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Wandering through the Corn Maze: Blackshirt Edition

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I tackle five questions about our defense as spring practice began Monday.

Tyler Wieseler

Our first breath of life in the 2022 season.

Helmets are bright white and scuff-free. Uniforms are clean and pressed. The long, hard months of winter conditioning are over. It’s time to see if that offseason progress has yielded results.

Obviously I’m blowing this massively out of proportion. An entire summer of offseason workouts will follow this spring camp. As well as fall camp, which should truly determine the pecking order of things on the field. But it’s hard not to be intrigued by the storylines spring ball has to offer.

New offensive position coaches. New offense. New players. Returning players. Battles for open positions. Answers to our Special Teams woes. It’s quite compelling.

Coach Scott Frost put all his chips on the table and bet on himself after restructuring his contract with Athletic Director Trev Alberts, in hopes that some fresh faces and philosophies might quiet the storm brewing over his lack of success on the field. Out with the old. In with the new.

The questions that crop up in spring are numerous and detailed. We know how the game should be played. We are past the point of simple answers to complex questions and are looking for signs of progress, not just lip service.

The Huskers took to the field for the beginning of spring practices on Monday. Some players, coaches, and even the HC himself spoke to the media this afternoon. Some questions were asked that mirror some of the questions below, so we will possibly have some answers to those things burning in the minds of the fan base.

I’ll also give you my take, and I hope (like many of you, Husker faithful) that we see some signs for optimism in the upcoming season. Not more of the same hair pulling and heartbreak that we’ve endured for the past several.

DEFENSE

Is there one player who can replace the production Jojo Domann gave the Blackshirts at Nickel?

Short answer, no. Anyone who thinks the Cornhuskers magically have a guy waiting in the wings to provide the type of production, let alone overall defensive knowledge, #13 brought to the field is in for quite a shocking surprise.

This position will probably become what Coach Erik Chinander expects it to be, a blend of guys who are talented at coverage, talented at stopping the run, and one or two who might have some skill at both.

Isaac Gifford, younger brother of former Husker LB Luke Gifford, was called upon late in the season when for the sake of his future beyond college, Jojo shut it down for the remainder of the year. He performed admirably as just a freshman filling the shoes of a sixth year senior, but the drop off was no doubt noticeable.

Javin Wright, a Husker legacy, is someone who we have heard so much about from defensive coaches about his speed and playmaking ability. Injuries, most recently blood clots, have derailed his previous seasons just as momentum was building for him. He is back on the field this spring, hungry and ready to compete.

Chris Kolarevic, a transfer from Northern Iowa, spent his first year working with Coach Barrett Ruud and the inside linebackers. However, Kolarevic has tested out with absolutely freakish type numbers for Coach Zach Duval and the strength and conditioning staff. His name was brought up as someone who could make the switch and see his playing time and production skyrocket.

Of course, Coach Travis Fisher was quick to point out today in interviews that his secondary room could have a say in that position as well. The already versatile coach who preaches fluidity through his room could send a hard nosed safety or big bodied corner down to liven up the competition at that position.

Isaac will get his opportunities there, I truly am keeping my fingers crossed on a player like Wright to stay healthy. Those who have seen him during practice say he’s not hard to miss. Kolarevic’s versatility will get him on the field. Will it be every down? We’ll wait and see.

Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers are known commodities, who else needs to step up on the defensive line?

Ben Stille, Damian Daniels, and Deontre Thomas are gone. So is Jordan Reilly, without so much as adding pressure for playing time. That means youth will rule the room while in search of at least three or four bodies, particularly one massive body. to man the front of this 3-4 defensive scheme. Casey Rogers, per report by Coach Frost, will spend some time getting his body right for fall camp. So Ty Robinson will need to be the one leading in the trenches for now.

Coach Mike Dawson also returns to coach the defensive line, adding the group to his duties as the returning outside linebackers coach. Coach Dawson started out on the defensive line in Lincoln before heading to the NFL and coming back to Nebraska, so there is familiarity there already with a few veteran faces in the room.

We have to start with The Polar Bear. Nash Hutmacher, the freshman from South Dakota, is otherworldly. According to Robinson he can squat 8 plates 2 times. That’s 765 lbs. people! That’s a lot of weight to throw around. Now, if he was training for World’s Strongest Man competition it’s impressive. But can the weight he’s throwing around translate into taking up double teams on the interior, while still provide pressure and gap integrity? That remains to be seen. He’ll get his chances to follow in the Daniels brother foot steps and be a force in the middle the Blackshirts need.

