With spring ball in the books, it’s a good time to revisit the series we did in January that broke down each position group in the Husker program and gave it a score of 1 through 10.
If the position gets a 1, that isn’t good and there’s little confidence there. If it got a 10, it’s looking like it’s in great shape and there should be excitement for the fall.
Up next is linebacker. In the original post, the inside ‘backers and outside ‘backers were lumped together and given a score of 6, which is pretty good. We’re going to combine those two positions again and keep them in one breakdown.
The Huskers have a solid foundation on the inside in fourth-year players Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich. Those two former in-state prep stars—Reimer from North Star (Lincoln) High School and Henrich from Omaha Burke High School—combined to make 208 tackles last season. That was third in the Big Ten behind the combined 248 from Iowa’s Jack Campbell and Seth Benson and the 230 from Northwestern’s Chris Bergin and Bryce Gallagher.
Reimer finished fifth in the Big Ten in tackles with 109 and fourth in tackles per game with 9.08. Henrich was ninth in the conference in tackles with 99 and seventh in stops per game with 8.25.
To give one a sense of what kind of season those two had, if Henrich recorded just one more tackle, it would have been the first time two Huskers had 100 stops since 2003 when current inside ‘backers coach Barrett Ruud (149) and Demorrio Williams (128) did it.
So, what’s changed since the first breakdown in January? Not much. However, Reimer didn’t go through spring practice as he has rehabbing an injury. Did Reimer need to go through all 15 practices? In a perfect world where injuries don’t exist, sure, you’d like to have everyone on the practice field.
But we don’t live in a perfect world and no one’s offseason is perfect. Reimer, though, is one of the veteran players who probably doesn’t need a spring. His health and availability for the fall is much more important than practicing in March and April.
“We got certain guys who you don’t need to see hit much and some other guys that we really need to test them and see how they’re going to be when it’s live,” head coach Scott Frost said on March 9. Reimer, and even Henrich, fit that line of thinking.
Henrich did go through spring ball and is developing into one of the leaders of the defense. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Henrich is a physical downhill linebacker who can fill gaps and meet ball carriers in the hole. That skillset works well next to the 6-1, 225-pound Reimer, whose best attribute might be his sideline-to-sideline speed.
Reimer displayed that trait in last season’s game at Michigan State, when he hunted down running back Kenneth Walker III and stopped him from gaining a first down:
The offseason also saw the departure of veteran Will Honas, who battled injuries throughout his four-year career at Nebraska and transferred to Kansas State for his seventh year of college football.
Behind Reimer and Henrich are two veterans in former junior-college transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements, who looked solid during the spring game, and fourth-year player Garrett Snodgrass, who was held out of spring ball with an injury. Chris Kolarevic played inside ‘backer last season, but has been working at nickel linebacker this spring.
The young guys in the room include redshirt freshmen Randolph Kpai, Mikai Gbayor and Seth Malcom. Another young ‘backer to keep an eye on is true freshman Ernest Hausmann, an in-state recruit from Columbus. The 6-3, 220-pounder is inexperienced, but the coaching staff is high on him.
One thing to keep an eye on is the defensive line in front of the inside ‘backers. Last season Reimer and Henrich enjoyed a strong d-line that included veteran players like Ben Stille, Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas, who ate blocks and opened space for Reimer and Henrich to rack up all those tackles.
Stille, Daniels and Thomas are gone now. How will Reimer and Henrich do without them?
Like the inside ‘backer room, the outside is in good hands, too.
Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor both return after having the best seasons of their careers. Nelson, an in-state product from Scottsbluff, recorded career-highs in tackles (57), tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (5) while Tannor had career-highs in tackles (33) and tackles for loss (5.5).
While Nelson and Tannor returning provides the outside ‘backer room a nice base, it’s no secret that the defense needs to be better at rushing the passer and creating sacks. Last season the Huskers ranked 12th in the Big Ten and 101st nationally with 20 sacks.
Nebraska gained the commitment from the 6-foot-5, 257-pound TCU transfer, who was one of the most coveted edge rushers in the transfer portal this offseason. Mathis was a second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2021 and 2020, and recorded a combined 74 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks in his career as a Horned Frog. His addition could provide a boost to the Huskers’ defensive line, especially on the edge, where he played at TCU.
Mathis should help Nebraska in creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Having a player of his caliber on the field could also create more one-on-one situations for both Nelson and Tannor, as well as the defensive linemen, whether that’s Ty Robinson or Texas Tech transfer Devin Drew, who recently committed to Big Red earlier this week.
Behind the trio of Mathis, Nelson and Tannor are a pair of third-year players in Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler. Both are inexperienced, but will be expected to step into larger depth roles this season. Take it with a grain of salt, but they each had solid spring games, too.
All the major contributors from last year’s group of inside and outside linebackers return. Reimer and Snodgrass missing the spring with injuries doesn’t seem like a big issue as both are expected back to full strength for the fall.
Nelson and Tannor enter the 2022 season as two leaders at the line of scrimmage. The addition of Mathis can only help the Huskers’ front seven, though it remains to be seen how well his game will translate from going against Big 12 offenses and offensive linemen to those in the Big Ten. How will he hold up against the run in this league?
Mathis could very well impress everyone and have an All-Big Ten kind of season. But until he shows it on the field, it’s hard to deviate too far from the original score. The re-score remains a 6.