Chris Kolarevic notices it. It’s hard not to.
Nebraska’s defense needs to replace a good chunk of starting experience from last year’s team. Cam Taylor-Britt, Ben Stille, Damion Daniels, Deontre Thomas, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke are the big ones. So is JoJo Domann, who manned the nickel position in Erik Chinander’s defense so well.
“It’s just a lot of new faces, a lot of new faces in a lot of different places and I think it’s exciting to see who’s going to step up, who’s going to make plays,” Kolarevic said Tuesday inside Memorial Stadium after the team’s fourth spring practice.
Kolarevic, who transferred before last season from Northern Iowa, is one of those new faces at new places. He’s spending the spring at nickel, which is where the coaching staff told him he’d be playing after last season. He’s played both middle linebacker positions—Mike (middle) and Will (weak side)—before at Northern Iowa and last season in Lincoln. He was practicing at nickel during the 2020 season at Northern Iowa, but never played it in a game because the season was canceled.
Now he’s in the nickel room—coached by Chinander himself—along with two other strong candidates for the job in Isaac Gifford and Javin Wright.
“I had no idea how that was going to go, but he’s done a good job out there so far,” Chinander said of Kolarevic, who had 27 tackles and one for a loss in his first season as a Husker. “It’s been really nice seeing him be out there in space and being fluid, and I think we’ll get a little more man coverage in as we keep moving through the install and we’ll see how he does with some man coverage, but everything else he’s done a really good job so far.”
There will be an adjustment period of course, and plenty of learning. Kolarevic, a senior, hasn’t been asked to cover a slot receiver many times in his career. He’s been working on that part of his game during the offseason and now at spring practice.
“I feel comfortable with it now, actually it’s not too bad, I feel really comfortable with it,” he said. “That’s just something I hadn’t had to do a whole lot before in game situations.”
The offseason work included getting in coverage reps against tight end Thomas Fidone II, who fits what Kolarevic is looking for in a player who eats and sleeps football. Omar Manning is one of the receivers who’s been playing inside at the slot. Sometimes things get chippy between the 225-pound Manning and Kolarevic.
“I like it. It’s fun. It’s fun to cover him and all those guys,” Kolarevic said.
While Domann was a physically strong player who played at around 230 pounds, he still understood leverage in space and how to play man-to-man coverage on tight ends and No. 2 receivers.
For Nebraska’s defense in 2022, the bad thing is Domann isn’t around anymore. The good thing is there’s plenty of tape for Kolarevic and others to watch and learn from. He picks the brains of Gifford and Wright, too.
“It’s good to have people who have been in the position and kind of understand how things work, and little things,” Kolarevic said. “There are just a lot of little things. I know the big picture, what to do in every play and every scheme, but it’s the little things I can do a little better with my feet or with my leverage and stuff. So it’s good to have guys who have done it and can help me out with that.”
Much of what the nickel position is responsible for comes from the flats and setting the edge, turning ball carriers back inside to the help. When the play goes away, that’s where the backside pursuit comes in—something Domann was really good at.
Chinander said the trio of Kolarevic, Gifford and Wright don’t differ much, but they do provide distinct body types. Kolarevic is listed at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds and is the most similar-looking to Domann. Gifford is the smallest of the three at 6-1 and 205 pounds. Wright came to Lincoln as a corner, but has since grown to 6-4 and 210 pounds and has the length that the others don’t.
“Space, ability, alignment. Where do I need to be, apex plus, apex minus? Playbook might say apex minus, but you’re long enough you can walk out there a little bit farther,” Chinander said. “So it’s just getting those guys comfortable with their bodies and getting comfortable with space. Otherwise, they’re all the same but you have to use their ability a little bit differently.”
Chinander applauded Gifford’s work off the field in the film room. He studies the game and knows where to be.
“For him, it’s probably just going to be, make that play a little bit quicker,” Chinander said of the Lincoln Southeast product Gifford. “Everybody makes a mental error, but that’s not his game, that’s not what he does. But he needs to see those plays happen and boom, just be able to jump on them a little bit quicker, and that’s how I think he ups his game.”
Last week, Chinander talked about how Wright’s background as a corner has helped him in his transition to a nickel.
“His coverage ability is really good for his size, which is an extreme plus,” Chinander said.
Nebraska was in pads last Saturday and has its first scrimmage this Friday. It’s the scrimmages, not the less-physical practices, where the coaches really learn who their best players are.
“You got two scrimmages before the spring game that are probably going to tell a big-time story,” Chinander said. “Everyone looks good when we’re tagging off, but when you have to tackle somebody to the ground, that tells a little different of a story. So we’ll get a better picture after those scrimmages.”