Nebraska’s football team held its annual postseason awards banquet on Sunday night. Although the year didn’t go how the team wanted with a 3-9 record, it was a way of celebrating a handful of individual achievements from the 2021 season.
Tight end Austin Allen and nickel defender JoJo Domann were a couple of the big winners. Allen, a native of Aurora, Nebraska, won both the Guy Chamberlin Trophy and Offensive MVP honors. Domann won the Tom Novak Award and Defensive MVP after finishing third on the team in tackles with 72 in 10 games before his season came to an end with a hand injury. You can see the full list of honors here.
Both Allen and Domann are moving on from the program to chase their NFL dreams. While Allen and Domann can sort of give fans a sense of what they will miss, a couple of the award winners can be viewed as what they can look forward to. Receiver Shawn Hardy II was voted by the coaches as the offensive scout team player of the year while outside linebacker Blaise Gunnerson was the pick on defense.
Hardy, a 6-foot-3, 190-pounder from Kingsland, Georgia, had an impressive offer list coming out of high school for a three-star prospect. LSU, Ohio State, Purdue, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina, among others, all offered Hardy. Though he didn’t see the field at all in his first season in Lincoln, the 2021 campaign was likely used more as a development year for the young wideout.
Hardy is just one piece of an interesting receivers room at Nebraska, now headed by Mickey Joseph, who spent the past five seasons coaching wideouts at LSU. Along with the receivers coach title, Jospeh was hired as the associate head coach and passing game coordinator. Joseph brings a wealth of coaching credibility to the wideout room. While at LSU, he coached six receivers who went on to be drafted into the NFL, including DJ Chark, Russell Gage, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall Jr. and Racey McMath.
Joseph enters a wideout room in Lincoln filled with potential that hasn’t been utilized yet. Zavier Betts, Omar Manning and Oliver Martin all flashed in 2021, but had inconsistent playing time. Throw Hardy into that group, along with another first-year receiver, Latrell Neville, and a couple second-year guys like Alante Brown and Will Nixon, and the Husker pass catchers are an intriguing group.
What kind of progress can a teacher like Joseph do with raw talents like Hardy, Betts, Manning and the others? It will be a fascinating storyline to watch unfold.
While Hardy didn’t get an opportunity to showcase what he could do in 2021, Gunnerson did. An injury to starting outside linebacker Caleb Tannor opened the door for the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Carroll, Iowa, native to receive meaningful game reps against No. 19 Wisconsin, where he recorded his first two career tackles. A week later against Iowa, Gunnerson had a tackle and a half a tackle for loss.
According to 247Sports, Gunnerson was ranked as a four-star prospect and the third-best recruit in Iowa in 2020, while the 247Sports Composite had him at three stars. Of the top nine recruits in the state that year, Gunnerson was the only one who signed with a school not named Iowa or Iowa State.
Gunnerson will have an opportunity to make a bigger impact in Nebraska’s outside ‘backers room in 2022. Garrett Nelson and Tannor both appear to be returning, but the depth took a hit following the news that Pheldarius Payne entered his name in the transfer portal. Payne was a rotation piece behind Nelson and Tannor and finished this past season with 19 tackles and two sacks, which both came in the opener at Illinois. He missed the final two games with an injury.
Now Gunnerson is in the driver’s seat for more playing time. He’ll compete with another young player who is still developing in Jimari Butler, a 6-5, 245-pound second-year player from Mobile, Alabama who saw playing time against Fordham and Buffalo.
Being tabbed the scout team MVP does not mean a player has a starting role in the upcoming season. But it does mean young players with upside waiting for a chance, like Hardy and Gunnerson, are catching the attention of their coaches and could be closer to seeing the field.