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Catching Up with Coach Mark Manning: Roster Updates

Nebraska has a lot of moving pieces at the light weights but boasts a top squad

Head Coach Mark Manning before his team’s dual against Minnesota on February 22, 2020.
Jon Johnston / CORN NATION

Recently I was able to catch up with Nebraska Head Wrestling Coach Mark Manning about what’s happened since last season. In Part I, I wrote about how the pandemic has changed things, what the upcoming schedule will look like (it’s since been released) and some roster maintenance issues.

Now with the beginning of the season upon them this Friday at the Devaney Center against No. 13 Minnesota, I’ll dive into what I learned about the fifth-ranked Huskers’ potential lineup this season.

In case you are new to college wrestling, each team fields a team of 10 wrestlers at 10 different weight classes. During a dual, each team’s wrestler at each weight wrestles for team points. Wrestlers are awarded three points for a decision victory, four points for a major decision (win by 8-14 points), five for a technical fall (win by 15 points or more) and six points for a win by pinfall. The team with the most points at the end of the dual wins.

Another year, another new starter at 125 pounds for Nebraska. In a weight class that’s hard to fill with the same wrestler for consecutive years because guys naturally grow out of it, 125 pounds will have its fourth different starter in four years when senior Liam Cronin takes the mat against the Golden Gophers.

From 2013 through 2017, Nebraska was fortunate enough to have a four-year starter at 125 pounds, something that’s fairly rare in college wrestling, in Tim Lambert. Lambert racked up a 106-44 overall record and a 46-16 record in duals in four years manning college’s lightest weight for the Huskers. In the three seasons since, Nebraska has started Mitchell Maginnis, Zeke Moisey and current sophomore Alex Thomsen for a combined record of 42-43 and a 16-24 record in duals.

So in comes Cronin, who transferred this offseason to Nebraska from Indiana. Cronin compiled a 42-31 career record at Indiana and finished the 2019-20 season with a 17-13 record. He went 6-3 in Big Ten duals and finished fifth at the Big Ten Championships with a pin over now-teammate Thomsen. Nebraska looks to the senior transfer to have a solid year as to solidify that 125-pounds spot, giving freshman Jeremiah Reno a season to acclimate before being thrown into the Big Ten grinder. Cronin begins the season ranked No. 16 in the country. According to Manning, the hope is that they’ve found that next multiple-year starter at 125 pounds in Reno starting next season.

At 133 pounds will be another new face from last season. Last year’s surprise in true freshman Ridge Lovett is moving up in weight, so Nebraska will be starting either junior Tucker Sjomeling or sophomore Alex Thomsen, who’s also moving up a weight class.

Sjomeling went 14-5 as a freshman before winning the starting spot at 133 pounds to begin the 2019 season. His season was short lived as he went down with a season-ending injury in his third match of the year. That’s why Lovett was thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman. But now that Sjomeling is all healed up, he’s ready to win the starting spot, but he’ll be competing with Thomsen. Thomsen, last year’s starter at 125 pounds, will move up to 133 pounds this season and this competition looks to be a tight one. Thomsen flashed real potential last season and then surprised everyone by winning Senior Nationals in Greco-Roman. Here he is knocking off the top-seeded Taylor LaMont.

The Husker coaches brought in a pair of blue-chip prospects at 125 and 133 this season in Reno and Dominick Serrano. The plan was to redshirt them both, but with the NCAA eligibility waiver, it’s possible one or both could get some run in the lineup at times this season.

“Our plan was to redshirt (Reno) and Dom Serrano,” Manning said. “But we’ll see how those guys come along and if we’re able to use them in certain dual meets. We’d love to get them some competition.”

With Thomsen and Lovett moving up, there was bound to be a logjam somewhere. And it looks like Nebraska will have a pair of All-American type wrestlers at 141 pounds. Returning starter Chad Red Jr. returns for his senior year at 141 pounds. And according to Manning, the fifth-ranked Red has no interest in moving up in weight.

“He wants to be a national champ at 141,” Manning said of Red.

Nebraska Head Coach Mark Manning psyching up Chad Red Jr. before a match at Minnesota last season.
Jon Johnston / CORN NATION

Red will face some healthy competition in Lovett who just has to move up in weight, according to Manning. Fresh off his Junior National Title, Lovett will battle Red for the starting spot at 141 pounds. Lovett comes into the season ranked No. 9 at 133 pounds.

“He’ll never see 133 again in his life,” Manning said of Lovett. “He made quite a sacrifice (cutting to 133 pounds), especially as a freshman. You just don’t see that. He’s a really super tough kid.”

Ridge Lovett scores four near-fall points during a dual against Michigan last season as a freshman.
Dylan Guenther / CORN NATION

As for Red, he’s held down 141 pounds for three years for Nebraska and I don’t anticipate him losing his gig as a senior. Red has compiled a 67-32 career record while earning All-American honors twice and finishing second (2019) and third (2020) at the Big Ten Championships.

“His weight class has always been tough. For him to be an All-American as a freshman, he had to wrestle a two-time National Champ (Dean Heil) that year and he pinned the guy,” Manning said of Red. “He’s always at a stacked weight class and he’s just really matured into the competitor we thought he was. He just got better and matured into a tremendous young man and I couldn’t be prouder of him. He’s just stepped it up a notch. Through this Covid, he’s worked his butt off. All our guys have. I’m really proud of all of our guys how they’ve handled this.”

