Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s 2023 Post-Spring Football Position Reset: Linebackers

May 10, 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, Defensive line.

Spring football answered questions about Tony White’s defense. At the heart of the former linebacker’s evolving system is a dynamic group of linebackers. Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator emphasized the cross training in the spring, allowing linebackers to drop onto the line of scrimmage. In addition to traditional Sam, Mike and Will linebacker spots, White’s defense utilizes the Jack position—a larger edge rusher tasked with rushing the passer or stopping the rusher in the backfield.

New linebacker coach Rob Dvoracek oversees the room and directed them with deliberate contact in the spring. They went back to the basics of hunting the ball and flocking to the ball carrier in practices to install cornerstones of White’s defense. Filling those positions and growing into those spots are faces new and old.

MJ Sherman and Chief Borders arrived in Lincoln via the transfer portal. Sherman stood out throughout the spring and closed that portion with a a four tackle, 1.5 TFLs performance. Early enrollee Korver Demma, a walk-on from Gretna, showed his promise. Elkhorn South graduate Maverick Noonan, another early enrollee, is listed at linebacker on Nebraska’s roster but also can move down to his familiar edge role. They mesh in the room with returning Huskers Jimari Butler, Kaine Williams, Garrett Snodgrass, Grant Tagge and Gage Stenger. Michael Booker III joins the room, having moved from cornerback. Each one of them garnered praise throughout the spring and made a play in the Red-White Game. Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich return to the field this summer after rehabbing in the spring. Nebraska’s two proven former starters provide a familiar anchor at the heart of the defense.

“You can have the best defensive scheme, you can have the best game plan for any offense, but if the players aren’t there to execute, it wouldn’t mean anything,” Sherman said after the Red-White Game. “It just really boils down to execution. I think that’s why I just really pride myself on making sure I’m in the right spot, right alignment. Make sure I do everything right.”

White previously called upon his linebackers to be versatile. He looks for dynamic guys who can move around within the defense and play different roles. White likes to pressure the offense. He hopes to disrupt offensive tempo, calls and blocking schemes with constant movement. That comes not only in pre-snap alignments and movements but with stunt anticipation. Snodgrass tackled Anthony Grant for a 3-yard loss in the first quarter of the Red-White Game after he and Williams attacked the same gap on a twist stunt. Noonan even moved onto the line and played edge while edge rusher Cameron Lenhardt played over the center on that snap.

Linebackers also read the offense’s play action passes to prevent long gains. A late first-quarter incompletion to Rahmir Johnson from Heinrich Haarberg came with Booker back pedaling into coverage. Booker stumble before pursuing Johnson but lineman AJ Rollins did enough to disrupt the pass at the line and cause an incompletion. Snodgrass stepped forward 2 yards, anticipating the run, then back pedaled and dropped into his coverage area.

White’s pressure-adjacent philosophy also got to the quarterback. Nebraska’s defense forced two sacks in the spring game and athleticism from both Heinrich Haarberg and Jeff Sims avoided more. An early second-quarter red zone drive ended abruptly for the White team with a 16-yard sack from Princewill Umanmielen. The defense sent six on that play, including Snodgrass, Noonan and Williams. And Noonan, essentially, sparked the stop. Haarberg recognized Noonan came unchecked off the right edge and rolled to avoid him instead of throwing to wide open Rahmir Johnson in the flat to the pressure side. Haarberg spun out of Noonan’s tackle but couldn’t escape Umanmielen, or Snodgrass who swarm in pursuit as well.

“We’ve got a lot of skill,” White said during spring camp before naming off a few. “You’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of pass rush ability. But, again, it’s fun to watch them when we get in those situations, but you’ve got to get them in those situations, right? We’ve got to stop them in the run and get them to third down.”

The two offenses combined for 192 rushing yards on 71 carries. Nebraska’s collective Red and White defenses made 18 tackles for loss that accounted for 60 yards of lost offensive production.

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