The shift to the 3-4 brings new opportunities as well as new challenges for the front seven at Nebraska. Some of the players on the roster seem like perfect fits already, while others are going to have to make a big adjustment.
Brandon Vogel has already broken down what the linebacker situation looks like, so that leaves us with the defensive line here. Mike Riley was kind enough to offer up a preliminary depth chart at Tuesday’s spring-opening press conference, answering some of the biggest questions about where players will line up.
“When Coach [Bob] Diaco first got hired, he talked to all of us individually about a few spots where he kind of thought we might fit,” junior Mick Stoltenberg said. “After he discussed things with Coach [John] Parrella, they kind of just decided where people would start out at. Things aren’t really set in stone right now, but I think I have a general framework of where I think people are going to play right now.”
Let’s dive into what the competition will look like in the spring.
The 3-4 starts in the middle. To run this kind of defense a team needs a monster at the point of attack to hold the line and let the edge rushers get into the backfield.
According to Riley, Stoltenberg will get the first crack at holding down that position after recording 25 tackles including three for loss as a sophomore. At 6-foot-5, he doesn’t have the prototypical build for a nose where leverage is important, but the coaches have faith in him at that position and Stoltenberg said he is excited about his opportunity.
“I think it’s exciting to take on that role in the middle of defense,” Stoltenberg said. “Obviously knowing what I’m doing in there with the two-gap and reduce down and kind of moving towards that 4-3 look a little bit too. I know the basics of the old defense we ran, it’s kind of exciting to take a new challenge. I’m excited to crack open a new playbook.”
To help him hold his own at the nose, Stoltenberg said he has added 15 to 20 pounds already since the end of last season and is weighing in around 310 pounds.
Behind Stoltenberg is sophomore Khalil Davis, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds. Freshman Damion Daniels will add depth at 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds once he arrives in campus. Walk-ons Fyn Anderson (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and Joel Lopez (6-foot-2, 285 pounds) will also practice at the nose.
In the 3-4, the defensive ends are closer to 4-3 defensive tackles than ends in measurable and responsibilities.
On the short – or boundary – side of the field, sophomore Carlos Davis is in line to start after showing some serious flashes last season. Davis totaled 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and three quarterback hurries as a redshirt freshman.
“A lot of good hard work going on across the board as far as defensive line goes,” Stoltenberg said. “It’s really fun watching the Davis twins [Carlos and Khalil Davis] work. They are both crazy hard workers, obviously lifting a lot of weights and doing things the right way. So it’s definitely exciting to see some of our younger guys develop. I know they are going to be a huge key to our defensive line along with some of the other younger guys. It’s exciting watching them work.”
Peyton Newell (6-foot-3, 290 pounds) and walk-ons Dylan Owen (6-foot-5, 260 pounds) and Erik Evans (6-foot-3, 255 pounds) are set to play behind Davis heading into the spring.
The field side defensive end is the more interesting one as junior Freedom Akinmoladun is set to start at 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds. Some speculated that dropping weight and moving back to outside linebacker would be the best move for Akinmoladun, but Riley and Diaco are keeping him on the line. As a sophomore, Akinmoladun recorded 32 tackles and tied for second on the team with four sacks.
Behind Akinmoladun is redshirt sophomore DaiShoan Neal. At 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, Neal gives a team more length at the defensive end spot which could come in handy on the field side. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, A.J. Natter is the other player Riley mentioned at the field side defensive end.
We will have to wait until the fall to see where freshmen Deiontae Watts and Deontre Thomas line up.
Diaco and Parrella have a range of different body types to try out on the defensive line as we head into spring football, but once they hit the field on Saturday it is up to the players to prove they can hold their own at their new position. The edge rushers rack up the stats in a 3-4, but the defensive line is the true key to making it work. Nebraska is going to rely on its War Daddies more than ever before.
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.