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Nebraska Cornhusker linebacker Garrett Nelson hits a practice dummy during practice
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Taking Stock of the Husker Outside Linebackers after Spring Ball

May 08, 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. After two offensive groups, time to switch sides.

Outside Linebacker

Projected starters on Aug. 28: JoJo Domann (nickel), Garrett Nelson (ROLB)

JoJo Domann’s return to Lincoln for a sixth season was one of the best moments of Nebraska’s offseason. With 575 snaps played a season ago (72 a game, basically every play every game), 58 tackles (team-leading), and 13.5 havoc plays, Domann was perhaps the most important addition/retention of the offseason for the Huskers’ defense. He’s a playmaker, and he’s proven that over the course of his career. 

The Colorado native’s 2020 season was a showcase in durability. But because he was so heavily involved, and because he’s been around this particular block a number of times now, it should have probably been expected that his spring would look pretty light. 

Domann didn’t play in Nebraska’s spring game, and he didn’t practice much. That gave Nebraska the opportunity to see what it had in some younger players at the nickel spot Domann has perhaps made a mainstay in the Husker defense. 

He just does so many different things well and gives Nebraska an unconventional weapon at one of its outside linebacker spots. Domann sets the edge well, plays tough in the box, and has a good bit of athleticism in coverage. 

“At this position, you can be doing a safety job on one play, you can be doing a lineman job on the next play, and a linebacker job whenever,” said outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson of Domann’s position. “You have to be able to walk out and play coverage on an open No. 2 to the field at that spot, but then the next call Chins may have (them) down in what I call as ‘on’ where they’re the rusher and they’re basically playing d-end.”

Takes a lot to be able to play that kind of a role. It’s a skillset Nebraska is going to have to recruit to a little bit moving forward if it wants to keep that spot a function of this defense. 

Perhaps the biggest storyline from the spring in this group—where, with Domann and Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor and Pheldarius Payne, we pretty much know who is going to be seeing snaps in 2021 and what those players are—was that Nebraska has a couple of guys it likes to be able to take that torch after the upcoming season when Domann moves on. 

A Nebraska legacy and an Arizona native, Javin Wright made the most of his opportunities this spring, his first real chance to make an impression. Wright redshirted in 2019 before missing all of 2020 because of a preseason injury. A the 6-foot-4, 210-pound hybrid safety/linebacker, Wright has worked both with Dawson and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher. 

“I saw he became Twitter famous with the catch he had, I saw that popping up all over the place which was awesome,” said Dawson, talking about Wright’s one-handed interception during an open practice this spring.

The sense is that Wright is capable of frequently making those kinds of highlight plays. “I saw that in high school,” said Fisher, who recruited Wright. The young defender is a film buff, too, a player with a high football IQ.

“It doesn’t take him a lot of reps to go ‘OK, I got you coach, I understand it.’ Not that he doesn’t make mistakes, he’s gonna make mistakes, but he’ll correct his mistakes and that’s a big deal,” Dawson said. “Great athleticism, great size, and really long. 

“When you’ve got a big, long body like that and he’s also athletic, you get real excited about him.”

Nebraska also has another legacy player working in that nickel role as well, albeit with a little bit different frame than Wright’s: Isaac Gifford. 

Dawson calls him a sponge with a really high football IQ. Nebraska got him on a virtual steal, securing his commitment with a blueshirt offer—a delayed scholarship to a player who was technically “unrecruited” by the school he signed to. Gifford didn’t visit officially or host a coach. He’s 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, and earned immediate and extensive playing time in his first year on campus as a special teams player. 

Gifford throws his body around. He’s a really physical player, and he was a little bit of everywhere in NU’s May 1 spring game, leading the White team defense with 10 total tackles. 

“Javin Wright has an awesome build and awesome mindset. Always looking to get better,” Domann said at the start of spring. “And Isaac is just an awesome athlete that has football instincts and has learned a couple things from his brothers in his family. Just having the opportunity to help them process the game quicker, help them hopefully see what I see so their learning curve can be a little faster so that when they hit the field they don’t have to make as many mistakes as I did.

“Then they can just jump straight into making big-time plays and making an impact out there.”

And defensive coordinator Erik Chinander suggests they’ll be playing this fall, even with a fully-healthy Domann. 

“(Wright)’s going to get in there (and) take some reps from JoJo at that spot–that SAM/nickel spot—and also have to play some safety as well,” Chinander said. “Isaac Gifford is going to do the same thing. We’re trying to get guys ready to play wherever they can help us. We just need to get all the best guys on the field. Plus, I think you guys had it well-documented that JoJo played a lot of reps last year for us. I don’t know in a 12-game season how many guys can play every single rep of every single game.”

