Nick Henrich is one of the elder statesmen in Nebraska’s football program, which seems a bit strange to say.
It doesn’t seem that long ago Henrich was a four-star prospect and top-150 national recruit in the 2019 class coming out of Burke High School in Omaha. Three seasons, a combined 126 tackles and a degree in Psychology later, Henrich makes up half of an inside linebacker duo that is one of the best in the Big Ten.
“It’s flown by,” Henrich told ‘Sports Nightly’ of his time as a Husker. “To think I’m one of the old guys now is kind of crazy.”
The combination of fellow in-state product Luke Reimer and Henrich amassed 208 tackles last season—Reimer led the Blackshirts with 109 stops while Henrich was one tackle away from triple digits with 99. Reimer and Henrich’s 208 tackles ranked third in the Big Ten last year behind the duos at Iowa (Jack Campbell and Seth Benson totaled 248) and Northwestern (Chris Bergin and Bryce Gallagher, 230).
A big reason why Reimer and Henrich were so successful was the play of the defensive line in front of them. Interior linemen Ben Stille, Damion Daniels, Ty Robinson, Casey Rogers and Deontre Thomas did a good job occupying blocks and standing their ground against opposing offensive linemen, which cleared paths to the ball carrier for Reimer and Henrich.
This season’s defensive line will have a new look to it, however. Stille, Daniels and Thomas have all moved on from the program. So did the 6-foot-5, 295-pound projected starter Rogers and the 6-6, 310-pound Jordon Riley, who didn’t play much last season but was set to get more snaps in 2022. Both Rogers and Riley transferred to Oregon, following last year’s defensive line coach, Tony Tuioti, who took the same job with the Ducks.
With Robinson as the only returning interior player with real experience playing in Big Ten trenches, Nebraska took to the transfer portal to find help. Big Red found what it was looking for, too.
The Huskers got the commitment of Stephon Wynn Jr. (6-4, 310), a rotational player at Alabama for four years. Devin Drew (6-2, 280) was another addition—he was a two-year starter at Texas Tech and a junior-college All-American at Iowa Western Community College before that. Nash Hutmacher (6-4, 325) also returns and will get an opportunity to take the next step in his development with more playing time.
The inside of Nebraska’s defensive line wasn’t the only area that saw reinforcements. The outside got more help, too. The Huskers made a splash by beating Texas for the commitment of edge rusher Ochaun Mathis, a highly-touted transfer and two-time second-team All-Big 12 selection from TCU. Mathis (6-5, 260) had 15.5 sacks in the past three seasons with the Horned Frogs.
The addition of Mathis brings hope to a Husker pass rush that has struggled since the days of Randy Gregory. If Mathis can be a problem for opposing offensive lines, that can only mean good things—like more one-on-one opportunities—for returning outside linebackers Garrett Nelson (6-2, 245) and Caleb Tannor (6-3, 225), both of whom are coming off their best seasons statistically. Nelson led the team with five sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2021 while Tannor had two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.
On top of all the new faces along the defensive front, the d-line will also have a new position coach. Following Tuioti’s departure, outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson was given the interior defensive linemen duties as well.
Though most of those transfer additions didn’t practice in the spring, Henrich still liked what he saw in front of him during spring ball. Robinson and Hutmacher, as well as walk-on Colton Feist (6-2, 280), sophomore Mosai Newsom (6-4, 285) and redshirt freshmen Ru’Quan Buckley (6-5, 290) and Jailen Weaver (6-8, 320), all had their fair share of reps.
“I’m not worried at all. Coach Dawson does such a good job coaching those guys up, so we know they’re in good hands,” Henrich said. “Throughout spring every one of those guys got better and there’s been a lot of young guys making some big strides. I’m really excited to see what that group can do this fall.”
Henrich feels like the first two seasons in the program helped him become the player he is right now. After battling injury and playing in just one game as a true freshman in 2019, Henrich got his first taste of real college football in the 2020 COVID-shortened campaign, but not at the position he originally planned on.
Due to injuries to others in the outside linebackers room, the coaching staff asked if any other players had experience rushing the passer. Henrich did at Burke, so his number was called. While outside ‘backer isn’t his natural position—playing inside is—he said it helped him become a more well-rounded football player.
Henrich saw time at both outside and inside ‘backer in 2020 and recorded 27 tackles as a redshirt freshman.
“I learned a lot there. And I think playing that made me a better football player overall,” Henrich said.
Henrich points to mental toughness and focus as ways of ensuring outcomes like last year don’t happen again. All nine Husker losses last year came by single digits, something that’s never happened before in college football. The players have been having group meetings with Dr. Brett Haskell, the Director of Sport Psychology at Nebraska.
The players go over strategies to deal with the negative aspects of the game, which will inevitably come.
“You just have to learn to deal with them and continue to bounce back and how to kind of reset your mind,” Henrich said.
While the late-August trip to Dublin, Ireland, for the season-opener against Northwestern will be a first for many of the Husker players, it’ll be the second time Henrich checks out Ireland’s capital. He went with his parents before his senior season at Burke.
“It’s super green. It’s luscious, that’s what I would say. I love the accents, too, that was probably one of the coolest things,” Henrich said of the country. “Just an amazing place.”