A lot of the other guys have had some positive words spoken about them, but are almost completely unproven.

Mosai Newsome, Marquis Black, Jailen Weaver, Ru’Quan Buckley have little to no on field production. Colton Feist, a walk on from Yutan has drawn praise in the past, but is coming off injury. Another player with the injury bug, Tate Wildeman. Once thought to be a shoo in for a defensive line position, injuries have plagued him almost since his arrival.

Brodie Tagoloa will come in as a true freshman in the fall and look for an opportunity. But it looks as though some names can show some results on the field this spring, a late addition from the transfer portal might be called up if the right player becomes available.

Both Safety spots are now open. Are Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates next in line?

I wish I could say with 100% certainty this was a yes for both players. Myles looks like a safer bet for snagging one of the open positions, although despite his breakout plays as a freshman, he was something of a forgotten man while playing as a sophomore. So the competition behind him will only get hotter as he looks to secure that spot.

You can almost take for granted the steady hand that Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke brought to that room. Sixth year guys. Unquestioned leaders of that unit. Now gone, looking for unproven leadership to emerge.

Noa Pola-Gates is a player who we’ve heard about and we certainly know his high school resume. But this is truly a make or break time for him. Coach Fisher will not stop recruiting players he think can contribute in his secondary room, regardless of how long you’ve been under his tutelage.

DeShon Singleton was the #4 rated JUCO college safety out of Hutchinson C.C.(Kan.) Marques Buford Jr. has crossover experience and will work with the safeties in the spring. He was so talented he they put him on the field on special teams all season without preserving his redshirt. Koby Bretz won a Class A football title for Omaha Westside and looks to be ready to jump at a chance for playing time. Javier Morton was originally committed to Alabama, before taking the JUCO route. Jalili Martin from Chicago comes in the summer and will look to compete. Not to mention the fact that Gifford and Wright are still listed as safeties, despite working in that Nickel role.

This is pressure cooker time for both Gates and Farmer. They cannot rest on familiarity with Coach Fisher, he cross trains his players too well to rest on what your positions “currently” is. The secondary is in need of playmakers, and Coach Fish will put playmakers on the field. Will it be who we think it should be?

Who will play opposite Quentin Newsome at the open Cornerback position?

Given Q’s comments at the opening day presser he will be the first one to tell you not even his position should be looked at as “guaranteed”. And, truthfully, we should believe him. As I said just recently, the secondary needs playmakers. You can bet the conversation of turnovers has come up multiple times in that room and how more need to be generated. Despite his comments, I believe he has earned his spot at corner, and I will proceed with the question that way. So who’s on the other side?

The first name that has to be mentioned is Braxton Clark. Braxton played in every game last year on the two deep depth chart after coming back from a season ending injury the previous year. Had he not had that injury he might have seriously pushed to play over Newsome his sophomore year. That being said, he’s now a veteran voice in that room and has playing experience. Both men are tall and rangy, well equipped to handle the size of receivers in the Big Ten.

Then again you have incoming names that aren’t just random additions, they have some familiarity with the defensive staff. Tommi Hill chose Arizona State over Nebraska out of high school, but realized that Lincoln is where he wanted to be after his freshman season in Tempe. He is someone Coach Fisher really wanted and was more than happy to welcome him to the fold with open arms when his name hit the transfer portal. He’ll look for a chance to start after playing in 11 games last fall.

Omar Brown was an FCS All American for Northern Iowa this past year. He’s been showered with accolades at the FCS level for the past three years. He has played against some high level competition, despite playing at what is seen as a lower level. He chose Nebraska to prove that he could play at the highest level, and play right away. He’ll have two years to make that happen, if talent translates it could only take one.

Ohio State transfer Tyreke Johnson, Tamon Lynum, and Phalen Sanford are now veterans who could look to make their push after waiting in the wings for the departure of Cam Taylor-Britt. Even Marques Buford Jr. could come back to corner if need be. Jaeden Gould is an early enrollee with a very impressive resume as a top 200 overall player by 247sports playing cornerback/safety for powerhouse Bergen Catholic in New Jersey. Gould chose the Huskers over the Nittany Lions, but held multiple strong Power 5 offers.

