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Mailbag: Breakout Candidates on the Defensive Line

September 30, 2020

It’s Wednesday. Let’s get to it.

Who will be the biggest breakout player on our D-Line this season? (@JuandaleRob)

Greg Smith: I’ll take Ty Robinson. As a redshirt freshman, it would be a year early for him to really breakthrough, in my mind, but he has a shot to do it. He’s reshaped his body and the extra time with strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval could be beneficial for him. The talent is there, but now he has to show that he can make the leap from high-level recruit to contributor on a Big Ten defensive line.

Erin Sorensen: It feels a little obvious, I guess (and not a breakout candidate by definition), but I’d take Ben Stille. He was your fourth guy on the line in 2019, and it felt like he was right there. And, well, he was. He played in all 12 games in 2019, totaling a career-high 31 tackles, which included eight tackles for loss and three sacks. From everything we’ve seen, he’s made some pretty big gains in the weight room over the extended offseason. I also think he is a natural leader and that most are really drawn to him for that. I think he’ll lead that room no matter what, especially with the departure of Darrion Daniels as the big-time leader in 2019, but I expect that to translate to the field too.

Mike Babcock: Reluctant to put my name on this, but . . . Keem Green. Who doesn’t like a defensive lineman listed with a No. 4 jersey? He got in three games last season, including Ohio State, but retained his redshirt. He has junior college experience and now a season in Nebraska’s system. He has good size, listed at 6-5 and 315. There’s plenty of competition on the defensive line. But I’ll take Green for a breakout season.

Jacob Padilla: The defensive line picture is a cloudy one. With no returning starters, you could really answer anyone for this question. I like Erin’s answer of Ben Stille because I think he’ll be the best player on the line this year, but he’s also played a lot of football and was essentially a fourth starter last year. I think Deontre Thomas and Damion Daniels will play significant roles this year, but Nebraska had a group – Ty Robinson, Casey Rogers, Keem Green – that got on the field but only played minimal snaps last year. I think Robinson has the highest ceiling long term, but for Nebraska to have a good 2020 season I think Green needs to be that breakout guy. Of course, the junior college transfers add another variable to the defensive line discussion.

Derek Peterson: Breakout implies we’re not talking about him and he’s bursting onto the scene, in most instances. I’ll give two names, one no one ever talks about in any kind of extended fashion, and a newcomer. Newcomer first: Jordon Riley. We only have a few days worth of spring practices to base this on, but the junior college transfer defensive end was a major winner, it seemed like, from those few days. Everyone asked had praise for him. A 6-foot-6, 290-pound junior, he looks the way you expect Big Ten defensive ends to look. Contextually, I think Riley “breaking out” for the Huskers would be joining the team and immediately staking a claim to one of those top five or six spots in the rotation. Nebraska has so many dudes competing for three starting spots, that would be rather impressive if Riley pulled it off. The other name I’ll give is Deontre Thomas. I don’t know that I’ll go so far as to say he’s the biggest breakout player this season, but rather he’s a candidate for it. Thomas has been at Nebraska a long time. A fourth-year junior, he’s 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds; presumably, he’s gone through the wait and mature process this Husker coaching staff wants linemen to grow through. Thomas has some athleticism to him and should have a strong base. I think it’ll be an all hands on deck kind of year for the defensive line, and some of the younger guys might realistically still be a year away from reaching “Damn, he good”  levels, so Thomas just naturally feels like one of those dudes to keep a close eye on.

