The same Friday column we’ve been writing for the last few months, just at a new time and with the “Love or Hate” name scrapped.
The hope for this column when we started it was that it would be a place for breaking down little nuances of a scheme or deviations of a play call across a number of sports. If Fred Hoiberg takes a traditional baseline out-of-bounds play, tweaks it, and then runs it a handful of times to success over multiple games, this will be the place it gets written about. If Scott Frost dials up the same RPO play against multiple fronts one week and then tweaks it the next after a self-scout, this will be the place it gets written about.
That goal won’t change moving forward. This will still be a column and a space to talk about cool things as they unfold, or, if the situation warrants it, dumb things. So let’s get to it.
This Year’s Devine
Alex Davis never broke.
He never dropped his head, never bad-mouthed a coach and, most importantly, never quit.
“This game can break you. People can transfer. Someone who looks like him might transfer, but he’s learned the most important lesson and that’s to fight adversity and get through it and now he’s a starter and now he’s balling,” said senior linebacker Mohamed Barry.
If you’re looking to talk about Davis, the senior outside linebacker who used to play basketball, then Barry is the guy to go to for some outside perspective. And if Barry is the guy you go to, you better be prepared to listen for a hot minute.
Barry has been one of Davis’ most vocal supporters this offseason, even going out of his way to talk about Davis’ contributions in the spring. And before the spring game happened, none of us knew Davis was about to push Tyrin Ferguson and JoJo Domann — two guys lightly penciled in as outside ‘backer starters — into a rotation on one side of the field.
A Hail Varsity reader asked a mailbag question recently to the effect of “Who is going to be this year’s Devine Ozigbo?” For all intents and purposes, who is an older guy who was in danger of being passed over by a Scott Frost recruit who instead worked his butt off all summer and now could be looking at a featured role?
The answer to that question, I can now say with a great deal of confidence, is Alex Davis.
Such a proclamation probably brings with it some skepticism from the audience. Davis played in all 12 games last season (starting four) and only finished with five tackles. Only one of those was unassisted. He was around the football a ton and just didn’t make many plays. How is that the breakout candidate amongst the elder statesmen then?
Believe in a guy with the physical tools and the drive Davis has.
“Alex has always had the skill and the gifts to do it. I think for him it was just getting comfortable with the position,” Frost said a week ago. “He’s not a guy that’s played football his whole life, I think he was a basketball player growing up, and I think he’d be the first to tell you there were times last year when he was in the right place or doing the right thing, but at the moment of truth he didn’t go make the play. And some of that I think he was thinking too much.
“This year he seems to be cutting it loose. [He] looks a lot better in pass rush. I’m anxious to see what he can do on the field. If he plays the way he’s practicing, he’s going to have a good year.”
Davis is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound athlete. Simply put, he has a dream frame for an outside linebacker. The biggest thing that has held him back so far is confidence. But that seems to be more confidence in his position rather than confidence in himself.
“The thing about Alex that really impresses me is you talk about a guy who bends but never breaks. He’s been through a lot in this program, and not one time has he bad-mouthed the coaches, not one time has he wanted to leave,” Barry said. “Even when I was in dark places he’s the one I went to because I’m going to get positive energy from him. He’s a man of God and what I like about him is how he’s developed and never broke.”
Barry is a shoo-in to be a team captain. When someone isn’t doing what they’re supposed to, Barry is in their ear. The difference in this year’s team is there are other guys beyond just the “team leaders” who are keeping guys in check.
“A lot of people are echoing what the leaders are saying and that’s the best thing,” Barry said. “If a leader just has to yell and yell and no one is saying, ‘Yeah, he’s right,’ it’s more of a dictatorship. So when someone is like ‘Listen up, he’s talking,’ or ‘Listen up, this is what he’s trying to tell you,’ that is great leadership.”
Darrion Daniels, a transfer nose guard from Oklahoma State who’s just getting to know Davis, sees the outside linebacker as one of those echoers. Daniels has seen Davis take young guys aside on multiple occasions during one-on-one workouts to explain why something worked or didn’t. When the defense is tired, Davis is one of the guys raising the energy level.
