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Nebraska Football

Are We Undervaluing Nebraska's Inside Linebacker Room? Maybe

July 26, 2020
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Out of everything from his first year in Lincoln, maybe the most interesting development for Jackson Hannah is that he’s already switched positions. 

The former 4-star linebacker from Tennessee was a huge win for Nebraska on the trail, a top-20 inside ‘backer nationally who chose Nebraska over offers from the likes of Alabama, LSU, Florida, and Wisconsin. Those who know the recruiting landscape far better than I do pegged Hannah as someone who could potentially make an impact right away at inside linebacker. 

Nebraska certainly could have used it. Once fellow freshman Nick Henrich was lost to injury, the Huskers were somewhat hamstrung to a three-man rotation last season. Luke Reimer steadily grew as the season moved along, but as a true freshman walk-on, he saw the bulk of his reps on special teams as position coach Barrett Ruud felt most comfortable with his veteran rotation of Mohamed Barry, Collin Miller, and Will Honas. 

That Hannah never played in a game seems curious. Joey Johnson, as a redshirt freshman walk-on, played more. Though sometimes that’s just how it goes. 

One unintended consequence of the four-game redshirt rule is it starts the clock before it probably should. Those outside the program expect to see a newcomer simply because he has four games. The player wonders when, not if, it’ll happen. But the coaching staff has to make sure guys are ready before throwing them to the fire. 

Hannah may yet live up to potential. It’s only been a year. However, that he kicked outside after just a year is the far more interesting conversation. 

The knee-jerk reaction was to look at the current state of the Huskers’ outside linebackers and think, “Yeah, they need help.” It’s just as likely, though, that Ruud has too many guys. 

Are we overlooking or undervaluing what could actually end up being a pretty nice room?

Honas, since getting a firm grasp of what Nebraska wants to do schematically, has quietly put together a nice start to his Husker career. You can play on an ACL injury after six, seven, eight months, but that doesn’t mean you truly feel right that quickly. It takes time. Honas is the team’s leading returning tackler from a season ago. Seems like the window is there for him to take a big step forward.

Miller was Nebraska’s best linebacker in coverage a year ago, an area that needs improvement across the board. He should be comfortable in the middle now. 

“I like where they’re at in that first group of inside linebackers,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said this week, “but that being said, those guys have a lot of work cut out for themselves to not only get that first spot but keep that first spot. You have guys like Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer right on their tails and then there’s a host of other guys competing at those spots, too.”

Now, coaches frequently say something to the effect of “no job is guaranteed” in the summertime, but just from a depth standpoint, it’s not a stretch to think NU could have at least four inside ‘backers who all see enough playing time to qualify them for a Blackshirt. It could be a situation where dubbing guys “starters” and “reserves” is missing the mark.

“It's probably the first year we really feel good about not just your first group you throw out there, but the second and possibly third group as well,” Ruud said. “As far as the overall room, it's definitely the most comfortable I've been.”

The fruits of recruiting. This last cycle saw the additions of junior college standout Eteva Mauga-Clements and 4-star high schooler Keyshawn Greene. Former Colorado State man Zach Schlager will also be eligible this year after sitting out the 2019 season because of transfer rules. Johnson has entered his name into the transfer portal, but Reimer remains. 

So, Nebraska has Honas, Miller, Mauga-Clements, Reimer, Henrich, and Greene for two spots. If NU wanted to use the three-man rotation it did a year ago (it doesn’t), any three-man configuration is on the table. Greene could take time, but Ruud will have the luxury of slow-playing him and perhaps redshirting him. 

Reimer makes this all so interesting. Ruud talks about him in a way few coaches talk about walk-ons. 

“I think he’s found a home for us here at inside linebacker and I really think he’s got the potential to be a big-time player,” Ruud said. “Not just at Nebraska, but around the conference as well.”

Back in March, he said the local Lincoln man just kept wowing them last fall camp, that Reimer had one of the best camps of anyone on the team. I remember Cam Taylor-Britt talking about watching in awe as the lesser-known No. 28 was balling out in a scrimmage. 

There is far less certainty at outside linebacker. Questions abound regarding who will be where and who will do what.

If health permits, the only question on the interior might be how many dudes will opposing offensive coordinators have to account for? Nebraska has athletes, veterans, and explosive players at the position. Ruud has done a nice job creating a headache for himself.

Another Question

New special teams analyst Jonathan Rutledge has nearly every piece of the puzzle he needs as Nebraska begins its 20-hour work weeks ahead of fall camp. If there’s a spot on the team Nebraska can actually afford to wait on a little bit longer, it’s probably punter.

Which is good, because Nebraska still doesn’t have its guy. 

Daniel Cerni, one of the only specialists head coach Scott Frost has immediately given a scholarship to since arriving in Lincoln, is still in Australia. His arrival is cloudy, he told Hail Varsity, as it continues to be unclear when he’ll be able to obtain a visa, the last hurdle to coming overseas. 

With the graduation of Isaac Armstrong, Cerni is expected to become NU’s next starting punter. A Prokick Australia product, Cerni has a strong leg and excellent hang time. Nebraska can make due until his arrival—Will Przystup, a Michigan State transfer following the 2018 season, handled kickoff duties with the Huskers a year ago and has Big Ten punting experience—but there’s no discounting the fact Cerni was hand-selected by Rutledge. NU will want to do everything it can to help speed up the process of getting him on campus.

Fidone

At the Warren Academy Top Prospects Showcase in Omaha on Saturday, there was Thomas Fidone‍ and then there was everyone else. 

There was good talent all over the field, make no mistake, and local talent at that (a handful of Omaha Central and Elkhorn South kids had strong showings), but Fidone looked like a pro guy in the making. At one point, the question “If that’s not a 5-star kid, what does a 5-star kid look like?” was asked.

Fidone measured in at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds and ran a 4.63 laser-timed 40-yard dash. He’s explosive, he’s got a huge catch radius, long strides and excellent footwork as a route-runner. During the one-on-one portion, he snagged a ball one-handed while tip-toeing the sideline after losing his defender on a slick out-route. He also smoked a soft press on another rep by planting his outside foot after the snap and then exploding to the inside. 

Wherever he ends up, they might try and add weight to the frame, but he might not need much. He’s a matchup problem as is. The other thing that was impressive was his willingness to get after it during the blocking drills. 

Nebraska doesn’t currently have a player like Fidone on its roster, not someone combining physical tools, explosiveness, and pedigree the way he does. He’d start from Day 1. Getting a player like that to join the fold would be absolutely huge. 

 
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