Pernell: Previewing the Linebackers
If Nebraska wants to field a defense that pays respect to the Blackshirt tradition, they will need the front-seven to become a strength. Erik Chinander, Barrett Ruud and Jovan Dewitt have commented all offseason about needing depth throughout the defense. Because of the offense Frost runs, this defense will typically play 10-15 or more snaps a game than most teams. Over the course of a season, those reps add up. If they don’t want to wear down by the time November rolls around, they’ll need to divvy up those reps effectively. Chinander wants to sub frequently. Ideally he would like to find 4-5 inside and outside linebackers who are capable of providing the team with quality play and not experience a dramatic drop off.
Playing in a physical conference like the Big Ten amplifies the need to recruit and develop physical, athletic defenders. Frost has already started to change the culture in the locker room. This spring and summer, Nebraska practices featured more “live, to the ground” tackling than it had in several seasons. Frost plans to continue the practice into the season, a rarity in today’s college football. It’s something he believes in, and frankly, it’s something Nebraska could use. Frost has said his team will go “live, to the ground” in season on Tuesdays and Wednesday’s in an attempt to remake Nebraska’s image and return to the physically dominant team Frost remembers from his time as a player in the program. Central Florida adopted that to much success. The Knights played 11 straight weeks without a bye, stretching from Sept. 23 to Dec. 2, and they went live in practice during that stretch. The Huskers are going to hit, they’re going to get hit and ultimately they’re going to re-learn how to grind games out the way Frost is used to seeing the Huskers do. “We need to be able to run and hit and we need reps at it,” Frost said in the spring. “We’re going to try to keep the guys healthy but, hey, we need to learn how to be physical.”
The staff has also started the process of retraining the Blackshirts to be aggressive. Chinander has adapted a defensive philosophy that is geared towards supplementing Frost’s offense. He places a huge emphasis on turnovers and making disruptive plays. “We don’t want guys who are making a lot of errors, but you need production,” Chinander said. “You need tackles for loss, you need sacks, you obviously need turnovers if you’re to pair up with a Scott Frost offense. What I’m concerned with is (tackles for loss) stats, turnovers, limiting explosive plays, percentage on third down and percentage on red zone. Turnovers is king for me.” The goal is simple: Get the ball back for Frost and the offense. “We want to get turnovers, we want to be aggressive, we want to get to the quarterback, we want to get the football out,” Chinander said. “We need to be an aggressive unit to match up with our offense and I think we just need to change the mindset. Getting guys pressed up on receivers, letting guys loose, making guys free to make plays on the football instead of worrying about letting something go over their head.” That attitude is in stark contrast from last season. It might take some time to rewire some of these kids, especially the ones who played prominent roles on last years defense. On all three levels. “I think it’s an easy process to get them to start thinking that way, now doing it on the field is a different thing,” Chinander said. “Really letting it loose, not being afraid to make a mistake – like Coach Frost talks about, the desire to excel and no fear of failure.”
The culture is still taking hold. It might take a year before you can expect to see the results this staff got in Orlando. Central Florida created 58 turnovers in two seasons under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, a number that ranked third nationally. For the tide to turn, the linebacking corps needs to take charge. It’s yet to be determined if there’s a transcendent talent on the roster yet, but guys like Caleb Tannor, Mohamed Barry and Will Honas could be in time.
The outside linebacker spot has really improved during the course of a year. Heading into last year, no one even knew for sure who could play the outside spots as Nebraska transitioned to a 3-4 scheme. There’s a lot more excitement about the outside spots now. If this group can stay healthy, Jovan Dewitt should have some really interesting rotating options. They still need a dominant, consistent pass rush threat for this scheme to truly thrive, though. It remains to be seen if they get that this year, but guys like Caleb Tannor and Guy Thomas could really take this defense to another level if they fulfill the expectations they had coming in as four-star recruits who projected as great schematic fits. Even without a regular pass rusher, for now, they’ve got enough guys with different skill sets to help them match up well by subbing to specific game situations.
