Isaac Gifford got a good chuckle when asked what the hardest part of being a nickel linebacker in Erik Chinander’s defense is.
The first thing that came to mind for the Lincoln Southeast High School product was the pass coverage responsibilities. Gifford, who’s entering his third year with the program, might feel more at home doing the dirty stuff, like taking on blocks from offensive linemen, providing run support and tackling ball carriers near the line of scrimmage. He got plenty of those opportunities in the two games he played last season against Wisconsin and Iowa while filling in for an injured JoJo Domann.
But covering Division I receivers and tight ends brings its own challenges. Gifford, who’s a candidate to win the starting nickel job at Nebraska, is learning that this spring.
“It’s a little harder running with Trey Palmer down the middle of the field. It ain’t an easy job,” Gifford said with a laugh.
Like it does with all positions, learning the intricacies of being a nickel will take time. It’s a process. Gifford has the most experience on the team playing it. He played 94 snaps last year, and 68 of them came in the final two weeks against Wisconsin and Iowa. JoJo Domann’s departure hurts the defense, there’s not a doubt about it.
But what it does do is open the door for others to put their own stamp on the position.
“It’s been good. JoJo leaving, that’s a big loss for us. There’s a lot of stuff for us to do,” Gifford said of how the spring has gone for the position. “The position, the nickel spot, we have a lot of guys working and it’s going good.”
Those other guys Gifford is talking about includes Chris Kolarevic and Javin Wright. Kolarevic is the new face in the room after spending all of last season at middle linebacker. Wright, who battled a health scare that ended his season early last year, hasn’t been practicing as of late, Chinander said. Wright is an intriguing athlete who came to Nebraska as a corner, but has since grown to be a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who could do a variety of things as a defender.
“Hopefully we get Javin Wright back here in a short time,” Chinander said, “I’d like to see what he’s doing running around out there.”
Add John Bullock to the room, too. The fourth-year walk-on from Creighton Prep is a 6-foot, 215-pounder who got on the field last year on special teams and made plays as a gunner on the punt team.
There are options at nickel. Chinander just needs to figure out who fits where.
“Isaac keeps progressing from where he left off last year, as he got a couple starts at the end of the year with JoJo being hurt. He’s fine-tuning his all his technique and his assignment,” Chinander said. “Chris is learning it, but he’s done a really good job. He learned fast, Chris is playing fast and physical. And then John Bullock is doing a nice job too, he’s taken a lot of reps. Those guys all kind of rotated through the ones and twos, but he”s done a nice job. He’s fast, he’s physical, he’s a good football player. He just needs to get the mental side of it all cranked down so he’s consistent all the time.”
Through 10 spring practices—and more importantly, two scrimmages—Gifford said the defense is looking physical. It’s flying around and finding the ball.
“If a guy misses a tackle, it doesn’t matter because someone’s right there. They’re running,” Gifford said.
The competition between those three primary players—Gifford, Kolarevic and Wright—is ongoing. Each brings a specific trait to the position. No one has the nickel job locked up right now, which means a leader hasn’t emerged. There’s plenty of time for that, though. After all, it’s spring ball.
“Everybody is kind of coming and doing everything they can to get to that spot,” Gifford said.
For the first time in multiple seasons, the Husker defensive backfield will be without longtime starters Cam Taylor-Britt, Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams. When the back end of the defense gets figured out, it will help paint a clearer picture for the nickel and what it’ll be asked to do on Saturdays.
But overall, there won’t be any drastic changes for the role nickels play on the defense. Maybe there will be minor game-plan tweaks here and there depending on which offense they face each week, but for the most part the Huskers’ nickel will have the same jobs as it always has.
That’s good news for Gifford, who is working only at nickel right now. He had been with the safeties earlier in his career. Does he have a preference?
“No,” Gifford responded. “Whatever gets me on the field, you know?”
Of course, there has always been an acclimation period when moving down to nickel from safety. It’s a new position obviously, so a different mindset is needed.
“It is a big adjustment, only with the way you’re thinking,” Gifford said. “What your new job is and the issues with it. It’s the mental part of it, thinking going from nickel to safety, your job changes.”
One trait that a nickel needs is to be a physical player. Adding good weight can help in holding your own against a Big Ten run game. Gifford’s body is the kind that, if he started a practice at 210 pounds, he’d be 204 by the end. When he first got to campus in 2020, he weighed around 195. This spring Gifford said he’s holding strong between 205-210.
Whatever weight the nickel is at—Domann was 230 pounds last year—he will still be expected to lock on to an inside receiver and cover him. Easier said than done.
It’s those practice and scrimmage reps against speedy wideouts like Palmer that are helping Gifford and the rest of the nickels find their way.