Nebraska Cornhuskers Nash Hutmacher eaches for the quarterback during their spring football game
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Taking Stock of a Deep Defensive Line Group for Nebraska Post-Spring

May 15, 2021

With spring ball now in the rear mirror, the Huskers transition to more of a loosely structured schedule for the next few months as players finish up finals and catch a few weeks rest. 

With coaching limited in the summer, many Husker players will have to take it upon themselves to keep whatever momentum they’ve gained this spring heading into fall camp. With the Huskers’ season beginning on Aug. 28, the start of fall camp is just about three months away. 

This can be a big summer for some, even a crucial period for others, and a time to recover for guys who made waves in spring. So we’re going to take stock of each position room as Nebraska exits spring, highlighting who is where, who is trending up, and any questions remaining. 

Defensive Line

Projected starters on Aug. 28: Ben Stille (DE), Damion Daniels (NT), Ty Robinson (DE)

Without its most senior presence on the field this spring, defensive line coach Tony Tuioti probably feels like his group got better. The front line runs, with Ben Stille included, about seven deep right now. There’s Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers, a third-year redshirt freshman and fourth-year sophomore respectively. There’s Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas, a pair of juniors who have been around the program for a while now. There’s Jordon Riley, a junior by eligibility but only in his second year with the program. There’s Stille, a super senior and de-facto captain on the defense. And there’s Colton Feist, a fourth-year walk-on. 

With Stille sidelined by a pre-spring surgery (that doesn’t seem to have the staff worried), his reps went elsewhere. You never want to be without a player, but what Stille could potentially gain from another spring isn’t exactly equal to what a player like, say, Ru’Quan Buckley can learn from his first. 

Nebraska made the best of a less-than-ideal situation. And. in doing so, probably added to the headache Tuioti has in trying to piece together his rotation.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander last year rolled out two down linemen packages quite regularly. Nebraska found a lot of success adding athleticism onto the field late in the year during obvious passing situations—the third-down numbers improved drastically late—but you have to wonder if those alignments weren’t serving dual purposes. 

Consider this: Daniels played nearly 300 fewer snaps than Stille did on the year. For a player nicknamed ‘Snacks’ early on during his Husker career, Daniels has long been a guy who could go for four, five, maybe six plays before needing a break. Often times, Nebraska was pulling him off the field and pinching guys like Stille, Robinson, and Rogers in. 

Daniels seriously reshaped his body this offseason. After Darrion Daniels, Damion’s older brother, got to the NFL, the two had conversations about what kind of body shape the NFL was looking for now in d-linemen. Darrion told Damion it wasn’t the 330-pound interior guy anymore; he needed to be able to move. 

Damion dropped 15 pounds this winter and felt it on the field. He’s down to 315 and feels pretty good with where he’s at. “It’s been a good spring for me,” the fifth-year junior said. Big bro expects a big season as a result.

Perhaps Nebraska still uses its more amoeba-like defense often in 2021. After all, NU has a lot of options at outside linebacker as well. But for a base 3-4 team, Tuioti has a pretty good number of guys to try and work onto the field. 

And that’s to say nothing of second-year man Nash Hutmacher or third-year man Mosai Newsom, both of whom pushed this spring to show they’re worthy of more reps. 

Last fall, Stille played a little under 60 snaps a game. Robinson played about 40, Rogers 30, and Daniels 20. With Riley and Thomas in the equation more this spring while Stille sat, it’ll be interesting to follow whether those numbers smooth out a little more come the fall or not. 

Expecting things to carry over year-over-year might not be a safe bet.

“In our room, we always talk about good, better, best,” Tuioti said. “The young guys, Casey Rogers, Ty Robinson, all of them improved. Damion Daniels as well. Our big emphasis … is the finish part. We left a lot of plays on the field last year that we feel like could’ve made. Whether that’s making a tackle in our gap, getting to the quarterback to affect him. So all those different types of things we want to get better at.

