Scott Frost said on Monday that he wouldn’t be releasing a depth chart as the Huskers head into the season-opener at Ohio State, but his assistants have offered some insights into their respective positions groups during their recent media appearances.
Last week on Sports Nightly’s Nebraska Football Show, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander broke down the inside linebacker spots, identifying the top three or four in that room. On Tuesday, Chinander and Mike Dawson talked about the outside linebackers.
“There are a lot of different faces that are probably going to play depending on packages,” Chinander said. “We’ve got a few guys that can go in and are better in different situations right now. You’ve got JoJo Domann, Caleb Tannor, Garrett Nelson, Pheldarius Payne, Nick Henrich has been taking some reps in and out of that position, and Niko Cooper are probably the top guys right now.”
Domann is the most accomplished player of the group after starting in six games last season and racking up 52 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles. The converted safety allowed the Huskers to play a sort of hybrid nickel last season with Domann’s ability to drop back in coverage as well as rush off the edge. Beyond him, however, there isn’t much in the way of proven production.
Caleb Tannor was a part of the rotation last season, logging four starts and playing in every game. He totaled 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a sophomore while playing in a rotation with Alex Davis and Garrett Nelson along with Domann. Dawson said Tannor is going to have a “big role” and Chinander believes he has the ability to be “one of the top guys in the country” under Dawson’s tutelage.
Garrett Nelson quickly became a fan favorite as a true freshman as the Scottsbluff product was one of just a few 2019 recruits who played enough to avoid a redshirt season. He logged 15 tackles and contributed on both defense and special teams. Chinander said last week the he got a shoulder injury taken care of after the season but is good to go and has continued to bring the intensity he’s known for to the practice field.
Payne and Cooper are part of the big group of junior college transfers that Scott Frost’s staff brought in this offseason. Payne arrived in Lincoln as a defensive end, but at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds with a knack for getting after the passer, the staff decided to move him to outside linebacker during camp. Both transfers have shown the coaches enough to be in the mix for playing time, but like all newcomers, they’re still in the process of learning the system and all of its terminology, something that was made even more difficult by the unorthodox offseason.
“Even though the plays may be similar or could be the same as or techniques may be similar or same as, you’re learning someone else’s new language,” Dawson said. “Learning that piece of it and getting that part of it down I think for all the new guys is a little bit different where you’ve had a little bit less time, not a true training camp, even though we were kind of ramping it up here the last few weeks, you were not really in training camp where you’re with them from the time they woke up to the time they went to sleep pretty much like you would be. They had other things going on, getting adjusted, class and things like that. That’s been another new challenge for all those guys. So getting that piece of it down I think with all the new guys is pretty much the biggest hurdle that I’ve had coming back and getting in with the new room.”
The final player Chinander mentioned is Henrich, the redshirt freshman from Omaha Burke. He was named the 2018 Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year after positing 96 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 40 sacks during a 13-0 season for the Bulldogs. Injuries derailed his first season at Nebraska, but the coaches have spoken highly of him throughout the preseason and are experimenting with ways to get him on the field. He worked at both inside and outside linebacker throughout fall camp, and he’s apparently picked things up at both spots relatively easy.
“I think first off, he’s a smart kid that can take coaching, and just overall he’s a football player,” Chinander said. “No matter where you put him, what position you’re going to put him in, he’s a football player. He understands spacing, he understands leverage, he understands assignment, he’s a tough kid and he loves Nebraska first and foremost, he loves the game of football. So he’s going to do whatever he has to do to get on the field, whether that’s learn a new position mid-week or study it from the day he got here. I just think he’s a football player and he needs to be on the field somewhere.”
Dawson also praised him for being a “football player,” and said the traits that made him such a disruptive player in high school have allowed him to be effective at outside linebacker as well as his natural inside spot.
“What’s allowed him to [transition smoothly] is he’s a football player, he’s a natural football player,” Dawson said. “He’s got a great nose for the ball. Some of the things that you spend a lot of time teaching guys … he just went out there and just did it, which was really cool to see. He’s got that knack and natural ability to find his way to the football. That’s been probably the biggest thing that’s stood out as far as that goes. Then he’s really smart, does a great job of taking what he learns in the classroom and bringing it to the field without a lot of repetition, which is great.”
Beyond the top six Chinander identified, Nebraska has another group of young ‘backers working to earn playing time in redshirt sophomore David Alston, redshirt freshman Jamin Graham, true freshmen Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler as well as a handful of walk-ons. Junior Damian Jackson was also placed on scholarship this offseason, and Dawson said he’s enjoying having the former Navy SEAL in his room again after coaching Jackson at defensive end during his previous stint in Lincoln.
Whoever ends up playing the majority of the snaps, Nebraska is going to need more pass-rushing production and more consistent play overall from the outside linebackers, and Chinander said he’s been pleased with the improvement he’s seen thus far from that group with Dawson taking over.
“I think there’s been a ton of progress and they’re doing a lot of different things within the defense,” Chinander said. “We’re rotating from base to nickel, playing some more true outside ‘backer and then shifting to more of a defensive end role when we get into four-down spacing. So they’ve done a lot, they’ve progressed a lot. I think their understanding of what they’re trying to do is getting better and better each day and their pass rush is getting better.”
Dawson said he knows he has a younger group, but he also said they “don’t have time to be young.” The Huskers are getting one of the most explosive offenses in the country led by a likely first-round pick at quarterback in week one, and the defense will have to be ready to deal with whatever the Buckeyes throw at them.
“We’re going to have to show up and we’re going to have to play hard and fast and we’re going to have to do it very quickly,” Dawson said.