With a less than stellar start to the defensive position previews on Monday, i’m happy to inform you that this one should make us feel a bit better about things on this side of the ball.
Let’s start with the Edge spot, where Nebraska had to have a few guys grow into their own a bit last year. Guys like Tannor and Nelson I felt weren’t quite ready to enter 2021 and be mammoth contributors, but Nelson certainly proved me wrong in a hurry. While Nelson didn’t garner any all-conference honors, he led Nebraska in sacks (5.0), TFL (11.5), and was fourth on the team in overall tackles with 57. This year, he is poised to take a leap to all-conference mention as well as being named captain of our football team. His motor never quits. I also need to give Chinander some props with Nelson. Not sure if any of you remember me speaking on Nelson when he first got here from the other message board, but as a recruit coming from Scottsbluff, Nelson rarely was in coverage which is many times necessary for what our OLBs did early on in Chinanders tenure at Nebraska. In 2019 I remember being at a practice and watching Chinander try to work on getting back into coverage with him, hands behind their backs working on footwork, and it just wasn’t working. If Nelson was going to be out there, he was a massive liability when the defense was throwing at him. Then, Chinander comes up with his tweak with guys like Nelson mainly responsible for rushing the passer or potentially TEs/RBs in the flat, he didn’t have to sprint backwards and take away a zone from a WR and it has paid off mightily for Nelson.
Next, we have Caleb Tannor back for his senior season. Many of you probably remember getting him as a recruit since he was the prototypical 3-4 OLB. Long and athletic, he was ranked a 4 star by Rivals and fans figured him an early contributor. But the B1G can be a rude awakening at times, especially for people that play along the lines or aren’t use to the physicality. It’s actually a concern I have with Mathis moving from a different conference, but the learning curve won’t be steep. Back to Tannor, he didn’t have more than 2.5 sacks or 23 tackles in a season until what I would call a “breakout season” last year. Tannor looks to take the next step and solidify himself at the Edge spot this year opposite Nelson.
Before we go into more of our players here for 2022, let’s talk about who we lost from last year. Pheldarius Payne decided to leave and transfer to Virginia Tech, unfortunately he is out for the year with an achilles injury for the Hokies. Also, Damion Jackson, the former Navy Seal has taken off to try and play elsewhere. He and Chris Walker took a visit to Northwest Missouri State, but Jackson inevitably ended up at Buffalo. While I consider Payne a loss in regard to some depth, these again are what the transfer portal is used for in a positive way for teams…
…because in comes Ochaun Mathis from TCU to replace Payne, and for all intensive purposes that dude will be battling for playing time with Nelson and Tannor. While Mathis had 9 sacks in the covid year of 2020, he only had 4 sacks in 2021. Teams were definitely game planning to stop him and chip with TEs or RBs. What will be curious for me is how he does in the B1G compared to the pass happy Big12. I don’t think it’s any secret that teams will try to run right at Tannor and Mathis, can they handle that? I have no doubt about their pass rushing ability, but when teams like Minnesota or Northwestern (before we talk about Iowa or Wisconsin) find a possible weakness, they exploit it with their massive lines. I am curious to see what Mathis’ transition is like. Further, how can Chinander get him, Nelson, and Tannor on the field at the same time since in our preview we went over just how thin our DL was? What I expect to see is in extreme passing downs like 3rd and long, sometimes only having 1 DL on the field, and those 3 in the game at the same time rushing the passer and getting more athleticism on the field.
For an example, if any of you have ever heard of the “amoeba defense” on passing downs, I think we will see something like that. Robinson manning the NG spot to put pressure up the middle, then Mathis, Tannor, Nelson, Reimer, and Henrich roaming around to create chaos. This does a few things, first, doesn’t let the offense know where you are blitzing from. But secondly, it will allow for quick pressure so Chinander’s young secondary does not have to cover as long.
Nebraska actually used a variation of this when we had Randy Gregory and called it the “spinner” package. Gregory would line up off the line and loop in blitzing up the middle.
So we are set at Edge with those top 3, lots of options there. Behind them we have Blaise Gunnerson, who is a recruit from Iowa that Nebraska was able to take a chance on due to multiple hip/leg injuries in high school. If he can get over those, he is poised to take over once Mathis and Tannor are gone. I really like what he brings to the table, but again, he has to stay healthy. He has a similar situation to what Luke Gifford had to deal with. Gunnerson would have been a 4 star recruit if not for the injuries, so many teams stayed away from recruiting him. Tre Bryant is another good example here, as we were able to take Bryant due to other teams passing with his knee issues, he ended up having to retire. Hopefully Gunnerson ends up like Gifford.
Also you have Jimari Butler from the 2020 recruiting class. At nearly 6’6, he was the recruit that we grabbed to see if we could keep him athletic and develop an unreal edge player. He appeared in two games last year against Fordham and Buffalo, so it will take some adjustments for him. But I hope we get to see quite a bit of him in blowouts.
Nebraska also has Simon Otte at the Edge spot. Otte, a walk-on from York i’ve always been pretty impressed with, at minimum I believe you will see some special teams play out of him.
Jake Appleget is an Edge recruit from Lincoln Southeast who I watched a couple times in 2021 at Seacrest Field. While I thought he deserved a scholarship sooner than he received one, i’m happy we got him on board. He will have plenty of time to get accustomed to big time college football while the previously mentioned players are on the field.
Shifting to the Nick position
For those of you confused, that is what we changed the name of the position JoJo Domann played to. Domann leaves a massive void at this spot, as he not only was extremely productive being third on the team in tackles, second in sacks and TFLs, he was also a second team all-conference player in 2021. Those are some big shoes to fill, and while I think we will see a slight drop off in 2021, I think we are in good hands for the future.
Let’s start with the guy that will get the nod, Isaac Gifford. If the name sounds familiar, I mentioned his brother earlier. He is smaller than Domann, as he is listed at 6’1 200 pounds and Domann was 240 at the end of his playing time here, but he has the same ball instincts that JoJo had. It just gives Chinander a little less flexibility because Domann could play up on the line if something weird happened after motion and he needed to insert into the running game. That is going to be what the challenge is. Again, I think Chinander will have a “passing nickel” group and a “running nickel” group. What I mean is in passing situations, Gifford is in with possibly the amoeba package of LBs. But if it’s 3rd and 5 with 3 WRs, we may see someone like the next guys in.
I believe Chinander knew that could be a problem, and with ILB so established, they moved Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic to the Nick spot. At 6’1 225 he gives us a little bit better options if teams find out they can formation us into having Gifford on the line. Kolarevic destroyed everyone in testing numbers, but we are yet to see it on the field. While this is going to be a lot different for him, we will see if he can figure out playing in even more space.
Behind those two you have Javin ‘Budda’ Wright. The son of Husker legend Toby Wright, he has had the injury-bug since coming here. At 6’5 he could certainly grow into what Domann was, but he needs some time healthy of being on the field to get acclimated to the position.
Come back on Friday when we go over the ILB room.
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