Six games into spring practice, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud isn’t worried too much about a depth chart. That being said, there are a few players that have separated themselves a bit from the rest of the pack.
“There’s probably about four guys that have separated themselves a little bit and then I’ve got four guys that need to play a little bit of catch-up,” Ruud said. “Those first four guys, now it’s trying to figure out who grasps it the best schematically and then who’s playing the best football as well. Within that, I have to find the best positions for them as well.”
When asked if senior Dedrick Young, junior Mohamed Barry, sophomore Avery Roberts and junior college transfer Will Honas were the first four, Ruud offered confirmation. Young is a three-year starter, Barry and Roberts served as the primary back-ups last year and Honas was handpicked by Scott Forst, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and Ruud to replace departing starter Chris Weber alongside Young.
“They’d probably be the top four right now; I think that’s safe to say,” Ruud said. “Drew [Ward] and Willie [Hampton] are playing a little catch-up right now but they’re working at it. [Walk-on] Jake Weinmaster’s doing a great job; he’s a guy who eventually we’ll probably have to count on at some point this year and I’m going to put it on him to learn both spots really well and be a utility-type guy. Right now more than anything it’s not so much depth chart; it’s about teaching fundamental football and getting better at that aspect every day.”
Young is the team’s leading returning tackler by a significant margin, totaling 80 stops last season which is 32 more than the next-highest total. Young has long been praised as a reliable linebacker who is always in the right spots, but he hasn’t produced many negative plays with just four tackles for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry last season while playing in all 12 games.
“Dedrick’s a good football player; I’m really impressed wth Dedrick,” Ruud said. “He’s a good football player, he’s a smart football player. I think one thing that’s really going to help Dedrick is the way we teach tackling, teach defense — we talk leverage, we talk help all the time so you have the freedom to be aggressive with your tackles. As long as you know your leverage, you take your shot, there’s no such thing as a bad missed tackle if you’re on the right leverage. A bad missed tackle is when you miss with the wrong leverage. Once you grasp the freedom that you have help, it really frees you up to tackle faster, to tackle more aggressive, to tackle with more certainty.”
Ruud also praised Roberts’ intellect. The true sophomore worked with the second unit on defense all season long but only got a few snaps during games; most of his action came on special teams.
“I was very happy with his intelligence,” Ruud said. “He’s a smart kid, he really is. He picks things up fast. He’s got to clean up, more than anything, his fundamentals, his footwork. I think that’ll come because he has a lot of want-to in him. He’s done a really nice job of learning what we’re asking him to do. Now it’s going to be about getting into better shape for him, getting his feet better, getting more agile. He’s a guy I’m confident will learn the system really well.”
As for Honas, he’s making the transition from junior college to Division I football while also learning Chinander’s defense like the rest of the Huskers.
“He’s working hard at it,” Ruud said. “That’s all you can ask. He’s got a ways to go but he’s working hard at it. He’s learning from mistakes. I’m good with mistakes but I can’t have repeated mistakes. He’s doing a good job correcting issues. He’s got some work to do — footwork, keys, fundamentals; it’s a new style of defense for him, but he’s putting the work in so he’ll be fine.”
As for Weinmaster, he’s a walk-on who saw some action at outside linebacker after injuries ravaged the position for the Huskers.
While Ruud said he’s seen four players take an early lead, he’s hoping to build even more depth than that in large part because of the number of plays Nebraska’s offensive scheme is going to produce in a game.
“Preferably, I’d love to have four to six guys that can play because even last year, we were undefeated and the last seven, eight games of the season we averaged between 88 and 92 plays a game defensively,“ Ruud said. “Even if you’ve got multiple guys playing, most guys are still going to be playing 65-plus snaps. When you’ve got to play 90 snaps a game, that really adds up to about three or four more extra games during the year. I’d love to be able to play more than two. At the same time, I’ve got to have a comfort level, too. I’ve got to be able to throw guys out there and know they’re going to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Comfort for Ruud comes from players showing both fundamental mastery and knowledge of the scheme. Everyone in that room needs to be ready.
“I need guys that can play because you’ve got two guys that go down with nicks or a chin strap breaks or whatever, somebody’s going to have to go in,” Ruud said. “I’m looking for guys that can do it, as many guys that I can trust to go out there and execute anything that Coach Chin calls.”
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.