Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

MJ Sherman Rediscovers His Smiling Self During Nebraska’s Spring Season

April 24, 2023

Four months of workouts and practices at Nebraska led MJ Sherman to his 2-hour performance in Saturday’s Spring Game. He greeted fans afterwards, sharing his appreciation for every one of the 66,045 inside Memorial Stadium who approached him. Inside the weight room and standing in front of cameras afterwards, he couldn’t contain his smile.

The Baltimore native was asked right away how he felt about his first spring at Nebraska. The first word that came to his mind was smooth. Then he called it “the most fun I’ve ever had in spring ball in a long time.” He signed with mighty Georgia as the country’s No. 2 outside linebacker. He played in every game of the Bulldogs’ first national championship of its current run and joined kickoff coverage in 14 of 15 games last season. His shrinking role led him to Nebraska, where he’s found opportunity and his smile once again.

Sherman found opportunity, reps and positive reinforcement within the Matt Rhule coaching staff. A contrast formed between the star-heavy cutthroat roster jostling of a two-time national champion and a team desirous of winning again. At its foundation, in practice, is a second chance.

“Even when I make a mistake there’s still a lot of positive reinforcement,” Sherman said after Saturday’s Spring Game. “A lot of faith in my ability to help me gain faith in my ability and confidence so I’m able to be who I am and who I want to be on the field.”

Sherman made 13 tackles in three seasons at Georgia. On Saturday he made four tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss—more than the one in all of his seasons for the Bulldogs. His solo tackle for loss came on fourth-and-3 midway through the third quarter. Sherman aligned square with the tight end and shot inside. He beat his blocker and withstood the pulling left guard. Sherman muscled 3 yards into the backfield and square into running back Anthony Grant. Last year’s No. 1 running back tried to cut but it was too late. Sherman wrapped and smothered him there. In recapping that play, Sherman said he just executed the call “and that was that.”

Defensive coordinator Tony White’s system seems well suited for Sherman’s traits. The linebacker credited play calling and scheme while reiterating the importance of execution. He prides himself on being in the right spot with the right alignment and executing. Coaches complimented him throughout the spring. Fans finally saw why on Saturday.

Coming out of his first Tunnel Walk, the linebacker noticed the 66,000 in the stadium. It was the third-most attended Spring Game in the past two weeks. He played in front of raucous crowds in the SEC, that’s not new. Although, personally, Saturday gave him a different feeling than he experienced at Georgia.

“You had to go through all the trials and tribulations and everything like that, to be honest with you,” Sherman said. “And when I saw the fans, it’s the kids more than anything. I love kids, I ain’t going to lie to you. I really love kids. That was the most exciting part about it because now I have an impact on the youth and I just try to do that as best as I can.”

Sherman comes from leadership. His father, Varney Sherman, is a Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-senator in Liberia. MJ, born Mekhail Jacques, feels he’s always carried leadership qualities and tapped into them in high school. On Saturday he claimed a “yearning desire within me” to be a leader. He accepts a growing leadership role at Nebraska. He also knows that doesn’t come from a place of entitlement.

“The team has to give you that with their respect,” he said. “So I’m just making sure I do what I got to do to be trustworthy, accountable, and within every aspect, that’s academics, athletics or social life. And make sure the team gives me that position and not just taking it. So just taking the right steps and I always wanted to be a leader.”

Sherman complimented early enrollee teammates Princewill Umanmielen and Cameron Lenhardt after their impressive debuts. There’s a lot about them he could have said but Sherman didn’t want to stand in front of the cameras for too long, he smiled. Instead, he simply said he loves them and they’re both accountable and trustworthy. He also noted quarterback Jeff Sims’ ability on the other side of the ball when asked. With Sims sitting and watching Sherman’s response with a smirk, Sherman mentioned the discipline required when trying to tackle Sims.

“Basically, all I’ve got to say is he makes me better. Iron sharpens iron, that’s our mentality here,” he said. “That’s just two hims going at each other right now.”

When asked about what comes next, Sherman’s leadership showed again. Where the Rhule coaching staff built the foundational program identity going forward, he said the players have to lead the rest of the way. Sherman said they have to hold each other accountable and responsible. Embrace the culture and apply it within each member of the team. His description sounded similar to the Unity Council of program lore.

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