Pernell: Previewing the Defensive Line

Categories: 2019 Football
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Senior transfer Darrion Daniels will be right in the middle of the Nebraska defensive line revival this fall.
Stopping the run has been a popular talking point among defensive players this offseason. They know they have to get better. Last year they got pushed around too often, rarely stuffed their opponents in short-yardage situations and gave up 195.8 rushing yards per game, which ranked 96th nationally. Nebraska’s defense finished 107th in rushing yards per carry allowed (5.0) and gave up 29 rushing touchdowns. They only managed to keep two opponents (Colorado and Northwestern) below 100 yards on the ground while giving up 200 yards five times, including 300-plus to Wisconsin and Illinois. The Huskers gave up 8 yards a carry to Illinois and Wisconsin, 6 to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan and 5 to Purdue. Every part of the defense showed statistical improvement from 2017 to 2018, but the run defense represented some of the smallest gains.

Opponents converted third downs 43.2 percent of the time, which put the Huskers 103rd nationally. The defense was quite average when trying to prevent red zone scoring, finishing 53rd in that area with an 81.8 percent success rate by opponents, which included 33 touchdowns out of the 45 scores. Nebraska allowed 31.3 points per game last season, which was only better than Rutgers and Illinois in the Big Ten. Against Big Ten opponents that number grew to 34.3 points per game, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten. The 5.81 yards per play the Huskers allowed ranked 10th in the conference and 75th nationally.

When Tony Tuioti was hired by Nebraska, the new defensive line coach made it perfectly clear that stopping the run was one of his core beliefs. He speaks about it with passion. His interview with Scott Frost and Erik Chinander centered largely around the topic. “For me I will always stress stopping the run. That’s where it starts for me. When we talked as a staff, a lot of my time was spent talking about how I can help these young men develop in the run game. To develop the skills and tools they need to stop the run.” Tuioti’s defensive line helped Cal limit their opponents to just 3.61 yards per rush (25th) and 13 rushing touchdowns. The defensive line seems to have a chip on their shoulder after last season. It’s easy to see why. They need to come into this season angry and anxious to get the bad taste of last season out of their mouths.

Coaches brought in two big-time transfers who will provide an immediate boost. On paper, this seems to be the deepest position group on the roster heading into the season. That’s a good thing. Last season, the Huskers averaged 77 defensive snaps per game. Because of the offense and tempo Frost runs, the defense will often play a large number of snaps. With the Husker offense seemingly ready to take off, the defense could expect to play even more snaps this year. As a result, Frost has said he’d like to see his defense have guys rotating in like “hockey lines.” The defensive line would seem to be in prime position to accomplish this in 2019. “This game is fast. Especially our big guys,” Tuioti explained. “They got to be able to substitute and be fresh. We need anywhere between six to eight guys, depending on the pace of the game. To us, it’s about being able to play fresh and play as fast as we can, as long as we can and as hard as we can. I’m going to roll a lot of guys.”

Among the biggest reasons for optimism regarding this group is the addition of Darrion Daniels at nose guard. The 6-foot-4, 340-pounder is the older brother of Husker defensive lineman Damion Daniels, and is exactly the kind of ‘War Daddy’ this 3-4 defense needs in the middle. The older Daniels played all four seasons for Oklahoma State – 40 career games – recording 64 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. After starting 10 games as a junior, Daniels started the Cowboys’ first four games before his senior year was cut short when he tore a tendon in his left pinky finger, which required surgery. With the new NCAA rule allowing a player to redshirt if he plays no more than four games, Daniels was given a chance to redo his senior year. He informed OSU coaches of his decision to grad transfer on Dec. 3 and quickly became a hot commodity. Offers came from LSU, Auburn, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and others, but Daniels decided to use his final year to play with his younger brother. Nebraska officially announced his addition on Dec. 21.

