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.
Next up for the Blackshirts, we’re looking at the. . .
Returning Inside: senior Mohamed Barry, senior Jacob Weinmaster, junior Will Honas, junior Collin Miller, junior Grant Jordan, junior Spencer Jordan, redshirt freshman Joseph Johnson, redshirt freshman Jake Archer, redshirt freshman Chris Cassidy
Returning Outside: senior Tyrin Ferguson, senior Alex Davis, junior Quayshon Alexander, junior Pernell Jefferson, sophomore Caleb Tannor, sophomore Breon Dixon, sophomore Jordan Paup, redshirt freshman David Alston, redshirt freshman Simon Otte, redshirt freshman Anthony Banderas
Returning production: 57.7 percent of linebacker tackles, 55.1 percent of linebacker tackles for loss, 42.1 percent of linebacker sacks, 22 of 48 starts
|2018 Stats||Tackles||TFLs||Sacks||Run Stuffs||PBUs/FF|
|Dedrick Young II||83||3.0||0.0||3.5||5/0|
There is simply no question as to who was the most valuable member of Nebraska’s defense in 2018. Then-junior Mo Barry had 44 career tackles entering the season before exploding for 112 tackles, the first 100-tackle season by a Husker defender since 2014.
He led the team in tackles in nine of 12 games, had seven games in double-figures and at least seven tackles in all nine conference games. Barry was the heart and soul of the Blackshirts and everywhere all the time. Look down to take a sip of your drink, look back up and Barry was on top of the football. He was a magnet.
And he’s back for his senior year. Honestly, Barry’s inside the top-3 for Most Valuable Husker. No positional qualifications, just Husker. Period. He was that good. Barry works his tail off in the weight room, hits the film room just as hard, is sound in his assignments and doesn’t often miss tackles. In short, he seems to be everything you could possibly want in an inside linebacker.
Nebraska will rely heavily on that as it transitions to 2019.
Because two longtime starters have departed from the linebacker ranks alongside Barry. Luke Gifford was the team’s best pass-rusher this season, producing a team-leading 5.5 sacks. He was a captain and for two seasons, one of Nebraska’s best defenders. Nebraska will miss his experience and leadership off the field just as much as it will miss his production on it.
Then there’s Dedrick Young II, who played so much football for Nebraska he finished inside the program’s top-five all-time leading tackler ranks. Young had a. . . uh, interesting season. Opposing teams picked on him in pass coverage and typically doing so meant a completion from quarterback to pass-catcher, but every time position coach Barrett Ruud talked about Young, he did so glowingly. Young’s football smarts and steady play made him a Ruud favorite. He knew that Young was a guy who would make mistakes, but they wouldn’t be mental mistakes from someone who doesn’t know enough to do better or is simply lazy enough to not try.
Some poke fun at Young’s rank amongst the program’s leading tacklers, but Nebraska has a long and rich tradition of defensive stars. You don’t land in their midst — especially not in an effort category like tackling — without doing something right.
It’s also just really difficult to replace half your starting lineup when you had depth concerns before and the replacements are all green.
Nebraska has six upperclassmen linebackers with any kind of game experience at all. Two junior outside backers — Quayshon Alexander and Pernell Jefferson — have never seen the field. Will Honas will be a senior with four games of D1 play under his belt. Collin Miller is a converted outside linebacker still trying to learn Ruud’s position. Alex Davis could grad transfer. Tyrin Ferguson was hampered by injuries throughout all of last season.
Ferguson feels like the Devine Ozigbo of the defense, a guy who could and very well might work so hard this offseason he becomes a crucial piece of Nebraska football next season. He almost did that in 2018. Everyone would like to see him do it after being under-utilized his first two seasons, but expecting or relying on it to happen isn’t a safe bet.
Ideally, Nebraska needs Honas or Miller to take that next step to play next to Barry, but doing so would require either one to make the most of these next nine months and learn their position inside and out. (That was a bad pun, trying to delete.) If one of them can, you’ve firmed up three of your four spots with older, experienced guys.
Which would go a long way considering the rest of player pool is young, unproven and inexperienced
Caleb Tannor was one of only a few guys to arrive in the fall and play right away as a freshman. The staff had a plan for the rangy, 6-foot-2 Georgia product. He became part of Nebraska’s third-down, blitz-the-quarterback-like-hell package and almost averaged a tackle a game in limited snaps. Pretty decent first year.
Whether Tannor has that bendability and quick-twitch skill that outside backer coach Jovan Dewitt wants remains to be seen at the college level, but I’m fairly certain Nebraska will afford him every opportunity to prove it this offseason.
Breon Dixon, the Ole Miss transfer, only saw action in the final four games of the season after Nebraska fought for immediate eligibility for him. The Huskers even moved JoJo Domann down into an outside backer/hybrid safety role before turning Dixon loose. He could be another year away from actually contributing.
Frankly, I’d be a lot more worried about the linebackers if not for the incoming freshmen class. The crop coming in might rival the running backs as the best overall collection of talent in one group for this cycle.
If you were the betting kind, you might lose money if you bet on Nick Henrich, Garrett Nelson and Garrett Snodgrass being three of the four starting linebackers within two seasons. They’ve got that kind of potential.
But as I’ve said a couple times, this isn’t about ranking future potential yet, it’s about what can you do for me right now? They’re all talented enough to play right away and it’s more likely they do than don’t, but how large a role are the three freshmen realistically going to have?
Henrich will be the only early enrollee and he might have the biggest role from the jump. I think he’s too talented not to see the field, but getting an entire winter and summer to work with Zach Duval and Ruud and Barry will be crucial. Barry likes hard workers; he should like Henrich right away. The likely best-case scenario is Henrich playing the role Nebraska envisioned Will Honas filling in 2018, and preparing to take over Barry’s role in 2020.
That also means you can take your time with Snodgrass and Jackson Hannah.
Nelson’s role probably depends more on Ferguson’s health and Tannor’s development than anything else. If both those guys lay claim to the outside spots, Nelson’s probably headed for a redshirt.
It’ll be an interesting offseason. I don’t really have the same issue with the backers that I had with the defensive line in front of them; there are playmakers in the linebacker room. Health and comfort within the scheme will be key this offseason, but the pieces are there. The concern is just, well, the same as it was last year: real, proven depth. You can’t replace a Luke Gifford right away. And maybe there are one or two more departures still to be had.
Justification: The room has the defense's best player. Outside of that, it’s a mixed bag — talent, depth issues, youth.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.