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Mailbag: What to Expect from Nebraska’s Linebacker Position in 2020

January 15, 2020

It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s mailbag time. 

Is the lack of use of the tight end in the passing game a product of the system, play design, quarterback, offensive line, or tight ends? What does more use of the tight end do for this offense? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Jacob Padilla: Sean Beckton did talk about how the tight ends needed to get better off the line and running their routes, but I think they did that. It seems more to be an Adrian Martinez thing because the tight end played a big part in Frost’s offense at Central Florida. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem like he gets to the tight ends very often within his progressions. Hopefully that changes in 2020 because I think that group can really help. 

Greg Smith: I wonder how often the tight end is the first or second progression in the offense? If you have a struggling offensive line like Nebraska did for most of the season, no quarterback is getting to progression three or four to hit the tight end. So, I don’t know yet if it is a Martinez thing, a line thing or tight ends not being open. Likely it’s a combination of them all. 

Derek Peterson: I think Greg is right on here.

How do you think the linebacker (outside and inside) position shakes out come fall? (@thrasher3433) 

Erin Sorensen: You obviously have Collin Miller returning at inside linebacker, as well as Will Honas. The hope for those two would be to lead the room but I’d like to see a guy like Nick Henrich make a go at being a major factor. I’d keep an eye on him. The outside linebackers have Caleb Tannor, JoJo Domann and Garrett Nelson, and I’d like to see a bigger jump from all three before fall. As for how it shakes out there, I like Blaise Gunnerson, Niko Cooper and Jimari Butler to hopefully push the veterans a bit more. You also have guys like Keyshawn Greene, Eteva Mauga-Clements and Jamin Graham (a redshirt freshman) who could make some noise. I’m not positive yet how it all shakes out (I’d like to see some spring ball first), but I expect some competition. The Huskers have added some strong contenders to the room to make things interesting. 

Mike Babcock: I’d include Luke Reimer in the mix at middle linebacker, and maybe Garrett Snodgrass, the scout team defensive player of the year. The point is, there should be some returning guys to compete with the newcomers behind Miller and Honas. 

JP: I’d be surprised if the starters at inside linebacker weren’t Collin Miller and Will Honas just based on their experience and all the work they’ve put in. Behind them, I think Va Mauga-Clements was brought in to play right away. If they stick with a three-man rotation, I think he’d be the favorite for that third spot. That being said, I hope and believe Nick Henrich and maybe even Keyshawn Greene will both be ready to push for playing time next season. If you can go four or five deep before you even get to guys like Snodgrass and Jackson Hannah or promising walk-ons like Joseph Johnson, Luke Reimer and Zach Schlager, I think you’re in a good spot there. As for outside linebacker, that picture isn’t as clear for me. JoJo Domann will play a lot at one of the outside spots, and then ideally Caleb Tannor and Garrett Nelson would both be ready to make a leap and play significant snaps at the other spot (or together in bigger fronts). With Gunnerson less than 100% in terms of health, I’m not sure he’ll be ready to make an impact this season. Nico Cooper would be the newcomer I’d look to as a potential instant impact guy considering he’s a junior college transfer rather than a freshman. 

GS: Everyone has covered a lot of good points here. I just want to add that linebacker is a position battle I can’t wait to see unfold because there are a lot of intriguing options especially inside. 

Thoughts on Nebrasketball’s progress throughout this season? (@thrasher3433) 

JP: I’m honestly a little baffled by this team. Every time the team shows signs of progress in any particular area it follows it up with a step backward. I think the biggest goal for this team right now has to be to stabilize this a little bit. Any postseason goals are off the table at this point, so this team needs to start building toward next year, and part of that is finding out what’s sustainable. At this point, I think Cam Mack’s distribution and Thorir Thorbjarnarson’s 3-point shooting and cutting are things you can count on. The team is pretty good when it has a chance to get out in the open floor. Beyond that, there’s still a lot Fred Hoiberg has to learn about his team in these last 14 games.  

MB: If Jacob is baffled, then I have no answers. Just when you think they’ve made progress, become more consistent, they seem not to have made much progress. 

DP: The Huskers are 248th in defensive rating. I thought they’d be better on that end because they’d just frankly need to be in order to try and counteract some of the volatility of the offense in the early going. They’ve shown how good they can be, and how porous things can be when they’re not locked all the way in. Too much inconsistency. Thorir Thorbjarnarson growing into what he’s growing into has been very, very fun to watch, however. Same for Cam Mack.

How's the Junior Days recruiting going? Should we be on watch for another possible commitment? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: It’s going well. There will be several top targets for 2021 making their way to Lincoln this month. I don’t know about commitment watch just yet but I’d be surprised if there are no new commitments this month.  

