As defensive coordinator Erik Chinander detailed on the Nebraska Football Show during Thursday’s edition of Sports Nightly, Nebraska’s defensive depth chart is starting to come into focus as the Huskers wrap up fall camp and head into the first game week of the season.
One of the positions Chinander offered some clarity on is inside linebacker.
Last season, Nebraska rolled with primarily a three-man rotation with Mohamed Barry and Collin Miller starting and Will Honas playing about as much as the other two off the bench. Barry exhausted his eligibility, but the other two are back and give Chinander and inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud a strong foundation to build upon.
However, when asked about players the coaches are expecting big things from, Chinander listed a sophomore alongside the two seniors.
“I think Collin Miller and Will Honas are slated for a big year inside as well as Luke Reimer rotating in a lot, getting a lot of playing time and spelling those guys,” Chinander said.
Miller was named a team captain on Saturday, and Chinander praised him for his leadership. He tied for third on the team in tackles with 67 (36 solo) and chipped in 7.0 tackles for loss, one sack, four pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and one quarterback hurry. Miller’s bounced all around the defense during his career, from defensive end to outside linebacker to inside linebacker, but now he’s settled in on the interior and was named Nebraska’s Linebacker of the Year.
After a torn ACL cut his first season in Lincoln short, Honas recovered to play in every game of the 2019 season. He was second on the team in tackles behind only Barry with 72 tackles (team-high 43 solo) and chipped in 6.0 tackles for loss including one sack. Chinander said he’s not as vocal as Miller but is a leader by example based on his work ethic.
“I think Collin Miller and Will Honas really developed through the year last year and I think that they were playing at a high level at the end of last year,” Chinander said.
While each of the three inside ‘backers showed flashes last year, Nebraska is going to need more consistent play in every facet of the game from that position in order for the defense to take a step forward. Teams picked on the linebackers in coverage last season, especially on third down, and inconsistent run fits contributed to Nebraska’s 4.82 yards per rush allowed (13th in the Big Ten). Nebraska is going to need more from Miller and Honas.
Barry’s departure leaves a massive void to fill, but also opens the door to change that rotation and get a different kind of linebacker in the mix, perhaps one with a bit more athleticism than what we saw last year. Enter Reimer, who has become one of the biggest risers on the team.
“I think Luke Reimer, we saw flashes of him — I saw it every day — but the general public saw flashes of him when he got in the football game and I think he’s a really good player,” Chinander said.
Reimer was originally slated to head to Brookings to play for FCS power South Dakota State before the Huskers convinced the Lincoln North Star product to stay home as a preferred walk-on. Between his work on special teams and a few appearances on defense, Reimer impressed the coaches enough to burn his redshirt as he played in 10 games as a true freshman and recorded 11 tackles. Coach Scott Frost placed Reimer on scholarship during the offseason and he’s apparently leapfrogged a handful of scholarship recruits on the depth chart to become the first man up behind the senior starters.
One of those recruits is redshirt freshman Nick Henrich, who was limited throughout his freshman season by injury and only appeared in one game and only on special teams at that. However, he was one of the Huskers’ top recruits in that 2019 class and the coaches remain high on him.
“Nick Henrich has been playing all over for us,” Chinander said. “He’s played some inside, he’s played some outside, and I think you guys are going to see a lot out of him this year too. So I feel good about where that group’s at.”
Miller, Honas and Reimer give Ruud three guys to work with, just like he had last season. If the coaches decide to keep Henrich inside, they could go even deeper than that this year.
“You need at least three,” Chinander said. “If you have four, that’s really good. I think Nick would have definitely been a fourth. We’re trying to decide right now what’s the best place to put him. I think he’s a really good football player and I need to get him on the field. He’s kind of filling a lot of different roles for us right now. So it will either be three or four in there.”
Someone Chinander didn’t mention is junior college transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements, though he did speak generally about the difficulty of making that transition from the JUCO level to Division I football.
“To be honest with you, most of the guys that we’ve had, whether it be Nebraska or Oregon or Central Florida or anywhere we’ve been, even back to Northern Iowa, most of those guys that end up playing in the NFL or getting a shot, those guys, the first year they’re kind of feeling things out and getting used to a new system and getting used to a new way of life and that second year is kind of when most of them really come alive,” Chinander said. “I think you’ve just got to be patient with those guys. It really helps when you can recruit some guys that are three years to play two with a redshirt and they can go through that first year and get accustomed to everything.”
Mauga-Clements burned his redshirt year at Diablo Valley Community College, but with this year not counting towards eligibility he’ll still have two seasons remaining with Nebraska after 2020 even if he doesn’t have the option to redshirt. As the season goes on and Mauga-Clements’ familiarity with the scheme grows, and depending on what the coaches decide to do with Henrich, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound ‘backer originally from American Samoa could still carve out a role for himself.
Additionally, Nebraska still has redshirt freshmen Garrett Snodgrass and Jackson Hannah (who moved to outside linebacker in the spring but is listed as an inside ‘backer on the team roster) to continue developing as well as a group of walk-ons led by Colorado State transfer Zach Schlager.
Nebraska’s inside linebackers still have a lot to prove after the 2019 season, but that depth chart is starting to sort itself out and the experience of the starters coupled with the athleticism of the reserves could make it a position of strength in 2020.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.