Erik Chinander thinks it’s crazy, the idea that Ty Robinson should be further along in his development as a defensive lineman at Nebraska.
“There were some times last year where he was not in the right spot, which happens with a young guy,” the Huskers’ defensive coordinator said Monday. “The crazy thing about Ty is, everybody thinks that guy has been around forever, and he’s like a young guy. He’s not that old.”
Even though the 2021 season was Robinson’s third in Lincoln, it was just his second as a member of the rotation getting consistent game reps. The Arizona native redshirted in his true freshman season, 2019, only playing in three games. Since then, Robinson has racked up 17 tackles and two for a loss in 2020 and then 27 stops with four TFLs and two sacks last season.
The 6-foot-6, 305-pounder had the benefit of being in the same room as Damion Daniels, Ben Stille and Deontre Thomas, three linemen who were integral parts to the d-line last year but have since moved on.
That leaves Robinson as the old man of the d-line group, so to speak. The same can be said about Casey Rogers, too, as he’ll be entering his fifth season in the program but won’t be practicing this spring as he rehabs an injury. With young and largely untested players behind Robinson on the depth chart—Nash Hutmacher, Marquis Black, Mosai Newsom, Ru’Quan Buckley and Jailen Weaver—he’ll be relied on heavily in 2022. More than he ever has been in Lincoln.
Robinson learned how to be a leader from watching Stille and Daniels. Combining the defensive line and outside linebackers into the same room with the same position coach, Mike Dawson, helps too because Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor are there.
To reach the next level, Robinson said he wanted to work on his gap integrity, meaning he doesn’t want to get moved out of the area he’s supposed to hold his ground in.
“I feel like my gap integrity last year could have been a little bit better,” Robinson said. “So really focusing in on holding my gap this year. Pass rush as usual, I didn’t create enough pressure, get QB sacks, whatever you want it to be. And just myself, that leadership role, that type of deal. Just learning that as well.”
The gap integrity Robinson’s talking about? It isn’t easy, especially in the Big Ten, which is full of massive human beings trying to displace one another. It’s a job that isn’t for the faint of heart, and one better suited for older, stronger, more experienced players, which Robinson was his first three years on campus.
“When you got another 330-pound man trying to push you down or trying to get you out of the way, it’s going to be hard, especially when there’s two of them,” Robinson said. “So it really comes down to, technique is going to overpower true strength.”
Chinander has seen Robinson make progress each year he’s been in the program. But now it’s time for him to take the next step. He has all the experience he needs to do it, too.
“He’s been there, he’s done that. He knows what it’s like to play games in Memorial Stadium, he knows what it’s like to play against, shoot, last year he played against Ohio State, he played against Michigan,” Chinander said. “He knows what it’s like to play against those guys. Now, can he win those one-on-one battles, can he get some more TFLs for us, can he stay in his gap and make the ball bounce.”
With Daniels gone, Hutmacher seems like the natural replacement. The outdoorsman from Oacoma, South Dakota, has been impressing in the weight room, and at over 300 pounds, he provides the kind of road block that Nebraska wants in the heart of its defense.
Hutmacher played in 11 games in 2021, but mostly in backup duty behind all the veterans. It’s fair to ask how he’ll hold up against Big Ten offensive lines as a regular in the rotation, because he just hasn’t had the opportunity to show it yet. This is his year to do so.
“I think he belongs in this league, I think he should be out there playing football along with a lot of those defensive linemen,” Chinander said of Hutmacher. “But those guys, I think there’s a natural progression that teams go through and players go through, and it’s probably believing they can play or they can win, and then knowing they can play and they can win. And I think those young d-linemen are at that phase where you need to know they’re going to walk out there and be good football players.”
Chinander knows the pass rush needs to be better as well. The Blackshirts had just 20 sacks last year, 12th in the Big Ten and tied for 101st in the country. Maybe an addition from the transfer portal will be able to help down the road as summer approaches. But for the Huskers to get home more often, everything needs to work together.
“Sometimes when you got, you know, just werewolves rushing off the edge, you got to create that step-up lane,” Chinander said, “and those inside guys got it, and when those outside guys are collapsing the edge, those inside guys gotta push that quarterback right and left. We’ve got to be able to cage that quarterback, and then sack the guy.”
Butler stayed the course, now gets his shot
When Chinander talks about everything needing to work together to form an effective pass rush, he means the the outside linebackers, too. Nelson and Tannor provide a solid foundation. Nelson is coming off his best season as a Husker with a team-high five sacks and 11 TFLs. Tannor also had his best year in Lincoln with two sacks and five TFLs.
But with Pheldarius Payne entering the transfer portal, the development of two young guys in the room, Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler, is crucial. Gunnerson played in three games last season and was the replacement when Payne missed time with an injury. Butler played in just two games, the non-conference contests against Fordham and Buffalo.
The 6-6, 255-pound Gunnerson and the 6-5, 245-pound Butler physically look different than the 6-3, 245-pound Nelson and the undersized 6-3, 225-pound Tannor.
Butler, whom Chinander recruited himself out of Mobile, Alabama, doesn’t have as much experience playing football as most of his teammates—he was a “basketball guy” for most of his high school career, Chinander said. It would have been easy for Butler to call it a career at Nebraska and go back home after not playing right away. But he stayed, and is now in line for playing time.
“He fought through it, he worked through it. He’s done everything the right way, and now this spring he’s going to get a chance to showcase his talents up there running with the ones and the twos,” Chinander said. “I think it’s going to be really good, I don’t know yet. That’s up to him a little bit, both him and Blaise, but I’m really excited to watch both those two guys because they’ve done the work, they’ve done everything that’s been asked of them, and now it’s becoming a little bit of their time.”
