For two years running now, we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.
We’ll finish up the defense with. . .
Returning: Nash Hutmacher (2Y FR), Marquis Black (2Y FR), Ty Robinson (3Y FR), Jamin Graham (3Y FR), Casey Rogers (4Y SO), Tate Wildeman (4Y SO), Colton Feist (4Y SO), Jordon Riley (4Y JR), Damion Daniels (5Y JR), Ben Stille (6Y SR)
Incoming: Ru’Quan Buckley (FR), Jailen Weaver (FR)
Returning production: 96.8% of tackles (90/93), 100.0% of sacks, 100.0% of havoc plays, 97.0% of defensive snaps (1,265/1,304)
The whole defensive line is coming back, essentially.
Keem Green, considered a big recruiting win when Nebraska secured his commitment ahead of the 2019 season, entered the portal this offseason after falling out of the rotation late in the year. He saw 35 of his 39 snaps in the first four weeks of the season, but then sat for three of the final four games. Those snaps might end up going to Nash ‘The Polar Bear’ Hutmacher, a player everyone is waiting not-so-patiently to see, so we’ll see what the difference is.
But for all intents and purposes, Nebraska’s 2020 defensive line, which made great strides in 2020, returns in full for 2021. Considering position coach Tony Tuioti’s albeit brief but spotless track record so far, that’s reason for great excitement as we head toward a new season.
I want to start with Casey Rogers. If Austin Allen is the guy on the offense you point to as “Most Improved” last season, Rogers (6-4, 300) is probably the guy on the defense. His first career tackle came in the Huskers’ season-opener against Ohio State. He then played in every game. This after appearing in just four games as a redshirt freshman in 2019 and missing the 2018 season largely due to injury.
Rogers had perhaps the best game of his young career against Iowa on Black Friday, with five tackles and a sack. For the most part he was a sure-handed tackler and, as the year progressed, he was trusted to handle pass-rushing situations.
He does the little things you want to see from a young player. If you listen to Tuioti speak, you hear what we’ll refer to as Tuioti-isms. Rogers uses them religiously when he talks to the media. Translated, that’s a player who’s listening intently in the meeting room, internalizing what he’s told, and then constantly thinking about those teachings.
Another thing you love to see: when he’s not going to get to the quarterback, he gets his hands up. Twice against Minnesota he had a batted ball at the line of scrimmage. He’s eager to learn. Rogers projects as one of the more interesting defensive pieces moving forward.
He already saw the third-most snaps of any defensive lineman, and if defensive coordinator Erik Chinander sticks with the tendency to roll out a 2-5 front in pass-rushing situations, those snaps should grow. Does his improvement come as a pass-rusher, where he’s already pretty good? Or as a run-stopper, making him more of an every-down kind of guy?
Nebraska doesn’t really use “every down” guys in the traditional sense. Ben Stille, far and away the most-played lineman, still saw 100 fewer snaps than JoJo Domann at outside linebacker. Ty Robinson played fewer snaps than Caleb Tannor. Damion Daniels played about a half more than Pheldarius Payne.
By and large, Nebraska did what it said it would: kept guys fresh.
Daniels (6-3, 335) was a big benefactor of that approach. He played more than 25 snaps in a game only twice—against Iowa and Minnesota. Against the Hawkeyes, he saw 44 and proved more than capable of being a key piece on the defensive line. After a year of playing with his older brother, Daniels took the step forward everyone was hoping for.
He came into camp in better shape and determined to be more impactful.
“Snacks shows up every single day,” Tuioti said before the year. “He’s been having some great practices for us, being dominant at the point-of-attack. That’s what we need out of him.” And that’s what Nebraska got for spells. Daniels can swallow ball-carriers.
At 22 a game, he’s probably in a sweet spot in terms of snaps seen, so it’ll be about creating a little more chaos in those opportunities.
Nebraska stopped just over one out of every five running back carries at or behind the line of scrimmage (21.4%, tied for 30th nationally). That played a key role in the overall-improved run defense. It was excellent in short-yardage situations. But the Husker defense ranked 98th in sack rate (4.8% of drop backs), and, comparatively, was slightly worse on passing downs.
A lot of the d-line’s function in this defense is to recreate the line of scrimmage and let linebackers serve as wrecking balls, so production hasn’t been standout-ish at any point. That being said, the d-line was responsible for about two TFLs per game in 2018 and 2019, and just 1.5 in 2020.
As a defense, Nebraska has been steadily climbing year-over-year since Chinander took over in that regard (TFLs per game), and that trend continued in 2020, so hand-wringing about where the production came from might be much ado about nothing.
It might be something, but last year was strange in a bunch of ways. Time will tell if it was a blip or more telling.
Either way, the guy who can seemingly change that problem/non-problem made his debut as a regular starter last season. Ty Robinson didn’t blow anyone away, but he had moments that made you sit back in your chair and think, “Damn, this dude’s got the potential to be special.”
Nebraska felt that before his freshman season, it felt it before his redshirt freshman season, and it should still feel that now.
Robinson (6-6, 310) is the kind of player many have looked to as being the guy who could solve Nebraska’s great unanswered question of the last whoever many years, which is who is The Guy.
In this day and age, is that guy more likely an outside ‘backer? Depends. Year after year, the Big Ten is littered with absolutely dominant defensive ends. Year after year, Nebraska has looked at those guys longingly as they roll through Lincoln on opposing busses.
The Arizona product, now entering his third year with the program, can change that.
Perhaps we’re still a year out from having that conversation. Progression is never linear, no matter how much we wish it was. Redshirt, play lots, then ascend to greatness is a path only the elite of elite follow. Nebraska would certainly welcome it if Robinson became an all-conference player after a year of starts, but it also probably doesn’t want to put that kind of pressure on a guy who’s still developing.
The frame and athleticism plays a big part in the excitement, and in that regard there’s no reason to doubt what strength coach Zach Duval can accomplish this offseason after what he’s already shown.
Robinson is certainly in an ideal situation, isn’t he. Great strength program—I think we can say that at this point—great position coach, great player mentor in Ben Stille, and a starter’s share of opportunity.
Oh yeah, Stille. Coming back for another year is a huge win for this defensive line group. He’s just an excellent guy to have in the locker room, an excellent guy to have around younger players, and a capable and productive guy on the field. Nebraska wanted him back. Tuioti is a happy guy right now.
For the younger guys, or the guys lower on the totem pole, we’re just going to have to be patient. The M.O. so far has been to slowly bring along young players. Tate Wildeman and Mosai Newsom have played sparingly. Ru’Quan Buckley (6-5, 280) and Jailen Weaver (6-8, 320) will probably take redshirts as first-year guys.
And that’s fine.
Tuioti’s room is strong already. A breakout guy in 2021 could make it even stronger. Nebraska was better in 2020, but it needs to keep improving. Consistency across the board will be the goal of the offseason.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.