Nebraska has one of the best returning inside linebacker duos in the Big Ten. Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich started every game in 2021 and combined for 208 tackles, and both are back to lead the way for the defense in 2022.
Those two accounted for 87.5% of all inside linebacker snaps last season, a figure that coach Barrett Ruud is hoping to see decrease in 2022.
“I thought that was one things I probably did a little bit of a poor job with last year is I need to rotate those guys a little bit more,” Ruud said. “Going through the rigors of a Big Ten schedule, to keep those guys fresh throughout the year, we’ve got to take some hits off them. So hopefully we can get something there. What the exact rotation is going to be I don’t know, but at least taking some the hits off them and getting younger guys on the field. Shoot, that keeps the competition fresh too. If you get a guy breathing down your neck, that’s good for everybody.”
Chris Kolarevic was the first inside linebacker off the bench last season, logging 158 snaps (18.6%), but he has shifted to the nickel position this season, opening the door for other candidates to step up, including senior Eteva Mauga-Clements.
“I think Va has had an extremely impressive camp so far,” Ruud said. “This is year three in the program for him, so I think he’s probably made the biggest jump of anybody as far as just individual combination of skill level jumping up and just understanding of the defense. He’s done a really good job. Ernest [Hausmann] has jumped up again since the spring too. Garrett Snodgrass had a good camp. So the guys are doing well right now. The key is just continuing to build on it.”
Mauga-Clements has been the standout for Reimer as well to this point.
“Our group is really good right now,” Reimer said. “It’s pretty deep. There are a lot of guys that could play for us this year. I think Va’s had a really good camp this year. He’s made a lot of improvements. He had a full spring last year and had a spring good spring and summer. For me, it’s Va that’s playing really good ball right now.”
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound former JUCO standout played in every game in 2020, mostly on special teams. He logged 20 snaps on defense last year, all in the Fordham and Buffalo games. Heading into year three, the Huskers are looking for him to earn an even bigger role.
“He works his tail off,” Reimer said. “He’s in the film room all the time, he’s in the weight room all the time. He works his tail off, so you just have to respect it. He’s done a great job of kind of waiting his turn and stuff and he’ll have a good opportunity this year … He’s definitely not the biggest guy, but he’s really fast and he flies to the ball. He times his blitzes extremely well; he’s probably the best in the room at it.”
Ruud praised Mauga-Clements’ intelligence and understanding of the defense, and said he asks great questions in the film room.
“I always think of good defense as understanding your own problems,” Ruud said. “So he’s really starting to understand each position, each technique. Each situation is going to have different issues that come up. He’s starting to see those and he asks really good questions on how to cheat those techniques.”
Hausmann, the true freshman from Columbus, has been turning heads ever since he arrived on campus as an early enrollee, and he appears to be firmly in the mix for immediate playing time.
“He’s been great, he really has,” Ruud said. “He works hard. Obviously he’s a great athlete and very good player, but he’s a better person and a better worker. When your intangibles are better than your athleticism and your athleticism is already extremely high, you get excited about that.”
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker recorded 80 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, two fumble recoveries and four pass breakups on defense as a senior for the Discoverers while also accumulating 708 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns on offense.
“I used to have a strength coach named Dave Kennedy who used to call them shiny cars,” Ruud said. “I was not a shiny car; shiny cars look really good. Ernest looks the part for sure. From an athletic standpoint, I think he’s just a really fluid and explosive athlete. Not only is he fast, but he moves well well side to side. He can flip his hips, similar to how a pass rusher flips his hips. These guys work on that all the time on the edge, defensive linemen do it all the time. It’s really natural for him, which is not the case for a lot of linebackers. I’ve been around a lot of great linebackers that were bad pass rushers. He has a natural feel to rush the passer.
“I think in modern football, the versatility is at a premium and you have to be able to do a lot of things, especially at the linebacker position.”
Ruud also praised Hausmann’s intelligence and mature demeanor. Reimer said the freshman has “really impressed” him as well.
“He comes in here and does the right thing,” Reimer said. “He’s a new guy, but from his habits and from his routine, it seems like he’s a fourth-year senior guy. I have nothing but good things to say about him and he’s going to play a lot of snaps for us.”
Add redshirt freshman Mikal Gbayor, Seth Malcolm and Randolph Kpai and walk-ons are Archer and Grant Tagge and Ruud has plenty of bodies to work with this season. Reimer said he’d more than welcome some help off the bench this season.
“The more guys we can play, the better,” Reimer said. “And I think we’ll have that opportunity this year with some of the other guys like Va and Snods. At the end of the day, it’s what Coach Ruud wants. If he wants to stick with that two-man rotation like he had last year, we’re going to roll with it. If he wants three or four guys rolling in, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Nebraska found itself in close games week in and week out last season, and Ruud said he fell into the trap of riding his starters too much, especially against the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Finding snaps for less experienced players in a conference like the Big Ten isn’t easy.
“It’s hard, but at the same time it’s a necessity because those are the games where it is really critical,” Ruud said. “Obviously every play is critical in the Big Ten, but especially when you start playing the really high-level type teams. You’ve got to count on your guys and you’ve got to trust them.
“Like I said, I think that’s something I need to do a better job this year because it pays off down the stretch.”
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.