Nebraska’s linebackers were an unexpectedly solid unit in 2015 with much credit going to LB coach Trent Bray. Coach Bray was rewarded with a raise after the season and Husker fans felt good about the linebackers going into 2016 - even thinking they might be the strength of the defense. I won’t put anyone on the spot, but there was at least one female writer here at CN who wondered if we should just field an all-linebacker defense in her preseason “guesses”.
Fast forward through the 2016 season and many of you are probably wondering the same thing as me...what about the linebackers? I mean, I tried to notice them. I wanted to pay attention, but they just did not stand out all that often. There were some good plays and some rotten ones of course, but for the most part, I had a difficult time figuring out how to judge the middle of the Blackshirt defense.
Josh Banderas - a legacy Husker who was, by far, the Huskers’ leading tackler in 2016 with 93 (Gerry was 2nd with 74).
Michael Rose-Ivey - a promising athlete that never seemed to shake off injuries enough to completely fulfill that promise. He was the 3rd leading tackler for the Blackshirts in 2016 with 70.
Brad Simpson - 10 tackles. Mostly a special teams player.
A really intriguing part of the returning linebackers is how well they potentially fit in with a switch to Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system. This group seems to have the pieces already in place for this move. If you count, you’ll see that Nebraska has 20 LBs on the roster entering spring ball.
Marcus Newby (18 tackles). Newby is a player that has intrigued me greatly during his time in Lincoln. His pass-rush skills led to some rumors of a switch to DE during the Pelini regime. He has also showed off some pass coverage abilities. I’ve often wondered if he was better suited as an OLB in a 3-4 defense because of his skillset.
Chris Weber (49 tackles in 2015 and 17 tackles in 2016) Chris saw the field a lot as a sophomore (2015) when he alternated time with Josh Banderas in the lineup. That season was a scramble drill where whomever was least injured for each game drew the start at MLB. He saw the field less as a junior (2016) as Banderas was largely healthy. Weber’s experience on the field may help him find a spot at ILB and if any of the youngsters need more time to develop. Expect him to remain a part of the special teams lineup as well.
Dedrick Young (60 tackles in 2016). Young’s play fell off from his promising start as a freshman in 2015. He struggled in pass coverage but those struggles could be less an issue in the new defensive scheme. He seems well-suited to the responsibilities of a 3-4 ILB for Bob Diaco.
Luke Gifford (1 tackle in 2016). Gifford, a Nebraska native who began his Husker career as a safety and made the switch to LB, saw playing time as a freshman. A hip injury derailed the second half of the season for him. He appeared in four games as a sophomore.
Other juniors: Thomas Connely (Kearney), Alex Boryca (Cozad)
Mohamed Barry - redshirted in 2015 (shoulder injury) and appeared in 13 games in 2016 (7 tackles). Likely an ILB for Diaco’s 3-4.
Tyrin Ferguson - OLB - played in 10 games (mostly special teams) as a freshman but redshirted in 2016.
Jacob Weinmaster - walk-on from Colorado expected to compete at special teams. 2015 Scout Team defensive MVP and redshirted (injury) in 2016.
Other sophomores: Jared Brugmann (Gretna), Brody Cleveland (Ogallala)
Quayshon Alexander - 3 star OLB from New Jersey
Pernell Jefferson - 3 star OLB from Louisiana
Greg Simmons - 3 star ILB from Florida
Other redshirt freshman: Creighton Hamik (Kearney) and Grant Jordan (Omaha)
Willie Hampton - 3 star ILB/OLB from Florida
Avery Roberts - 4 star ILB from Delaware
Andrew Ward - 3 star ILB recruit from Michigan.
Other freshman: Cody Liske (Bennington)
The probable switch to a 3-4 defense opens up more playing time for this young, but talented group. Certainly Marcus Newby will get a long look at the “dog” OLB position as he has the versatility to handle the varied responsibilities of that spot.
If you click the link in the paragraph above, you’ll note that Hoss speculates that incoming freshman Pernell Jefferson might be part of the “cat” OLB, or the primary pass rusher. He also tabs defensive end Collin Miller as a potential fit. I’ll throw in DE Freedom Akinmoladun as well.
As for the inside linebackers, Dedrick Young and Chris Weber have an edge in on-field experience. There is a host of young talent chasing them; keep an eye on Avery Roberts especially.
Update: I cut and pasted the LB chart from Husker Mike’s summary of Mike Riley’s pre-spring press conference.
Boundary OLB: Alex Davis, Sedrick King
Strongside ILB: Chris Weber, Pernell Jefferson, Avery Roberts
Weakside ILB: Dedrick Young, Mohammed Barry, Greg Simmons
Field OLB: Marcus Newby, Luke Gifford
Coaching is not much of a question mark. Trent Bray has been regarded as one of Mike Riley’s best hires, but given that he played and coached under Mark Banker, it is fair to ask if he will be able to adjust to teaching Bob Diaco’s preferred technique and plays. I have confidence in him based on what I’ve seen so far in his Cornhusker tenure.
One of the biggest issues for Nebraska in 2016 was a lack of speed and athleticism in the middle of the defense. Josh Banderas was generally capable, but not fast enough to make up for a false step or a misread play. Chris Weber is of a similar mold to Banderas. Rose-Ivey had some athleticism, but never seemed completely right after a very serious knee injury took him out in 2015. Dedrick Young, possibly the most athletic of the three regular starters in 2016 struggled, for whatever reason.
There appear to be oodles of athletes waiting in the wings, but experience often trumps a bit of extra speed. To me, the battle for playing time at LB will be the second most intriguing competition on defense (next to the nose tackle). I expect to see some of the experienced players pull ahead for starting roles, but the amount of time the youngsters carve out for themselves will shape the Blackshirt defense for 2018 and beyond.