Not many conclusions can come from last weekend’s annual Red-White Spring Game, which, considering the injury situation in the program, understandably featured a first half that didn’t have full-speed tackling. However, that doesn’t mean the Huskers’ 15th practice of the spring didn’t have a bit of fun for the fans to watch in certain areas.
There were still one-on-one battles at full speed along the trenches, that is, until the pass rush got to the quarterbacks. Those were battles that Nebraska’s defensive front routinely won, especially on passes (run plays were whistled dead when the ball carriers were touched). The second half was live, but many first-teamers didn’t play for much of it.
It’s important to remember that, while the d-line was almost at full strength on Saturday—it was without projected starter Casey Rogers, who’s taking it easy this spring with an injury—the o-line was missing two likely starters in Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka, who were limited to watching and listening this spring as they rehab injuries.
While Corcoran didn’t have a strong season last year—the unit as a whole didn’t, not just him—his absence was glaring on the edge at tackle Saturday. And while Prochazka had a strong debut last season as a true freshman before going down with a season-ending injury against Michigan, it’s still an unknown how he’ll handle a full slate of Big Ten edge rushers.
Knowing that the o-line is a work in progress, it was still good to see the Huskers’ pass rush do well on Saturday. That’s an area that has struggled to get home in the Scott Frost era, ranking 12th in the Big Ten in sacks last season (20), ninth in 2020 (13 in eight games), tied for eighth in 2019 (27) and tied for sixth in 2018 (25).
The Huskers were credited with three sacks and eight tackles for loss in the scrimmage. Again, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt—everything on Saturday should be, even the pass rush, for which this story is about. But what doesn’t need salt are some of the reps that key players had individually, most notably Garrett Nelson and Jimari Butler.
Nelson was credited with two sacks, but that number would’ve been much larger if he was allowed to take the quarterbacks to the turf. After the scrimmage, Nelson was asked at the post-game podium about what his offseason prior to the spring looked like. It was clear that he wasn’t happy with how last season went and wants change.
To do that, Nelson, a Scottsbluff native, went to work on his body. He gained about 10 pounds and is up to around 250 at 6-foot-3. But the important part of adding that extra bulk was also keeping his quickness and twitchiness. He feels he accomplished that.
“The quickness is definitely there and it has been throughout the spring,” Nelson said. “I wanted to keep getting better, and as we start playing in the Big Ten with those first-round tackles, I want to be able to do that against them as well. Just to cement myself and cement the edge guys as a true threat in the Big Ten and nationally.”
Here’s an example of Nelson winning an early-game rep against left tackle Brant Banks. Watch closely as Nelson, who lines up at as a wide-9 technique, or outside shoulder of the tight end if there was one, gets his left hand on Banks’ chest and rips through him to get to quarterback Casey Thompson:
On the example below, Nelson never touches Thompson, but Nelson still made the play by working up field. The offense tries to run a play-action pass, but the running back, Jaquez Yant, accidentally steps on Thompson’s left foot, causing him to fall. Banks, the left tackle, doesn’t touch Nelson until he was 5 yards in the backfield, which meant Yant had Nelson in his face almost immediately following the run fake and had to adjust on the fly:
On the example below, Nelson showed off a sweet little left-shoulder dip that gave him the angle on Banks. The quarterback, Chubba Purdy, a Florida State transfer, looks to get too deep on his drop, though, and didn’t step up in the pocket. So, maybe Nelson didn’t need the shoulder dip anyway. Nonetheless, this was a pretty easy rep for Nelson:
One thing to remember about Purdy—the scrimmage was just his third full practice of the spring. He dealt with a foot issue early in spring and wasn’t at full-go. It’s understandable that he’s not a polished product in April—no one is, and that’s OK—while learning a new offense. It should be noted that Purdy had one of the best throws of the day, a 27-yarder to tight end AJ Rollins.
On the example below, both Nelson and his outside ‘backer partner in crime, Caleb Tannor, also lining up as a wide-9 technique, get home on straight speed rushes around their tackles. Tannor beats right tackle Bryce Benhart and would’ve likely gotten to quarterback Logan Smothers first for the sack. Nelson wouldn’t have been far behind:
As for Butler, he’s a young guy at outside ‘backer who’s looking the best he’s looked in his short career in Lincoln. Now in his third season, Butler looks the part at 6-5, 245 pounds and has shown growth this spring. A former basketball player at Murphy High School in Alabama, Butler has always been quick, but he simply needed more reps on a football field while also developing his body to withstand Big Ten linemen. His spring game performance might be an indication that he’s on the right path to becoming a contributor.
“He’s come a long way. He’s matured a lot as a young guy, as much as I wish I would have,” Nelson said of Butler. “He’s really powerful. He’s gained a lot of weight. He’s trimmed his body down, matured into his body. He’s very quick off the edge, very powerful. He needs some game reps this fall and he’s got a lot of reps this spring under his belt which is good, but getting those reps this fall with how he’s progressing, he’s going to go off the charts. He’s a really good player.”
Butler will be relied on to provide depth behind Nelson and Tannor. On Saturday, he showed what he’s been working on. On the example below, Butler’s bull-rush simply overpowers left tackle Ezra Miller, a former transfer from Iowa who came to Lincoln in 2020:
On the example below, Butler and his second-team partner, Blaise Gunnerson, both did well. First, let’s take a look at Butler. His left-arm punch knocks back the 315-pound Miller, which creates more of a lane to the quarterback, Purdy. Miller looks like he recovers well after the initial jab.
To the boundary, or short side of the field, Gunnerson’s speed rush beats right tackle Hunter Anthony, an Oklahoma State transfer, forcing Anthony to commit a holding penalty on Gunnerson:
While plenty of questions surround Nebraska’s defensive line, the Huskers seems to have a solid duo on the edges with Nelson and Tannor. Getting a talent on the edge like TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis would obviously help, too. But the depth concerns are on the inside. Ty Robinson and Rogers need to stay healthy in 2022 and young, largely inexperienced players behind them will need to emerge.
One of those players who will be relied on is Nash Hutmacher, the 6-4, 325-pounder from South Dakota. Hutmacher is a true run-stuffing zero technique, the position that plays head-up on the center or in the A gaps, the spaces between the center and two guards. Hutmacher might not be the quickest cat, but he has strength and power on his side. That’ll come in handy in the Big Ten when opposing offenses want to try running at the heart of Nebraska’s defense.
On the example below, Hutmacher lines up on the right shoulder of center Trent Hixson and takes him for a ride into the backfield at the snap. The offense wants to run outside zone to the boundary, but Yant gets rerouted by Hutmacher’s penetration. Solid job by Tannor to beat a block and limit Yant’s gain, too:
Along with Hutmacher, Colton Feist is a player who will be counted on to contribute this season. The 6-2, 280-pound walk-on from Yutan, Nebraska, had a handful of good plays on Saturday. On the example below, Feist quickly gets his hands on right guard Broc Bando and sheds the attempted block: