Nebraska’s defense enjoyed a strong 2021 season full of improvement.
Led by defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, the Blackshirts allowed an average of just 19 points per game if one takes out the safeties, pick-sixes and punts returned for a touchdown that they were not on the field for. Even if all those miscues were put on the defense’s tab, the average comes out to 22.7, which is still Chinander’s best mark since 2018, when he got to Lincoln.
But there was still one area where the Huskers didn’t see marked improvement in—generating sacks.
A consistent pass rush has eluded Nebraska since 2013 when Randy Gregory and Co. finished the year with 38, which was second-most in the Big Ten. Nebraska hasn’t finished higher than sixth in the conference since then, and its 20 sacks this season was tied for 10th.
Following Nebraska’s loss at Oklahoma last September, Chinander spoke on his unit’s lack of a pass rush, but noted other ways that a defense can still affect a quarterback without sacking him.
“Right now we’re doing a much better job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket,” Chinander said. “Obviously the sacks, disappointing. But when you look at it globally, there’s been a lot of times where the guy’s getting the ball out because he’s getting pressure. We’re doing a good job getting our hands in throwing lanes. You can affect the quarterback in a lot of different ways, you can affect the quarterback by hits on the quarterback, hurries on the quarterback, crushing the pocket and making him throw it out of the well. Obviously, when you get sacks that’s a really big factor. But I think we’ve done a good job with everything, except we haven’t got to the quarterback enough.”
Talented edge rushers don’t grow on trees—they’re hard to find, unless you are Michigan and Wisconsin this season. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo combined for 25 sacks—more than Nebraska had as a team—while finishing first and second, respectively, in the conference in sacks. The Wisconsin duo of Leo Chanel and Nick Herbig finished with a combined 14.
Of the 12 Huskers that recorded at least half a sack in 2021, seven will return unless more attrition happens later in the offseason, which isn’t uncommon in today’s college football. Those returning include Garrett Nelson, who led the team with five sacks, Caleb Tannor (two), Ty Robinson (two), Luke Reimer (one), Quinton Newsome (one), Nick Henrich (0.5) and Casey Rogers (0.5). On Monday afternoon, Pheldarius Payne, who had two sacks against Illinois but none the rest of the season, announced he was entering his name in the transfer portal.
Outside linebackers’ coach Mike Dawson was also able to get Blaise Gunnerson some non-garbage time snaps against Wisconsin and Iowa late in the year. Gunnerson, a 6-6, 255-pounder from Iowa, made his first two tackles of his career against the Badgers and had half a tackle for loss against Iowa.
Another intriguing piece to Dawson’s outside ‘backers is Jimari Butler, a 6-5, 245-pound second-year player from Alabama. Butler only appeared in two games in 2021, against Fordham and Buffalo, but will be counted on to provide depth in 2022. Damian Jackson will also return to the mix next season. He registered four tackles this season.
Nebraska should be aggressive in looking for pass-rushing talent in the transfer portal and junior-college ranks. Who are the names to keep an eye on in the portal? Here are four.
Jared Verse, Albany
After a season where he led the FCS-member Great Danes in sacks (9.5), tackles for loss (11.5) and quarterback hurries (13), Jared Verse entered his name in the transfer portal in hopes of landing at a Power Five program so he could chase his NFL dreams. It didn’t take long for the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder from Berwick, Pennsylvania, to get noticed.
Verse started hauling in all kinds of offers from Power Five programs, including one from the Huskers, Iowa, Purdue, Utah and West Virginia.
It will be interesting to see if Verse’s ability to get home on a pass rush translates to Power Five football. That’s not always easy for a player making the jump from FCS or junior college. Payne is an example of that. He signed with Nebraska from Lackawanna Community College where, during the 2019 season, he racked up 12 tackles for loss and four sacks. In two seasons at Nebraska, Payne has 4.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks, two of which came in this past season’s opener at Illinois.
Can Nebraska beat out a couple of Big Ten foes in Iowa and Purdue for Verse?
Steven Parker, Kansas
Nebraska made the cut for Steven Parker’s top three schools coming out of high school in 2019, but the former four-star prospect from Dallas picked Kansas over the Huskers and Texas Tech, where he originally committed to before decommitting. According to 247Sports, Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is listed as one of the primary recruiters for Parker, along with former Nebraska assistant and current North Carolina special teams coordinator/outside linebackers coach, Jovan Dewitt.
In three seasons with the Jayhawks, the 6-4, 240-pound Parker has recorded 40 tackles and four for a loss. He hasn’t picked up a sack in his career yet, but could that change if in Lincoln? Parker is looking for a change of scenery, and Nebraska could be in his ear.
Latarie Kinsler, Syracuse
Latarie Kinsler was a three-star prospect when he visited Nebraska in October 2019.
Enjoyed myself at Nebraska this past weekend 🌽 pic.twitter.com/gW4PARyc7J
— Latarie kinsler Jr (@LK2Jr) October 29, 2019
Kinsler ultimately chose to sign with Syracuse over the Huskers and Louisville among others, but the 6-3, 223-pounder is back on the market after one and a half seasons with the Orange. Kinsler, from Pahokee, Florida, was Syracuse’s highest-rated recruit in the 2020 class, but didn’t play in the Covid-impacted 2020 season while rehabbing an injury and wound up never recording a stat for the Orange.
Nebraska tight ends coach Sean Beckton is a strong recruiter and has ties to the southeast, where Kinsler is from. Could Kinsler be an option for the Huskers, who are looking to bolster their pass rush?
Lloyd Summerall III, Florida
Lloyd Summerall III is probably the most intriguing prospect of these four.
In three seasons as a Gator, the 6-5, 247-pounder had eight tackles and 1.5 sacks. The former four-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite may be out of reach for the Huskers as there will be no shortage of suitors for the Lakeland, Florida, native, but it never hurts to ask around.
Summerall did take an official visit to Lincoln in November 2018 and was offered by the Huskers and then first-year head coach Scott Frost.
— Lakeland Football (@LHSDreadnaughts) November 18, 2018