Following up the inside linebacker preview is our outside linebacker preview. While we lose one of our best defensive players at this spot, it appears there is enough pieces to keep things somewhat together here for the 2022 season.
Mike Dawson will be back to help coach this group, but also takes on the task of the DL. I have to believe Bill Busch will help in some capacity here or in the defensive backfield, but since Fisher has our guys playing pretty well, I imagine he will help here.
While I like what we have coming back, let’s start with what we have lost. JoJo Domann was one of the more dominant players we have had on defense in some time. Domann was second on our team in tackles for loss and was a second team All-American this year, you don’t just replace that kind of production unless you are Alabama or Ohio State. But he certainly led the way so other guys could learn from him and get the sense of what works best in our scheme.
We also lost Jamin Graham and four star Wynden Ho’Ohuli to the portal from the OLB room. While things like this will happen, I was pretty excited for the additon of Ho’ohuli from Hawaii. But he didn’t play in 2020 in high school due to Covid, and just never caught his footing here. Tuioti leaving made it an easy decision for him.
Let’s start with our two players that are back we saw a lot of last year in Caleb Tannor and Garrett Nelson. Nelson is the guy I point to that shows Chinander knows how to play to his players strengths. If you remember from the other site, I made mention that Nelson played with his hand in the ground all the time in high school, and his coverage was just awkward at Nebraska. Our coaches were working with him, but he didn’t start out as a safety like Domann, so it was just foreign to him. We made it so our defense essentially played to his strengths and didn’t need him in coverage. And the result was he led our team in sacks and tackles for loss. Tannor also found his way becoming an edge pass rush specialist that we inserted for our noseguard many times in our nickel package. While that wasn’t his exclusive role, that is where we liked to use him. What will be interesting is do we play more with Tannor and Nelson on the field next year even on non passing downs? I can tell you teams like Wisconsin and Iowa would lick their chops being able to run at our nickel guys, but that is something Chinander will need to explore this spring and in fall camp.
To replace Domann, we have Isaac Gifford who is the brother of Luke Gifford. He stepped in during JoJo’s injury and really did well and surprised me. He was further along than I even thought at this point in time. While I wouldn’t say he’s ready to step in and be an All-American right now, I actually like his odds of getting in for some honorable mention all-conference honors in 2022 if our defense stays the same.
With Tannor, Nelson, and Gifford back, Chinander has some flexibility at the OLB spot to work with. Let’s talk who else can come in to help…
Pheldarius Payne put his name in the transfer portal, but quickly came back. While I tend to think once you have a foot out the door it’s tough to get trust back, I think Payne can really help against teams like Iowa and Wisconsin as he is a sure tackler and has experience at this level. On the same level as Payne, Blaise Gunnerson showed he’s recovering well from his injuries and could be poised to overtake Payne as he is younger and could have more years in the system once Payne graduates. If we can keep Gunnerson healthy, I like him to leapfrog Payne.
Jimari Butler and Damian Jackson will be interesting. Jackson is out this spring with an injury, and I love his story, but quite frankly if he is playing we are in a bit of trouble. A guy like Butler could really help with his athleticism and rushing the passer. What kind of leap does he take this spring?
Javin Wright hurt his shoulder when he first got here, and then was dealing with blood clots this past year, but looks poised to challenge Isaac Gifford for some playing time at the nickel spot. Son of Toby Wright, I need to see him on the field for an extended period of time before I can get excited, but the pedigree is there. Hopefully he can stay healthy this spring and get some experience.
In 2022 we brought in Jake Appleget from Lincoln Southeast and Gage Stenger from Millard South who I believe will be starting out at OLB. Appleget is interesting to me, as he’s one of those that is very athletic, and could become a Luke Gifford type. Stenger played all over the field for Millard South, and if I had to guess will be one of those guys like Domann who just has a nose for the ball. We stole him from Kansas State, and after seeing guys like Nelson and Gifford dominate for us from in-state, tough to be mad at these gets. One of them will pan out for us.
We have a lot back to look forward to, but losing an All-American is tough. The big thing we need to figure out is what we do with our deefense. Is a Domann role still going to be needed? If I had my say, it would be. Because a defense with Isaac Gifford out there is better than without him when looking at our LBs. But is that good for the long haul of the 2022 season?
Most of this will be dictated by what we can find on the DL. Which we went over in detail in our DL preview. Big year for the young guys to make steps towards playing time, but also a big year for Dawson on the recruiting trail as Nelson and Tannor will be gone before we know it.