Pernell: Previewing the Linebackers
There was a two-man battle going on in fall camp to see who would start next to Barry. Ideally, Barrett Ruud would like to limit his inside linebackers to roughly 60 or so snaps per game, meaning the trio of Mohamed Barry, Will Honas, and Collin Miller will rotate and play a lot this season.
Will Honas was viewed as a huge recruiting win for the Huskers and entered the 2018 season with some pretty lofty expectations. Coming out of Butler Community College in Kansas, Honas was regarded as a four-star prospect by ESPN and ranked as the top junior college inside linebacker by both ESPN and 247Sports. Barrett Ruud referred to Honas as his “hand-picked” guy on Signing Day. At Butler, he was a guy that excelled flowing sideline-to-sideline and filling lanes with impressive thump. It took him some time to get comfortable in the defense, as he was transitioning from a 4-3 system in junior college to a 3-4 system at Nebraska. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior admits that for much of last season he was fighting his instincts in getting used to the new defensive system. Honas started hitting his groove a bit when a knee injury sustained against Purdue sidelined him for the season after appearing in just four games. Luckily he had a redshirt season available and will still have two years of eligibility. Glass half-full, Honas was able to use the 2018 season to gain more knowledge of the system and can come into 2019 better prepared.
With Honas out during spring ball recovering from his knee injury, Collin Miller took the majority of the reps with the 1s and has taken his game to another level. It helped that for the first time in his career, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound junior was heading into a new season playing the same position with the same position coach, the same defensive coordinator, and working under the same defensive scheme. Miller arrived in 2016 as a defensive end, out of the same high school in Fishers, Indiana, as Randy Gregory. His potential was evident immediately. He earned scout-team defensive MVP honors during his redshirt season, and former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf commented multiple times he was a headache for the starters to try to block. When Bob Diaco came in and switched to a 3-4, Miller was moved to outside linebacker. He played in all 12 games in 2017, mostly on special teams, before being moved to inside linebacker by Erik Chinander when Scott Frost took over. He saw the field last season in Nebraska’s third-down packages, recording a career-high 17 tackles, with a team-tying eight of those coming on special teams. Miller has made a lot of strides this offseason and is predictably listed Co-No. 1 on the depth chart with Honas.
Depth behind the top three guys was already thin, but it took a bigger hit when incoming freshman Nick Henrich tore the labrum in his right shoulder and had surgery April 10. He missed all of fall camp and is now looking at a redshirt season, though he may be healthy enough down the road to utilize his four games. The consensus four-star prospect, who was ranked No. 92 nationally by 247 Sports, was being counted on for depth after enrolling early. Barrett Ruud said he was enjoying a strong spring and looked like a player ready for an extensive role prior to getting injured. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Omaha Burke product is a very aggressive and instinctive player who has a great nose for the ball. He has a very high football IQ and a great feel for the game. Henrich is athletic and versatile enough to play inside or outside. Once he fills out his frame, he’s going to be a physical freak. The staff was high on him during the recruiting process and are even more excited about his potential now.
Another incoming freshman the staff is very high on is Jackson Hannah out of Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound four-star recruit was a hot commodity in the SEC footprint, having been highly sought-after since his freshman season when he was first offered by LSU and Alabama. The Huskers are playing Hannah on the inside, but he could easily project outside was well. He played defensive end as a freshman and sophomore, and thrived as an outside linebacker during his junior year before switching to the middle as a senior. It’s been a slow process for him learning the defense, though, and he’s probably not going to make much of an impact until later in the season, if at all.
Nebraska is also giving true freshman Garrett Snodgrass his initial look on the inside, although he could play outside as well. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Snodgrass played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and linebacker during his time at York High School, one of the state’s top Class B programs. He’s a good athlete, posting an impressive 104.82 SPARQ score at The Nike Opening regional in Dallas back in April of 2018. With options limited, Snodgrass and Hannah got a lot of reps with the 2s for large portions of fall camp. That’s a positive way to spin the predicament the team faces at the position. The reality is that both of them are struggling a bit. “I think the biggest thing is to stop thinking and start doing,” Ruud said of his two freshmen. “That takes a lot of reps and for some guys it clicks faster than others, but the biggest thing is for them to start playing fast. No. 1, you’ve got to know the scheme better and the Xs and Os, trust your fundamentals, trust the techniques we’re teaching, but at some point it’s going to click for them and then they’ll stop thinking and just do it.”
