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: Blaise Gunnerson (2Y FR), Jimari Butler (2Y FR), Garrett Nelson (3Y SO), Niko Cooper (4Y SO), David Alston (4Y SO), Pheldarius Payne (4Y JR), Caleb Tannor (4Y JR), Damian Jackson (5Y JR), JoJo Domann (6Y SR)
Incoming (maybe): Randolph Kpai (FR), Seth Malcom (FR), Mikai Gbayor (FR)
Returning production: 100% of everything
Locally, he’s viewed as one of the most (if not the most) important playmakers to the defense, and his return to the team in 2021 represented a significant win for defensive coordinator Erik Chinander but also a glowing endorsement of the progress the defense has made and continues to make.
Nebraska returns more production on defense than just about any other FBS team in the country, and getting back the leading snap-getter and tackler plays a key role in that.
JoJo Domann is probably one of the two or three most important Blackshirts heading into the 2021 season.
A year ago, in scoring the linebackers, I wrote he’d be a wildcard in 2020. Bold enough to create big plays from nothing, but questions stuck out regarding his availability for a full year. The best ability sometimes is just availability, and Domann had struggled to get through a calendar year without something cropping up.
Those question feel more like afterthoughts now. He played in every game, averaging more than 70 snaps. He had a poor showing against Rutgers in an otherwise meaningless finale to the season, but he was far and away Nebraska’s most consistent defender in 2020.
He sets the edge well. He can blow up a block and make the tackle in the backfield. A converted safety, he’s got uncommon size but pairs that with excellent athleticism at his position. Domann was the Huskers’ nickel; he matched up with Purdue’s Rondale Moore in early December and limited the star receiver in coverage.
As a sixth-year senior, expect he’ll be looking to continue to grow and put things on tape NFL scouts want to see. Domann, along with the rest of the defense, is extremely motivated heading into the new year.
But as an outside linebacker in the Big Ten, he was only an honorable mention on the all-conference teams. Treat those end-of-year lists as gospel? Probably not the smartest. However, they can serve as nice reminders of the difference between local evaluation and that of those a few degrees removed from the day-to-day.
Simply put: there’s no bonafide star at outside linebacker.
That singularly elite, double-team-commanding pass-rusher? Nebraska’s still looking for him.
Chinander got creative in 2020 and it worked, using some hybrid packages in obvious passing situations to try and put as much athleticism on the field as possible. Pheldarius Payne and Caleb Tannor were a delight as third-down outside ‘backers pinning their ears back and rushing off the edge. Payne had an encouraging showing in that Rutgers game.
Nebraska even got home or close to home with three- and four-man rush designs. Defensive lineman Ben Stille would shift inside and play nose while a pair of outside ‘backers would put their hands in the dirt.
With everyone coming back from last year’s squad, you factor in development and the potential for multi-dimensional freshmen linebackers, and Chinander should have the goods again to mix and match to his heart’s desire.
But that singular force… that guy who makes it so you don’t need to get cheeky with your packages. Line the dude up, tell him to go, and feast away.
Domann is a playmaker, plain and simple. He has a nose for the football. He doesn’t miss a ton of tackles. He finds a way to jar footballs loose. But is there a next step in his game? Or has he hit the ceiling? Nebraska would like to know.
After making the full-time switch to outside ‘backer, Domann had 2.5 sacks in 2019. He had none in 2020. He’s got 15.5 tackles for loss in the last two seasons, but none of them were sacks. Does the distinction matter?
Nebraska’s defense was good last season, sometimes great, but let’s not jump the gun and mistake progress for completion. NU was much-improved on third down as the season progressed, but it ended the year ranked 98th in sack rate and 102nd in passing down sack rate. That ain’t gonna cut it.
It was much better defending the run, and ranked 43rd nationally in TFLs produced on a per-game basis, but the pressure will need to ratchet up in 2021. To continue the upward trajectory, the defense needs to produce more splash plays than it did a season ago.
