The last couple weeks we have been going over the offense and what we have seen in fall camp so far. Now we shift to defense. I was hesitant to start on the defensive line as this is my most critical position for 2022 and our success, but y’all have spoken on the poll on Twitter. You see, for all the questions I have about TE, OL, if we can get the ball to our WRs, if we can create holes, at least Whipple can scheme around that. When you are on defense, an OC and head coach watch film and see your weaknesses and try to exploit them. You don’t get to dictate like offense can.
We are razor thin here in every sense of the word. Nebraska loses Ben Stille, who led our team on the DL in snaps at 560. Damion Daniels was a force at NG for us, third on our team with 365 snaps. Fourth on our team in snaps was Deontre Thomas with 308, he had another year of eligibility but hung up his cleats. Casey Rogers was hurt most of last year, but was sixth on our team in snaps last year with 139, he transferred to Oregon. And seventh on our team last year in snaps was Jordon Riley with 63, who followed Rogers and Tuioti to Oregon as well. That is scary. Nebraska had 1,919 snaps last year from their top 7 DL and we lose 1,333 of those.
I’ve been reading previews for the DL everywhere and it’s crazy to me, everyone just goes over our even front that has 2 edge players like Nelson/Tannor with our 2 DL and it’s almost as if they forget about the fact we play an odd front when we are going against Wisconsin, Iowa, etc. Robinson got 44 snaps against Minnesota, Daniels our NG got 41 against them. Robinson got 55 snaps against Michigan, Daniels got 51. Even against a team like Oklahoma, Robinson got 41 snaps, Daniels got 37. My point is, we played our odd front (only time Daniels is in except goalline) more than people give it credit for. Even further, we were running a 3-4 in the spring against certain formations still just like we always have.
So either we were practicing something in the spring that we won’t do in the fall, or we are going to run it and many media outlets are breezing over how thin we are if we have to run 3 DL out there. It’s bad from depth even when those outlets only have 2 DL on the depth chart preview they do, let alone 3 when we have a NG to put in there. Let me just get into it…
Ty Robinson is the only returner on the DL who has more than 26 snaps playing in our scheme (458 snaps). I actually like Robinson a lot, but he tends to get worn down during a season (as most linemen do) and he is going to have to play a ton of football for us due to our lack of bodies. Robinson is poised to replace Ben Stille as our leading snap man on the DL. We have to protect him… If we are up against North Dakota, Georgia Southern, get him the hell out of there.
With Daniels gone, Nash Hutmacher will take his place at starting NG. The Polar Bear had 26 snaps last year in total, and did not record any tackles or stats. In fact, he would have had even less snaps if Daniels stayed healthy the entire year. If you followed me from the other message board, I got a lot of flack for saying he just wasn’t ready right away as a true freshman during the summer before his true freshman year. I was told how strong he was and how good of a wrestler he was, and just how wrong I was going to be. While it shouldn’t be looked at as surprising that people struggle to play their first two years along the lines, it gets tough when they are thrust into action year 3 with no real “buffer” year to figure it out with live game reps. What I mean by that is even for how good Damion Daniels was for us in 2021, he had Mick Stoltenberg play in 2018, then in 2019 he had his brother Darrion Daniels play in front of him where he could sub those guys in and out. I loved what Damion Daniels did for our football team, he’s exactly what we needed at NG. But he played sparingly his first three years, was named the starter in 2020 (where Chin changed our nickel package to not have him play out of position/as much), and really came into his own in year 5 (2021). Hutmacher is just being forced to accelerate the learning curve. So while I think he will be fine in the long run, there will be growing pains this year with him.
The backup at NG to Hutmacher is Stephon Wynn, a transfer from Alabama. If you go to 247 sports’ top team talent composite, Wynn actually ranks 3rd on Nebraska just ahead of Fidone. But we all know how fickle those ratings can be. Wynn needs to learn our scheme then learn to play in the B1G against a much different style of football. I think he and Hutmacher are kind of a ying and yang, while Wynn is a bit more explosive and Hutmacher is a bit more powerful. It will be interesting to see what Chinander does this year in normal sets by the offense. I made reference that he removed the NG in 2020 during our nickel situations. What are we going to do against 1 and 2 TEs this year, can we get in an even front and remove the NG a bit? We may have to, because we are thrusting NG and SW in the fire in a hurry, but we didn’t this spring. It’s actually what I will be anxious to see from Nortwestern game 1. Do they keep a TE on the field so we have to stay in an odd front with a NG? Or do they spread us out and bail us out?
Let’s go back to DE… we already talked about Robinson, he’s the rock on the DL, but after that it gets worrisome. Yes, after one guy I am worried. And we start two and need backups. On the other side of Robinson, walk-on Colton Feist has been getting the nod to start at DE. He’s a bit undersized compared to Robinson, as he is listed at 275 and Robinson at 310. He is definitely serviceable, but i’m worried between NG and the DE spot opposite Robinson that we will get gashed. If i’m an opposing coach I go right at that all day.
After that it’s a ton of unknown. I’m sure you are all wondering if I forgot about Texas Tech transfer Devin Drew. I didn’t, he just didn’t get here til Wednesday of last week and i’m not sure he even had full pads on until yesterday. That basically gives him about 2 weeks to learn the defense, get in game shape, and be ready for Ireland. I don’t like that. It’s reminiscent of people waiting for Jahkeem Green to get here and look how that turned out. For the record, Drew will have more snaps after the first few games than Greens entire career but I think you get my point, it takes time.
So then you have to figure out who is backing those 3 up, and even those 3 concern me. Weaver is still needing to get in shape, so that leaves you with Buckley or Newsom to man the other spot. I just don’t know guys.
I would say I feel “good” about those top 3 at DE. But not really that good. Robinson is fine, but what if he goes down? Will Drew get up to speed quick enough? Are teams going to figure out Feist is 275 and run right at him? I mean, what do we do? Last year, Stille, Rogers, Daniels, and Robinson could keep the OL off of our athletic ILBs Henrich and Reimer. This year? I worry about that. A lot. So can Henrich and Reimer have as good of years playing in a bit more traffic?
For those of you that think ok we will just do an even front and only use 2 DL like all of the ‘DL preview’ things you’ve seen at other outlets. Ok, so Feist is too small, so we are putting Nelson, Tannor, or Mathis as 2 of our 4 guys on the line? The biggest guy there is Mathis at 260. When we play massive teams like Wisconsin or Minnesota they will just run right at us. When we play Iowa they’ll figure out they can put a couple TEs there and guys like Mathis and Tannor won’t be able to play in space. It isn’t going to work.
Our DL just doesn’t give us a ton of flexibility in my opinion. And i’m really worried. Northwestern has a really good OL coming back. It’s why when I read practice reports and hear that we were running all over them, it makes sense. I’m sure i’m just worrying too much. When you read what I just typed out, you almost have to go an even front with our edge players 2 of the 4. But it completely changes what we do. The last two years when we went even front, we were in our nickel so guys like Domann and now Gifford/Wright would be on the field. You can’t just get rid of DL and put in 250 pound edge guys and converted safeties as LBs in the B1G. I will get into it in my preview week, but I’ll be curious to see what Chins does, because I don’t think we can do it the same way we have been.
Wednesday we can flip the script and talk about a position I really like, ‘edge’ (we will include the ‘nick’ spot in there as well).