A former four-star recruit, Daniels was the top-ranked commit in OSU’s 2015 class, with nearly 30 offers that included Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Miami, Notre Dame, USC, Ole Miss, TCU, Wisconsin, among others. He was also offered by Bo Pelini and Nebraska. Daniels was named the Cowboys’ Outstanding Defensive Newcomer after his freshman season and earned the program’s 2017 Vernon Grant Award for outstanding leadership, spirit and enthusiasm. A team captain, Daniels was so respected and such a significant piece of OSU’s defense that he still traveled with the team on a handful of road trips after his injury because coach Mike Gundy said the team would benefit from his vocal leadership. Darrion has fit in quickly in Lincoln and has been lauded by players and coaches alike for the impact he has made both on-and-off the field. Proof of that came recently when his new teammates voted him one of two defensive team captains.

One of the byproducts of Darrion’s addition is that it affords his younger brother Damion Daniels another year to develop before being asked to take over the middle in 2020. The 6-foot-3, 340-pound redshirt sophomore’s top priority is continuing work on his conditioning. Daniels played in all 12 games last season, but was only able to give the Huskers about 14 snaps per game. When he was fresh, Daniels was a clog in the middle, often demanding double-teams. He was a disruptive force that was tough to deal with, albeit in short spurts. “He’s a drag car racer. He burns gas really fast,” Tuioti said. “He’s really putting a big effort in terms of trying to push his threshold to three good plays in a row to try and get to five. After three there’s a big drop-off for him, and he knows that and we know that up front. When teams scheme us they know that when No. 93 is in they try to get him tired right away. Try to throw screens and make him run sideline to sideline. When you try to run the ball inside, he’s going to be a beast for us. He’s trying to push himself to five plays, which would be great, and then we could bring the next guy in to sub for him.”

Nebraska has several guys who will vie for playing time at the defensive end positions. Tuioti has five who could make a case for starting. Ben Stille appeared in all 12 games last season, making 11 starts, and was second on the team with 5 sacks. The 6-foot-5, 295-pound junior out of Ashland-Greenwood was solid, but he didn’t take that next step everyone thought he would take last season. In 2017, Stille became the first freshman to lead the Huskers in tackles for loss (9.5) since the stats began being tracked in 1968, and the first freshman to lead Nebraska in sacks (3.5) since the stat became official in 1981. Last season, Stille played more snaps than any other Husker defensive end. He’ll start the season backing up Khalil Davis, but will certainly see plenty of reps.

Khalil Davis didn’t actually start a game last year for Nebraska, but played the best football of his career, and was named the Defensive Lineman of the Year by the Husker coaches after the 2018 season. He also earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors by the media. The 6-foot-2, 315-pounder finished with 41 tackles, eight TFLs, three sacks, four QB hurries, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

His twin brother Carlos Davis has the ability to work any of the spots on the defensive line. A year ago, he started the first four games at defensive end and then worked the last eight games primarily at the nose tackle spot when Mick Stoltenberg was in and out with injuries. Davis has been a factor on Nebraska’s defensive line since his redshirt freshman season in 2017, playing in all 37 games over the past three years with 25 starts. According to Pro Football Focus, Carlos Davis was Nebraska’s highest-graded defensive lineman in 2018. The 6-foot-2, 320-pounder finished with 27 tackles, three TFLs and a sack, while his five breakups were the most by a Nebraska defensive lineman in nine seasons. Carlos, who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the coaches, will open the season as a starter.

Heading into the offseason, most would have expected that trio to be fighting for the two starting spots. After all, they are the most experienced returnees, having played in over half of the teams 924 snaps in 2018: Carlos Davis (568), Ben Stille (516), Khalil Davis (489). Thanks to tremendous spring and fall camps, Deontre Thomas put himself in serious contention for one of those starting spots. Despite weighing just 265 pounds, Thomas played in 10 games as a true freshman in 2017 when depth issues forced him to bypass a redshirt and play out of position at nose guard. He moved to defensive end last season and appeared in the first four games before injuring his hand. Over the next few weeks, Thomas and the coaches discussed his options and decided it would be in his best interest to redshirt and preserve his sophomore season. Now entering his third season, the 6-foot-3 Thomas weighs 295 pounds and has been referred to by Tony Tuioti as “the quiet MVP” of the defensive line in terms of the progress he’s made since the spring. He’ll back up Carlos Davis, but like Stille, he can expect to see a lot of snaps.

