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.
Up next. . .
Returning: Nick Henrich (3Y FR), Jackson Hannah (3Y FR), Garrett Snodgrass (3Y FR), Luke Reimer (3Y SO), Eteva Mauga-Clements (5Y JR), Will Honas (6Y SR)
Incoming: Wynden Ho’ohuli (FR), Randolph Kpai (FR), Seth Malcom (FR), Mikai Gbayor (FR), Chris Kolarevic (JR)
Returning production: 82.8% of tackles (130/157), 86.7% of havoc plays (13/15), 79.4% of snaps (984/1239)
Tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defended are grouped together up there because those are the three central components for charting havoc rate. Those are havoc plays for a defense. There were 15 combined havoc plays for the inside linebackers this past season. That unit produced 22.5 in 2019 and 21 in 2018.
So it’s slightly down, but that group hasn’t been a big havoc-producing room in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s scheme. Might Husker fans like them to be? Perhaps. The Huskers don’t have and haven’t had an elite outside linebacker that creates chaos for opposing offenses, so compensating elsewhere might be seen as serviceable.
But the Nebraska inside linebackers, for the most part, have just been steady. Those guys tend to finish first or second in total team tackles at the end of the year, which is something Will Honas has now done in back-to-back years.
Outside linebacker JoJo Domann actually led the defense in total tackles a season ago, but Honas’ eight a game were a two-per improvement over his 2019 campaign.
The sixth-year senior is a natural starting point for any inside linebacker discussion. He’s the lynchpin guy in coach Barrett Ruud’s room.
Honas has quietly been one of Nebraska’s more solid players over the last two seasons. A junior college transfer addition in 2018, Honas tore his ACL four games into his first year in Lincoln and took an understandable amount of time even after being cleared to return to look comfortable again.
He won’t miss many tackles and with a free lane to the ball, he’s effective. Honas hasn’t been great in coverage, but he’s not the most athletic linebacker on the roster, so you can sort of project that deficiency. Still, he’s a smart, seasoned linebacker who’s rarely in the wrong spot and is exactly the kind of player you want in the middle of a Big Ten defense.
Nebraska is thrilled to have him back for another year, make no mistake.
Because the pairing of Honas and either Luke Reimer or Nick Henrich offers a lot of intrigue.
“You guys finally got to see what everybody at practice sees every day,” Collin Miller said after Reimer’s debut against Northwestern. The former walk-on had 10 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and a forced fumble that day.
“The dude works his tail off in practice,” said outside linebacker Garrett Nelson. “He does everything right. … I don’t want to say he’s a freak because he’s more than that. He works his tail off, he’s here every day, he is obviously talented, but that’s not how I’d describe him. He’s a hard worker.”
Ruud has said several times he knew early on Nebraska had a steal in Reimer. “I knew after his first individual drill last year that he was going to be a scholarship guy,” the position coach said. “He was just a natural at the inside linebacker spot.”
Reimer doesn’t have the measurables, standing just 6-foot-1, but he’s been described often as the most athletic guy in the room. That was very much on display against Northwestern last November.
He had his ups and downs as the season progressed, but it was just his second year playing, and his first year playing meaningful snaps. When Miller went down against Illinois with an injury that ultimately ended his playing career, Reimer was the next man up.
On paper, he’s the matchup linebacker in coverage that can smooth over some of Nebraska’s warts from recent years. It wasn’t quite the problem it was in 2019, but the book on the Blackshirts says shallow crossing patterns over the middle of the field and/or finding the inside ‘backer in coverage will lead to success.
Heady play from Honas in zone coverage with Reimer making up for what he lacks in the athletic department could make for a nice partnership. As Reimer continues to grow, Honas seems a good guy to have next to him.
And when Reimer wasn’t available late in the year, Henrich stepped in. Against Rutgers, the Omaha native tied Domann for the team-high in snaps played (54). He showcased the good and the stuff that still needs improvement. Henrich missed a few tackles, though he still ended the day with a team-high 12.
Henrich spent the early portions of his second season in Lincoln learning to play outside ‘backer. As injuries in Ruud’s room mounted late, he jumped back inside. To do both is no small feat, especially at a young age, and perhaps his time working as a pass-rusher can give Nebraska something unique on the interior.
Miller was the same kind of player, an energy guy, a playmaker when healthy. A spinal injury cost him his playing career, and Nebraska will surely miss him. Miller moved from outside ‘backer to Ruud’s room and developed into a captain.
And with the way NU has operated since Miller’s emergence, that might be the trend moving forward. Henrich is the guy already following a versatility-emphasized road. And the linebackers Nebraska recruited in the most recent cycle all seem poised to follow suit.
“That’s one thing I really like about this linebacker group,” Scott Frost said during the Early Signing period. “I think all of them can probably play inside or outside linebacker for us.”
That’s 4-star February signee Wynden Ho’ohuli—one of the highest-rated prospects in the class, mind you—and 4-star Randolph Kpai and Seth Malcom and Mikai Gbayor.
“Randy’s super twitchy,” Frost said of Kpai. “Man, when you watch him, he covers ground fast. He strikes on the move. He’s violent. But Seth and him, and Mikai, and all the linebackers we recruited are capable of playing different positions for us and that’s going to be valuable and help them get on the field faster for us.”
If you remember, Nebraska operated similarly with Keyshawn Green in the 2020 class (though he’s since left the program) and Jackson Hannah in the 2019 class. Guys have bounced around. Honas is one of the few Frost’s staff has recruited who hasn’t.
In theory, that should make for any combination of four well-rounded linebackers on the field at any given time. Instead of coverage packages or run-stopping packages, you can just throw your best guys out there and let them work.
Ruud likes to have more than two guys in his rotation at any one time. So if the top three leaving spring ball are Honas, Henrich, and Reimer, expect all three of them to see significant burn. But perhaps the rotation could be deeper than that.
Eteva Mauga-Clements was a guy Nebraska was high on when he joined the program, and it took some time for him to get acclimated. What does he provide in his second year in Lincoln?
Chris Kolarevic is an FCS transfer from Northern Iowa who totaled 79 tackles in 10 games the last time he played a season (2019). He added 6.5 tackles for losses and two sacks. Could he be a wild-card kind of player?
Realistically this group has almost everything you could want from a room that’s only going to put two guys on the field at a time: a veteran that knows the ins and outs of the defense who can quarterback the unit, a few high-ceiling young guys who have the added dimension of experience, a couple of newer but older guys sort of lurking on the periphery of the two-deep discussion, and a collection of promising depth behind them.
The only thing missing is a true star, an all-conference level leader. Does Nebraska have someone with that potential? Possible.
If you get a couple playmakers to really pop, and this group becomes a havoc-creating bunch, Nebraska could get to that level.
That would be something, wouldn’t it?