Nebraska Football Players Lined Up on Inside Field
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

On Nebraska’s Culture and the Players Stepping Into Leadership Roles to Drive It

March 30, 2021

Some time after the season ended, JoJo Domann gathered the seniors together at his house to decompress on the year and talk about their next steps. “There is a power in numbers,” he said Monday when talking about what that group discussed. If they were going to come back to Nebraska—use that extra year of eligibility from the NCAA—they wanted to be together and they wanted to be united in purpose. 

“The idea I had when I came here was to return this place to the winning tradition that it ultimately is, and to create a culture that lasts beyond my time here,” said Domann, Nebraska’s starting outside linebacker. “With the opportunity to come back, both of those doors are wide open just waiting for us to walk through them.”

Within that group of seniors, Nebraska returned a good chunk of them—seven in total and five of six on the defensive side of the ball (Collin Miller, with having to medically retire, didn’t really have the option).

Domann, starting safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke, inside linebacker Will Honas, and defensive end Ben Stille decided to re-up for one more year in Lincoln. Cam Taylor-Britt, a junior who could have gone pro, came back too. 

Key guys with lots of experience at every level. 

That has expectations for Nebraska’s defensive play on the field as high as they’ve been in a while, but it also has another effect. 

“It probably gets talked about ’til people are tired of hearing about it, but when you have good camaraderie, good leadership, good culture built on your team, you give yourself a great chance,” head coach Scott Frost said Monday. “You can’t do it without good leaders. I think that’s why it’s important we have some of the guys coming back to join us again this year.”

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said that group of defensive players have “banded together” throughout the winter months. With spring ball officially underway on Tuesday, they’re tasked with preparing for a season and preparing guys under them for life after them. 

Williams and Dismuke have embraced that role at safety. 

Taylor-Britt has certainly embraced that role at corner. 

Then on the offensive side of the ball, where Nebraska lost the most, new voices are seemingly stepping up. 

Tight end Austin Allen wants to be a captain this season. 

Center Cam Jurgens spoke to the media on Monday—what’s been a rare occurrence for the offensive lineman—and gave the impression as if we’d be hearing much more from him. If you listened to him, perhaps you walked away thinking he’s the new standard-setter on the o-line.

“Last year, Matt Farniok was such a vocal leader for the whole o-line that really other guys didn’t need to step up and be vocal because he just took care of so much,” Jurgens said.

Farniok and left tackle Brenden Jaimes are both gone now. Jurgens acknowledged he needs to be more of that voice for the line and the offense as a whole. Fitting for a center. Perhaps Jurgens is coming into his own.

He said the snapping issues that have plagued his game for his first two years at center have to be a thing of the past, that the snap is his emphasis right now, that it shouldn’t be a problem moving forward. “If it matters to you, it’s going to get done,” he said at one point when asked about reducing procedural mistakes on the line.

If the coaches were listening to what Domann and Jurgens and Allen were saying Monday, they were probably pleased. Then again, it seems they’ve been pleased with how the team has bonded over the past few months in general. 

“I’ve been here for one year, and (the culture) has improved a lot since I’ve been here,” said offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. It has to be player-driven; that was a thing stressed by both Lubick and Frost. “You can say this or have a slogan but it doesn’t do much good unless guys are actually doing it.

“We’ve obviously been stressing that, but it’s a whole different level when your leaders—Adrian Martinez, Austin Allen—when those guys start doing that, which they have been, it becomes contagious. I think our leaders have taken it up another notch and the rest of our team has followed with them.”

In talking with players, this team seems close. Most teams are. Nebraska has said in the past the culture has been “right there” or “close to what we want” and the season comes to an end and departing players poke holes in those notions, but Nebraska did something a little differently this offseason. 

It seemed as though there was a concerted effort on the part of the team both to keep guys around each other and make sure the outside world knew they were around each other. Like with Nebraska saying “we posted incredible numbers in the weight room,” and then showing they in fact posted staggering numbers in the weight room, there’s proof backing up what’s been said. 

Tug of war with the entire team taking sides. Paintball. Bowling. Trivia night inside the Hawks. 

Remember this?

Frost was picked up by Ty Robinson. Mario Verduzco was targeted repeatedly. Travis Fisher was vibing.

“I walked into a program here when I transferred back where the culture was already there and we just had to assimilate to it and then try to pass it on to the next group,” Frost said. “We’ve been in the process of trying to get the thing built here the way we want it. 

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been of having the culture the way the coaching staff wants it. I think the key to that is making sure the players take ownership in it, that they feel comfortable around each other, that they care about each other and are willing to fight for each other.

But those things are tough to build in a year impacted by COVID-19. When you can’t put guys in small meeting rooms. When you have to have team meetings spread out in a facility that needs a massive screen installed so everyone can know what’s going on. 

“So we had some ground to make up there,” Frost said. “Made a conscious effort to get our guys around each other in some of those situations and feel good about the teammates we have on this team right now and where we are.”

Once again, Nebraska will have to show all of this matters on the field come fall. Many within the fanbase are firmly in a “show me, don’t tell me” mode after years of hearing similar offseason stories. 

With practice underway, liking each other needs to become wanting to fight for each other and not wanting to fail each other. 

“We still have a lot to do and a lot to build on,” Frost said, “but I think those things helped.”

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