A new wave of Nebraska frontline defenders will be throwing the bones now.
While the Blackshirts could run back their starters from last season in the secondary and at linebacker, the defensive line and edge rushers are guaranteed to have a much different look moving forward.
Among the 60 tackles for loss generated by those spots a year ago, only 6.5 (18.8%) are from players still on the roster. NU’s top three edges — Caleb Tannor, Garrett Nelson and Ochaun Mathis — are preparing for the NFL. Another regular starter, defensive tackle, Colton Feist moved on from football.
Aside from veteran D-line starter Ty Robinson, the Huskers need others to take over.
They added 10 such players in the offseason, with Texas A&M line transfer Elijah Jeudy and junior college product Kai Wallin as perhaps the most likely early contributors. Others with “linebacker” labels like transfers Chief Borders (Florida) and MJ Sherman (Georgia) could fit that description too.
Meanwhile, returning high-upside reserves Jimari Butler and Blaise Gunnerson (edge) and Nash Hutmacher (defensive tackle) may be ready for more chances.
The task is tall but clear: to improve run stoppage (4.55 yards allowed per carry, 101st nationally) and overall disruption (5.0 TFLs per game, 97th) into range of being an asset.
Who’s Here: Ty Robinson, Stephon Wynn, Nash Hutmacher, Jimari Butler, Blaise Gunnerson.
Who’s Gone: Garrett Nelson, Caleb Tannor, Ochaun Mathis, Colton Feist, Devin Drew.
Who’s New: Elijah Jeudy, Kai Wallin, Cameron Lenhardt, Maverick Noonan, Riley Van Poppel, Vincent Carroll-Jackson, Sua Lefotu, Prince Umanmielen, Jason Maciejczak (OL/DL), Mason Goldman (OL/DL).
Returning production: Defensive linemen: 52.8% of snaps. Edge rushers: 7.8% of snaps.
Look back: A group of veterans gradually improved amid a change at head coach and coordinator. It had some highlights — limiting Indiana to 67 rush yards, bottling Minnesota to 125 on 45 attempts — while generally holding gaps and edges to prevent breakout games by some of the country’s best running backs. A lack of consistent pass rush and depth to rotate in were major factors in NU finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten in aerial yards allowed per game (225) and total takeaways (16).
The starters up front were also a source of leadership for the defense and the team. Nelson and Tannor were co-captains in their fourth and fifth seasons, respectively, while the fifth-year Feist completed a rise from walk-on to mainstay who had the ears of his fellow linemen.
Spring ahead: A couple incoming freshmen are early enrollees in Noonan and Lenhardt but most of the prep haul arrives in the summer and needs time to physically develop. That puts the onus on Jeudy — a former four-star prospect entering his third college campaign — and the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Wallin, who was productive in his lone juco season. Practices will also reveal whether fellow 2020 signees Butler and Gunnerson are prepared for starring pass-rushing roles in the new 3-3-5 defense. On the line, the same is true of previously rotational players like Wynn and Hutmacher. Reserve Ru’Quan Buckley is another to watch as he begins his third year with one career game appearance to his name.
Key Question: Who emerge as the Big Three up front? NU defensive coordinator Tony White stuck mostly with three D-linemen at Syracuse last season with weights ranging from 230-270 pounds and heights from 5-11 to 6-6. Most of Nebraska’s top candidates tip the scales north of 300, with the 6-6 Robinson the most experienced. Nebraska could opt to slim them down in search of more snaps or built a bigger rotation similar to recent Husker groups.
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