Photo Credit: Eric Francis

White, Knighton, Dvoracek Collaborate to Coach Nebraska’s New Defensive Front

March 16, 2023

Defensive coordinator Tony White arrived at Nebraska and hit the road to secure the best 2023 recruiting class. The entire staff wanted to optimize the class on tight deadline, through high school, junior college and the portal, to help turn around the football program’s fortunes. Of the 28 that signed their letters of intent to Nebraska, 10 play on the defensive line or linebacker. That doesn’t include three portal arrivals at those positions.

New arrivals, as well as returning Huskers, bring a variety of skill sets. They’re also on even footing as they all try to lean White’s aggressive 3-3-5 system. While the entire defense consists of moving personnel parts, there’s a separation in tasks and intrigue between the first two levels of the defense and the secondary.

White’s 3-3-5 system is adaptive and fluid to fit personnel. He previously said that could involve one conventional bruising Big Ten tackle if the roster is short on game-ready big men. The defense could involve multiple tackles if multiple players at that position step up. Nash Hutmacher and Stephon Wynn Jr. return for spring ball with noteworthy game experience from the fall. Ty Robinson will also compete for snaps when he returns from his injury, likely this summer.

Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton is new to White’s system but not the position. Knighton coached on the line for Rhule at Carolina last year following a brief college coaching stint and his eight-year NFL career in the trenches. He directly oversees interior defensive tackles and edge rushers. As of his meeting with local media in January, Knighton wasn’t sure if he’d coach the roaming linebacker/defensive end hybrid. He believed that fluidity could benefit the team in the long run as the defensive coaching staff learns from each other.

All the position coaches are all learning the system for the first time. It’s intentionally basic on its face. Complexity comes with its implementation and variables. Each pseudo-lesson in this defense brought out Knighton’s eagerness to learn and see it implemented.

“It’s a lot to defend,” Knighton said. “You’re going to lose some sleep trying to figure out where we’re lined up, how guys are lined up, how we’re attacking.

“You’ve got to have dynamic guys for a scheme like that so I’m looking forward to learning that just as much as I’m looking forward to learning the guys.”

The coaching staff brought in dynamic players to fill those dynamic needs. Former Georgia defender MJ Sherman arrived through the transfer portal and stood out among winter workouts. Assistants have also complimented former Texas A&M lineman Elijah Jeudy. Physical, athletic edge rushers Princewill Umanmielen, Maverick Noonan, Cameron Lenhardt and Kai Wallin enrolled in the spring semester. Each has size and physicality to play on the line without sacrificing speed and athleticism in the second level. They’ll all compete for roster real estate this spring before the arrivals of Riley Van Poppel, Vincent Carroll-Jackson, Dylan Rogers, Sua Lefotu and Jason Maciejczak.

Each brings individual specialities. Knighton played alongside Aaron Kampmen and future Hall of Famer Von Miller. He’s witnessed how natural ability and work ethic elevate aspiring football players to the highest levels. In on-the-field evaluations, Knighton looks to similar traits he saw with them.

“Initially you just hope you’ve got a guy who, athletically, can burst off the ball, has the ability to be flexible,” Knighton said, “and the rest you can coach.”

Linebackers coach Rob Dvoracek said he was still trying to figure out the room when he met with local media a few weeks after Knighton. Dvoracek was one of the last additions to Rhule’s coaching staff and he felt his first priority was getting to know his players. He believes it will likely take the spring season to fully evaluate the entire linebacker group to identify who fits the vision.

“We’re going to try and find the guys that are tough, smart, competitive, that also have great traits,” Dvoracek said. “They’re long, they can run, they’re explosive, they can change direction. Obviously, size is a huge factor in that as well. We’re trying to find all those things and make sure they’re right for us.”

The linebacker duo of Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer might make Dvoracek’s job easier off the bat. White praised both of them for their leadership on a recent episode of Sports Nightly with Greg Sharpe. Rhule also enjoyed meeting both of them before the winter break. Henrich’s involvement in spring ball will be limited due to the ACL injury that ended his season. Realistically, those are the only two with significant game experience. There’s a few linebackers on the roster who haven’t found the field yet and might need a big spring. Especially with the arrival of Sherman, listed as a linebacker, Florida transfer Chief Borders and high school signings Eric Fields and Dylan Rogers.

White also complimented Borders’ work upon his arrival. The former 4-star recruit who largely played special teams at Florida is in good shape from winter workouts with potential at a few positions.

“Really, anything to do what’s best for the team,” Borders said. “Coach White, he has a plan, his 3-3-5 is definitely something that y’all will be excited to see. It’s very maneuverable, very versatile.

“So I plan on doing what’s best for the team. Right now I’m at linebacker but I plan on doing a plethora of other things if told to do so.”

Borders called the defense “very fun.” He mentioned the potential rushing directions, alignments and its various facets. Borders specifically said it allows defenders to not “put yourself in a box” and be a dynamic player. That’s the kind of player White looks for in within his defense. Both Dvoracek and Knighton, as well as Rhule, are aligned in that vision of playmaker. Coaches will find out which players align with that vision next week.

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