Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Re-Scoring the 2022 Huskers: Defensive Line

May 10, 2022

We’ve nearly reached the end of the road on our look back at the series we did in January that scored each of Nebraska football’s positions and gave them a score, 1 through 10.

If a position got a 1, that isn’t good and you should be worried about it going into the fall. If it got a 10, you’re feeling great about who’s in that room and how they’re going to play.

A lot has happened since January, including new faces entering the program and 15 spring practices. Some things have stayed the same, but others have not. So it’s as good a time as ever to keep the breakdown going.

Here are the positions that have already been re-scored: Receivers | Offensive Line | Running Backs | Tight Ends | Quarterbacks | Defensive Back | Linebackers

Now we’re tackling the second-to-last position left on the board—defensive line. In the original breakdown from January, we gave the d-line a score of 5. What’s it going to be this time? Let’s break down the room.

The d-line is one of the positions that’s seen the most change. Starters Ben Stille, Damion Daniels and key rotation piece Deontre Thomas have moved on from the program. There was more attrition when Casey Rogers and Jordon Riley wound up transferring to Oregon, where former d-line coach Tony Tuioti is now coaching. Rogers likely had a starting spot next to Ty Robinson on the interior of the Huskers’ d-line waiting for him this fall while Riley was expected to be a primary backup in the rotation.

The loss of Rogers and Riley created big-time holes at a position crucial to success in the Big Ten. But to Nebraska’s credit, it used the transfer portal to its advantage and found replacements in Ochaun Mathis and Devin Drew, who will likely be viewed as day-one starters.

By now you’ve likely heard of Mathis. The 6-foot-5, 257-pounder was a two-time All-Big 12 defensive end/edge rusher at TCU. He entered the transfer portal last January, and the Huskers beat out his home-state Texas Longhorns for his services. In four years at TCU, Mathis racked up 135 tackles, 30.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. In 2020, Mathis was tied for fifth nationally with nine sacks.

It’s fair to presume Nebraska’s pass rush got better once Mathis committed to the Big Red. Though it’s still unclear how effective his transition from playing against Big 12 offenses to those from the Big Ten will go, the addition of a highly-touted portal recruit like Mathis was still a major win for the Husker program. It showed that Nebraska could potentially be a destination for talented players looking for sweet name, image and likeness deals while playing in one of the top conferences in college football—and that bodes well when NFL scouts watch film.

While Drew’s commitment didn’t receive as much fanfare as Mathis’ did, it meant just as much on the field. Following the departures of Rogers and Riley, Nebraska was desperate for not just bulk to play on the inside, but experienced bulk—Drew fits that. The 6-2, 280-pounder played the past two seasons at Texas Tech, where he had 55 total tackles while playing in 23 games with 12 starts.

Drew’s pass-rushing stats won’t blow anyone away—he didn’t have a sack and only had .5 tackles for loss. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Texas Tech’s defense played with a three-down front much of the time when Drew was there. That meant Drew was playing two gaps as an undersized d-end and wasn’t expected to rush the passer.

The draw of playing in a four-down front appealed to Drew, who has one season of eligibility left after spending his first two seasons at Iowa Western Community College in nearby Council Bluffs.

“He had one year left and he wanted to make sure that it was kind of a four-down spot to where he can get a lot more one-on-ones,” said Aaron Terry, Iowa Western’s d-line coach who coached Drew. “A lot of times in those three-downs, you’re getting a lot of double teams and you can’t really showcase your skills. So I think with it being his last year, he wanted to just go all out and get into a system he felt could showcase his skills and be able to give him a shot to play at the next level.”

Drew, a former middle linebacker at the high school level, made quite the transition from playing at the second level to the line of scrimmage. He was a National Junior College Athletic Association All-American in 2019 and could be an option to play the three-technique on Nebraska’s d-line, lining up on the outside shoulder of a guard.

The additions of Mathis and Drew should only help others across the defense, like outside linebackers Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor and Robinson, all three of whom enjoyed their best seasons as Huskers in 2021. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander should have a fun time drawing up ways to get Mathis, Drew, Nelson, Robinson and Tannor on the field at the same time in third-and-longs and other pass-rush situations.

But before the defense can start concocting sack celebrations, it needs to show it can stop the run from Big Ten offenses. A four-man front of Mathis, Robinson, Drew and Nelson looks like a solid start, but the depth players behind them need to take steps forward.

Nash Hutmacher, Colton Feist, Mosai Newsom, Ru’Quan Buckley and others are expected to play larger roles than they did last year when they were developing behind Daniels, Stille and Thomas. Some in that group have potential, but everyone lacks playing experience, which is something the two new additions, Mathis and Drew, provide.

Depth at outside ‘backer will be important as well. Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler had strong spring games, though they were going against backup offensive tackles for much of the day. Gunnerson, at 6-6 and 255 pounds, and Butler, 6-5, 245, have different body types than those who they’ve been playing behind in the 6-3, 245-pound Nelson and the 6-3, 225-pound Tannor.

The work in the transfer portal likely isn’t done, either.

The coaching staff might feel better about things if it were to have another big body in the middle. Two potential interior d-line targets Nebraska is interested in include Alabama’s Stephon Wynn Jr. and Florida’s Lamar Goods. Wynn is a 6-4, 307-pounder who had 13 tackles in four seasons with the Crimson Tide. At 6-3, 332 pounds, Goods is your prototypical zero-technique that lines up over the center and specializes in taking on double teams and creating room for the linebackers behind him. Goods, however, only played in two games as a Gator and is an inexperienced player.

The re-score

The initial feeling around the program following the departure of Rogers wasn’t good. But the Husker staff did well in finding others to fill voids in Mathis and Drew, two additions who figure to be starters.

Though Mathis and Drew have experience playing Power Five football, no one knows how they’ll do against Big Ten offensive linemen and offenses. Big 12 pass-happy offenses play a different brand of football than the more physical run-heavy Big Ten. Mathis and Drew could potentially make an easy and swift transition, but until they show it on the field it’s hard to bank on it happening.

Robinson will play a key role in this defensive front. He’s coming off his best year as a Husker in 2021, but he was also in a rotation with Stille, Daniels and Thomas. Now he’s the leader of the interior d-linemen and will be expected to hold his ground in the run game and get home more often in the pass rush, just like Nelson and Tannor will be counted on to do as well.

The depth behind Robinson and Drew remains a question. Hutmacher is big and strong, but how has his quickness and twitchiness developed? Are Feist, Newsom, Buckley or someone else ready to emerge and give quality backup reps?

The Husker d-line’s score remains the same with a 5.

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