The outside linebacker position is one that has Husker fans holding their breath this season. There is one senior, one junior (although two more juniors have switched positions to join the room) and is dominated by underclassmen.
Mike Dawson previously coached the defensive line in 2018 at Nebraska. He left in 2019 to coach outside linebackers with the New York Giants and now returns to coach the same position for the Huskers.
Looking Back to 2019
The lack of a true pass rusher has hampered this position group for years. JoJo Domann provided some hope when he switched from defensive back to linebacker, and he played well, but is more of a Swiss Army knife player than the answer for pass rush (don’t get me wrong, he can lay a lick on a QB...)
Overall, Tyrin Ferguson never really fulfilled the potential Husker fans hoped he has and Alex Davis was the third most effective (by far) of players with the last name of Davis playing along the defensive front. Caleb Tannor continues to be a “shows some potential” guy and true freshman (in 2019) Garrett Nelson announced his presence loud and clear with hair-on-fire style of play and emotional reaction to getting a Blackshirt.
Ferguson and Davis are now graduated from a room that has a lot of young and walk-on players. The recruiting misses at this position have continued for the Husker coaching staff.
JoJo Domann is the lone senior and presumed starter/leader of the position group. He started six games in 2019 and recorded 52 tackles with 11 tackles for loss (2nd on the team), six pass breakups and two forced fumbles and 2.5 sacks, all career highs. #SwissArmyKnife His coverage skills are good and I expect him to get looks at the pro level moving back to his more natural position of safety. The numbers game at this position for the Huskers means he is needed up close to the line of scrimmage where he excels as a blitz-missle.
Caleb Tannor was set to be the lone returning junior (more below) with four starts, 17 tackles, three TFL and 2.5 sacks.
Some upperclassman will join the OLB room and are two familiar Husker players that have switched positions as juniors. Both have seen playing time on special teams (mostly) and are considered high-character guys. I’m guessing both made the switch to find an opportunity for playing time while the coaches were also eager to get leaders into a position room full of young guns.
Damian Jackson joined the Huskers as a defensive lineman and also found some work long-snapping. Jackson, as you probably know, is a former Navy SEAL in his mid-20s. He is listed at 6’2” and 275 lbs on the roster, but he never looked that big (to me). OLB might be a way for him to find defensive snaps in addition to the special teams snaps that have been his main workload so far.
Lane McCallum, #YesTheGuyWhoKickedTheGameWinningFieldGoalVsNorthwestern is switching from safety to OLB for 2020. He is another guy who has seen most of his work on special teams since transferring from the Air Force Academy in 2018. He was the starting placekicker for four games in a 2019 season in which Nebraska trotted out six or seven kickers. #MaybeMore
Both are walk-ons, hungry for playing time, and somewhat known quantities for the coaches. They both likely have a better chance to earn playing time at this new position and will ensure that the young guys have to work for their minutes. I like this shuffle very much.
Garrett Nelson - a Nebraska native who earned a scholarship offer from the Husker coaching staff played in 11 of 12 games in 2019 (he only stayed out of the 12th because of illness). He notched 15 tackles and 1.5 TFL. He plays a high-energy style of football that will surely make him a beloved figure among Husker fans.
Niko Cooper - joins the Huskers from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. His offer list wan’t overwhelming but he is a tall kid (6’5”). He was a three star recruit and the #3 juco weakside defensive end. With that height, it is tantalizing to imagine someone who might be able to cover tight ends...
Simon Otte - a walk-on from York, NE who is in his third year in the program and played in six games in 2019. He registered four tackles. He is an outstanding all-round athlete who was an all-state defensive back in high school, part of a state championship basketball team and all-conference soccer player. #ClayToMold
David Alstin - was a three star recruit out of high school who is tall and lanky. He had Ivy League and service academy offers before committing to Nebraska. He has yet to appear in a game for the Huskers.
Ryan Schommer - is a Nebraska native walk-on. He was the 2018 Husker scout team player of the year and another tall OLB but has more beef to him than Altin or Cooper. He hasn’t appeared in a game yet for Nebraska.
Despite the numbers crunch at this position and lack of production, the coaches seemed determined to preserve redshirts as much as possible (Garret Nelson being in the same recruiting class as those below but burning his redshirt in 2019).
Jamin Graham - also tall. Three star recruit. No game appearances yet for Nebraska.
Sam Shurtleff - tall walk-on from Georgia. No game appearances.
Nick Leader - native Nebraska walk-on. The son of David Leader, a two-year letterwinner at linebacker for Nebraska in 1991 and 1992.
Eli Richter and John Bullock - both Nebraska native walk-ons. Coach Frost is hoping the walk-on program pays dividends at this position as much as any other on the team.
*Sound of trumpets! Blaise Gunnerson - stolen from Iowa. Three star recruit, big frame and much expected of him as one of the rare recruiting wins at this position for Nebraska.
Jimari Butler - Tennessee really wanted him. We got him. Three star. Also tall.
Outlook for 2020
When I look at the underclassmen compared to the upperclassmen, there is clear evidence that the coaches are looking for taller players and are willing to turn them over to Zach Duval for development. The Huskers are playing the long game at this position, because development will be needed. There is a shortage of significant recruiting wins and polished pass rushers to expect this position to be a strength for the Blackshirts, especially if any of the three most experience players goes down with an injury.
JoJo will wreak havoc. #JoJoNeedsToStayHealthy
Garrett Nelson will wreak havoc. #GarrettNeedsToStayHealthy
Tannor has experience and talent but needs to put together more consistency for me to see him take a starting role from either JoJo or Garrett. I am also not paid to coach football, so my analysis could be flawed.
After those three, it is a real crap shoot. The two new additions to the room (McCallum and Jackson) hopefully prove to be solid bodies that will establish a work ethic and performance level that pushes the starters and makes the young players/walk-ons work for their minutes. I would be thrilled to see either or both of them break out and really contribute on defense.
According to my faulty memory, Gunnerson has the most hype and hope of the young players and may be pushed to contribute quickly. (If I missed someone - please let me know in the comments!)
After that, it is [insert shrug here]
I expect another year of Erik Chinander having to be creative to manufacture pressure on quarterbacks. I also expect a ‘learning’ year when the Huskers face a talented tight end or two. The unknowns in this position group are significant but it is clear the coaches are working every angle they can to unearth solid contributors or diamonds in the rough to go along with some of the known quantities on the roster.