For now, the No. 4 inside linebacker is redshirt freshman walk-on Joey Johnson out of Gretna. The staff likes the 6-foot-3, 240-pounders long-term potential, but he missed most of fall camp with an injury. Johnson could turn out to be the next Chris Weber or Trevor Roach, but he’s still ideally another year away from coaches preferring to put him in the two-deep. Another walk-on who has come in and excited coaches on the inside is Luke Reimer out of Lincoln North Star. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound true freshman had been taking a lot of reps with the 2s in fall camp before getting dinged up halfway through and missing some time. Reimer came to Nebraska after receiving several FCS offers and at one point was committed to South Dakota State. He’s a tremendous athlete, having run a 10.92 (100m), 7.05 (60m) and 22.43 (200m), and displayed really good instincts in his first camp. He’s a guy to keep an eye on.
How thin is Nebraska at inside linebacker? On Aug. 13, Zach Schlager announced he was leaving Colorado State to walk-on at Nebraska. Despite the fact he won’t be eligible until next season, he was placed on the 110-man roster for the Huskers on the 22nd. The 6-foot, 210-pound former All-State standout from McCook played in three games as a true freshman for the Rams before taking a redshirt season. He’ll have three years to play three seasons beginning in 2020.
Nebraska is a little better off at outside linebacker, but still have a ways to go to get this room looking the way they want it. Erik Chinander needs the outside linebacker position to be a game-changing one in his defense as much as any on the field. Chinander, Frost and Jovan DeWitt have been quite forthright about the Huskers needing to recruit that spot really well in the next year or two and moving forward. They have a specific blueprint they are looking for on the recruiting trail. “They’re really two different profiles. Outside linebacker is a little weird,” Dewitt explained. “There is the guy that has always had their hand in the dirt, that’s been a weakside defensive end on whatever recruiting website you are looking at. He’s been really good at pass rush. So, does he have the quick twitch ability in space? Or you look at a guy who has been at a safety spot. 6-2, 6-3 and 200 pounds. Maybe he’s not really a Big Ten safety. Maybe he’s really a guy that could roll down and be the strong safety which is really what outside backers are now. Now, he’s above average in terms of skill set and twitch, space movement. You are either looking at a 5 technique, long kid. Length is a big thing we look for. When talking characteristics, we are looking a play radius. So, play radius is either your natural length or speed. The ability to change direction and we want them to be violent. Those are the baselines that we have that are non-negotiables. You have to have play radius, speed and violence.”
The guy who has surprised this offseason is Alex Davis. According to Scott Frost, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior “has probably made the biggest jump from the fall of anyone on the defense.” Davis came to Nebraska as a raw prospect who hadn’t played organized football until his senior year of high school. The previous staff recruited him as a 4-3 defensive end, and Davis played there for his first two years, even being named Scout Team Defensive MVP while redshirting in 2015. He moved to outside linebacker in 2017 to play in the new 3-4. Davis is now playing in his 3rd different scheme, but is benefiting from having the same coordinator and position coach for consecutive years since he’s been a Husker. The continuity has seemed to help in his development, but despite the praise he’s received from coaches and teammates since spring, Davis’ inclusion as a starter will come with some skepticism from fans until they see the improvement from him on the field. Davis started five games as a sophomore and four last season, but he has recorded just 24 tackles in 37 career games and has just three tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks as a guy who was looked at as a plus pass rusher.
Backing up Alex Davis to start the season will be Tyrin Ferguson. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior has battled injuries for the majority of his Husker career. The previous staff was high on Ferguson immediately and played him in 10 games as a true freshman in 2015, primarily on special teams. An inside linebacker in former coordinator Mark Banker’s 4-3, Ferguson then chose to redshirt as a sophomore to save a year of eligibility with Josh Banderas and Chris Weber ahead of him. Ferguson enjoyed a strong fall camp heading into the 2017 season, but was limited to just five games because of turf toe and hamstring injuries. This past year, the injury bug bit him again when he planted his foot wrong on a blitz in practice prior to the Purdue game. Ferguson hurt his ankle and the injury lingered, limiting him for the last seven games of the season. The New Orleans native seemed poised for a breakout season after he had a career-high 10 tackles and a sack in his first career start against Colorado. It’s now or never for Ferguson. If he can stay healthy, he has the ability to be a difference-maker for this defense.
Last year Caleb Tannor was one of only five true freshmen who didn’t use their redshirt, playing in all 12 games. The Georgia native was considered a huge recruiting win for the staff when he chose Nebraska over Florida and Auburn on signing day. Tannor was once committed to the hometown Bulldogs and also had offers from Alabama, LSU, Florida State, Miami, Texas A&M, Tennessee and others. The consensus four-star prospect was targeted to be an edge rusher in Chinander’s 3-4 system. They viewed him as a perfect fit for the SAM position, a role occupied by Shaquem Griffin at UCF. “Caleb is going to be one of our SAM linebackers,” Barrett Ruud explained. “It’s a huge get for us, because our SAM position is kind of a jack of all trades. You have to be able to play on the line of scrimmage, set the edge. You’ve got to go play in space. He’s got to be able to cover wide receivers man-to-man at times. They have to do a lot of things. He’s as versatile a linebacker as we’ve seen out there.”
