Scoring the Huskers: Defensive Line
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Scoring the Huskers: Defensive Line

January 20, 2020

This was a series we ran last December and it seemed to be pretty well-received. So we decided to bring it back. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we’re going to score Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, this instant, with early-enrollee freshmen on campus.

Each day will bring about a different position group, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers in these scorings: 2019 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

We begin this year with. . .

Defensive Line

Returning: Mosai Newsom (rFR), Ty Robinson (rFR), Casey Rogers (SO), Tate Wildeman (SO), Damion Daniels (JR), Deontre Thomas (JR), Keem Green (JR), Ben Stille (SR)

Incoming: Marquis Black‍ (FR), Nash Hutmacher‍ (FR), Pheldarius Payne‍ (JR), Jordon Riley‍ (JR)

Returning Production: 37.2% of d-line tackles (66 of 177), 29.6% of d-line tackles for loss (eight of 27), 18.2% of d-line sacks (three of 16.5), and three of 36 possible starts.

2019 Stats Tackles TFLs Sacks PBUs + FFs
Khalil Davis 44 11 8 1
Darrion Daniels 34 3.5 1.5
Carlos Davis 32 4.5 4 4
Ben Stille 31 6.5 3 1
Damion Daniels 13
Damian Jackson 2
Keem Green 1
DaiShon Neal 1

This year I wanted to try adding another component to this: fan input. I asked for those on Twitter that wanted to participate to score the various position groups themselves, with the knowledge that those scores would be averaged together and included in each of these posts. 

The average fan score for the defensive line? A 6.0. 

One fantastic fan went above and beyond (well, two, but you didn’t give me rational on the defensive line, Fitz) and provided this explanation for his defensive line score being exactly average:

We lost A LOT from this position a year ago. It’s going to look like a completely different group and a lot of guys will play that are unproven. Brought in some good JUCO guys to help and players like Stille/Robinson/Rogers/Daniels should keep getting better. Don’t know enough about the group yet though.

(Shout out to you, Kris.)

I think Kris hit the nail squarely on its head. 

There’s a lot of red in that chart above and a handful of unsightly numbers in the “Returning Production” section just above the chart, namely the last entry in the list. 

Nebraska’s defensive line will look entirely different in 2020. Ben Stille has been a defensive stalwart in Lincoln for three years now, and even though he served in a reserve capacity last season, he was still a Blackshirt and he’s about to be a senior and there really shouldn’t be any reservations about his ability to step into one of the two vacated starting positions at defensive end. More on him in a bit. 

First, let’s talk about perhaps the most important loss up front: Darrion Daniels.

Nebraska had in the graduate transfer nose guard someone who was big and strong and savvy enough to completely control the middle of the field while also being athletic enough to pull this off.

Senior linebacker Mohamed Barry talked about it all the time: the eldest of the two Daniels brothers made his life and his fellow linebackers’ lives easier. In 2018, Nebraska did not have a legit 330-pounder like Daniels. Offensive lines ignored the man playing defensive tackle and climbed right to the second level to bust big plays in the ground game. 

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s 3-4 scheme puts the linebackers in a playmaking role. The defensive line, especially in the middle, is tasked with freeing those back four guys up to seek and destroy. Darrion Daniels made that all fit. Nebraska is going to miss that when coupled with Darrion’s experience and leadership. 

It shouldn’t soon be forgotten that Darrion was on campus for a handful of months before his teammates named him a captain. He had the respect of the room. Now there’s a void in that department. If Stille can step up into that space, Nebraska will be better for it, but that’s still an “if” at this point. 

Defensive line coach Tony Tuioti is hoping Damion “Snacks” Daniels, Darrion’s younger brother, can be the answer at Darrion’s old spot. A guy they call Snacks is a 340-pounder that could only go a few plays at a time last season before he needed a breather. 

