Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s 2023 Spring Football Positional Reset: Interior Defensive Line

February 19, 2023

In total, Nebraska’s new coaching staff added 39 new scholarship players in the 2023 recruiting class. This puts the program’s scholarship numbers over triple digits in spring camp. With winter workouts ongoing and spring ball likely to impact who stands out to this coaching staff, Hail Varsity is taking a deeper look at what each position looks like right now.

Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers,Tight Ends, Offensive Line.

Nebraska’s defensive line might look immensely different in 2023. And it might not take long to notice the changes.

New defensive coordinator Tony White brings the 3-3-5 defense to Lincoln. Many times, as he has said before, that could be a fluid defense to fit personnel. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about his philosophy, which turned around Syracuse’s defensive fortunes. At the heart of his aggressive defensive vision is a variety of blitz packages. Aggression is needed to stop the run, which Nebraska’s struggled to do—especially in the fourth quarter—for years. And the first line of defense is the big bodies up front.

“It’s a lot,” defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said. “It’s going to be a lot to defend. You’re going to lose some sleep trying to figure out where guys are lined up, how we’re going to line up.

“You’ve got to have dynamic guys for a scheme like that.”

Returning front-line contributors will get immediate opportunities in spring ball. Colton Feist retired from football in December. Ty Robinson is back but a shoulder injury will likely keep him out most of the spring. That leaves Stephon Wynn Jr. and Nash Hutmacher, two of the more experienced returners, with spring opportunities. Grand Island native Jacob Herbek, who’s jostled positions but hasn’t played since walking on in 2019, still has two years of eligibility. Michigan native Ru’Quan Buckley played in one game his first season in Lincoln but didn’t play at all in 2022.

Nebraska brought various defensive linemen to Lincoln in its 2023 recruiting class. Vincent Carroll-Jackson, the Pennsylvania native, will arrive in the summer as a developmental prospect after just one full season of competitive football. Sua Lefotu is bound for Nebraska after a career at powerhouse St. John Bosco. The only other pure interior defensive line addition is Riley Van Poppel from Argyle, Texas. He stayed committed to Nebraska through the coaching transition and comes with a lot of praise.

There’s also a possibility for Gretna native Mason Goldman and South Dakota product Jason Maciejczak could wind up on the defensive side of the ball. Rhule and his coaching staff signed both of them with potential to play on either side of the line. None of those signings were among the early enrollees.

“We go 3-3-5 but we line up in a ton of different fronts,” White said last month. “Really, the biggest thing there is the 3-3-5, when you start there, it allows you to recruit and be flexible with what you have.

“Let’s say you have a good year with defensive linemen so you go from a 3-3-5 to maybe a 4-2-5. Maybe you’re down on d-linemen and you’ve got more backers so you go a 3-3-5.”

Nebraska might be short on interior defensive linemen who thrive in this defensive system. White’s system allows flexibility and inserting as many playmakers on the field as possible. In other years, or as the season progresses, Nebraska could gain a surplus of game-breaking interior defensive linemen. This coaching is still recruiting those big, top-caliber interior defensive linemen who can be dynamic within the defense.

“The thing about Coach Rhule is he’s big on recruiting the big guys up front,” White said.

White’s defense involves moving athletes around and fitting different areas to create mis-matches. That includes on the interior. Those three aforementioned returning Huskers provide experience at the position and get an opportunity to show their value to this coaching staff. Rhule’s history also shows a tendency to move players into better fitting positions. White’s defense, and the growing trends of college football, involves athletic interior defensive linemen who can attack the line of scrimmage rather than simply bulk bodies. That opens a window of opportunity to edge rushers, listed linebackers or even offensive linemen and tight ends, to move into the defensive front.

Once a lineman and former line coach, Rhule knows Nebraska’s defensive line needs to be among the front of the pack. He said as much in his introductory speech. Surrounded by Nebraska’s historic accolades, many built with an imposing defensive line, he stressed the importance of winning the trenches.

“We want to have a physical team that can control the line of scrimmage and control the game,” he said.

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