Five inside linebackers played significant snaps for the Huskers last season. Currently, two of them are healthy while one’s eligibility expired, one retired from football and the other is recovering from a torn ACL. That sets the stage for a big spring for inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud and his group.
“You’ve got to find guys that can play,” Ruud said on Tuesday, day two of spring ball. “We don’t have a lot of returners at that spot but we do have a lot of opportunity. The guys that get an opportunity need to make the most of it.”
Mohamed Barry is back for his senior season and is arguably the team’s best returning defensive player. But with Dedrick Young graduating and Jacob Weinmaster retiring, playing time next to Barry is up for grabs.
“Anybody that’s been around a lot of football and played a lot of football, they can be a sounding board for guys,” Ruud said. “So [Barry] has been very helpful, but at the same time I expect the guys who didn’t get to play a lot maybe, they have to make a big jump in year two as well. Game experience is great and for guys who have been through it it is very helpful, but at the same time if you’ve been around the program for a year, you know the expectations and we expect them to make a big jump too.”
Collin Miller is one of those guys who needs to make a big leap in year two of the system. He’s had a full season at inside linebacker after bouncing around a few different positions throughout his career. He saw the field as a situational player in certain sub-packages but didn’t really play the traditional inside linebacker spot in the base defense.
The only other returner who has seen the field is junior Will Honas, a junior college transfer who tore his ACL four games into the season and took a redshirt. Coach Scott Frost said he’ll be a “limited” participant this spring, and he’s been using his time away from the field to at least make progress mentally.
“He’s always been real sharp, but I think he’s definitely progressed in that regard,” Ruud said. “He’s still getting a bunch of mental reps out on the field. Recovery-wise he’s doing great. He’s doing some individual drills with us. I don’t know what the quote-unquote schedule is for ACL recovery, but he’s about as good as he can be I think. We’ll be really smart with him in the spring too and I think he should be full-go, no limitations come the fall.”
The only other player on scholarship currently in that room is Nick Henrich, a freshman who graduated from Omaha Burke early and enrolled in January along with six other true freshmen. Ruud said he wasn’t initially in favor of guys enrolling early, but he’s come to understand how valuable it can be.
“It’s awesome,” Ruud said. “You just get a head start, especially when it comes to playing early. It doesn’t make or break your career by any means but as far as playing as a freshman, it’s just so beneficial that semester early, get a whole offseason of weightlifting, get a whole spring ball, get adjusted to college life, so you just get ahead of the game a little bit. That part will be real big for him.”
With the dearth of scholarship ‘backers currently on campus, Henrich has a “huge” opportunity to make a name for himself this spring.
“He gets the benefit of it because he gets so many reps now,” Ruud said. “They’re just invaluable. You have to play football and learn it, learn how to play at this level. It’s so much different with the technique involved, how specific, how precise it is, especially going against our offense as well. It’s really good that they get to go through this this spring.”
If Henrich wants to see the field come the fall, he’s going to have to make significant strides both physically in the weight room and mentally in terms of learning the playbook and the responsibilities of an inside linebacker in Erik Chinander’s system.
“It’s such a big jump from high school,” Ruud said. “Physically, all those guys that we recruit, they have the tools to do it but it’s also about getting stronger, about being able to play against better players consistently. So the mental side and the physical side get challenged when you get to this level. All aspects have to be on point to play early.”
Scholarships are short, but there are still plenty of bodies in that room thanks to a solid group of walk-ons. Juniors Grant and Spencer Jordan are the veterans of the group but redshirt freshmen Joseph Johnson, Chris Cassidy, Jake Archer and Anthony Banderas are looking to contribute as well. Johnson, a Gretna product, is listed as an outside linebacker on the roster but made the fall practice roster as a true freshman last year playing for Ruud.
“In general, in our program that’s always been a staple that the walk-ons have to contribute in some way,” Ruud said. “I think that makes up for recruiting misses and I know when I was here it never failed that there were going to be four or five walk-ons that developed into key contributors and we have to make sure that stays the same.”
Ruud mentioned he needs everyone in his room to make strides in year two in the system, and part of the reason is this spring will focus much more on moving forward and building on the basics taught last year.
“The key is now you’re not teaching installs, you’re teaching second-level stuff,” Ruud said. “You’re teaching problem plays, you’re teaching more concepts and hopefully we’re continuing to build on that so we can continue to progress and be able to do a little bit more on a specific basis in the spring.”
Ruud said that no matter what stage of the process the team is in, he enjoys the work of teaching.
“Yeah [it’s fun], but at the same time I like the install stuff too,” Ruud said. “Even though it’s second-level stuff this spring, we’re going to have some freshmen coming in this summer where it’s going to go back to square one. Its all fun. There’s always a progression to it but it is cool to see we are a long ways away from where we were a year ago.”
Monday was the first day back with the coaches for the Huskers after spending their winter in the weight room with Zach Duval.
“It was a good start, not great, but I think it was a step in the right direction,” Ruud said. “The goal always is to get a little bit better this next practice too. I think sometimes with the guys they’re going to dip their toe in the water a little bit. The goal is to just keep getting better.”
That goal will carry the inside linebackers through the next handful of weeks as the Huskers continue to make their way through spring ball 2019.
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.