Should we make a big deal of the "Huskers have been at all the Super Bowls" if the streak snaps this year? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

Brandon Vogel: Well, everyone’s experienced multiple snapped streaks at this point so at least it won’t be a shocking experience if it happens. The streak is nice. Better to have it than not, but there were some years there where it got by on technicalities. At this point does the streak say anything about Nebraska football other than the streak is somehow still alive? 

ES: I don’t think it’s worth making a big deal of because, as Brandon said, it’s gotten by on some technicalities over the years. Regardless, it feels like this streak was slowly coming to an end because the drafted players streak came to an end. Less players drafted (or picked up as free agents) will ultimately mean less players on rosters to keep the streak going.  

Any thoughts on the NE Senator introducing a bill allowing college players in Nebraska to profit from name and image? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

ES: Senator Hunt is my senator, so it was cool to see her name on Sports Illustrated this morning. However, SI also noted her as a man with a “he said” moment, and that was disappointing. But to your question, I have no personal issue with players profiting off their name or likeness. Many of them cannot successfully hold jobs in college due to their schedules, and it’s naïve to assume their scholarships afford them everything they need. With that said, I also understand it’s easy for me to say players should be allowed to profit off their name and likeness without offering any input on how to make that possible/fair/whatever. There will obviously have to be some very major conversations had and decisions made by people much smarter than me, but I think there’s a way to make it work down the road and I’ll be following it as it goes. 

MB: I’m for it in theory, but as Erin says, someone smarter than I am would have to sort through how it is to be done to keep an even playing field. Also, as I’ve noted before, the most likely to benefit are the “skill” position players, quarterbacks in particular. There needs to be a balance. What about the walk-ons who have all the bills and such but no one uses their likeness or name?  Do they benefit in any way? Or the second-team center? Is this change going to wreck team unity? Will there be resentment toward those who are making money off their names and likenesses while the majority of the team does not? It’s a slippery slope. 

What Husker offense of the last decade would have been the most fun to see coached by Frost? Team? (Excluding Frost coached teams) (@NickHlebichuk) 

BV: The 2012 offense wins this in a rout. You have third-year Taylor Martinez, who had his best year as a passer that season while also rushing for 1,000 yards. Ameer Abdullah topped 1,000 yards rushing, but you also had Rex Burkhead (6.89 yards per carry over eight games) and Braylon Heard (6.69 yards per carry). Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa are your top two receivers. Jamal Turner’s in the mix there somewhere. And, the thing I might be most intrigued by here with this hypothetical—Kyler Reed. That guy had all the tools to be a matchup nightmare and it just never quite transpired. Oh, and Ben Cotton is your more traditional in-line tight end. That group in real life averaged 34.8 points per game. I’m guessing its ceiling was closer to 40. 

ES: I was going to say 2012 too, so I won’t reiterate everything Brandon said. But I’ve long said I’d love to have seen Taylor Martinez in a different coach’s system, and I think it would have been fun to watch that Martinez with quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco. 

MB: I’ll agree with Brandon and Erin, with a qualification: Tim Beck’s offense did all right in 2012, leading the Big Ten in total offense and rushing offense. So I wouldn’t claim that Frost would do a whole lot better. With that qualification, and acknowledging the players mentioned, that offensive line included Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale—plus Brett Maher was the kicker. And it incorporated a fullback at times. 

Any truth to the rumors flying around about more FB coaches leaving? Also, Megan Miller looked great this year and seemed to get a lot of playing time. What would be the reasoning behind her leaving NU to play elsewhere? (@thawildbunch) 

BV: That there hasn’t been any announced changes yet keeps those things squarely in the rumor category for now. Recruiting dead period ends tomorrow, so if additional changes are coming you’d think Frost would like to have them wrapped up before the coaches can go back out on the road again. As for Miller, Jacob will offer more insight than I can but I agree with you, she had an important role last season. 

GS: I will echo that it would be ideal if whatever is going to happen is announced in time to hit the ground running in recruiting on Thursday. There are so many rumors flying it is hard to keep track. 

JP: Part of the reason for Miller leaving might be that she wasn’t guaranteed a scholarship for all four years. If she can go find somewhere else that will guarantee her a scholarship for the last two years of her career, perhaps that would be better for her family. That being said, she accepted the deal when she committed to Nebraska in the first place so I doubt that’s the motivating factor. I think it’s more likely she just wants to look for a school where she has a chance to earn the libero job. She battled with Kenzie Knuckles this past offseason but Knuckles beat her out. She was an important part of Nebraska’s rotation for sure. I’d expect Nebraska to be very active in the transfer portal looking to add talent at that position. 

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