The wildcard of the group is incoming juco standout Jahkeem Green, a late addition to the 2019 class. Considered the No. 1 defensive tackle and No. 6 overall juco prospect by ESPN, Green was pursued by most of the top programs in the SEC, holding early offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi State and others. A native of Sumter, Green had committed to home-state South Carolina in March of 2018, but did not sign with the Gamecocks because he was a few credit hours shy of qualifying. Green elected to complete a college algebra class online through an outside party rather than through his Junior College itself, and SEC schools don’t take credits that are earned online via a third party. That opened the door for Nebraska.

It was because of longstanding relationships Ryan Held has with Highland Community College coach Aaron Arnold and assistant Judd Remmers, that the Huskers were able to get their foot in the door when it became apparent Green’s SEC options had run out. Held was the head coach at Highland in 2012 and 2013 and had hired Arnold, and it was Arnold who tipped off Held that Green was available. Nebraska brought Green – who was accompanied by Remmers – in for a visit during their March 30 Junior Day while the lineman was still attending Highland. He returned for an official visit during the April Spring Game and committed to the staff on April 16th. The last day to sign a NLI was April 1st, thus Nebraska had to sweat out his commitment while he worked on gaining his eligibility. Other schools continued to pursue including Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, UCF, Houston, South Florida and Rutgers. Green – who has long been open about wanting to play in the South – officially visited Texas Tech in July in a trip he posted about on social media. A week prior to officially qualifying, Highland assistant Judd Remmers said it was a “coin flip” between Nebraska and Texas Tech. The notoriously quiet Green didn’t reaffirm his pledge to the Huskers until messaging one word – “Nebraska” – to The Omaha World-Herald when asked for confirmation of his plans July 31. It was a big sigh of relief as it felt the pendulum had swung towards the Red Raiders.

Green was officially accepted into school at Nebraska on August 11. After passing the standard medical and conditioning testing that all players must complete and pass before being cleared to play, he finally practiced with the Huskers on the 14th, missing the first 10 fall practices. The Huskers have a specific plan in place with Zach Duval to try to help with conditioning and graduate assistant Tony Washington is trying to help bring him along with extra film time and walk-through work to get him up to speed with the defense. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Green has played in both the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes in the past and could contribute anywhere from the nose to a 5-technique for the Huskers. He was initially playing the left defensive end spot when he began practicing. Green is a 3-for-2 guy, but I can’t see this staff redshirting him. Watching this kid’s juco film and the clips we’ve seen of him at practice for Nebraska, he’s on a different level than anyone else on the roster. He looks like the kind of defensive linemen you’re accustomed to seeing at places like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and LSU. Despite his late start at Nebraska, once Green gets comfortable with the defense and plays himself into shape, it’s going to be difficult to keep him off the field. I could see him taking over one of the starting jobs halfway through the season, if not sooner.

The experience and depth of Nebraska’s defensive line should allow some of the younger players to develop at an appropriate pace and not be pushed into playing time at the expense of development, as has been the case far too often dating back to Bo Pelini’s tenure. Unlike years past, guys in their first and second years won’t have to be relied on out of necessity too early. That should benefit a guy like Ty Robinson, a true freshman who has enjoyed a very strong camp. This might be the first season in the past decade where a talent like Robinson won’t be forced to burn his redshirt. If he does, it will be because he is playing too good for the coaches to sit him. It’s refreshing.

