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Scoring the Huskers: Defensive Line

December 11, 2018

Last week, I scored the Huskers’ offense by position group. This week, it’s time for the defense. Each group will be getting a score on a 10-point scale, based off 2018 performance, returning production and incoming talent.

Roster Reset:  Offense | Defense | Special Teams

Scores: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers | Tight Ends | Offensive Line

First up for the Blackshirts, we’re looking at the. . .

Defensive Line

Returning: senior Carlos Davis, senior Khalil Davis, senior DaiShon Neal, senior Vaha Vainuku, senior Fyn Anderson, junior Ben Stille, sophomore Deontre Thomas, sophomore Damion Daniels, sophomore Chris Walker, sophomore Damian Jackson, sophomore Ben Lingenfelter, redshirt freshman Casey Rogers, redshirt freshman Tate Wildeman, redshirt freshman Colton Feist, redshirt freshman Ryan Schommer

Incoming: senior Darrion Daniels, freshman Jamin Graham‍, freshman Mosai Newsom‍, freshman Ethan Piper

Returning production: 72.2 percent of d-line tackles, 74.5 percent of d-line tackles for loss, 66.7 percent of d-line sacks, 20 of a possible 36 starts on the d-line

2018 Stats Tackles TFLs Sacks Run Stuffs
Khalil Davis 41 7.5 3.0 8.0
Freedom Akinmoladun 29 3.0 2.5 2.5
Carlos Davis 27 3.0 1.0 5.5
Ben Stille 25 5.0 5.0 6.0
Damion Daniels 12 1.0 0.0 0.5
Mick Stoltenberg 9 2.0 1.0 1.5
Peyton Newell 5 0.0 0.0 0.0
Deontre Thomas 4 1.0 0.0 1.0
DaiShon Neal 3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Matt Jarzynka 1 1.0 1.0 0.0
Fyn Anderson  1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Chris Walker 1 0.0 0.0 0.0

Heading into 2018, I thought Ben Stille would be the defensive MVP. When we did our preseason predictions, he was my pick. My reasoning:

“Nebraska’s not going to really ask its defensive linemen to be disruptive wrecking crews but rather eat up blocks for linebackers and safeties to bust plays. If Stille takes that next step and turns into a dominant pass-rusher that can cause offenses headaches, that would go such a long way toward helping everything else run smoothly. I think he’s capable of doing it. I think he does it. Therefore, I think he becomes one of the team's most valuable players.”

Most of the first part of that statement came to pass. Nebraska’s top five leading tacklers were all linebackers or defensive backs. Khalil Davis’ room-leading 41 were seventh overall. And as the season wore on, we heard more and more about how a pass rush from up front would help things out in the backend. 

Stille led that group with five sacks on the year and added six run stuffs. It just wasn’t the breakout I was expecting. But I’m not ready to jump off the bandwagon yet. Not with the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Nebraska native coming back for his third season with things left to prove.

And especially not after what happened with his Blackshirt. 

With two of the three regular starters departing in Stoltenberg and Akinmoladun — and Stoltenberg leaving a pretty sizable void in the team leadership department — I think Stille has the chance to become more of a team leader in his third season on the field. 

Does he turn into that all-conference pass-rusher? Not sure on that yet, but he certainly has the tools to be a handful for opposing tackles on the edge. He’s big and strong and can overpower smaller guys, but teams maybe get caught a little off-guard by his athleticism given how big he really is. Remember, Stille was moving back and forth between end and outside linebacker his first year. Maybe continuity in what he’s learning and being asked to do helps unlock another level to his game. 

He might be the best shot Nebraska has at a dominant pass-rusher from the line in 2019. 

After that, you have the Davis twins. Carlos was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by league coaches this year while Khalil was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by media. Both were two of Nebraska’s better defenders in 2018, though I’m curious what their roles look like in 2019.

They’re both natural ends, but once the injury to Stoltenberg happened against Michigan in the third game of the season, Carlos moved inside to nose and began starting there. Without a clear-cut returning starter, does he stay inside next year and start alongside Khalil at the other end position?

That might make the most sense for Nebraska as those are your three most-experienced guys, but Carlos is a little undersized for the nose guard spot. 

And what kind of development happens this offseason with soon-to-be sophomores Deontre Thomas and Damion Daniels? Daniels showed flashes of something in 2018, showing up more on film than in the box score but still leaving an impact. When Stoltenberg was out, Daniels started playing a ton. At 6-foot-2, 340 pounds, does another offseason in the weight room with Zach Duval turn him into exactly the kind of nose defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants? 

As for Thomas, he played in the Huskers’ first four games, then broke a bone in his hand and sat the rest of the season to save his redshirt. Thomas was one of the guys who seemed to transform his body the most in his first offseason with Duval and has said on multiple occasions how happy he is to have settled at end. In his true freshman season, he was used in the middle despite preferring to play outside. 

If and when Darrion Daniels gets to campus (the news was reported he was coming, but none of it came from Darrion, who has yet to publicly say anything on the matter), he’d join his brother, Damion, and Utah transfer Vaha Vainuku as the only true defensive tackles on the roster. Darrion was a starter for Oklahoma State and a significant piece of that defense. Does he become the next plug-and-play transfer to start for this defensive coaching staff? 

If so, he’s taking reps away from Damion and pushing the Davis twins outside. Doing so is fine if Darrion is what he was in Stillwater, but then who gets backup reps between Thomas, Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers on the edges? Those guys need to start seeing snaps soon, especially Thomas.

Wildeman and Rogers, the two freshmen defensive ends who appeared in a combined one game in 2018, are complete unknowns heading into 2019. Both redshirted and both dealt with injuries that affected their ability to find playing time. They’ll be redshirt freshmen, so it won’t be as imperative to find them snaps as it will be Thomas going forward, but you still want to see what you have with them.

And that underscores the bigger issue with the defensive line: who are the playmakers?

I’d be shocked if either of the two incoming freshmen, Newsom and Piper, played enough to burn a redshirt in their first seasons, so Nebraska will largely be working with what it already had.

And what it didn’t have was one guy who kept an offensive coordinator up at night.

Michigan has Rashan Gary, Michigan State has Kenny Willekes, Ohio State has too many guys to name, Iowa has AJ Epenesa; the upper-level teams in the Big Ten have household names on their defensive lines. Nebraska doesn’t. Eight of the top 10 Big Ten defenders in terms of tackles for loss were defensive linemen. Nebraska didn’t have a guy from its line in the top-30. 

Given the way this defense is expected to operate, linebackers and defensive backs will be the stars, but in the Big Ten and against these brands of offense, Nebraska needs a guy who can consistently create game-changing plays on its front line. 

As of right now, it has guys that can get there, but nobody who’s actually there.

Score: 5/10

Justification: Losing Stoltenberg will be tough from an off-the-field perspective; that will be an under-the-radar thing this room will have to work through. If Stille is going to make that jump, it’s going to have to be this year, because outside of him, I don’t know who the playmaker is of this bunch. 

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