“Rotation” was one of the buzzwords from the preseason and on Saturday, defensive line coach Mike Dawson showed that wasn’t just talk as nine different defensive linemen saw the field in Nebraska’s 3-4 defense.
The Huskers held Colorado to 44 total rushing yards and recorded seven sacks thanks in large part to the work of the big guys up front.
“It was awesome,” Khalil Davis said about the rotation. “You could definitely see how hard we played. Get three in, get three out; the next man comes in. We’re all Blackshirts on Saturday.”
The Huskers got a lot of production out of their line on Saturday, but only two of them — the two most experienced ones in seniors Mick Stoltenberg and Freedom Akinmoladun — found the iconic black practice jerseys known as Blackshirts hanging in their lockers on Monday.
“We want the Blackshirt to mean something,” Coach Scott Frost said during his press conference on Monday. “I told the guys in meeting this morning — we had a longer meeting this morning and talked about a lot of things — one of the things I told them was I was proud of the effort, the physicality. We had a lot of guys on defense that played well enough to earn Blackshirts, we’re just not going to give them all out at once. I think we had about seven guys that we thought their work over time deserved them. Several more deserved it from the game, but I expect them to get it soon.”
The younger linemen aren’t worried about continuing to practice in the Killer Bees jerseys for the time being. They know their time is coming.
“We’re just worried about playing hard,” Davis said. “It’s going to come. I’m happy for the guys that did get it; they deserved it. Like I always say, I respect the guys that came before me and after me, and they put in the work to get their Blackshirts.”
Davis, the fourth-year junior, was one of the standouts from that first game. He led the defensive line with six tackles after recording 15 of them all last season and matched his 2017 total with two sacks, the first of which was a huge shot on Colorado quarterback Steven Montez.
“It felt good,” Davis said. “I always tell [the other linemen] they help me get the sack. If [Deontre Thomas] didn’t push the pocket, I wouldn’t have had that step-up and that perfect hit. Damion [Daniels] pushed the middle for me, so they helped me get the sacks.”
In fact, the defensive line has a deal within their position room — any time a player gets a sack, he owes dinner to whichever linemen helped create that opportunity for him.
Unfortunately for their position coach, he wasn’t part of the deal.
“I wasn’t even invited,” Dawson said. “I’m the best eater in the room so I’m kind of upset I didn’t get the memo. I’m going to have to get after those guys this afternoon when I see them.”
On a more serious not, Dawson said he was happy to see that kind of a mentality from his guys, who often do interviews together so as not to call attention to any one of them over the others.
“The biggest thing I think gets lost in the shuffle sometimes is the guy that gets the sack isn’t necessarily the guy that made the sack,” Dawson said. “The guy that made the sack could be another rusher rushing from the other side and he gets the guy to step up or he gets the guy to flush, and more often than not it’s the secondary; those guys are covering back there and they give time for the D-line to get the sack. And it works in reverse — sometimes the D-Line is the one that puts the pressure on and the ball gets up int he air and all of a sudden that’s the interception. This is the ultimate team game. The guys have to be able to do their job within each play and good things are going to happen to everybody.”
Good things certainly happened on Saturday as the Buffaloes only mustered 44 total yards on the ground. Even taking the sack yardage out of the equation, Colorado topped out at 87 rushing yards which was 3.1 yards per carry.
“That’s big for the D-line,” Carlos Davis said. “We always say we control the line of scrimmage, and if we can stop the run we can set up some sacks. That’s our first goal, and then getting sacks.”
Saturday’s game was the first time Daniels got to play in a Nebraska uniform. The 6-foot-2, 340-pound nose tackle redshirted last season.
“It was a fun experience and stuff like that,” Daniels said. “Just playing with them, it seemed like we’ve been playing together forever so I felt like I already had my feet wet, to be honest. But it was real fun to see Husker nation.”
Dawson said Daniels still has a lot of things to learn but he definitely saw some good things from the redshirt freshman.
“I was happy for him that he got out there,” Dawson said. “I was happy he got a chance to get out in Memorial Stadium and get to play in front of the guys. He did a great job. He was gassed up early and knocked some people back, so that was good. He’s also got to get himself used to the communication in-game and the game speed and the volume that’s out there and all that stuff. I’m excited about Damion. I think he’s going to have a great future as a Cornhusker and we’ve just got to keep him rolling.”
Thomas arrived in Lincoln with Daniels as part of the 2017 recruiting class but found immediate playing time as an undersized back-up nose tackle behind Stoltenberg. On Saturday, however, the 6-foot-3, 290-pound sophomore was back at his more natural position on the edge.
“I’m very comfortable,” Thomas said. “I’m more comfortable than I was last year. Last year I was in the middle, but now I can come off the edge and I get more one-on-ones which frees me up to make more plays.”
Dawson certainly has no shortage of options on the defensive line and Nebraska is going to need a lot more of what they showed against the Buffaloes moving forward.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.