We finally get to the fun part where we get to talk about the defense. I feel like I spent the entirety of the offensive previews telling you who is back or coming in, then following it up with “but who knows what will happen since we have a brand new OC/position coach”. I was excited to write about this side of the ball.
The unfortunate thing is i’m starting with DL, where we lose 4 guys who all played major roles for us on a defense that was top 40 in scoring defense. A huge part of that was how guys like Ben Stille and Damion Daniels developed under Dawson and Tuioti. You also lose Deontre Thomas, and Jordon Riley left to follow Tuioti to Oregon. 4 of your top 6 guys are gone according to snaps played in 2021, and while four guys are gone, we have zero coming in for the spring.
That never really used to be alarming, because before the transfer portal many times you would be thin at a few positions waiting for your recruits to show up. Nebraska targeted multiple defense linemen in the portal due to depth concerns, and blanked on them all. We were going to bring in Langi from Independence CC to play NG for us, but he signed with Houston after Nebraska cancelled his visit. We then tried bringing in Jade-Silvera, the starting NG from Miami but he chose ASU over us. Things got much worse when the player that got the most snaps at NG (Riley) behind Daniels left into the portal. We wanted at least one guy here for the spring if not two, and now Dawson has to take a strong look at what we have here to find out where we need some help either from the portal or JUCO ranks.
The defensive line reminds me a bit of after we lost the Davis twins and Daniels on the DL after the 2019 season, or losing Jaimes and Farniok on the OL after the 2020 season. My take was basically that while we have some young guns that can be good in the future, a step back for the immediate upcoming season would be nearly impossible to avoid. I see the same here for the DL in 2022. While there are some young guys that our staff is excited about, losing four of your top six guys from the prior year with no transfers in and only one recruit makes things extremely tough.
Let’s not go all doom and gloom, I like the DE pieces we have back in Casey Rogers and Ty Robinson. Robinson actually had the second most snaps of any DL on our team last year. The former top 100 recruit played really well early in his career, and many Husker fans are just waiting for him to breakout to what they think he could be. Casey Rogers is a recruit that many have been waiting for as well who has shown flashes of his potential as well. Between he and Robinson, 2022 seems to be set ok at DE. OK is the key word.
I do need to speak on a couple red flags with these two though. First, Robinson seems to have regressed a bit. While he started 7 games in 2020, he only started 4 in 2021. Further, according to PFF, he had the lowest grade of any of the 7 defensive linemen we played in a game for 2021. I didn’t expect that at all. We need him to reverse course a bit. Rogers hurt his knee in fall camp, and while it was thought to not be serious, he ended up missing nearly half of the season lowering his snap counts. Our coaches need to be extremely careful with these two in spring and avoid any injury, but they also need to make sure we get improvement. It will be a delicate balance.
Last thing with Robinson, I do want to say we are doing him a bit of a disservice shifting him back and forth between NG and DE. At some point you have to choose a route and go, otherwise he will never reach his ceiling. I don’t blame our coaches a ton, I mean what are they supposed to do? But they gotta keep guys healthy and at some point you need to pick a spot for him. If your depth creates issues for where you can play a guy, it goes sideways in a hurry (remember when we had to line Robinson up at RB?).
Let’s just move on to who will be our starting NG now this spring since Riley is gone, and that’s the Polar Bear, Nash Hutmacher. I got a lot of flack before the 2020 season when I told people he probably was at least one year away if not two from playing. I was told I didn’t do my research because of how strong he was and how good of a high school wrestler he was. There were even people saying he would push Daniels for the starting job. 2 years in and he’s played about 30 snaps, which is about right. He needed to learn to play along the lines of a P5 conference where people were just as strong as him. While I have confidence with his abilities, he needs a year or two to really come into his own. I liked what I saw when he played, he just needs more playing time to gain experience now. The example I’ll use is how Damion Daniels was able to just come in for his brother Darrion Daniels and learn how to play, and ended up being an all-conference player for us in 2021. We are just asking more of NH than he is probably ready for in 2022, but he will be a good player for us. I hope we add a big piece of the puzzle to NG in the transfer portal, get NH up to around 100-150 snaps, and then have him be an animal in 2023.
From here it gets weird. We truly only have 3 guys that have played any snaps for us at DL that I already mentioned in Hutmacher, Robinson, and Rogers. You then have guys like Wildeman who is older but had a season ending injury in 2018, got injured again in 2020, and looks nothing like the lean/athletic guy we recruited anymore. But if there were ever a time a guy like him could get some PT, it would be 2022 Nebraska. Can he make a move? I tend to lean towards us going younger on this, but sometimes the older guy giving it one last chance can really surprise people.
The next four are guys that I really haven’t seen or heard much about except “they have a ways to go” in Marquis Black, Mosai Newsom, Ru’Quan Buckley, and Jalin Weaver. For a guy like Weaver who is trying to figure out how to get his 6’8″ frame to work at this level, the staff did exactly what they should have. Played him against Fordham since he had 4 games to play in to keep his redshirt. Same with Buckley, where they got him in the game against Fordham. Newsom has been with the program for 3 seasons but hasn’t appeared in a game yet, so this spring will be interesting to watch for him. A guy like Marquis Black got in against Fordham and Buffalo, and will probably be needed to help at NG if we can’t find anyone. While none have played much, it’s tough to take anything really from their time against an FCS school.
We signed one DL recruit in the 2022 class, Brodie Tagaloa from one of the best high school programs in the country, De La Salle in California. For those of you saying we are moving to a 4-3, Tagaloa has stated in interviews we recruited him to play the DE in our 3-4. While things always get a bit dicey when you commit to a coach that is no longer at the school you go to, the opportunity for playing time may override any apprehension. He played offense and defense for De La Salle which I always like, because it helps you become a more well-rounded player.
We are going to need to figure out if we have someone that can start at NG for us, or if we have to move Robinson there to start. He’s basically our swing guy to help us. The thing about it is, it’s much easier to find a DE in the portal as opposed to a NG. We got lucky to get Darrion Daniels since his brother was here, and Damion Daniels was signed by Riley. Green was a bust, Riley left, etc. We have Hutmacher that we got over Wisconsin who runs a 3-4 and nearly the exact defense we do, so that’s a win. But we need to make a decision. I would not be shocked for us to go after two guys on the DL after spring. We just are too thin here and even if we find a NG, we seem to have minimal options behind who we find. Not to mention DE isn’t exactly full of depth. Getting some FBS experience in along the defensive line almost seems like the most important piece missing for this staff heading into 2022.
While I mock the 4-3 change and the even front discussion, it may end up happening. Chinander has done a very good job of designing the defense around what he has to work with, and he has an abundance of linebackers, but not many linemen. If we can get Nelson in more at a 4-3 DE type spot, it could really help. But make no mistake about it, things are really tight on the DL, and Dawson has his work cut out for him. We only have 9 scholarship players along the line, and that counts a true freshman and a guy that has been injured nearly his whole career here.
If we want any chance to replicate our scoring defense numbers this fall, Robinson and Rogers need to stay healthy and take the next leap, and we need to find a NG (most likely Hutmacher being who we need/want him to be). This will be the piece that determines if our defense goes or not. I’m not worried about our DL against teams like North Dakota or even Northwestern for now. But beating Wisconsin, Iowa, and now teams like Minnesota, we can’t be sub-par on either side of the line. It’s a huge spring for this position group.
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