Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s 2023 Post-Spring Football Position Reset: Defensive Line

May 09, 2023

Two transfer portals, winter workouts and an entire spring season have passed. There’s now a clearer picture for Nebraska’s scheme and personnel. Hail Varsity is taking a closer look at what we’ve learned about each position now that the spring season is over and the portal is closed.

Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide receivers, Tight ends, Offensive line.

A holistic change under defensive coordinator Tony White relies on dynamic playmakers. His defenses rely on physicality, power and swarming to the ball. On the front line are big bodies eating blocks, all led by a former NFL veteran.

Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton oversees defensive interior linemen and edge rushers. Edge rushers also receive cross training among the linebacker group, a strategic move to help players and the team. Knight said earlier in the spring he loved working with the group, who poured themselves into spring practices. That room looks different now than it did on the first day of spring camp.

First, Stephon Wynn Jr. entered the transfer portal. The former Alabama transfer appeared to be a frontrunner within the defensive front with five tackles in the spring game. His absence leaves more snaps for Nash Hutmacher, Ru’Quan Buckley and Elijah Jeudy, who started inside the first-team defense in spring game. Brodie Tagaloa and AJ Rollins are now on the defensive line. Tagaloa made two tackles for loss and one of Rollins’ four tackles went for a loss. Blaise Gunnerson and Jacob Herbek also garnered praise in the spring. Ty Robinson, held out of spring because of injury, also returns this summer.

“Depth is always good for d-linemen, we like to rotate a lot,” Knighton said in late March. “We’ve got a few guys banged up now, a few guys coming in this summer. But I think it’s good for our guys, because our numbers are low, to get a lot of reps.”

Knighton alluded to summer arrivals. Those are: Riley Van Poppel, Vincent Carroll-Jackson, Sua Lefotu and Jason Maciejczak on the interior and Dylan Rogers on the edge. Kai Wallin, Cameron Lenhardt, Princewill Umanmielen and Maverick Noonan all joined the team this spring. Each made an immediate impact. Wallin made four tackles (2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack), Umanmielen made four tackles (3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack), Lenhardt had four tackles and Noonan made two tackles in the spring game. After the exhibition, head coach Matt Rhule relayed his plans for that young group.

“I would see no reason why those guys wouldn’t be fighting to start, play, any and all of the above,” Rhule said after the Red-White Game. “As I’ve said, especially on the front of the defensive line, we’re going to play two hockey lines if we could, if not three, keep guys fresh. We have a lot of young talent.”

That’s also where cross-training comes in. Linebacker Grant Tagge posted seven spring game tackles, the most of the White team. Fellow linebackers MJ Sherman, Jimari Butler, Garrett Snodgrass, Chief Borders, Kaine Williams and Gage Stenger showed their potential to step onto the line and play, effectively, as a defensive lineman. Returning linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich, both of which are seasoned Big Ten linebackers who were withheld from contact in the spring, add another level of intrigue.

Personnel in the spring became the driving topic because White’s defense builds itself around its components. It’s fluid and versatile to fit the personnel within it. Following a first-quarter 12-yard run from Anthony Grant, Nebraska’s defense found itself on the fringes of its own red zone. The defense shifted into a four-man front with Hutmacher slightly over the outside shoulder of the left guard and Lenhardt playing head-up on the center. Umanmielen and Noonan lined up as the two edge rushers. Williams blitzed from his linebacker spot between the center and right guard and Snodgrass twisted behind him in the same gap. Isaac Gifford, coming from the secondary, contained on the backside and closed in as Grant was swallowed for a 3-yard loss.

That one play alone, which helped force a field goal, showed three defensive linemen eating blocks and disrupting running lanes for the rest of the defense to capitalize.

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