“You know, what’s going to be good enough is, at the end of the day, the scoreboard shows that we got one more point than the other team. That’s when it’s good enough.”

Quotable: “To a football player, reps are the most important thing you can get. It’s tough because I love Ty (Robinson) to death but I want all of his reps. You’ve got to deserve those reps. You’ve got to go out there and show that you’ve earned those reps. I think that’s a personal focus for everyone. … We’re not losing anyone, so I’m either going to have to really step up my game to pass someone or I’m just going to be where I was last year.” — Casey Rogers

The Syracuse man had a promising 2020 season, posting 25 tackles (second among d-linemen), five havoc plays, and a sack in just under 250 snaps. To put that in perspective, his first career tackle came in the opener against Ohio State. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Rogers jumped onto the field and then gave few reasons for Tuioti to take him off. 

A solid pass-rusher already, Rogers is good at getting his hands up and into passing lanes. Tuioti seems to love the young man; he’s coachable and attentive in meetings. “The thing for him is to continue to push himself,” Tuioti said. 

Stock Rising: 

  • Deontre Thomas (fifth-year junior): Let’s run through the career to this point. Undersized freshman playing nose in the Big Ten, Thomas was a contributor right away. As a sophomore, he kicked out to end where he felt more comfortable, but only made four appearances because of an arm injury. In 2019, Thomas played in every game. In 2020, he was limited again by injuries to only two. “I had a good fall camp,” Thomas said. “It was frustrating I had to sit out the whole year because I needed that year. I could take that year and have a good year.” At this point in his career, being able to stay healthy remains a question, but Thomas is healthy at this point, so he’s certainly a player to watch.
  • Colton Feist (fourth-year sophomore): “The player that I think is going to contribute a lot that people haven’t seen yet is going to be Colton Feist,” Tuioti said late in spring ball. “I really like how he’s grown up in how we want to play defensive linemen. He’s been awesome. He’s been really improving since Day 1. Really excited about his growth and development so far.” Tuioti says Feist is someone who has earned his trust. Get opportunity, show you’re worthy of more, and you’ll get more. That’s how it works. “I know when he’s going to go out there, he only knows one speed and it’s 100%,” Tuioti said. A 6-foot-2, 280-pound local kid from Yutan, Nebraska, Feist saw the first action of his career in 2020. He played in four games total, but each of Nebraska’s last three. Snaps were few and far between but that’s to be expected. Look to see if Feist can continue his momentum into the summer and fall months and jump into the top half of the rotation. 
  • Nash Hutmacher (second-year freshman): The Polar Bear had six tackles, a forced fumble, and a sack in the spring game to cap what was a strong period for him. Hutmacher only played in one game last year—the final one—and everyone is eagerly awaiting his entry into the foray on a more permanent basis.

Fall Outlook: 

When head coach Scott Frost and Erik Chinander took over, Nebraska had one of the worst run defenses in college football. In 2018, the Huskers gave up 5 yards a carry and a touchdown every 16 rushing attempts. Fast forward two seasons and the Huskers have made serious improvement in the weight room, which has led to serious improvement on the training ground, which has led to serious improvement on Saturdays. The Huskers allowed a shade under 4.2 yards per carry last season, which ranked 56th nationally. 

The defense was top-50 in standard down success rate, top-30 in stuff rate, and a top-25 unit when it came to stopping high-pressure, short-yardage runs. But there remain areas where improvement is needed, namely in the pass-rushing department. Nebraska still doesn’t get to the quarterback with consistency and had a hard time generating havoc plays from the front seven at a good rate a season ago.

The difference between the No. 56 run defense and the No. 25 run defense was about a half a yard each carry. Can Nebraska make up that ground? Can someone like Ty Robinson this year become the pass-rusher Nebraska hopes he can be? Those are still the important questions, and they remain unanswered after spring ball. The group needs to keep climbing.

From our “Taking Stock” series so far:

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