Depth charts can look a lot different in October than they do when the season opens, but for now it seems we know who the 8-10 contributors will be this season. Jovan Dewitt has been complimentary of Tyrin Ferguson since spring and singled him out as being one of the most studious players in his room. The tools have always been there for the junior out of New Orleans to excel. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Ferguson was put into the mix right away as a true freshman in 2015, playing 10 games 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. He suffered through a turf toe and appeared in just five games last year. Unfortunate since he was set to take on a bigger role after Luke Gifford was lost to the year with a hip injury. It seems Ferguson has always been on the fringe of contributing for Nebraska, and now he finally will as a starter.
This room looks a lot better with a healthy Luke Gifford back on the field. The senior out of Lincoln Southeast came into his own halfway through last season, starting the first seven games and racking up a career-high 39 tackles along with 1½ sacks and an interception. Gifford was the teams best defender until he suffered a torn labrum in his hip that required surgery in mid-November. He was sidelined for the second half of his redshirt freshman season in 2015 with the same injury. The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder could not physically participate in spring practice as he recovered. He has been full-go since the Huskers resumed their strength and conditioning workouts the last week of May. He immediately impressed Dewitt and the defensive staff with his versatility during fall camp. Gifford’s play this August earned him the starting nod heading into the season.
The top backups at the moment are Alex Davis and Caleb Tannor. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Davis signed with Nebraska as a raw prospect with a perceived high ceiling. A former basketball star, most expected it would take at least two years to tap his potential. Starting as a 4-3 defensive end his first two years, then switching to an OLB in a 3-4, Davis is now playing in his 3rd different scheme. He started the last five games of the 2017 season and didn’t stand out. Heading into his fourth year in Lincoln, the light might be coming on. Davis had three sacks and an interception in the spring game, and his play this summer seems to have cemented him in the rotation. “I think we’ve found a good (role) for him,” Chinander said. “He’s probably more of a boundary-type guy, where he can rush the passer and drop more minimally.”
Tannor was a huge recruiting win down the stretch for Nebraska. The staff desperately wanted to add an explosive pass rusher when they were putting their class together. The plan is for Tannor to play 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.” The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Georgia native has impressed the staff during his first camp. “He’s done a really good job,” Dewitt said. “He’s adapted to college football as fast any freshman I’ve seen. I’m pleased and impressed with how he’s been able to grasp concepts. And his attention to detail in practice is really good, which is not very common for a true freshman to have.”
Behind those four, you have guys like Breon Dixon, Guy Thomas and Pernell Jefferson vying for a role this season. Dixon was a heavily recruited prospect coming out of Loganville, Georgia. The consensus four-star recruit stood out at the Under Armour All-America Game, playing against some of the best players in the country, leading Team Highlight with three tackles for loss. He then appeared in six games as a true freshman at Mississippi in 2017. Dixon played safety for the Rebels and his ability to lineup as an outside linebacker, a nickel back, slide back to safety or even up on the line to provide pass rush excited the staff. Most expected Dixon would challenge for a starting job this season. He showed signs of being a disruptive player in the spring game, finishing with eight tackles (two for loss) and a half sack. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Dixon has struggled to master the playbook, but seems to have taken his current spot on the depth chart in stride. “We’ve got great dudes, seniors and juniors, all those guys, so right now it’s not really about me,” Dixon said. “I’m trying to get in where I fit in and let those guys meet their goals before they’re gone. I have my time here, and I’m going to play as hard as I can for those guys whenever I get a chance and get the opportunity to get in, wherever it’s at.” Frost said Dixon was good enough to help the Huskers this season in some capacity, but the sophomore was one of several players who had a redshirt year available and could be in line to sit out in 2018. The new NCAA redshirt rule will play a major part in the status of Dixon and others this season, as they’ll be able to play in up to four games before ultimately making a decision on a redshirt.
