If there was one surprise when Nebraska announced the four players that had been voted captain on Saturday night, it was Caleb Tannor.
Garrett Nelson and Travis Vokolek both attended Big Ten Media Days and were as safe a bet to be named captains as one can be based on the way coaches have talked about them. Nick Henrich is a proven player at a position that lends itself to leadership. Tannor is a different story.
The consensus 4-star recruit in the class of 2018 chose the Huskers over the likes of Alabama, LSU, his home-state Georgia Bulldogs and plenty more. He was undersized when he arrived on campus, but he still saw immediate playing time and has appeared in every game over the past four years, including 21 starts.
However, he didn’t necessarily do everything the right way early in his career. He had to overcome some self-made obstacles to get to where he is today.
“When it started off, he was kind of a hot mess,” said Nelson, who joined the program one year after Tannor. “He was a problem guy and was always on the accountability list or doing something wrong. It seemed like there was outside stuff going on, but the last couple years he’s really focused, and it says a lot for him coming back and being the best player he can be, best teammate he can be, talking to dudes, mentoring dudes and being the voice and saying something when I’m not. He’s grown and turned a new leaf.
“I’ve even talked about him with my parents. They ask about him and I tell them about his progress and they’re amazed, and everybody is. He’s done a great job and I love him as a teammate.”
Nelson called Tannor his “partner in crime,” comparing the two edge rushers to the main characters on a buddy cop TV show as they’ve spent the last couple of years rushing the quarterback from opposite ends of the formation.
“I look on the side of the field and he’s always been there,” Nelson said. “When Coach [Mike] Dawson came it really changed things. He told him things he needed to hear, and I needed to hear some things I was told, along with everybody in that room. He works at it pretty much every day and he’s awesome. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Tannor spent his first couple of years under Jovan Dewitt before Dawson returned to the staff for his second stint at Nebraska in 2020, this time as outside linebackers coach after previously coaching the defensive line. Tannor made a jump under Dawson, doubling his tackling average and earning five starts. This past season, Tannor started every game.
Coach Scott Frost also described the inauspicious start to Tannor’s career and the growth the Georgia native has made on and off the field in Lincoln.
“I have seen very few guys that have come as far as he has come, and it speaks more to where he is now than to where he had started,” Frost said. “We had a lot of guys that have to figure some things out, and Caleb has become a perfect teammate and a good leader. That’s awesome to see and that’s one of the things that makes coaching very rewarding, to see a young man turn into the man Caleb is.”
Tannor said it felt good to be voted a captain, but it also meant he and the other three would be carrying a lot of weight on their shoulders as everything the team does falls back on them. He said being a captain wasn’t necessarily a goal of his, but he’s embracing everything that it entails.
“I’m trying to win,” Tannor said. “I’m trying to get to a bowl game-plus. That’s what I’m on. I was going to get everybody on that same page with the C on my jersey or not.”
Tannor said he doesn’t plan to change anything about the way he operates. He already felt like he had a voice on the team, so the title doesn’t change anything. He plans to show his leadership by working hard, producing on the field and speaking up when he feels it’s necessary.
“Nothing has changed,” Tannor said. “Everybody knows I’m a captain now, that’s it. I’m still the same Caleb Tannor.”
Tannor is coming off the best season of his career with 33 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and three pass break-ups in 12 starts. The edge position figures to be one of the strongest position groups on the team with the arrival of TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis to supplement the returning starters in Tannor and Nelson plus the growth of third-year redshirt freshmen Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler.
“You can see him just laying out tackles in his pass rush, so he has the ability to do that which is solid,” Nelson said of Tannor. “He’s probably the fastest if not one of the fastest players on this team and when you have that off the edge it’s pretty dangerous. He can run down ball carriers, throw tackles on the ground during a power move, and he can spin and run just about anywhere with the motor he has. He brings a lot on the field and teams definitely look out for that with game plans and say this No. 2 character is a special athlete off the edge. That’s kind of dangerous when you have him, then me, then Ochaun, then Blaise, then Jimari. Teams definitely watch out for No. 2.”
Despite losing a lot of experience on defense, three of the team’s four captains play on that side of the ball, something in which Tannor takes pride.
“We them dawgs, man … We’re just there in every aspect of football: vocally, physically, mentally,” Tannor said.
Cornerback Quinton Newsome said Tannor has become a pro and goes full speed in everything he does, setting a great example for the rest of the team.
“I don’t think I have seen more growth from a single person,” Henrich added. “He’s done such a good job of holding guys accountable and bringing energy and being a great leader. We love to see that out of Caleb. We love to see him as a team captain, and he deserves it … He has really developed well into that and took off from a leadership standpoint. It’s been cool to see. He’s got that insane competitive drive and spirit that is contagious to a team and we can really feed off his energy.”
Despite everything the Blackshirts lost with the departures of most of the starting secondary and most of the defensive line rotation, Tannor is confident in the defense’s outlook and can’t wait to show off all the work they’ve put in.
“We’re working hard,” Tannor said. “We’ve been working hard, working too hard. The defense doesn’t feel different, I feel like the defense has gotten better with the newcomers that we have joined in. It’s going to be a good thing when you all come out there in the fall and see us play, man. We’re going to have some fun for real. It’s going to be great for me, it’s going to be great for everybody. I’ve been here for five years, so I’ve seen when the defense was, ‘Oh, they’re lackadaisical,’ I’ve seen when we were up and everybody was on our backs and stuff like that. Seeing this defense come up and grow and everybody being on the same page mentally, physically, we worked harder and harder. Man, it’s going to be big when y’all come out and see it because y’ all really don’t know.”
From a “hot mess” to being voted team captain, Tannor has come a long way during his four years at Nebraska. Now, he has one last season to put that growth on display and show those outside the program why his teammates hold him in such high regard.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.