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 are the linebackers, and we’ll put the inside and outside ‘backers together. What about the nickel position that JoJo Domann excelled at, you ask? We’ll stick that unique position in with the defensive backs story of this series, which will run on Saturday.
Let’s take a look at who the inside and outside ‘backers are losing, returning and adding from the 2022 recruiting class and transfer portal, if any.
Losing: OLB JoJo Domann, ILB Jackson Hannah (transfer)
Returning (years in the program): ILB Luke Reimer (4th year), Nick Henrich (4th year), OLB Garrett Nelson (4th year), OLB Caleb Tannor (5th year), ILB Will Honas (5th year), ILB Chris Kolarevic (2nd year), OLB Pheldarius Payne (3rd year), Eteva Mauga-Clements (3rd year), OLB Damian Jackson (6th year), ILB Garrett Snodgrass (4th year), OLB Blaise Gunnerson (3rd year), OLB Jimari Butler (3rd year), ILB Wynden Ho’ohuli (2nd year), ILB Randolph Kpai (2nd season), ILB Mikai Gbayor (2nd year), ILB Seth Malcom (2nd year).
Incoming: ILB Ernest Hausmann (1st year), OLB Jake Appleget (1st year), ATH Gage Stenger (1st year)
Notable walk-ons returning: OLB John Bullock (4th year), ILB Grant Tagge (3rd year), OLB Simon Otte (5th year)
Outside of Domann, the Huskers’ terrific defender who owned defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s hybrid outside linebacker/safety role, Nebraska returns every linebacker who recorded a meaningful snap in 2021.
Nebraska is set at both inside and outside ‘backer in 2022. On the inside are Reimer and Henrich, who together racked up 207 tackles—that ranked third in the Big Ten behind the combined 248 from Iowa’s Jack Campbell and Seth Benson, and the 230 from Northwestern’s Chris Bergin and Bryce Gallagher. Reimer finished fifth in the Big Ten in tackles with 108 while Henrich was ninth with 99.
Reimer and Henrich were close to making a bit of history, too. If Henrich had recorded just one more tackle, it would have been the first time two Huskers had 100 stops since 2003 when current ILB coach Barrett Ruud (149) and Demorrio Williams (128) did it.
Reimer’s best attribute may be his speed. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Lincoln North Star played sideline to sideline in 2021. One of his many highlights came at Michigan State, where he stoned running back Kenneth Walker III short of the first down:
While Reimer and Henrich look like two dependable pillars of strength in the middle of Nebraska’s defense, the Huskers could add a veteran to the mix as well next season in Honas, who suffered a preseason knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2021 season. Last October, head coach Scott Frost mentioned that Honas was appealing to the NCAA to get another year. If his appeal is successful, it’ll be Honas’ seventh year of college football and fifth with Nebraska after spending a couple seasons at Butler (Kanas) Community College.
If healthy and confident, Honas, who had 73 tackles in 2019 and 57 in 2020, would be an experienced addition to the linebacker room. He’d certainly fit into the rotation at inside ‘backer, which would help at least lessen the normal wear-and-tear of being a Big Ten linebacker for Reimer and Henrich, keeping them more fresh throughout the season.
Behind Reimer and Henrich is Kolarevic, who had 27 tackles in his first season as a Husker after transferring in from Northern Iowa. Kolarevic, as well as a couple others who have found a niche on special teams in Snodgrass and Mauga-Clements, will provide depth at inside ‘backer.
There’s also an intriguing, but inexperienced, group of second-year linebackers who used 2021 as a developmental year and didn’t play, including Ho’ohuli, Kpai, Gbayor and Malcom, a former eight-man player from Iowa.
Both Nelson and Tannor enjoyed their best seasons at Nebraska in 2021. The 6-3, 245-pound Nelson recorded a career-best 57 tackles and led the team in sacks and tackles for loss with five and 11.5, respectively. Tannor, a 6-3, 225-pounder, had a career-best 33 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss with two sacks.
Nelson’s heart, motor and sheer will to get in the backfield paid off several times last season. Here’s one example, against Ohio State, of Nelson causing havoc in the backfield:
And here’s an example of what Tannor is capable of doing. Plays like this are great, but need to come at a more consistent rate:
The rotation behind Nelson and Tannor could include Payne, Gunnerson and Jackson, as well as an Alabama native in Butler who had a developmental year in 2021.
Payne, who put his name in the transfer portal but withdrew it, turned heads in his 2021 debut when he recorded two sacks against Illinois. Success was harder to come by after that, however, as he didn’t have another sack the rest of the season and dealt with injuries that forced him to miss the Wisconsin and Iowa games.
Payne’s injury created an opportunity for the 6-6, 255-pound Gunnerson, who got his first taste of college football in 2021 after not seeing the field at all in his first season at Nebraska in 2020. The Iowa native got snaps at Wisconsin and Iowa—against the Badgers, he recorded the first two tackles of his career.
Jackson played in 11 games in 2021 and had four tackles in backup duty. Butler, an interesting but young player at 6-5, 245 pounds, only played in the blowout wins against Fordham and Buffalo.
While having all the linebackers who played meaningful reps return for 2022 is good news for Nebraska’s defense, there are still issues to be ironed out. The most glaring of them is generating a consistent pass rush. The Huskers struggled to get to the quarterback in 2021 and finished with 20 sacks, which ranked 101st in the country.
Sacks are a group effort from a defense, of course. The defensive line, which must replace Ben Stille, Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas, obviously plays a large role in this department, too. But Nelson can’t be the only Blackshirt who’s relied on to get in the backfield—at times last season, that’s what it felt like.
Tannor and Payne need to produce more, especially in a season where Nebraska’s defensive backfield will be breaking in a new corner and safety. We’ll count safety Myles Farmer as a returning starter since he filled in well for the injured Deontai Williams for four games.
The returning starters and rotation players at both inside and outside ‘backer are a good place to start. Nelson is growing into a leader. Reimer and Henrich could be the best 1-2 punch in the Big Ten. But Nebraska’s 2022 linebackers have work to do in other areas, like getting to the quarterback. Because of that, their score is 6/10.