Linebacker appears to be one of the shallowest positions on Nebraska’s roster as we exit spring and head into the summer. Outside ‘backer seems to be getting shallower and shallow with each passing day, but the interior has been one of the smallest position groups on the team since spring began.
Mohamed Barry is entrenched as a starter and is a likely captain heading into his senior season. Collin Miller has emerged alongside him after bouncing back and forth between a few different positions through the first few years of his career. Will Honas is coming off a torn ACL and did participate during spring ball but was not cleared for contact. Nick Henrich enrolled early but suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and will keep him on the shelf for a while. Incoming freshmen Jackson Hannah and Garrett Snodgrass won’t arrive until June.
So to recap, Nebraska currently has two scholarship inside linebackers who are both on campus and fully healthy. That is not ideal.
That’s where the walk-on program comes into play. Would you rather have a room fully stocked with scholarship recruits? Sure, and down the road that is likely the plan for Nebraska. But the walk-on program exists in part to plug holes when they pop up, and for the time being, Nebraska has a hole at inside linebacker.
That’s where Joseph Johnson comes into play.
During a recent appearance by Scott Frost on Sports Nightly, Johnson — the 6-foot-3, 235-pound redshirt freshman out of Gretna — got a shoutout from his head coach.
"If he makes as big of strides this fall as he did this spring, I think he's got a chance to help us," Frost said.
Johnson split his reps between the Red and White teams during the Spring Game, recording three tackles for each side. Three of his six tackles were solo. His position coach spoke highly of I'm throughout the spring.
“He’s a guy that has a lot of natural athleticism,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “The biggest deal for him was just getting bigger, stronger, faster in the weight room and he’s already started to do that. He’s going to play a lot of football for us. Whether it’s this year, next year, or … at some point, he’s going to play a lot of football at Nebraska.”
Johnson originally committed to South Dakota State but changed course and walked on at Nebraska after Frost took over in Lincoln.
Johnson was a standout player at Gretna, recording 115 tackles (41 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries as a senior. He had a career-high 18 tackles in a 24-14 win over traditional football power Elkhorn South, leading the charge for a defense that limited to fellow Husker walk-on and Storm star running back Moses Bryant to 91 yards and 3.8 yards per carry. Johnson closed out his career strong, recording double-digit tackles in each of his last five games and averaging 9.6 tackles for the season.
The Dragons went 11-1, falling to Omaha Skutt in the Class B state championship game 10-9 at Memorial Stadium. Johnson led the Dragons with 10 tackles and a sack in that game. As a junior, Johnson split his time between linebacker and tight end before focusing primarily on linebacker as a senior. He was a multi-sport star at Gretna, hitting a game-winning 3-pointer for the basketball team in the Class B state championship against Scottsbluff during his junior year.
“I think just probably his all-around athleticism and football instincts,” Ruud said about what has allowed Johnson to stand out. “He’s got a lot of intelligence too, so we think, for him, obviously he could go down there and play outside if he needed to, but because of his intelligence, his athleticism, he does a really nice job at the inside spot.”
Johnson is the kind of player the Huskers are targeting for the walk-on program. He may not have everything a school looks for in a scholarship recruit, but he has enough of the physical tools to where his natural ability should be able to shine through at the next level after some development.
“It is what it is at any level,” Ruud said. “There are a lot of great high school players who are 5-8; it’s just tougher to make it as a linebacker. When you’ve got a guy who’s 6-3 and long and has those natural tools, that’s part of what Nebraska was about for a long time was taking the skeleton and making it into a finished product and that’s what we take a lot of pride in and what we’re planning on doing.”
Jacob Weinmaster walked on out of Loveland, Colorado, in 2015, redshirting his first season then missing his second with an injury. But during his sophomore year, Weinmaster earned his way onto the field, playing in all 12 games primarily on special teams. He continued to work and impressed the coaches enough to earn a scholarship heading into is junior year, and when injury hit he filled in on defense where he recorded five of his 13 tackles.
Injuries led to early retirement for Weinmaster after the season, but that opens the door for another walk-on to earn his way up the depth chart and Johnson has seemingly done just that.
The priority for the coaches will be getting Honas and Henrich healthy and Hannah and Snodgrass up to speed, but if the need arises, Joseph Johnson appears poised to rise to the occasion.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.