Guy Thomas is probably a year away. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound redshirt freshmen was considered one of the more prized recruits of the 2017 Husker recruiting class when he signed. As the previous staff was switching to the 3-4, Thomas was looked at as a future stalwart. Thomas was physically ready to play last season, but the previous staff eventually decided to redshirt the Miami native, but still put him on the travel roster most of the season. He has battled some homesickness early in his time at Nebraska, but Dewitt has commented that as soon as it clicks, Thomas could be a really good player. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Jefferson was running with the No. 2 defense during spring. He was likely bumped down after Gifford’s return. The New Orleans native earned Scout Team Defensive MVP in 2016 during his redshirt season and with Dixon possibly taking advantage of his redshirt, the sophomore might be the next guy in line for playing time after the released two-deep.
The inside spots have had a solid three-man rotation identified since the spring. Pretty early on Barrett Ruud revealed Dedrick Young II, Mohamed Barry and Will Honas had separated themselves by a pretty substantial margin. Young and Barry were named starters, but Honas will see plenty of reps as well. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Young is Nebraska’s leading returning tackler and a multi-year starter. He’s been the definition of solid, but not spectacular since arriving on campus as part of the 2015 class. He has played in 36 career games (31 starts) and has the distinction of being one of just five Husker true freshmen since World War II to start an opener. He carried very high expectations with him after setting a school record for the most tackles ever by a true freshman (61) and earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Unfortunately, he hasn’t become the player many expected. He has seemingly peaked and hasn’t taken his game to the heights most anticipated. Young has made a lot of tackles in college (201), and is just 55 tackles from being in the top 10 in school history. If Young had 80 tackles this year like he had last year, he would be fifth. He is just 84 behind Lavonte David (4th) and 86 behind Mike Brown, who is third. The flip-side of that coin is he only has 13 tackles for loss in his college career, including just two sacks, and has forced only one fumble. He has no interceptions. His lack of big-play numbers is embarrassing, to be honest. That simply has to change as a senior.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Barry has really impressed as a growing leader in the locker room. Originally recruited to play the WILL position in the 4-3, Barry is instinctive and aggressive. The junior out of Loganville, Georgia, has the sort of skillset and playing style that seems to fit the new approach brought by Chinander. Barry started two games last year late in the season as Chris Weber was dealing with an injury. He has the potential to really take off as a player with more game reps. He’ll split some of those reps with Honas, who was a juco All-American in 2017 and the top-rated juco MLB in the country after collecting 96 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions. Barrett Ruud referred to Honas as his “hand-picked” guy on Signing Day. He certainly fits the build of a Big Ten linebacker. So does his game. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder “is going to be one of the top linebackers to come through here.” Now it’s just a matter of him getting used to the speed and talent at this level.
In an effort to find a fourth guy to use in the rotation, the staff decided to move Collin Miller inside after playing outside during spring ball. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound sophomore was one of the few bright spots on last years horrid defense. Despite the overall struggles of the unit, Miller kept flashing his potential as he was given more and more snaps as an outside linebacker in previous defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s system. The Indiana native was originally recruited to Nebraska as a defensive end in former coordinator Mark Banker’s 4-3 scheme. He proved hard to block in practices during his redshirt season (2016), earning scout-team MVP honors. He has the potential to be a very valuable swing player, capable of playing inside or outside.
Don’t be surprised if you end up seeing former walk-on Jacob Weinmaster on the field at some point this season. I say “former” walk-on, because the 6-foot-0, 225-pound junior out of Colorado was one of three players awarded a scholarship by Frost last week. Weinmaster was moved from outside to inside linebacker following the coaching change. He quickly moved past highly recruited Avery Roberts – who has since transferred, on the depth chart during spring. Weinmaster then enjoyed a breakout performance in the spring game, where he racked up a game-high 13 total tackles, two TFLs, a sack, and broke up a pass for the White team. There have been teammates talking up Weinmaster for about three years now, ever since he was a scout-team defensive MVP as a redshirt in 2015. Former Husker linebackers Josh Banderas and Chris Weber separately mentioned Weinmaster as someone to watch as departing seniors commenting on the talent left in the room. After having to sit out 2016 with an injury, he saw action in all 12 games last year and was one of Nebraska’s leading special teams guys. Position Grade: C+
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL. 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.