Jack Stoll slips running with the ball against Iowa defenders
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Upperclassmen with Something to Prove this Fall for Nebraska

August 18, 2020

Football is close. We’re entering a crucial time period for decisions to start coming on what the season will look like, but at the very least, organized team activities begin on Monday, July 13. In the run up to that, we’re doing some of the more traditional preview pieces you’d be reading about this time of year. On Tuesday, I wrote about underclassmen with something to gain in fall camp. Here’s a look at the upperclassmen with something to lose.

Caleb Tannor

Blink and it goes by. College is usually like that. Caleb Tannor, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound former 4-star linebacker, is already into his third year with the Huskers and it feels like he just got here. Four starts a year ago, and appearances in all 24 games since joining the roster has expectations high for the junior.

During his freshman season, it was about adding weight to a frame that was viewed as prototypical a build as defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants out of his 3-4 outside linebackers—long arms, twitchy, athletic. In 2019, Tannor was turned loose a little bit. He had just nine solo tackles though, and to this point in his career he has only four tackles for loss.

“He’s going to have to help us, and he’s going to have to help us early,” Chinander said in March. “And if he can’t, you know, once you get to be that junior age, if you can’t help anymore, some young guy has to get a shot.”

Outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson says consistency is key. Nebraska’s defense needs that, it’s true. But this defense just needs some flat-out playmakers in the front seven. Nebraska hasn’t ended a season in the top half of the country for sacks since 2014. The defensive backfield figures to be strong, but generating a dangerous kind of pass-rush has been a conversation around these parts for years.

Tannor and fellow junior JoJo Domann stand to get first crack at the two outside ‘backer gigs. Domann, to this point, has done more with his opportunities. And yet, both will be fighting tooth and nail to keep their spots. Nebraska has a hungry second-year man in Garrett Nelson, JUCO transfer Nico Cooper, redshirt freshman Jamin Graham, and then a pair of first-year guys in Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler pushing for playing time. Even if Gunnerson and Butler are likely heading for a redshirt year, Tannor is going to have to consistently earn his keep.

Deontre Thomas

Nebraska wants a program with no gaps. There’s a desire there to build a program where a guy matures through the weight room, stars on the field, then moves on to the next level and relinquishes his spot to another guy who has already physically matured. NU doesn’t want to be relying on redshirt freshmen to make an impact after just one year of learning the ropes. Frost wants a veteran team. Liken it to the Wisconsin approach if you want.

NU doesn’t have that yet. Not in all the places it would like.

Deontre Thomas’ situation feels like that, though, doesn’t it? Thomas is a fourth-year junior. A 6-3, 295-pound guy who has played a lot of football; nine games as a true freshman in 2017 playing somewhat out of his comfort zone, then four games before injuring his hand in 2018 after moving to defensive end on a more permanent basis, then 12 games last year for first-year d-line coach Tony Tuioti.

Nebraska is replacing all three starters on the defensive line for 2020, all three seniors. Returning on one side is senior Ben Stille, a de facto starter a year ago. You can pencil him in after considering using a pen instead. The other two spots, though, seem entirely up in the air.

What do we make of Ty Robinson? What do we make of Casey Rogers? What about Keem Green (who could honestly have his own spot on this list)? Damion Daniels should probably be the guy at nose tackle, picking up the mantle from his brother, Darrion, but his usage will depend on fitness. Tuioti wants eight guys to be able to rotate on his line, so they’re all going to play, but who’s going to make an impact?

Thomas has 2.5 career tackles for loss and zero career sacks, so from a pass-rushing perspective, you could drop him into a similar bucket as Tannor. Time to produce or the younger guys are going to take your snaps, and Thomas doesn’t want to continue to just be a utility player.

If he can be a guy who makes it difficult for Tuioti to justify bringing him off the field, that probably helps bring along Robinson, giving Tuioti some flexibility in deploying the trio of Daniels, Robinson and Green. Still an if, though. What’s certain is Thomas will have the best opportunity of his career waiting for him when fall camp opens in August.

Jack Stoll / Austin Allen / Kurt Rafdal

If it’s true Nebraska needs to get the tight end more involved, and it’s true Nebraska hasn’t gotten enough out of its tight ends since Frost came over, doesn’t some of the responsibility for that rest with the tight ends themselves?

Figuring out this position is somewhat difficult right now. How much of it is time in the pocket? How much of it is play design? How much of it is the decision-making of quarterback Adrian Martinez? If NU went through a rigorous offseason self-scout and one of the answers it found was making the tight end a primary read more often, then we should really see what Jack Stoll is capable of in his senior campaign.

Stoll isn’t a guy you just throw to the side. He’s a big target with tons of playing experience amidst a group of pass-catchers with very little to no playing experience. If Nebraska feels like it simply hasn’t put its tight ends in positions to be successful, Stoll deserves opportunities to prove he’s capable. UCF’s Jordan Akins had 32 catches for 515 yards in 2017; that seems more than doable for Stoll, who’s had his share of moments in the past.

But if the coaching staff found anything lacking in the play of its tight ends a season ago, Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek is waiting to pounce. The staff loves Vokolek. He’s a sneaky candidate to steal a starting spot in the offense. I’ve pegged him a starter multiple times.

Rafdal and Allen are both juniors. They’re in the most danger of being buried on the depth chart. Rafdal saw Allen overtake him in last season’s pecking order, so Vokolek contending for reps with the ones would be really damaging. Allen became one of the loudest voices on the team last season, but he only had seven catches in 12 games.

Stoll’s last two seasons have featured 21 (third-most on the team) and 25 catches (fourth), with 245 (third) and then 234 yards (fourth). He has four scores to his name, but hasn’t been much of a redzone threat and his position coach, Sean Beckton, thought the details in his all-around game slipped as 2019 wore on.

Pass-catching was Vokolek’s strength when he showed up on campus. At 6-6, 250 pounds, if he’s rounded out his game and the “produce or move over” mentality isn’t exclusive to the defense, there’s a good chance Vokolek is the guy getting the biggest chunk of tight end snaps.

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