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husker football players run drills with linebacker coach Barrett Ruud
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Taking Stock of Nebraska’s Inside Linebacker Group After a Dynamic-Shifting Spring Injury

May 20, 2021

With spring ball now in the rear mirror, the Huskers have transitioned to more of a loosely structured schedule for the next few months.

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.

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. 

Inside Linebackers

Projected starters on Aug. 28: Chris Kolarevic, Luke Reimer

Depth is just so excruciatingly fickle. 

It broke the head coach’s heart, the site of Will Honas going down with an injury a few days before the May 1 Spring Game. Honas had missed most of spring practice before that Wednesday, and he was going through the 14th and final practice before the scrimmage when he suffered a non-contact knee injury. 

“Will has been just an awesome teammate. I care about him so much. It really hurt me to see him down on the ground,” Scott Frost said after the spring game. “It doesn’t look like he’s going to be ready for the start of the season, and we’ll see where it is beyond that.”

The expectation is that Honas will miss at least the start of the season. Nebraska might be able to get him back for the tail end of the 2021 season, Honas might even opt to come back for a seventh year of college in 2022, but for now NU will have to prepare as if it’ll be without its most senior linebacker. 

It takes a spring period of development and truthfully a good deal of optimism about the group and flips it on its head. 

All in a matter of moments. Fickle. But inside linebacker coach Barrett Ruud isn’t one to dwell or feel sorry for himself. The ‘glass half full’ vantage point sees the development of Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer over the past 18 or so months and sees a roadmap to fielding a talented and reliable group of inside ‘backers come the fall. 

Quietly for two years, Honas has been one of Nebraska’s steadiest players. Last season, he led the group in snaps played by a considerable margin, but Reimer still logged nearly 300 snaps and got in for 40 tackles.

Consider that defensive coaches got their group close to 300 snaps of team-on-team action this spring and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Reimer take that next step in his development from occasional playmaker to really strong player. Ruud loves him, that much is evident every time the coach is asked about the local Lincoln prospect. 

“I think he’s gotten past the point that, ‘I’m a walk-on guy trying to earn my stripes,’ where now he’s proven that he’s a good football player,” Ruud said this spring. “He could be a legit top-end inside linebacker in this conference.

“I think he’s got a confidence about him, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind. He’s confident. He knows what he’s doing. If you produce, you’ve got a chance to be a leader.” 

Reimer popped up in some of the testing numbers Nebraska has released since spring ball ended, which should come as no surprise. One of Reimer’s defining characteristics as a ballplayer is uncommon athleticism. He had the sixth-best 10-yard split time of anyone on the roster as well as the fifth-best vertical jump. 

Potentially a shift in dynamics will occur this fall with Chris Kolarevic in line to absorb Honas’ snaps. A Honas-Reimer pairing is a bit of yin and yang, an athletic freak with a sturdy unit-setter. A Kolarevic-Reimer pairing could, if early indications on the UNI transfer are accurate, put two athletic freaks together.

“He’s a pretty developed guy,” Ruud said of Kolarevic. The Husker staff has a relationship with the Northern Iowa staff, so they knew what they were getting and trusted what he’d been taught. “He was a great weight room guy, great workout guy this offseason and he really understands the game. He’s got to learn our concepts now, but he’s a guy who the game comes easily to him. We’re getting a pretty ready-made product with him.”

Kolarevic hit 345 pounds on hang clean this winter; indexed to body weight, it was the third-best performance on the team. He also posted the second-best vertical. “He’s a freak of nature, I’ll tell you that,” Henrich said this spring. 

The grad transfer linebacker has said the speed and size he’s faced so far at Nebraska isn’t that far removed from what he saw at Northern Iowa. While that could be viewed as a knock on NU, Kolarevic would caution not to overlook his former league too much. “You play a high level of football in the FCS,” he said. “That Missouri Valley is a tough conference.” For him, the biggest thing has been scheme comprehension. 

If Samori Toure, a grad transfer wideout from Montana, is viewed as a plug-and-play option, Kolarevic should be seen no differently. There doesn’t seem to be much worry about the top two guys in the room. The Honas injury probably places the largest onus for improvement on Henrich. 

He bounced between inside and out a year ago, developing a versatility he said helped him gain comfort in the defensive scheme. It seems likely Henrich will find a permanent home in the interior this fall. His step up from utility player to regular role player would be huge, if not necessary. 

Nebraska has other pieces on the interior—Eteva Mauga-Clements, a JUCO add last summer; Garrett Snodgrass; Randolph Kpai and Seth Malcom, early-enrollee freshmen; and Wynden Ho’ohuli, a summer-arriving freshman—but Henrich is the most seasoned of the group. Ruud would prefer to feel great about three or four guys heading into a given Saturday, not two. 

One nothing play can change the dynamics pretty significantly, it seems.

Quotable: “I’m just really glad to be healthy, honestly. You kind of take it for granted for so long. But when you’ve had a string of injuries, it’s just really good to be back and get those reps under you.” — Nick Henrich

Stock Rising: 

  • Chris Kolarevic (fourth-year junior): He’s not going to show up in many “Best Transfer Additions” lists this offseason—though those can tend to be more “highest-profile” or “top former recruits” than assessments of true impactfulness—but Kolarevic’s star is certainly rising locally. Nebraska loves what it has in the former UNI linebacker. Kolarevic played inside and outside ‘backer for the Panthers and should provide immediate help for what’s already a pretty good defense. Perhaps there will be an acclimation period going from FCS to the Big Ten, but Nebraska doesn’t expect hiccups. “He’s just a really great, instinctual, athletic football player,” said Nick Henrich. “Super smart. Picked up the defense really quick. He’s also just a great, high-character guy. He’s been a great addition to the room.” An under-the-radar addition with a chance to provide winning football. 

Fall Outlook: 

Nebraska feels good about the group it has, and rightfully so, but it’s going to be important not to overlook just how big a loss Honas is for the room and the defense as a whole. There’s just no replacing what he provides with regards to experience. Reimer will be going into his second year as a starter and Kolarevic will be playing his first year in the Big Ten. 

Perhaps expectations for the group should be a bit more modest than they might have been when Honas announced he was coming back for his sixth year. In this defense, these guys need to fit right and clean up plays. Athleticism helps, but you have to be in the right spots and making the right plays on a consistent basis. Kolarevic should provide that, will Reimer and Henrich? Considering the athleticism and the way Ruud glows about the top two, there’s still a considerable amount of upside here.

From our “Taking Stock” series so far:

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