“Alex’s always been that guy,” Barry says. “He’s a tremendous teammate. He’s not a guy who’s in the limelight. I remember last year when I was talking and someone was talking back, you would hear Alex say, ‘Hey be quiet, bro. He’s talking.’ He’s one of those guys that if you don’t have him, being a leader is 10 times harder.
“This year I pray he has the greatest season of his life.”
A major storyline this week was the physicality of the defense to begin fall camp. They’re extra salty. Villains even, as I wrote on Tuesday. Frost has had to talk to individual players and ask them to tone it down.
“We like to instigate a lot of stuff, that’s our mentality,” Darrion Daniels told me.
The other side of the coin that got little coverage was how the offense has handled that added physicality. Because when I asked Daniels about Frost talking to the defense, he made sure to say that it’s not just the Blackshirts. The offense is giving in some instances just as good as it’s getting.
“They’re not punks, and they don’t like being manhandled,” he said. “We want them to get a flag. But they come hard too. It’s a back-and-forth, they don’t allow us to bully them.”
In last Sunday’s scrimmage, the offense came out and punched the defense in the mouth, scoring on the first three possessions.
“Offense came out faster than they ever have and showed a lot of confidence in that scrimmage,” Daniels said. “They had us on the ropes for a minute, so it was good seeing them get out there and compete.”
In a conference full of teams who generally want to push the other guy around, that Nebraska’s offense is holding its own against a nasty defense every day in practice with youth in the interior of the offensive line and throughout the skill positions is encouraging.
A Fantastic Problem to Have
Take a headcount in the defensive line room for first-year coach Tony Tuioti. He has:
- Senior DT Darrion Daniels
- Senior DE/DT Khalil Davis
- Senior DE/DT Carlos Davis
- Senior DT Vaha Vainuku
- Senior DE DaiShon Neal
- Junior DE Ben Stille
- Junior DE/DT Jahkeem Green
- Sophomore DE Deontre Thomas
- Sophomore DT Damion Daniels
- Redshirt freshman DE Tate Wildeman
- Redshirt freshman DE Casey Rogers
- True freshman DE Ty Robinson
- True freshman DE Mosai Newsom
Thirteen scholarship guys for three spots. And that list doesn’t include former Navy SEAL Damian Jackson who I want to see on a football field more than I want to see Tony Stark back in the MCU or Lincoln native Chris Walker who looks like he would be right there alongside Jackson as the “First Guys off the Bus” representatives for the Huskers at road games.
Now, only three of those guys can play at a given time, and with as fun an offseason topic as rotation is, there won’t be rotation on every single play and there will be guys on that list who barely see the field this season. It’s likely those guys will be talented enough to play as well.
Someone like Ty Robinson is likely heading for a redshirt season. Rogers could very well be buried on the depth chart. Thomas has seen his stock rise in recent weeks and he could be a third-string guy. Jahkeem Green showing up from Highland Community College and people saying things like, “Yeah, he looks like an SEC defensive lineman,” will do that.
Green has some conditioning to do in order to get into the kind of shape this coaching staff demands, but Green also already looks like a guy who can and should play significant snaps for this defense this year. But whose snaps are being taken? Stille’s? The Davis brothers?
Welcome to true defensive line depth. Welcome to the way it’s supposed to be. Feels good, doesn’t it?
The program that signs a 4-star defensive end and then plants him on the bench his first two seasons because there are seven other formerly-highly-touted kids in front of him is the program that contends for trophies. That’s the end goal for Frost and Co. here at Nebraska and we’re starting to see that in a couple position groups.
The defensive line is representative of what a great — not just good, but great — team is supposed to look like. Talented guys sitting on the bench because there are even more talented guys on the field.
Frost was asked Friday if he liked the talent he’s brought in during his first two recruiting cycles and he said the team won’t be where he wants it until he’s had four or five great recruiting cycles. Not that anyone needs reminding, but the construction of the mansion is on schedule.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.