No-pad practices, which Nebraska had last Monday and Tuesday, is probably not a very fair evaluation of anybody, Chinander said, but he did like what he saw from the interior defensive linemen and outside ‘backers.
Figuring out the secondary is the top priority
While the interior d-line has questions, that isn’t the area of the defense that Chinander is most focused on this spring—the defensive backs are. Safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke are gone. So is corner Cam Taylor-Britt. Corner Quinton Newsome and safety Myles Farmer return and have positioned themselves well to begin the season atop the depth chart.
No one’s job is safe, though. Plenty of new faces were added this offseason, including transfers Tommi Hill (Arizona State) and Omar Brown (Northern Iowa), junior-college products DeShon Singleton and Javier Morton and high school recruits Jaeden Gould, Jalil Martin and Malcolm Herzog.
Once “the new guy” in the secondary last year, Newsome now finds himself as one of the leaders. He’s now a fourth-year player looking to build on what he accomplished last season: 57 tackles (fifth on the team) and four pass breakups.
“You watch the film, Quinton looks like a lot of the other players in the Big Ten, but he looked like a young guy,” Chinander said. “He looked like a guy that just didn’t know, ‘Was it time to jump that pass? Was it time to pull back?’ I even saw some today (last Monday) where it looks like his body language, his eyes, just his confidence has progressed a lot.
“So I’m just looking for Quinton to make a few more of those plays. He didn’t give up a bunch of stuff last year, he played really good football. But I think there are some plays that he left out there that maybe a vet wouldn’t, and I think that next step for him is to go get some of those balls.”
The nickel position is up for grabs
Once the defensive backfield is settled, then Chinander will move down to figure out the nickel position. Candidates to play the role JoJo Domann played so well last year could already in the room, like Isaac Gifford or Javin Wright. Or, depending on who wins the starting corner and safety spots, it could be someone who was originally thought to be a corner or safety. Throw linebacker Chris Kolarevic in that discussion as well.
“That’s always the fun thing for me is, figuring out who’s the best 11 and getting them on the field and finding a position for those guys,” Chinander said.
Gifford is smart, Chinander said, and would be a candidate to play either boundary or field safety if needed. The coaching staff is taking things slow with Wright, who saw his 2021 season end early after the discovery of a second blood clot. Wright is back and is limited in what he can do in practice, though there have been good signs with his health.
Chinander has been up front about there potentially not being a Domann on the roster. At 6-1 and 230 pounds, Domann was unique. He was sturdy enough to provide run support and was really good at blitzing off the edge and backside pursuit. He also moved his feet well enough to cover a receiver or tight end. Whoever wins the nickel role, Chinander will need to cover up what that player’s deficiencies are.
Like Domann, Gifford started his career at safety and isn’t a stranger to pass coverages, but can he provide the run support? The 6-1, 205-pounder is smaller than Domann, but he showed he isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the fire and do the dirty work, like he did here eliminating a pulling tackle that stands 6-6, 312 pounds and helping turn the running back inside to his help:
Wright started out as a corner when he got to Lincoln in 2019, but has since grown to 6-4 and 210 pounds while keeping his quickness.
“His coverage ability is really good for his size, which is an extreme plus,” Chinander said of Wright. But is Wright good enough around the line of scrimmage? Kolarevic, a Northern Iowa transfer who saw backup reps last season at middle linebacker, would likely be the best of the candidates against the run and can blitz off the edge, but can he cover? These are the questions spring is used to answer.
“When we find out whoever that’s going to be, whatever their assets are, we have to use those, and their liabilities, we have to try covering up,” Chinander said. “Before in our defense, it’s been a corner and we played more coverage with that guy and got him out of the run fits some. Sometimes it’s been more of a linebacker-ish player, and he’s going to be in zone coverages underneath, he’s going to be in the run fit heavily, we’re going to get him out of the coverage liabilities that he has.”
Being multiple on defense is the goal
When Chinander got to Lincoln in 2018, he used an odd front defense more often than an even front. An odd front usually consists of three true defensive linemen: a zero-technique, or player who lines head-up on the center and wants to control both A gaps; and two four-(head-up on the tackles) or five-techniques (outside shoulder of the tackles).
Recently, the tite (or tight) front has been a popular counter to spread offenses, with a zero technique and two 4i-techniques, or players who line up on the inside shoulder of the tackles.
Here’s an example of a basic 3-4 odd-front defense from 2018, where Nebraska uses three d-linemen, two outside ‘backers and two middle ‘backers:
Even-front defenses—usually a four-man front with two true d-linemen, a three-technique that lines up on the outside shoulder of a guard and a one-technique that lines up on the inside shoulder of the other guard, and two outside ‘backers—match up better against the 10 (one back, no tight ends, four receivers) and 11 (one back, one tight end, three receivers) personnel sets that are popular in today’s college football and in the Big Ten because it gets substitutes a quicker player for a slower lineman. It even has its benefits against 12 personnel, Chinander said, when offenses want to get bigger and more physical with two tight ends.
Here’s an example of Nebraska in its nickel even-front defense from last season:
Being able to jump back and forth between even and odd fronts is good because it makes the offense prepare for different fronts.
“Just like I heard coach (Mark) Whipple say, if they get in six offensive linemen or four receivers or whatever they’re going to do, somebody has to work on it,” Chinander said. “Us being able to jump into odd spacing versus 11 and/or even versus 12, that gives the offense something else to work on for us, too.”