Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Werewolves, Buffet Plates and the Terminator: Here’s What Caught My Ear During the First Half of Spring Practice

March 15, 2022

With the Nebraska football team away on spring break and not holding another practice until March 22, it’d be a good idea to review some of what was said by those inside the program.

There’s no shortage of storylines heading into the fall. Mark Whipple’s offense and Erik Chinander’s defense have plenty of issues to solve. Bill Busch is in charge of the special teams, which needs some tinkering. But let’s stick with the defense for now—what caught my ear from those on that side of the ball?

Chinander: “Sometimes when you got, you know, just werewolves rushing off the edge, you got to create that step-up lane. And those inside guys got it, and when those outside guys are collapsing the edge, those inside guys gotta push that quarterback right and left. We’ve got to be able to cage that quarterback, and then sack the guy.”

What it means to me: Chinander talking about sacks and impacting the quarterback’s pocket has always been interesting to me. Calling these edge defenders werewolves is a perfect description, too. It’s like they’re on a leash at the line of scrimmage, waiting for the snap that lets them loose. Once they’re loose, they’re bending and contorting their bodies in any way possible to get around giant offensive tackles to get their meal—the quarterback. But Chinander brings up a good point, that it’s not a one-man show (unless you have an elite edge guy, which Nebraska hasn’t had since Randy Gregory). Sacking the quarterback and disrupting the pocket takes teamwork from the players in the defensive front. With the werewolves—Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor fit that description pretty well—screaming off the edge, the big 300-pounders in the middle, like Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers and Nash Hutmacher, need to work their way up the field and walk the offensive linemen back into their quarterback’s face. Collapsing the pocket is what it’s all about. “Cage that quarterback,” as Chinander said.

Chinander: “When we find out whoever that’s going to be, whatever their assets are, we have to use those. And their liabilities, we have to try covering up.”

What it means to me: The nickel position has been a hot topic as of late, and that’s what Chinander was talking about in the quote above. Whoever wins the starting nickel job, whether that’s Isaac Gifford, Javin Wright or the new face in the room, Chris Kolarevic, they’ll be unfairly compared to JoJo Domann. Even though no football player is the same, the comparisons will still be made during the season, because that’s what we do as football fans. However, Chinander has been very up front about the fact that there might not be another Domann on the roster, and that makes sense. Domann was a unique defender who did multiple things well. What I like about Chinander’s quote is that, to me, he understands Domann is close to a unicorn on the football field. Whoever wins the job won’t be asked to do everything Domann did in run support and pass coverage in space. But I also think that opens the door for multiple guys to see snaps at nickel depending on the matchups on offense and the situation. If the offense is in a passing down and comes out in 11 (one back, one tight end) personnel, maybe the Huskers respond by going in their base nickel package with Gifford or Wright because they’re stronger in pass coverage than they are in run support. If an offense comes out in 12 personnel and brings in two tight ends, maybe the 230-pound Kolarevic comes in to match the extra bigger body on the field to help take on blocks from linemen and stop the run.

Nebraska Cornhuskers inside linebacker Chris Kolarevic (31) defending Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Austin Jablonski (47) during practice Saturday, April 17th, 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Chinander: “It’s been really nice seeing him be out there in space and being fluid, and I think we’ll get a little more man coverage in as we keep moving through the install and we’ll see how he does with some man coverage, but everything else he’s done a really good job so far.”

What it means to me: Chinander is talking about Kolarevic working at nickel. That quote tells me Kolarevic is good in run support and Chinander would feel comfortable with him on on the field in run downs. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because Kolarevic was a really good linebacker in the FCS ranks—he racked up 144 tackles in two seasons with Northern Iowa. But Chinander needs to find out how well Kolarevic handles himself in pass coverage, especially man-to-man. If Kolarevic doesn’t practice well in man, maybe that means he’s more of a zone coverage defender when he’s on the field.

Mike Dawson: “He works his tail off in the weight room. I mean, you see him with no shirt on, he looks like the Terminator or something like that. He does a great job of making sure he eats correctly, puts the right fuel into his body and does all that stuff. So hopefully that’s going to lead to him being bigger and stronger.”

What it means to me: Dawson is talking about outside linebacker Blaise Gunnerson, who is going to get more opportunities in 2022 than he did in 2021. With Pheldarius Payne entering the transfer portal, Gunnerson—as well as Jimari Butler—is one of the players who will be counted on to provide depth and give the defense solid reps when Nelson or Tannor need a breather. Gunnerson, listed at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, is obviously doing the right things this offseason. Like many young players in the Big Ten who play near the line of scrimmage, he needed to develop his body and strength in order to be more effective. As he enters his third year in the program, Gunnerson seems to be doing just that. While Payne’s departure didn’t seem like much on the outside, he was an experienced player in the rotation. Keeping Nelson and Tannor healthy and fresh during games is going to be important, and Gunnerson will be a key part to that this fall.

Travis Fisher: “Marques? He is an older guy. He’s one of the older guys. Once you get to a certain point, once you get past that momma-drop-you-off stage, you go through a spring, you go through a semester, you’re an old guy. You’re no longer a new guy. Jaeden Gould is a new guy. He has, like, a buffet plate full of F ups. He can do it and be fine because we’ll get him coached up and get him right. But those guys who know the culture, there’s zero tolerance.”

What it means to me: First of all, what an incredible quote from Fisher, the defensive backs coach. “A buffet plate full of F ups” is an all-timer. Second of all, Fisher’s thought tells you what kind of coach he is. Fisher obviously demands a lot from his defensive backs, and the ones who do what he asks and allow themselves to be coached will play for him. Marques Buford Jr. seems to be one of the players who’s been impressing Fisher since he’s been in Lincoln. Last year as a true freshman, Buford was one of the gunners on the punt coverage unit and played well. He also cross-trained at corner and safety, and Buford said he’s been working primarily at safety this spring. Buford is a solid pick to win the safety role opposite Myles Farmer, who might have put himself in position to keep his job with his decent play from last year. But from listening to Fisher last year and this spring, it seems like no one’s job is safe and he’s going to play the best players he has. His room is the one with the most spots up for grabs. Also, if I’m Jaeden Gould, I look at that quote and get a laugh out of it. Gould is a good player, the top-rated prep recruit in the 2022 class. He was a four-star corner and former USC commit who the Huskers flipped. Gould has a bright future, I think.

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