For a fourth year, we’re counting down the 10 most intriguing Huskers. On Sunday, I wrote about who would have earned spots 11-20 if the countdown was extended out, and before that shared a look at the previous three groups of Huskers from 2018, ’19, and ’20.
The intent of this exercise is to highlight players who might have the largest impact on the upcoming season, one way or the other, with their play. It’s not a ranking of the best players on the team and it’s not even really a rundown of the most important players to accomplish X, Y, and Z. It’s as the name suggests: the most intriguing talents on the roster.
This season there are plenty. As always, we’ll start at No. 10 and work our way up.
No. 10: Nick Henrich
Let’s run through the credentials to start: the 2018 Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year, a semifinalist for the high school Butkus Award, a Class A state champion with Omaha Burke, the No. 1 prospect in the state for the 2019 class, a consensus 4-star, and a top-100 recruit according to 247Sports.
Nick Henrich has played outside linebacker and inside linebacker at Nebraska. With good size—he’s 6-foot-4—and athleticism, Henrich has been a guy early in his career Nebraska has wanted to get on the field.
But in April of 2019, Henrich had shoulder surgery; rehab limited him to one game in his first season. For the 2020 season, Nebraska asked him to play outside early.
“I’d done that a little bit in high school, but not much,” Henrich said last fall. “It was definitely different setting the edge, playing D-end basically. But it was cool it was comfortable. It’s just playing football. Football is kind of football. Obviously different techniques and different assignments and everything, but if you know the defense, you know what everyone’s doing, football is football.”
At the time, he said there was a comfort level at both spots, that playing outside linebacker was something that came natural. This spring, he said making that move actually helped him to gain a firmer grasp on the defensive scheme.
“I think the kid’s a stud,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said last year. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He started off inside, and then we had some guys go down in camp and he bounced outside, and then we had some guys go down inside, and so he’s moved back there. He’s a really smart guy. He’s just a football player. He understands the game in general, and then he works hard at whatever position he’s going to play and learning the assignments and techniques that he needs to do to function that week. He’s handled everything really well and he just wants to help the team.”
At season’s end, with Collin Miller and Luke Reimer unavailable for the Rutgers game, Henrich stepped in at inside ‘backer and led the team in tackles (12).
Entering into this offseason, Henrich’s role in 2021 looked tied to whether Will Honas chose to use his extra year of eligibility and return. Reimer was primed for a starting role one way or the other, and with Chris Kolarevic joining the program by way of Northern Iowa, there’s a scenario where Henrich might have been the No. 4 man.
Inside linebacker coach Barrett Ruud has stated before that four is his preference, but so far he has made his living with a three-man rotation for those two interior linebacker spots. Henrich was going to play either way, but could he have made a big enough impact as a No. 4 guy? Debatable, though not as important a hypothetical now.
Honas did decide to return, but an injury suffered late in spring ball will put him on the shelf for at least the first part of the 2021 season. It seems safe to assume Henrich is now very firmly in that top three as the summer months get rolling.
Last season, Honas played right around 460 snaps to pace the group. Reimer played the second-most with almost 300. Collin Miller was around 250 despite missing the last three games of the season. Henrich played around 30 a game in his utility role. Expect that number to get a decent bump this year.
What should be expected of him?
“I just hope and pray he stays healthy,” said Burke head coach Paul Limongi. “If he’s healthy, he’ll be a very, very impactful person not only for Nebraska but in the Big Ten. I think he’ll gain some national exposure. He’ll get better every rep, every series, every game.
“I think he’s gonna be one of the most impactful players down there. I think he’s gonna get some good attention and I think when it comes to NFL scouts, they’re gonna be just like the college guys when he was in high school. They’re gonna meet him, they’re gonna talk to him, and they’re gonna be like, ‘It’s a no-brainer.’ He’s gonna make that defense go.”
Henrich had offers from 21 schools, schools from the SEC and the ACC and the Big 12 and the Pac-12 and throughout the Big Ten. Penn State and Wisconsin and Iowa were in there, a pretty good indicator of linebacker talent considering those programs’ pedigree. (Which, you can say the same for Nebraska, to be honest.) Notre Dame and Florida and LSU and Oregon were in there too.
No Alabama though. “They asked what his height and weight were and said, ‘OK, that’s not what we need,’ and left,” Limongi said. They didn’t make it past the lobby. If they’d just talked to Henrich, Limongi thinks, they would have offered him too.
“His handshake, he looked you in the eye, he had this sincerity and this humility that this guy is too good to be true,” Limongi said. Henrich’s personality and his demeanor won over coaches intrigued by his pure football ability. The Burke staff knew by the time he was a sophomore he’d be special. “We knew he would go national just because when coaches would be done meeting him or saying hello or whatever, they all said the same thing. ‘This guy’s big-time. This guy can go wherever he wants.’”
Limongi loves the kid. You hear him echo sentiments the Huskers coaches espouse.
“He loves Nebraska, first and foremost, (and) he loves the game of football, so he’s going to do whatever he has to do to get on the field,” Chinander says of Henrich. “Whether that’s learn a new position midweek or study it from the day he got here.”
Limongi says he has a maturity about him, and the high school coach is unflinchingly confident Henrich will be a captain at Nebraska before his career is over.
“He loves to practice,” Limongi said. “He just soaks up every second of practice and takes advantage of all the circumstances that he has available to make himself the best he can be. He’s just such a mature kid. He takes it very serious, but he’s also able to have a tremendous amount of fun. He enjoys everything. You can just see it on his face, how he acts, he loves everything about football.”
Now, it’s probably a stretch to predict Henrich will be a captain this season, but the talent is there for him to be an impactful player for Nebraska in whatever role he gets. At Burke, Henrich had 67 TFLs and 20.5 sacks.
“He has unbelievable instincts as a defensive football player,” Limongi said. “He just has an uncanny ability to find the football and get there on the shortest route. It’s just unbelievable. And he’s had that since I’ve known him. He’s just born to be a linebacker.
“He dominates the controllables. Anything he can control, whether it’s game film, focus at practice, visual representation, he dominates. When he gets out there, I’m guessing he’s already gone over every play in his head before he sees it live on the football field.’”
Maybe consider what Miller was able to do in 2019 as the set-in-stone No. 3 inside linebacker: 67 tackles, five TFLs, a sack, four pass break-ups and two forced fumbles. Maybe that’s a baseline we could measure Henrich by if he enjoys a fully healthy season.
By all accounts, this is a special player Nebraska was able to keep home. With opportunity for a stable role this season, consider Henrich a wild card for what’s a pretty veteran defense. He could have a real breakout campaign under the right circumstances.