Give me your #1 and #2 PR and KR. Who handles holding duties? Which player do you project will have the biggest impact on special teams? (@Go_Big_Red)
Who’s going to be back deep on kickoff returns? Are we going to have two guys back deep or one? Who’s the #1 punt returner this season? Were you surprised that JD Spielman wasn’t that much of a factor for TCU? (@CarnesRegg)

MB: Very surprised that JD wasn’t a factor for TCU. I figured he’d tear things up there. Not sure I understand, still, how he was immediately eligible after transferring, though. I probably missed something obvious. Whether Wan’Dale is No. 1 on kickoff returns, I’d like to see him there again this season. He could have a big impact there. And maybe he’ll get a shot at punt returns. Garrett Nelson definitely has the enthusiasm of a special teams player; the question is discipline. As for the other duties, I’m as interested as you in seeing how things go. Would the punter, whoever emerges there, be the holder? Could McCaffrey hold, setting up uncertainty for the defense because of the fake potential?

Brandon Vogel: If Nebraska is able to spread the ball around the way it wants to, it’s easier to give Wan’Dale Robinson a few more touches as the top kick returner. He could be the top punt return option, too, but if not him Alante Brown or one of the young running backs could be a fit. Nebraska also has a fleet of young DBs who will probably make noise on special teams while an experienced secondary handles most of the down-by-down duties on defense. Quinton Newsome saw most of his snaps on special teams last year, and is probably my top pick to become a “hidden-third” ace in 2020.

JP: I’m not too surprised by Spielman’s limited involvement thus far. I expect he’ll become a bigger part of what they do as he continues to learn the system and build up chemistry with Max Duggan. Wan’Dale Robinson was the kick returner last year so I’m guessing he’ll win that job again this year. Cam Taylor-Britt was the back-up punt returner behind Spielman last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a younger player (such as Alante Brown, like Brandon mentioned) win that job. Robinson is a candidate as well (he was listed third behind Taylor-Britt on last year’s depth chart. Noah Vedral and Isaac Armstrong were the top two holders last year, so Luke McCaffrey seems like a decent bet there. As for special teams aces, I’ll toss out Luke Reimer’s name.

DP: With Jacob on Spielman. That’ll be a feeling-out process, and he’ll work his way into the fold there sooner or later. He’s too talented to not find openings against Big 12 defenses, and once his quarterback gets a good feel for where he’ll be, things will be fine. Brandon’s point about lightening Robinson’s offensive burden to open up more possibilities in the return game is spot on. I wonder if a guy like Cam Taylor-Britt or Alante Brown doesn’t emerge as a returner for that specific reason. I like going the DB route for a special teams ace for the same reason Brandon mentioned. How about Myles Farmer? (I really like him as a utility guy this season.)

How will COVID-affected games be counted in regards to wins/losses? If one team can’t play, does that mean a loss or just no game? (@RyanElnman)

GS: I would guess that a COVID canceled game just means no game. For example, Houston hasn’t played a game yet and have had their first three games postponed or canceled. They are listed as 0-0. That’s probably the most fair way to do it.

MB: Agree with Greg. Can’t see how it would be handled any other way. No game.

ES: It has to be no game, which I’m sure will look a bit funny on stats sheets. One team might have played five games while another has played three, so on and so forth. I just can’t see it being listed any other way.

How much work will referees get before the season starts? Last thing the league needs are referees who are a bit rusty. (@JacobKrueger5)

ES: It’s less than the work they’d typically have at this point in a normal year, but I’m less concerned about officials being rusty and more concerned about the potential shortage. We’ve seen it happen at the high school level in Florida and South Carolina. Some of that is due to officials simply opting out, but I am concerned about what happens if a number test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed to a COVID-positive person. If that’s the case, you may be looking at officials stepping in who haven’t worked a game in an even longer period of time and that’s an entirely different thing to overcome when you talk about being “rusty.” An official for the SEC provided some insight on how they’re being tested for COVID-19 and what their restrictions will be for the season. He also mentions the test they take about the game itself which outlines officiating responsibilities (and they take this test yearly), but, obviously, that’s no substitution for actually handling a game. Long story short, I’m sure some officials will be rusty. Coaches and players will be too. It’ll all be fine. Officials are professionals and will settle in quickly enough, regardless. And if they’re making bad calls against your team? Well, I guess you can blame it on rust then.

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