We continue to trek on with our five-part series called “Making The Jump” where we select five Huskers who need to, simply put, make the jump in 2022. That means going from contributor to standout at a position that needs it.
For our fourth installment, let’s take a look at an area of Nebraska’s defense that has left coaches and fans wanting more for quite some time: pass rusher.
The Blackshirts enjoyed a really solid season in 2021. They allowed an average of just 19 points per game if one takes out the safeties, pick-sixes and punts returned for a touchdown that they were not on the field for. Even if all those miscues were put on the defense’s tab, the average comes out to 22.7, which is still defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s best mark since 2018, when he got to Lincoln.
But the sacks just weren’t there. Nebraska finished third to last in the Big Ten with 20.
Caleb Tannor was brought to Nebraska to rush the passer as a four-star recruit in the 2018 class according to the 247Sports Composite. He picked the Huskers over offers from Alabama, Georgia and Florida among others. While he came to Nebraska highly-touted, Tannor hasn’t met expectations. In four seasons as a Husker, the Stone Mountain, Ga., native has 7 1/2 sacks, with two coming in 2021.
Though the sack numbers aren’t there, last season was still Tannor’s best in Lincoln and he’ll absolutely be a heavily-relied-on Blackshirt in 2022. Tannor saw a career-high number of tackles (33), tackles for loss (5.5) and passes defended (three).
But that jump we’re talking about? Tannor knows he needs to make one in 2022, and that means getting to the quarterback. Though he faces challenges that other Big Ten edge rushers don’t—he’s undersized as a 6-foot-2, 225-pound outside linebacker who has his hand in the turf often in Chinander’s defense—he did show glimpses of being a difference maker last season.
The example below comes from the season-opener at Illinois. The Huskers had three sacks that day, with Tannor de-cleating a senior offensive tackle in Alex Palczewski (#63) and getting an assist on Pheldarius Payne’s sack. Tannor’s bull-rush was impressive:
Here’s another example of Tannor’s strength, this time in the Northwestern game where the Huskers recorded a season-high four sacks. Again, Tannor uses the bullrush against offensive tackle Ethan Wiederkehr (#76) and strips Wildcats’ quarterback Ryan Hilinski. This is what you call a havoc play, just like his effort at Illinois:
Of course, the lack of a pass rush isn’t all Tannor’s fault. It’s a team effort on defense to get to the quarterback. Outside of Garrett Nelson, who had a team-high five sacks, no one else on the roster had more than two.
Fans got a small look at what the future might hold at outside linebacker when Blaise Gunnerson was given non-garbage time snaps against Wisconsin and Iowa late in the year. Gunnerson, a 6-6, 255-pounder from Iowa, made his first two tackles of his career against the Badgers and had half a tackle for loss against Iowa. He played well given the circumstances and showed promise.
But there are other ways of impacting a quarterback even when you don’t bring him down. Following Nebraska’s loss at Oklahoma last September, Chinander talked about those ways.
“Right now we’re doing a much better job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket,” Chinander said. “Obviously the sacks, disappointing. But when you look at it globally, there’s been a lot of times where the guy’s getting the ball out because he’s getting pressure. We’re doing a good job getting our hands in throwing lanes. You can affect the quarterback in a lot of different ways, you can affect the quarterback by hits on the quarterback, hurries on the quarterback, crushing the pocket and making him throw it out of the well. Obviously, when you get sacks that’s a really big factor. But I think we’ve done a good job with everything, except we haven’t got to the quarterback enough.”
The Huskers did well gaining offseason momentum. There were exciting additions to the team made at several positions, like quarterback, receiver, running back and defensive back. But two key position groups could stand to add more talent in the offensive line and pass rusher.
If Tannor makes the jump, it would be a welcomed sight for the program.