JoJo Domann’s position in Nebraska’s defense might not be a thing if not for JoJo Domann. The super-senior moved from safety down into the box full-time in 2019 and very early on that season, the hybrid 3-4 with Domann roaming became Nebraska’s base. At 6-foot-1 with a sturdiness in the run game and athleticism to cover in space, Domann gave Nebraska a Swiss Army knife to deploy.
“At this position, you can be doing a safety job on one play, you can be doing a lineman job on the next play, and a linebacker job whenever,” said outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson on Monday. “You have to be able to walk out and play coverage on an open No. 2 to the field at that spot, but then the next call Chins may have (them) down in what I call as ‘on’ where they’re the rusher and they’re basically playing d-end.”
Domann turned in the best season of his career in the role in 2020. He played 575 snaps in eight games, was a modicum of consistency, and then decided to run it back this offseason and use his extra year of eligibility.
But with Domann, Nebraska has a player it’s hoping to manage a little during the spring and summer months. Like with Ben Stille on the defensive line and Will Honas at middle linebacker, Domann can dial back; the benefit of younger guys getting more spring snaps and developing is probably much greater than any potential gains Domann could make.
“He hasn’t had a ton of action. Some of it was planned, some of it we’re just being smart with him as far as making sure when he’s out there he’s going to be 100%,” Dawson said. “He didn’t miss one single rep the entire season last year, which is mind-blowing, especially considering he’s a guy playing hard all the time and you don’t see him taking reps off during games and stuff like that.
“Big thing for him is to stay mentally into it and then helping the young guys get the reps by going and watching Isaac (Gifford) or Javin (Wright) and say ‘Hey guys, I saw this,’ or ‘I saw that,’ or ‘When he makes this call, you guys should be thinking about this or that.’ Which he’s doing a good job of.”
In both practices the media has been able to observe so far, Domann has been out. On Saturday, it was clear third-year safety Javin Wright and second-year safety Isaac Gifford are learning his spot in his absence.
Gifford’s older brother, Luke, was more of a traditional outside ‘backer; Gifford is smaller. Dawson calls him a sponge with a really high football IQ. Nebraska got him on a virtual steal, securing his commitment with a blueshirt offer—a delayed scholarship to a player who was technically “unrecruited” by the school he signed to. Gifford didn’t visit officially or host a coach.
His arrival was one in a series of unique levers head coach Scott Frost and the Huskers weaponized to add talent to a roster pushing against the scholarship limit two years ago. They wanted Gifford.
So far, he’s fitting into a uniquely crucial role for the defense. Nebraska could recruit to it in the future.
Asked directly if Nebraska would keep the position as its permanent base and recruit accordingly, Dawson was a little coy, saying they just try to match their scheme to their talent, putting guys in the best positions to be successful. But that’s the sort of amoeba-embracing approach that lead to The Domann Nickel in the first place.
With Gifford, and perhaps more notably Wright, on board, it makes sense to keep that spot in the gameplan.
“When you’ve got a big, long body like that and he’s also athletic, you get real excited about him,” Dawson said of Wright.
A Nebraska legacy and an Arizona native, Wright redshirted in 2019 before missing all of 2020 because of a preseason injury. This is his first real chance to make an impression. And the 6-foot-3, 205-pound hybrid safety/linebacker is making the most of it.
“I saw he became Twitter famous with the catch he had, I saw that popping up all over the place which was awesome,” said Dawson, talking about Wright’s jaw-dropping one-handed interception during Saturday’s open practice.
Buddha, as his teammates and coaches call him, does that. He makes plays. “I saw that in high school,” said defensive backs coach Travis Fisher, who recruited Wright. Fisher and Dawson share teaching responsibilities with Wright and Gifford. Fisher says they’re always in the film room.
On Wright, Dawson said he’s the same as Gifford. “He’s another guy with a high football IQ,” Dawson said. “It doesn’t take him a lot of reps to go ‘OK, I got you coach, I understand it.’ Not that he doesn’t make mistakes, he’s gonna make mistakes, but he’ll correct his mistakes and that’s a big deal. Great athleticism, great size, and really long.
Said Fisher: “Looking forward to some good things from him.”
Nebraska of course wants to have Domann healthy. In terms of havoc production, he’s the Blackshirt leader. Domann had 6.5 tackles for loss, five pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles a season ago.
But, for right now, while he takes it easy in the spring, it sounds as though he’s helping to facilitate, both directly and indirectly, development of that next crop of guys who could keep his position rolling after he’s gone.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.