As a junior, Damion needs to make a leap if the Huskers are to avoid regression up front. He needs to be able to give Nebraska what his older brother gave last year or the Huskers are going to have to compensate at other spots. Damion has 25 career tackles as a Husker, but only one of those has been for a loss. The numbers probably won’t often jump off the page at this particular spot with Chinander in town—Darrion’s didn’t—but that isn’t the best way to measure the nose guard’s impact. Is he causing an offensive line to commit bodies to him? Damion has the frame to make that answer yes. 

The other guy here, and maybe one of the most intriguing Huskers, period, this offseason is redshirt freshman Ty Robinson.

Nebraska kept his redshirt in 2019, playing him in only two games, and in those two games, Robinson looked like a breath of fresh air. A 6-foot-6 Arizona native currently listed at 315 pounds, Robinson was considered a massive win in the 2019 recruiting class. With a year-plus of time spent working with strength coach Zach Duval in the weight room, Robinson could very easily be called on in 2020. 

Everyone plays everywhere for Tuioti, so Robinson could play some end or he could play nose. He’s athletic enough to take on the edge in a pinch and he’s strong enough in his base to man the middle. 

“I think Ty has position flex and I think he has a really bright future before it’s all said and done,” Tuioti said this past fall. “He can play nose [and] he can play end for us. He can play 3-technique. I can put him in front of a center. He’s got size, he’s got speed and he’s got athleticism.”

Redshirting Robinson in 2019 made sense with three seniors and a junior comprising the top four men on the depth chart, but now, there’s no reason not to cut the youngster loose and see if he can make good on that promise sooner rather than later. 

The other options with at least some work in Duval’s lab are Deontre Thomas, Keem Green, Casey Rogers, and Tate Wildeman. And all of them are about right where Robinson is when it comes to experience. Thomas has been around the longest, but he’s never been a guy who’s seen extended action over the course of a season.

And Nebraska might not rely on any one incoming freshman this season, with the Huskers’ redshirt strategy becoming a little clearer in the trenches. Though there are two junior college players who could push for snaps in Pheldarius Payne and Jordon Riley, the best bet to make up losing Carlos and Khalil Davis could very well be in the guys who played behind them in 2019. 

Stille needs to anchor things in more ways than one. 

The senior-to-be has seemed to be on the edge of a breakout ever since Bob Diaco yo-yoed him between outside linebacker and defensive end in 2017. The size is there. The potential is there. The will to get it done is there. But he had 9.5 tackles for loss during that 2017 season and just 11.5 since. Stille needs to be the guy on the line Tuioti and Chinander don’t have to worry about. 

It would certainly help if he would be the guy to generate a pass-rush. 

The Huskers’ sack rate last season was tied for 63rd nationally, getting to the quarterback on 6.3% of dropbacks, but on standard downs that number dropped to 4.7%, which ranked 79th. Scott Frost talked about the need for a Chase Young-level pass-rusher on the Nebraska defense; Stille most likely isn’t that, barring a Joe Burrow-like senior leap, but he could still be a guy offensive coordinators need to adjust for. 

Because the defensive line also has to worry about stopping the run. With all the changing going on in Tuioti’s room, it seems overkill to mention the run defense was once again a problem in 2019, and even if the linebackers were misfitting the run, the defensive line still was stretched and zoned and beaten out of assignments far too often and that needs to change in 2020.

Nebraska has been 10th or worse in the Big Ten in yards per carry allowed each of the last four seasons. Last year’s defense ranked 13th, only better than Rutgers by six one-hundredths of a yard. The scoring defense has shown steady improvement over the last three years; Nebraska would be well served if the run defense started to follow suit. That means getting better play up front. That means being fundamentally sound, setting the edge, and making plays in the opponent's backfield when they’re there to be made.

Who from this defensive line group is doing that in 2020? It could be a number of guys. I’m still on the Stille train, and I think Rogers is a name to keep in mind, and I think Robinson is going to one day be an All-Something level player for Nebraska. But that’s thinking in hypotheticals. 

Tuioti had a strong and successful first season in Lincoln, but this offseason is going to challenge the assistant coach in new ways. There’s so much we don’t know about this room right now.

Score: 5/10

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