Senior nose tackle Darrion Daniels did not practice all of last week, so the Huskers knew they weren’t going to have him in the lineup against Wisconsin. Senior defensive lineman Carlos Davis was a different story, however, as he let the coaches know shortly before the game that he wasn’t healthy enough to go.
With two veterans on the shelf, Tony Tuioti had to go deeper into his depth chart against one of the best running teams in the country. Damion Daniels and Ben Stille got the start alongside Khalil Davis while Deontre Thomas played an even bigger role than normal off the bench.
“We try to give guys as much experience as we can, so they filled in,” Tuioti said. “The Carlos situation, we didn’t know until right before the game that he wasn’t feeling well and up to it to be bale to play. It was all hands on deck and trying to get everybody in there. Definitely not having Carlos and Darrion was a big blow for us.”
Beyond the familiar faces, however, a handful of other Huskers saw action on the defensive line on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Casey Rogers has seen action here and there throughout the season. Junior college transfer Keem Green made his second appearance as a Husker. Walk-on senior Fyn Anderson played in his third game this season. Finally, highly-touted true freshman Ty Robinson made his debut.
“I thought Ty played the best out of all of them,” Tuioti said. “Casey Rogers got in and played some snaps; I thought he did pretty well. Keem is still a work in progress; just trying to get him to cut loose and be able to trust his technique and his ability.”
Rogers spoke after the game and had plenty of praise for Robinson as well.
“That was something that we all noticed was we were getting a good rotation in,” Rogers said. “Ty Robinson did awesome. He was out there for the first time today and it was really good to see that because that’s something that he needs for next year, that experience, especially against a Big Ten team like that. I think it showed him that he can do it. I think he knew that, but now it’s in his head that he can and now he knows what to expect which is something that all of us young guys should have this season.”
At 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds (Tuioti said he was the 315 listed on Nebraska’s roster the he arrived on campus but has dropped some weight during the season), Robinson has the measurable and ability to play multiple positions. On Saturday with the elder Daniels out, Tuioti used him at nose tackle.
“I think Ty’s got position flex,” Tuioti said. “I think he’s going to have a really bright future before it’s all said and done. He can play nose, he can play end for us, he can play three-technique, I can put him in front of a center. He’s got size, he’s got speed, he’s got athleticism. It’s good to know that we’ll have him here for a while.”
Moving forward, Tuioti said he thinks Robinson can still gain and hold another 15 to 20 pounds without losing any of his mobility. The Huskers brought him along slowly, letting him watch and learn and develop during the first nine games.
“It’s been really good for him because he’s been more physical at the point of attack and being able to strike,” Tuioti said. “He’s gotten a lot stronger from the first day he came in to now. He’s just having more confidence, knowing what he’s supposed to do and then letting his god-given ability go ahead and take over some plays for him. I think he’s gaining more confidence in himself and knowing that ‘Hey, I can play at this level and against these guys.’ I’m just looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do the next two games.”
It’s been a slow process with Green as well as the 6-foot-4, 300-pound junior college transfer arrived on campus in August.
“This process has been wild,” Green said. “It’s a lot thrown at me a once learning the defense. It’s a big difference coming from JUCO and everything. It’s a great experience … I feel pretty good with it now compared to the beginning of the year. It took me a minute to get adjusted and everything, but now I feel pretty comfortable.”
Tuioti is still waiting to see that comfort translate to the field at full speed, and Green himself said he didn’t play as well as he would have liked against the Badgers. However, he can still play in both of Nebraska’s remaining games and maintain his redshirt.
“Keem’s always in the plan,” Tuioti said. “He’s just trying to continue to get better. The thing with Keem is he’s got to be able to just trust himself and have more confidence in how he can play and be able to attack. He’s so big and so strong, sometimes I don’t think he understands how big and strong he is. Just got to help him be able to get the confidence and be able to play fast.”
Tuioti said he likes to watch film one-on-one with some of the younger linemen to help them progress, and now guys like Robinson and Green and Rogers have a decent amount of plays on tape.
“The best way to learn is to be able to get out there,” Tuioti said. “Right now I’m just trying to throw them into the deep end of the pool and be able to help them figure it out. The only way they’re going to get better is by having more real live game reps.”
The Huskers didn’t exactly shut down Wisconsin’s offense as Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers racked up over 320 yards on the ground and scored 30 offensive points, but Tuioti still found some positives to take away.
“There were times we were able to stop the run and put them in third-down situations,” Tuioti said. “I thought we did a pretty good job in the red zone forcing them to kick field goals and not touchdowns. There were definitely some things we can build on that were positive. Obviously the big runs that happened to us, we’re trying to get 11 guys all on the same page to make sure that we can stop the run.”
Nebraska’s young linemen showed the coaches enough against one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten to get more opportunities in these final two games, and Tuioti said the next step is just to continue developing in all areas.
“It’s all of it — it’s just being able to get bigger and stronger and then technique and then game experience to be able to play fast,” Tuioti said. “I anticipate to ramp up Ty’s reps, probably almost double it this next game and be able to see what he can do for us. He’s continuing to show that he can do a great job for us in the run game and also in the pass game. So to be able to see some of I'm a little bit more, see a little bit more of Casey and then continue to have the regular guys in the rotation.”
All three regular starters on the defensive line are seniors this season, which makes these reps the underclassmen are getting late in the year all the more important. Nebraska will need guys like Robinson and Rogers and Green in addition to the likes of Stille and Damion Daniels and Thomas to play big roles up front next season.
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.