That means getting to the quarterback and coming away with sacks, strips, or errant throws forced that open the door for takeaways on the back end.
I think Domann has the talent to be that kind of guy, but we also might have already gotten the answer to that question. Which is fine. He’s a tremendous player in what he does, and he’s hugely important to what Nebraska does.
It’s “fine,” because there are a few options waiting to break loose who offer that kind of upside.
As a major shareholder in the “Blaise Gunnerson is gonna be awesome” camp, I’m holding steady even after a first year that never afforded him a chance to step on the field.
He’s 6-foot-6, a rather large human. Now in his second year with strength coach Zach Duval, you wonder what could be. Ty Robinson jumped from blank canvas to starter in his second year, and Gunnerson entered to similar fanfare.
I was there, on the field, watching him destroy dudes at NU’s Friday Night Lights camp while he was going through the recruiting process. Mentally projecting a couple years down the line, he looked like he could be The Guy with the proper development.
“Blaise has the measurables that you look for,” said outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson last spring. “If you were going to draw up or write up, ‘What does an NFL outside linebacker look like?’ he kind of checks off all those boxes.”
Injuries his last two years in high school meant his freshman season of college was going to be largely about getting fully healthy and getting comfortable with the scheme. This offseason could be a big one for him.
It won’t necessarily be about turning into a 70 snaps-per-game player as a second-year man (though that would be great if it happens), but if Nebraska can use him situationally to rush the passer, that could be potentially significant.
Someone should rise to the top. At least you hope so. There figures to be fierce competition for the spot opposite Domann, and considering the snap distribution a season ago, there isn’t one guy with a stranglehold on it entering into the spring.
Caleb Tannor will be in his fourth year. He took a step toward more consistent play a season ago, but the 6-2 Georgia native hasn’t yet taken The Step toward becoming The Guy. He might wind up being a solid rotational piece rather than the foundational piece many thought he could be. Which, again, might be fine given what is around him.
Garrett Nelson really came on strong as the 2020 season drew to a close. He had perhaps the best game of his career in the 28-21 win over Rutgers. Nelson (6-3) plays with his hair on fire, he’s physically sturdy, and you just hoped that he’d be able to channel his energy and hold some in the chamber when necessary. That exuberant determination to make a play took him out of quite a few plays as a first-year guy; it didn’t happen as often last season, especially in the final month of the season.
Can he take The Step? It’s possible; never write off someone who plays with the determination Nelson does. We’ll see.
Payne (6-3) and Jimari Butler (6-5) are two guys added to the roster a year ago who offer intrigue. Payne earned trust as the season progressed, and rightfully so. He’s got some wiggle to his game. Butler never played. But he’d only played a season of high school ball before landing at Nebraska. Looked good, though. The Alabama man had 22 TFLs and 14.5 sacks in 10 games. How’s his understanding of the defense? How has the process of putting on weight gone?
Niko Cooper is the guy probably flying most under the radar, and he remains a guy I’m very interested in seeing what his role turns into. He provided the hit of the season on special teams against Penn State, and, really, that’s what you thought he could be when you saw the size and build he came to Lincoln already possessing. At 6-5, Cooper offers plenty of intrigue, but his work was entirely special teams-focused on game days. How large is his next step realistically going to be? Nebraska’s got time with him.
Dawson did quite well in his first season back in Lincoln to identify what he had to work with and find a way to get everyone involved. Guys got better as the year progressed. That’s all you can ask for with a rebuilding program.
But Nebraska is probably going to ask for more in 2021. It has to.
Unless someone like Robinson or Casey Rogers or Jordon Riley makes a leap on the defensive line, the outside linebacker group will once again be looked at as a group with plenty of guys but lacking The Guy.
The defense was good-not-great in 2020. To get to the next level, it needs some individuals in the front seven to jump from good-not-great to consistently great.
This group once again enters into an offseason with the potential for that, but we gotta see it translate.