, just knowing better ways to drop back and just knowing my responsibilities.”
At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, Davis said he’s most comfortable getting downhill, but he’s learning that playing in space can be enjoyable as well.
“I like setting the edge,” Davis said. “I like the contact. But I like dropping back too, getting my hands on the ball. That’s pretty fun.”
True freshman Guy Thomas, at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, will also factor into that discussion as camp plays out.
Nebraska’s outside linebacker position is still one of the biggest question marks on the team as camp rolls on, but the early returns show plenty of potential answers for Coach Mike Riley, Diaco and Bray to choose from.