Robinson came to Nebraska as one of the most coveted defensive line recruits in the country, chosen to play in the All-American Bowl, where he was one of four finalists for the 2019 All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year award. A consensus four-star recruit, Robinson had offers from many of the top programs in the country, including Georgia, Notre Dame, Florida, Penn State, Texas A&M and Washington. He’s a prototypical 3-4 defensive end, and represents a huge piece of the rebuilding process Nebraska coaches are undertaking to transform their room to fit the scheme. At 6-foot-6, 315-pounds, Robinson has an ideal frame and combines it with an impressive combination of power and deceptive speed. He’s quick off the ball, has a tremendous punch and uses his hands well. For such a big kid, he has quick feet and displays impressive movement and mobility. In high school, he had a reputation of being extremely competitive and giving maximum effort. He’s carried those traits with him to Lincoln.

The underclassman who is probably enjoying the strongest offseason is redshirt freshman Casey Rogers. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Rogers was originally set to play lacrosse at Syracuse after being named a US Lacrosse High School All-American as a senior in 2017. But Rogers decided to try and earn a shot at playing college football. He turned down a scholarship offer from Western Michigan at the end of the 2017 recruiting cycle to head to prep school in Connecticut. After an impressive camp circuit in the summer of 2017 and a solid season at Avon Old Farms, his recruitment took off in December of 2017. Rogers received his first scholarship offer on Dec. 4 and by the time Nebraska offered on the 27th, he held Power Five offers from Cal, Ole Miss, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Oregon State, Virginia, Vanderbilt and Rutgers. His decision had paid off. Unfortunately, Rogers missed most of his freshman season after suffering a torn labrum. He’s come back strong, though, as Tony Tuioti has singled him out as the guy in his room that experienced the biggest growth in the spring. Rogers has carried that over into the summer and will try and crack a competitive rotation.

Another member of the 2018 class who redshirted is Colorado native Tate Wildeman. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Wildeman was a four-star recruit who originally committed to Bob Diaco and the previous staff. He injured his knee just before the start of the season and spent his redshirt rehabbing. He’s been a little slower coming back from injury than Rogers. Luckily, he won’t need to be counted on and can continue to get healthy and develop with an eye towards 2020, when Nebraska will be replacing senior defensive linemen Darrion Daniels, Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, DaiShon Neal and Vaha Vainuku.

Nebraska also signed Mosai Newsom in the 2019 recruiting class, becoming the first scholarship signee from the state of Iowa since 2008. Newsom, who played in a 3-4 at Waverly-Shell Rock High School, is another schematic fit who the coaches are high on. He’s got long arms and plays with good movement, showing good bend, and playing with nice leverage and pad level. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound Newsom chose Nebraska over other Big Ten offers from Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern.

Overview:

One of the first things that jump out about the defensive line is that it’s a group consisting of 14 scholarship guys that were brought to Lincoln by five different coaches: The Davis twins and DaiShon Neal were originally recruited by Rick Kaczenski to play for Bo Pelini. Ben Stille committed to Hank Hughes. Damion Daniels, Deontre Thomas, Chris Walker and Tate Wildeman came to play for John Parrella. Casey Rogers, Darrion Daniels, Vaha Vainuku, Mosai Newsom and Ty Robinson belong to Mike Dawson. Jahkeem Green is Tony Tuioti’s first official prospect. This group could benefit from the longevity of having the same eye on the recruiting trail and the same voice on the practice field.

Bottom line, the D-line has something to prove. They have serious gains to make in order for the Huskers to transform into a championship defense. While depth seems to be at a premium this coming season, I am cautiously optimistic. If you go back and watch tape of the losses to Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa – all power-running teams that imposed their wills on the front seven – you’ll see Nebraska’s defensive ends are undersized for a true 3-4 scheme and had trouble holding their ground. Erik Chinander’s predecessor, Bob Diaco, was also concerned about the lack of size among Nebraska’s front line. The coaches have done an admirable job of starting to address it through recruiting. This entire group benefited from another year with Zach Duval, and familiarity with the system should also help. The additions of Darrion Daniels and Jahkeem Green will also be evident. Position Grade: B+

 

Previous position previews: OL | TE | WR | RB | QB

 

Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25 years. You can email him at jgpernell@comcast.net.