Nebraska made a lot of strides on defense last season, but one area in which the Huskers took a step back is the pass rush.
The Huskers recorded just 13.0 sacks in eight games (1.63 per game), only 4.5 of which came from outside linebackers, the position that is typically responsible for putting pressure on the quarterback in a traditional 3-4 defense.
The last dominant edge rusher Nebraska has had was Randy Gregory, and since Mike Dawson is essentially running it back with his group from last year there aren’t any Gregorys on the way. Nebraska is going to have to get it done as a team, and for Dawson, that starts with non-pass-rushing situations.
“I think that we had some more production the second half of this past season,” Dawson told Hail Varsity during the Big Red Blitz stop in Fremont. “It started to grow a little bit, and really what I attribute that to is tying it into first- and second-down defense. If we can be a physical, set the edge, don’t widen gaps, don’t let 2-yard runs leak into 4-yard runs, don’t let 5-yard runs leak into 7-yard runs and so on and so forth, if we can limit those and keep first and second down to a minimum, now you’re going to be talking about third down being third-and-long with maybe a couple third-and-mediums here and there instead of third-and-medium with a couple third-and-shorts here and there.”
“It makes it much, much easier to rush the quarterback when you’re dealing with third-and-long situations. I think our third-down percentage the last four games of the season, if you go back and look at that, I think that probably is a good measuring stick to be able to see it. If we can continue where we left off as far as playing better first- and second-down defense and putting offenses in third-and-longer situations, we’re going to have a chance to have more success.”
Nebraska was 10th in the Big Ten in third-down conversion percentage allowed in 2020 at 40.5%. Through Nebraska’s first four games, that number was at 54%. Only one team in the country was worse than that over the course of the full season (Louisiana-Monroe).
However, over the final four weeks of the season Nebraska allowed just 13 total third-down conversions, holding opponents to 24.5%. For reference, Oklahoma State led the country at 26.5%. Granted, Nebraska didn’t play a murderer’s row of elite offensives down the stretch with Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota and Rutgers, but the schedule only accounts for part of the change. Nebraska did get better.
Better success on early downs will give the Huskers an advantage by forcing opponents into passing downs, but the Huskers still need players who can capitalize and get home on the rush.
Caleb Tannor led the outside ‘backers with 2.0 sacks last season while Garrett Nelson chipped in 1.5. Those two figure to factor in heavily to Nebraska’s pass rush schemes. Tannor is heading into his fourth year on campus while Nelson is heading into his third. A breakout year from one or both could go a long way.
If Tannor or Nelson don’t give Dawson the production he needs, he could turn to a guy like Pheldarius Payne instead. Payne played in every game during his first season at Nebraska as a junior college transfer, but he was playing catch-up the whole time.
“We didn’t have spring practice, we didn’t have training camp last year, the start kept getting moved around, we were starting off with him as an interior guy coming from Tony’s room,” Dawson said. “It’s going to be exciting to see him. He’s got a full year under his belt now of being in with Coach [Zach] Duval and his staff, which is a huge piece of it. He’s getting himself where he’s healthy and he can do all the different things now. It’s going to be an exciting year for him. I’m excited to see him after having a year of learning the nomenclature and understanding exactly what we’re doing to now being able to just go out and play fast and already know where he’s going ahead of time and not trying to figure it out throughout the snap.
“I think it’s hard for any first-year player to be able to go out there and play, so what he did last year is good and was a step in the right direction. I’m glad he got some valuable experience and now we’re expecting some big things out of him.”
Payne recorded 21 tackles including 2.0 for loss, and he recorded his first sack as a Husker in Nebraska’s season-ending win at Rutgers.
Another option defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has is to use JoJo Domann, one of Nebraska’s best defensive playmakers, as a pass rusher more often than he did in 2020 where he spent most of his time in coverage. Domann didn’t have a sack last year, but he notched 2.5 in 2019 and has 15.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons.
“I always kind of view JoJo as a Swiss army knife,” Dawson said. “He can do some different things and that’s where his value is so great, where he can do both. He can be in coverage on a slot receiver or he can be coming off the edge going against an offensive tackle.
“And truthfully, part of what makes him as productive as he is is the way that Coach Chinander’s defense is set up that that position is going to make a lot of plays. You have a lot of responsibility, you have a lot of different techniques you have to know and understand. On the flip side, you’re going to get a lot of production, you’re going to be a guy making a lot of tackles, guy rushing the quarterback, guy with a opportunity to make some interceptions and things like that. That’s why it’s such a good fit for him.”
Dawson is hoping the combination of interior improvement from the likes of Nelson, Tannor and Payne, the versatility of Domann and better early-down performance will come together to produce an improved pass rush for the Blackshirts in 2021.
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.