Coaches decided to throw Tannor into the fire right away, mainly because of the teams desperate need for a consistent pass rusher off the edge. He started on special teams but grew into Luke Gifford’s back-up as the season went on, but he struggled to make an impact, recording just 10 total tackles and one sack. Athletically, Tannor is everything the coaches thought he was, and more. He stands out among the pack with the things he can do. It’s physically where he needs to make the biggest gains. The 6-foot-2 sophomore was (generously) listed at 210 pounds last season. He’s 220 in the program now, and is visibly bigger. Long-term, he’ll need to make another significant jump over the next two seasons if he wants to reach his full potential. By all accounts, Tannor has enjoyed a very strong fall camp. Jovan DeWitt flat-out said he’d be “surprised and disappointed” if he didn’t have a big 2019 season. He’ll head into the season opener Co-No. 1 on the depth chart with JoJo Domann.
Like Ferguson, the only thing that has kept JoJo Domann from having been a mainstay with the Blackshirts has been injuries. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Domann played in every game as a true freshman in 2016, primarily on special teams. The following spring he was expected to push for a starting safety spot. Unfortunately his trajectory and momentum were stifled by two ACL surgeries in a span of less than seven months. The first, suffered in April of 2017, cost him the season. The second, which he suffered playing basketball at the university’s rec center in November, cost him most of the next offseason. Domann played in the season-opener against Colorado, but by that time had already developed a stress fracture in his back that would cost him the next four games. He returned for the Northwestern game, playing special teams, then coaches came to him with the idea of moving to outside linebacker from safety. His playing time increased against Bethune-Cookman and Minnesota which led to his first career start against Ohio State where he had a bit of a coming out party. He went on to make several plays in games against Illinois and Michigan State as well to end the season on a high note. Domann said in spring this offseason was the first time he’d been healthy since the summer prior to his senior year of high school. As luck would have it, he missed the first 5 or 6 practices of fall camp while rehabbing from a “setback” this summer.
Domann has impressed three separate defensive staffs now with his high football IQ and has shown a knack for creating game-changing plays. His versatility was highlighted perfectly in Chinander’s system at the end of last season after being used in a hybrid outside linebacker/nickel back position. After making the move full-time to outside linebacker this offseason, the staff has created a position for him in a defensive package they call the ‘Cinco’. It’s designed to utilize Domann as a Swiss Army knife that allows Nebraska to go back and forth between its base 3-4 look and nickel package without having to substitute, thanks to his ability to play the run and drop back into coverage. Coaches managed his reps throughout fall camp and if he can stay healthy could end up being one of the Blackshirts’ most dangerous weapons. Domann’s versatility in Chinander’s scheme is reminiscent of how important Eric Hagg was playing the ‘Peso’ in Bo Pelini’s defense. Bo would often call Hagg the most valuable guy on those great Husker defenses because of how moving him around on the field alone could shift the look of a defense. Domann represents the same sort of chess piece.
True Freshman Garrett Nelson played his way into the rotation this summer. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder out of Scottsbluff was able to enroll early and has been ‘All Gas, No Breaks’ ever since. Nelson was fresh off a high school career where as a senior he was named first-team All-Nebraska by USA Today as well as an Omaha World-Herald All-Nebraska selection and a member of the Lincoln Journal Star Super-State team the past two seasons. He came in and took full advantage of Zach Duval and the strength program when he arrived in January and has gotten physically ready to contribute. He’s drawn favorable comparison’s to Ben Stille because of his motor and the effort he gives on every play. “There’s a phrase I like to use: I would much rather say ‘woah’ than ‘giddy-up.’ With Garrett, I don’t know if I’ve ever had to say ‘giddy-up.’ It’s a lot of ‘woahs.’ That’s how he’s wired differently,” Dewitt said this summer. It’s that sort of approach that has Nelson penciled in as Co-No. 2 with Tyrin Ferguson. Nelson will undoubtedly be a big contributor on special teams and will get some situational use on defense.
This linebacking corps is extremely thin. Perhaps no other position group on the team (excluding Adrian Martinez, of course) can afford a significant injury, especially on the inside. If Barry (especially), Honas or Miller are hampered by a lingering injury or miss an extended period of time, this defense is going to be hurting in a big way. On the outside, they need Alex Davis to be the guy coaches are saying he’s been in camp and show that on Saturdays. Domann and Ferguson look good when they’re healthy, but both have battled injuries their entire careers. What are the chances they both dodge that bullet? Between Davis, Tannor and Ferguson, can Nebraska improve on their pass rush? That’s the most pressing need overall on this defense. The linebackers should be surrounded by a very good defensive line and an improved secondary. Can they hold up their end of the bargain to help this defense take the necessary steps to turn Nebraska into a contender in the Big Ten? Position Grade: C+
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.