In another weight class with options, Nebraska has good depth and potential at 149 pounds. Despite the inexperience, this weight class could prove to be a strength by the end of the year. Nebraska will look to a trio of sophomore Jevon Parrish, redshirt freshman Kevon Davenport and true freshman Brock Hardy.

Those guys are nip and tuck. It’s going to be fun,” Manning said of the trio.

Parrish, who started as a freshman at 133 pounds and redshirted last season, will be moving up two weight classes to 149 pounds. That’s a big jump. He went 20-12 as a freshman starter and went 14-3 in open tournaments last season.

“Jevon Parrish is a workhorse. He’s right there man,” Manning said. “I don’t know who’s going to win that. All three are within a point. It’s a good problem to have.”

As for Davenport, he comes in after going 18-4 a year ago while redshirting and looks to be the favorite to start. After all, he’s ranked No. 18 in the country as a freshman. While redshirting last year, he was easily the most excited guy at duals, serving as the team’s hype man. He’s fun to watch on the mat too. And as for him possibly moving up due to his long and lean build, Manning said he’s probably at 149 to stay. According to Manning, Davenport walks around at 153 pounds naturally. The coach also pointed out that the Huskers took Davenport to the Big Ten Championships to get a feel for the environment.

“I don’t know, he must have hollow bones or something,” Manning joked. “He has no problem at 149. He’s great. We brought him on a bunch of road trips and Big Tens, so we always usually take some freshmen that are really promising in regards to just giving them that experience of being there. Seeing it first hand is huge.”

Brock Hardy comes in after finishing his two-year LDS mission after graduating high school. At 20 years old, he’s as old of a freshman as you’ll find. And according to Manning, the former top-shelf prospect has hit the ground running after coming back two months earlier than expected due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As soon as he landed from the plane he was probably in a wrestling room in Utah,” Manning said. “Then he spent almost the whole summer here and in Utah. And this fall he’s just been a mat rat. He’s exceeded my expectations as far as where he would be coming back, but he’s in the mix. He’s very impressive.”

At 157 pounds, it sounds like No. 10 Peyton Robb will get the nod and won’t move up to 165 pounds to replace the graduated Isaiah White. As a redshirt freshman, Robb was impressive as he finished with a 20-6 overall record and a third-place finish at the Big Ten Championships.

And as for how Nebraska plans to replace the All-American White, Manning said there are “about four or five guys.” Redshirt freshman John Henrick returns from a shoulder injury last season, Caleb Licking is moving up from 149 pounds, redshirt freshman Bubba Wilson is turning the page after dealing with some medical issues, and Isaiah Alford may be moving down from 174.

The senior Licking went 17-5 last season at 149 pounds, while Wilson posted an impressive 19-1 record while redshirting. Henrick went 2-4 before being lost for the season and the redshirt freshman Alford went 8-5 last season at 174 pounds.

“We’ll just see who kind of rises there,” Manning said.

For what it’s worth, Alford moved down to 74 kg (163 pounds) at Junior Nationals and finished with a 6-2 record, finishing in fifth place. I think he may be the leader so far here.

Then after all that shuffling and uncertainty in the lightweights, Nebraska boasts one of the best trios in the country back-to-back-to-back in junior Mikey Labriola and seniors Taylor Venz and Eric Schultz. These three account for 189 career wins, and along with the senior Red, will be relied upon to lead this team, according to Manning.

Mikey Labriola (left) facing Minnesota’s Devin Skatzka last season.
Jon Johnston / CORN NATION

“(Chad Red) is a great leader for us. Him and Taylor Venz and Eric Schultz and Mikey Labriola,” the coach said. “We’re going to do as good as those guys do. Those guys are our leaders.”

The All-American Labriola will start his third straight year at 174 pounds for the Huskers and is ranked No. 3 in the country, while Venz and Schultz both are entering their fourth years starting. No. 7 Venz is an All-American at 184 pounds and Schultz is a three-time NCAA qualifier at 197 pounds and is preseason ranked No. 3. He most assuredly would have picked up his first All-American honor last season as the three-seed to the NCAA tournament that was cancelled. Schultz finished second at the Big Ten tournament to end last season, while Venz finished third and Labriola sixth.

Taylor Venz getting his hand raised after a win last season against Minnesota.
Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

Schultz, who finished fifth at Senior Nationals a couple months ago at 97 kg (214 pounds), may be one of the favorites to win the NCAA title.

“We feel good about our guy, whether he’s ranked second or first doesn’t matter,” Manning said. “Eric is on a mission.”

Eric Schultz scores a takedown in a dual against Michigan last season.
Dylan Guenther / CORN NATION

At heavyweight, the Huskers have options as they have five guys on the roster at 285 pounds. Sounds like it will be between 13th-ranked senior Christian Lance and Wyoming transfer Cale Davidson who has spent the past year moving up from 197 to 285. I’ll be interested in who they put out there at heavyweight to open the season against Minnesota’s top-ranked Gable Steveson.