With the 2021 campaign in the books and an offseason full of recruiting and transfer portal-ing underway, it’s as good a time as any to look at where each of Nebraska’s position groups sit heading into spring ball.
We’ll be breaking down this series into nine position groups—receivers, tight ends, running backs, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, specialists and, of course, quarterbacks—and giving them a 1-10 score, with 1 meaning the group isn’t looking too good and 10 meaning it’s in great shape and you, the Husker fan, should be excited.
Next up is the defensive line. In Erik Chinander’s base nickel defense, it’s fairly common to see a four-man front. However, that front incudes two true defensive linemen with two outside linebackers acting as traditional defensive ends on the line of scrimmage. Here’s an example of what the Huskers’ four-man defensive front looks like while in base nickel:
For this specific exercise, we’ll put the outside ‘backers in the linebackers section of this series, which will run on Thursday. So for now, we’ll just be mentioning the true d-linemen.
Let’s take a look at who the d-line room is losing, returning and adding from the 2022 recruiting class and transfer portal, if any.
Losing: Ben Stille, Damion Daniels, Deontre Thomas
Returning (years in the program): Ty Robinson (4th year), Casey Rogers (5th year), Jordon Riley (3rd year), Nash Hutmacher (3rd year), Jailen Weaver (2nd year), Ru’Quan Buckley (2nd year), Marquis Black (3rd year), Tate Wildeman (5th year), Mosai Newsom (4th year),
Incoming: Brodie Tagaloa (1st year)
Notable walk-ons returning: Colton Feist (5th year)
Nebraska inside linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich were very complimentary of the d-linemen in front of them this season, and for good reason. Reimer had a team-high 108 tackles, which ranked fifth in the Big Ten. His partner in crime, Henrich, finished with 99 stops, ninth-most in the conference.
Those two understood that they alone weren’t beating five offensive linemen themselves to get all those tackles. Someone else was keeping the o-line occupied, which cleared avenues to ball carriers.
“Whenever the inside linebackers are doing well, it’s always a reflection that they’re (d-linemen) doing the dirty work,” Henrich said. “They might not always get the stats and the tackles, but they’re really the true piece of it. It always starts up front.”
In the Big Ten, only one other defense—Iowa’s—had two players rank in the top-10 of most tackles. That tells you the Blackshirts’ d-line was getting the job done in 2021. Behind a unit spearheaded by Ben Stille, Damion Daniels, Ty Robinson, Deontre Thomas and, later in the season once he was healthier, Casey Rogers, Nebraska held conference opponents to 3.98 yards per rush, the best mark since 2013 (3.51).
Of that five-man rotation, three have moved on in Stille, Daniels and Thomas. So, too, did their d-line coach, Tony Tuioti, who took the same position at Oregon. On Monday, Jan. 10, Nebraska announced that outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson, who coached the Husker d-line in 2018 before taking the New York Giants’ outside ‘backers job in 2019, would also coach the Huskers’ interior d-linemen.
The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Robinson was a steady contributor in the rotation and started four games in 2021. He had a career-high 27 tackles with four for a loss and two sacks. He showed flashes of being versatile as a pass rusher and run defender. He got in the backfield against Michigan for a sack and showed an ability to stand his ground against the run versus Iowa:
At the start of next season, Robinson will have been in the Husker program for four years. He’ll be expected to step into a larger role than what he was in last season, though a heavy rotation will likely always be a good idea to keep players fresh throughout a game.
As a defense, the Huskers struggled to generate sacks—they ranked 12th in the conference with only 20. In Chinander’s defense, it’s not always the d-linemen’s job to get in the backfield hunting sacks, but instead to defend two gaps and muddy things up with the offensive line. Four of the Huskers’ top-five sack artists are back for 2022, however, including outside ‘backers Garrett Nelson (five), Caleb Tannor (two), Pheldarius Payne (two) and Robinson.
Like Robinson, the 6-5, 295-pound Rogers will be expected to have a bigger role next season, and being fully healthy will help. The New York native faced adversity before the start of the 2021 season with an injury to his knee in fall camp, which forced him to miss the first five games. Rogers slowly worked his way back, though, and enjoyed strong performances late in the season with four tackles against Wisconsin and five against Iowa to go with half of a sack.
The loss of Stille, Daniels and Thomas should provide more opportunity for a veteran and young gun of the group in Riley and Hutmacher, respectively.
The 6-6, 310-pound Riley didn’t get as many snaps as other d-linemen and was outside of the main rotation for much of the season. He’ll be expected to contribute more than he did—seven tackles, one for a loss—in 2021. Hutmacher, a fan favorite and owner of the “Polar Bear” nickname, showed flashes of being a strong inside presence on the Nebraska front. The South Dakota native’s strength and size at 6-4, 325 pounds fits perfectly with what he’s expected to do in the Husker defense: control two gaps and do the dirty work against offensive lines. That doesn’t usually generate eye-opening stats, but is still very important to a run defense:
Could 2022 be the year where Ru’Quan Buckley and the massive Jailen Weaver see non-garbage time action? That might be a stretch, considering they will still only be in their second years in the program. Each played in just one game last season as they used their redshirt years to develop their bodies and strength. Buckley, a former three-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite, is listed at 6-5, 290 pounds while Weaver, also a former three-star, is at 6-8, 320 pounds.
Newsom (6-4, 285), Black (6-3, 315), Wildeman (6-6, 280) and walk-on Feist (6-2, 280), who walked on Senior Day prior to the game with Iowa but hasn’t officially announced his future plans, will be others expected to provide depth but have very little game experience. That group is an unknown right now. The Huskers will be keeping an eye on the transfer portal as well, just in case a name pops up that intrigues them.
The loss of Stille, Daniels and Thomas no doubt hurts Nebraska’s d-line. Those are big vacancies to fill. While the return of Robinson, Rogers and Riley helps, what’s the full rotation going to look like? Though what he did show in 2021 looked good, Hutmacher should still be considered an unknown until he gets more reps under his belt. Riley, the former North Carolina Tar Heel and junior college product, should be in the same boat, too.
The d-linemen behind the projected top three of Robinson, Rogers and Riley don’t have a ton of experience, so it’s hard to see the unit doing as well as the veteran group in 2021 did. For that reason, Nebraska’s 2022 d-line gets a score of 5/10.