Late summer enrollee Malcolm Hartzog could see more of his opportunities on special teams as a dynamic punt/kick returner for his high school in the state of Mississippi. But he will no doubt want to prove he can play on a Power 5 defense as early as he can.

So many names, so few answers. The two deep will see the field often and if I had to say right now who would be in that two deep: 1) Newsome, Brown 2) Clark, Hill. But it will be hard to keep guys like Lynum, given his praise by teammates, and Gould, given his resume, off the field.

Is there sufficient depth in both linebacker rooms?

While it would have been nice to see Will Honas come back, you could see through the play of Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich, he would be demoted to a back up role. I wish him well as he tries to finish his last year elsewhere. Gone too are reserves Jackson Hannah and Wynden Ho’ohuli, both entering the transfer portal as well. As far as inside, Coach Ruud will look to some special teams standouts, underclassmen, and incoming players to find 2 or three guys to back up the team leading tacklers.

Eteva Mauga-Clements has been primarily a special teams player and reserve the past few years, but he will look at his senior season to crack a spot in the two deep inside. Garrett Snodgrass came in the same year as Henrich. A solid player with a strong football pedigree, he needed these past few years to adjust to the college level to become a contributor. Is he finally ready to take that step? Kolarevic has already been mentioned as someone who has experience inside, but if depth can be found in the underclassmen and incoming players, it will make the move outside a lot less stressful for Coach Ruud.

Randolph Kpai, Seth Malcolm, and Mikai Gbayor all redshirted last year. They each bring impressive high school resumes to the table, but have their bodies developed enough to withstand a full college football season in the Big Ten? Equally intriguing is Ernest Hausmann, the Columbus Discovers stand out. Hausmann enrolled in January and will look to find his place in this room, could his raw talent be enough to see the field early?

Behind Henrich and Reimer, I like Mauga-Clements and Snodgrass enough to hold the youngsters at bay for another year. Reimer is prone to the injury bug so the quicker the underclassmen can find footing, the better.

As for outside, It will be a good blend of veterans and underclassmen. And depending on the situation you might see different blends based on Coach Chins calls. We start obviously with Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor. Almost perfect in terms of guys who do one thing well and one thing extremely well. Nelson has a nose for the ball and is good in pass rush. Tannor does stop the ball well, but his speed can influence the pass rush or play out in coverage. These are 1A, 1B in terms of your outside. But there is depth behind them that I’m sure Coach Dawson will want to exploit.

Damian Jackson, the former Navy SEAL and all around tough guy for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, looks to put a red, white, and blue bow on a story that shows if you work hard and are a good person, good things will happen to you. He will be a force in stopping the run, using his leverage to make plays on a ball carrier. I’m excited to see him play his final year.

Blaise Gunnerson fought off some injuries to make a big time splash playing against Iowa while still managing to keep from burning a redshirt. He comes in as a redshirt freshman with two years experience and a motor that will make Husker fans hope he is the pass rusher we have been hoping for since Coach Frost arrived.

But the same motor has been spoken about by fellow redshirt freshman, Jimari Butler. He played only one season of high school ball, so his development under Coach Dawson has been key. But he is someone people have been praising even going back to last year. Is it time for the old guys to step away and hand it over to the new guys?

He may not factor in this year but once Jake Appleget gets on campus in the summer I’ll be asking players and coaches about him in fall camp. The Lincoln Southeast product has a nose for the ball and can play in coverage having played in the secondary in high school.

I don’t see any reason why all these guys couldn’t see significant snaps this fall for Coach Dawson and this defense, minus maybe Appleget. But pass rush has been a problem for years now, even back beyond Coach Frost. If you can’t find them ready made like some colleges can, you have to develop them. Let’s see if the development has paid off.

This concludes Part 2 of my 3 Part examination of the Nebraska Cornhuskers Spring Football camp. Be sure to check out Part 1, in which I answer 5 questions about the offense.

The conclusion will be my 5 Special Teams questions. I know 5 is probably not enough considering how dismal special teams have been. But, I’m eager to hear more from these new coaches and the players. Today was just a taste. There is a good buzz coming into the Spring around the team and an entertaining showing on April 9th at Memorial Stadium will give plenty of Husker faithful some hope and optimism going into the 2022 season.

#GBR