Better or worse? Previewing Nebraska's defense in 2020
For Nebraska to end its 3-year bowl drought and give its fans something to feel good about, the defense needs to better at stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Those are important in the B1G, and Nebraska hasn’t been good at either for quite some time. The Huskers haven’t been in the top 5 of the conference in rushing defense since 2015, when they finished 2nd, allowing just 109.8 yards per game. Since 2015, Nebraska has finished 6th (147.8), 13th (214.7), 12th (195.7) and 11th (188) last year in rushing defense.
The last time Nebraska was in the top 5 in the B1G in sacks? That was 2013 when the Huskers were 2nd with 38. They tied for 8th last year with 27.
Those aren’t great stats, and with what’s going to be a largely new front 7 in 2020, it’s anyone’s guess as to if the players stepping into those starting roles will do better than the ones who left, including defensive end brothers Khalil and Carlos Davis, defensive tackle Darrion Daniels, outside linebacker Alex Davis and the leading tackler from 2019, inside linebacker Mohamed Barry.
Pressuring the QB: Worse
The Davis twins were the top sack artists last year, with Khalil recording 8 and Carlos 4. With them gone, Ben Stille, a senior defensive end, becomes the one that the coaching staff will lean on to create pressure. Stille, who might be the only defensive lineman who can confidently be penciled in as a starter, had 3 sacks last year and 6.5 tackles for loss, which was 3rd on the team behind Khalil Davis and JoJo Domann, Nebraska’s athletic hybrid OLB/safety.
With Alex Davis departed, junior Caleb Tannor will likely step into the starting outside linebacker spot in Nebraska’s 3-4 defense and be depended on to generate pass rush, especially on 3rd down. Tannor came to Lincoln as a 4-star prospect but hasn’t met the hype so far and rotated with Davis and true freshman Garrett Nelson last year. Nelson’s passion and motor made him an easy choice to play right away in 2019.
Although it was clear he was still learning the defense, Nelson still chipped in with 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He could be a player that defensive coordinator Erik Chinander turns loose from time to time and tells, “go get the ball.”
Chinander, who unleashed timely and effective corner blitzes at times last year, does a lot of different things with the 6-1, 235-pound multi-talented Domann. He’s the best-suited player to provide run support but also cover a tight end or receiver in the slot. Domann, now a senior, had 52 tackles in 2019 and could be a piece to use rushing the passer, too.
The starters at middle linebacker, Will Honas and Collin Miller, only mustered a combined 2 sacks last year, so rushing the passer isn’t their strong suit, and it probably won’t be in 2020 either.
Because of the unknowns and inexperience along the front 7, especially the interior of the D-line, Nebraska’s pass rush likely won’t be much better than last season. In fact, it might be worse.
Run defense: Worse
With Stille being the one player Husker fans know will likely start at defensive end, the focus shifts to the other 2 spots on the D-line. Two juniors — Damion Daniels at tackle and Deontre Thomas at defensive end — could slide into starting roles. Daniels, at 6-3 and 340 pounds, is a lane-clogger. He recorded 13 tackles in backup duty last year while Thomas, at 6-3 and 295, had 19 stops with 1.5 tackles for loss.
Along with Stille, Daniels and Thomas, the young Ty Robinson, a 6-6, 315-pound redshirt freshman, will get first-team reps. Robinson showed flashes last year in limited action, especially against Wisconsin. Knowing the experience along the line might be lacking in 2020, Nebraska signed 2 JUCO transfers in Jordon Riley and Pheldarius Payne.
Riley is a 6-6, 290-pounder who spent 2017 and 2018 at North Carolina before playing 1 season at Garden City Community College. Payne is a 6-3, 275-pounder from Lackawanna CC.
Huskers fans also should keep an eye on a 3rd JUCO addition from last year, Keem Green, a 6-5, 315-pounder. Green got to Lincoln late last year — during the 2nd week of fall camp — and kept his redshirt while only playing a handful of snaps against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Maryland.
If Nebraska needs, or chooses, to go with the youth movement up front, guys like sophomore defensive end Casey Rogers (6-4, 300) and redshirt freshmen Mosai Newsom (6-4, 285) and outside linebacker Jamin Graham (6-4, 240) could see action.
Honas and Miller, a couple of seniors, will be the 2 linebackers in the middle — Honas was the 2nd-leading tackler with 73 stops while Miller had 67. Behind them are a host of untested young players, like sophomore Luke Reimer and redshirt freshmen Nick Henrich and Garrett Snodgrass. There are also a couple first-year inside linebackers who will fight for snaps, including JUCO transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements and true freshman Keyshawn Greene, a consensus 4-star prospect from Florida who chose Nebraska over Florida, Florida State and Miami. Greene obviously needs time to grow into his body and get bigger — he’s listed at 6-3, 210 — but Huskers fans and in-state media have really been high on him.
With the loss of the Davis twins, as well as Daniels, there are too many unknowns along Nebraska’s front 7 for it to be better at stopping the run in 2020. With that being said, it’s likely going to be worse.
Pass defense: Better
The secondary is the group with the most experience and returning starters. That unit will be led by 3 seniors — Dicaprio Bootle, Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams. Like Domann, Cam Taylor-Britt will be an important piece as he can do a lot of things — he started last season at safety and ended at corner.
The secondary is not without some questions, though. The group loses the polarizing Lamar Jackson, a big-bodied corner who picked off 3 passes last year and racked up a team-best 12 pass breakups. There might be an opportunity for Braxton Clark to slide into Jackson’s spot, however. Clark, another big corner at 6-4, 210, started against Purdue and played pretty well.
If Clark can win a starting corner job, the staff will need to figure out the other corner position. Bootle and Taylor-Britt are the favorites, and whoever doesn’t win the job will likely be the safety next to Dismuke or Williams.
Williams started at safety last year but suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against South Alabama.
Nebraska’s pass defense ranked 7th in the B1G last season, giving up an average of 200.8 yards per game. The Huskers picked off 11 passes, and with everyone but Jackson returning, things are set up nicely for 2020, especially with the young talent that could push for playing time.
The returning starting experience is a good sign that Nebraska likely will be better in defending the pass in 2020.
Last year’s punter, Isaac Armstrong, graduated, which leaves that position up for grabs in 2020. The presumed starter is Daniel Cerni, an Australian who first-year senior special teams analyst Jonathan Rutledge had a heavy hand in recruiting to Lincoln.
Armstrong averaged 40.8 yards per punt last season, which ranked 86th in the nation, and dropped 23 of his 59 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Cerni will likely compete with Michigan State transfer William Przystup, who was one of the Huskers’ kickoff men last year, and a couple of walk-ons. Australian kickers are all the rage these days, and Rutledge has had success with them at his previous stops, Auburn and North Carolina.
Rutledge seems to know what he’s looking for, so there’s a good chance this works out, too, meaning Nebraska’s punting game should be better.
Although Nebraska returns most of its secondary, which has some playmakers like Taylor-Britt, the Huskers’ front 7 is filled with too many unknowns, especially at the 3 interior defensive line positions. Will the new guys up front do a better job at stopping the run and rushing the passer than the ones last year, who will be battling for NFL roster spots soon? Probably not.
As mentioned, the key to being a good defense in the B1G is stopping the run. Nebraska most likely won’t be better at that in 2020.