Husker fans with their eyes on the one-on-one battles along the line of scrimmage last Saturday at the Red-White Spring Game may have been asking themselves who No. 97 was.
It was third-year redshirt freshman Blaise Gunnerson, who last year wore No. 24 but has since changed to a more traditional number for a 6-foot-6, 255-pounder who plays on the defensive front. Gunnerson was just one piece of an outside linebacker/defensive end crew that made it look easy against the offensive tackles that day. He finished with four tackles and would’ve been credited with a sack if he hadn’t been held by lineman Hunter Anthony, an Oklahoma State transfer.
Here’s the play with Gunnerson—who’s lined up to the boundary, or short side of the field—and his teammate on the edge, Jimari Butler, who also had a strong spring game:
The number on Gunnerson’s jersey is a small difference in what the Carroll, Iowa, native hopes is a big year. After using the 2020 and 2021 seasons to get his body Big Ten ready, the 2022 campaign could be one where Gunnerson gets a real opportunity to break out. He played in three games last year—Fordham, Wisconsin and Iowa—and recorded three tackles with a half sack against the Badgers. He also earned defensive scout team player of the year last December.
With Pheldarius Payne transferring to Virginia Tech, Gunnerson and Butler are the next ones in line to provide depth behind starters Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor. Another piece could be added to the room later this month when highly-touted TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis unveils his destination. The Huskers are in a battle with Mathis’ hometown Texas Longhorns for his services.
With spring ball now completed, Gunnerson is already focusing on what comes next.
“Go-go-go mode. Summer conditioning starts today, so it’s really important that we all understand that and we watch the film from today and we learn what we can get better at,” Gunnerson said following the spring game. “From there, just keep getting faster, stronger and more physical to compete in this Big Ten. I think if we do that, and everybody kind of has one set mission toward the objective of winning—winning is all that matters—that’s going to be really important for us going forward.”
Gunnerson, who missed his junior year of high school football at Kuemper Catholic due to a torn hip labrum, used his first two years in Lincoln to develop his body and pass-rushing skills. He’s done both, and his position coach, Mike Dawson, has seen the results firsthand.
“He works his tail off in the weight room,” Dawson said on Feb. 28. “I mean, you see him with no shirt on, he looks like the Terminator or something like that. He does a great job of making sure he eats correctly, puts the right fuel into his body and does all that stuff. So hopefully that’s going to lead to him being bigger and stronger.”
The offseason goals are simple. Gunnerson, a 500-mile radius commit from the 2020 class who picked the Huskers over Iowa State during the recruiting process, said he wants to get faster and more physical. He wants his hips to be more fluid and his bend around offensive tackles to get deeper and better.
He’s got a pretty good teacher for that, too: Nelson, his roommate. Nelson, a 20-game starter, is coming off a season where he recorded career-highs in tackles (57), tackles for loss (11.5, a team-high) and sacks (5, also a team high).
“He’s done a really good job of leading the troops,” Gunnerson said. “I think coach (Scott) Frost recognizes him as one of the biggest leaders on the team, so Garrett is one of those guys who’s going to give it his all every single day, he’s going to give it his all in the weight room, give it all on the field. Whatever we’re doing, Garrett is going to be there putting in the extra work. So he’s a great role model for me and all the other d-ends to kind of model ourselves after that and then put our own little spin on it.”
It might be too early to say what Gunnerson’s “own little spin” is as a pass rusher. On Saturday, he said he was happy with a couple good double-swipe moves he had. But as he and his teammates transition into the next stage of the offseason, more work needs to be done. After the spring game, Nelson said he was up about 10 pounds and down 4% body fat.
What’s the roommate from Iowa want to improve on the most?
“Working on my get-off, working on my pass rush, that’s obviously a really big point of emphasis, especially in the spring when you have time to work on that stuff,” Gunnerson said. “So I’ve really tried to work on my pass rush, and then six-technique in the run game is a big point of emphasis as well.”
The six technique that Gunnerson mentioned is an outside ‘backer who lines up outside of the offensive tackle, or head-up on a tight end if there is one. Six-techniques are often asked to be physical with tight ends at the line of scrimmage, either jamming them at the snap or making it tough for them to release on their routes. If it’s a run, six techniques are usually the contain player, forcing the ball carrier back inside to where the help is.
So far this spring, Frost has liked what he’s seen from the defense’s pass rush. Gunnerson and Butler are two younger players who will be expected to step up during the season.
“Those guys have really taken a giant leap forward in my opinion,” Frost said after the spring game. “We had trouble blocking them today, and hopefully that’s a sign that they’re playing good football as opposed to we didn’t protect well enough.”
Gunnerson is hoping the switch from Nos. 24 to 97 isn’t the only change fans notice in 2022.