Quotable: “Holy cow man. They’re fast. Not even tempo-wise, just the way they move and how they play now. You can tell the massive step they took. It’s finishing blocks, they drive downfield. It’s been awesome to play against. … Having that pace they have and having that finishing mentality they have has really picked (everything) up. For me personally, I’ve seen that improvement. Not to get the hype train barreling into a brick wall or anything but the improvement’s there. Wide receivers are running their nuts off. Tight ends are catching balls, they’re blocking their nuts off. The o-line is finishing blocks. It’s awesome to watch.” — Garrett Nelson

The local Nebraskan is always good for the best quote of the day when he gets in front of the cameras. Nelson’s talking about the offense up there, but it’s sort of illustrative of the task that faced the Nebraska defense each day on the practice field this spring. 

As talented as this defense is, head coach Scott Frost and others have said it was a healthy back-and-forth between the offensive and defensive groups throughout the spring. There was really only one day where the defense whipped tail. 

Fans will have to choose which way they want to interpret that—good or bad—but given the Blackshirts’ play a season ago and the return of nearly every key contributor from it, it would stand to reason this is a tough-as-nails group. If they were tested day in and day out by an improved offense, that’s a real positive in terms of development. 

Stock Rising: 

  • Garrett Nelson (third-year sophomore): Nelson was everywhere this spring for Nebraska, which should come as no surprise. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound outside ‘backer is an energizer bunny masquerading as a large, football-playing human. Nelson embodies the “all hats to the ball” philosophy Chinander preaches and it’ll be curious to see what his next steps are this season. As a freshman, Nelson just made it to where the coaching staff couldn’t justify not putting him on the field, but he was prone to running himself out of the play. As a sophomore, he emerged as more of a consistent presence, ranking second among the outside linebackers in snaps (420) and tackles (30). He even got in for 1.5 sacks. If Nelson is going to hold those kinds of snaps again this year, his havoc production is going to need to take another step up (only four havoc plays all year), but he had a nice spring. If Nelson does take that step, he’s the kind of local find and developmental story that everyone loves. 
  • Pheldarius Payne (fourth-year junior): Quite the first year for Payne. When he arrived at Nebraska last summer, he needed shoulder surgery, which put him on a rehab schedule for two months. He’s since said he was benching no more than 25-pound plates on either side during that period. Then he got COVID and lost weight. The original plan was for Payne to play on the d-line, but with the weight loss NU adjusted and moved him to outside linebacker, a position he’d never played. He played around 265 and could feel the strain from the overall physicality level of the Big Ten. “I don’t think I did good, but better than expected,” Payne said. He called his first year’s play robotic, playing to not mess up rather than to make plays. The talk this spring is that he’s comfortable in the scheme, comfortable at outside linebacker, and encouraged (everyone is) by the progress he’s made in the weight room since his arrival. Payne was part of Nebraska’s third-down package a season ago, a sort of hitman-like pass-rusher brought on when NU went with just two down linemen. He saw 138 snaps and got in for 21 tackles, really growing as the year went on. Look for him to continue to ascend.
  • Isaac Gifford (second-year freshman): For all the reasons listed above, Gifford feels like a player who will play a good amount in 2021, and not just on special teams. Nebraska has a dearth of talent in the secondary, so perhaps Gifford’s home is at The Domann Nickel. Certainly Nebraska doesn’t want to play Domann every snap over the course of what it hopes will be a 13-game season, so there will be opportunity. Gifford made the most of what he was given this spring in that regard. We’ll see come fall. 

Fall Outlook: 

This group theoretically has all the tools to be a good one, maybe not a great one but still a darn good one. Nebraska is still searching for that prototypical edge rusher, but guys like Caleb Tannor or Jimari Butler and Blaise Gunnerson fit the profile of what they want. The former is a guy NU has been waiting on to break through, and the latter two are young players hoping to push for playing time. Which is to say NU might still be waiting. In the interim, a rotation of Domann, Nelson, Payne, Tannor, and whatever NU can get from Wright, Gifford, and its other young pieces would be good enough to get by. Without any one guy popping, it’s the kind of high-floor group that works when there are playmakers elsewhere (which NU has). If someone does pop, Nebraska will be in good shape. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the transfer portal here. 

From our “Taking Stock” series so far:

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