Nebraska spring football consisted of just two practices before it was halted due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, conversations with head coach Scott Frost, several players and almost every assistant coach provided at least some information about every position on the field.
The Journal Star is taking a position-by-position look at the Huskers, what was learned early in March and what to look for whenever NU returns to the field.
Scholarship players (9): Senior JoJo Domann (8 starts); junior Caleb Tannor (4); sophomores Garrett Nelson, David Alston and Niko Cooper; redshirt freshmen Jackson Hannah and Jamin Graham; freshmen Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler.
There are two big questions facing the Nebraska outside linebackers room, and they’re related.
Who’s going to earn snaps in Mike Dawson’s room and, perhaps more importantly, where is production going to come from?
Last year, NU used now-departed Alex Davis on one side and rotated through JoJo Domann, Caleb Tannor and others on the other. It was a stable enough rotation (aside from senior Tyrin Ferguson’s disappointing season and eventual dismissal from the team) and the group mostly stayed healthy through 2019.
Production, however, became a problem. NU’s returning trio of contributors (Domann, Tannor and Nelson) combined for 13½ tackles for loss and five sacks total while each played in at least 11 games. Nine of those TFLs came from Domann.
The other six scholarship players on the roster have yet to appear in a game for Nebraska.
Quite a task for Dawson, who returns to the coaching staff after a year coaching the same position for the New York Giants.
“I think that they probably read the internet as good as anyone and they don’t want to be the group getting singled out that, ‘Hey we need to get better pass rush and do a better job setting the edge.’ I think they know and understand that. They’re eager to get that done. We have a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of work ahead of us and I think anytime after a season you work your self-scout and you kind of go back and see what you did well and what you didn’t do well and you try to improve it. …
“We need to get better doing what we’re doing, and these guys are eager to get that done.”
The challenge will be multilayered. Neither Domann nor Tannor has prototypical size for playing on the edge in the Big Ten, and Nelson is still learning the ropes of Big Ten football. Perhaps Cooper, a junior college transfer with impressive size at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, provides a lift. Maybe one of the freshmen contributes early. NU is high on both Gunnerson and Butler, but that’s a big ask for a true freshman.
Bottom line: NU has options, particularly once Butler and Cooper get to campus, but not much in the way of proven production. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that this is the most wide-open position group on the roster.
Dawson spoke highly of Gunnerson, the 6-5, 250-pound freshman who had offseason hip surgery and would have been something of a limited participant in spring ball.
“Blaise has the measurables that you look for,” Dawson said. “If you were going to draw up or write up, 'What does an NFL outside linebacker look like,' he kind of checks off all those boxes. The thing I’ve been more impressed about with him is he’s a guy who should technically still be in high school. He should be a senior in high school and he’s here already. He’s extremely intelligent and he seems to have a good grasp.
“He not only asks questions, which, sometimes young guys like that will ask the question, but not only does he asks questions, but he asks questions that are good. The next step of thinking. He’s not asking a question that’s just repeating something I just said just to hear himself ask a question. It’s hey, this guy is really paying attention, he’s diving in, and he’s trying to take the next step with it.”
There’s always a chance the complexion of the outside linebackers room will change some in the coming months. You can bet it’s one of the positions NU will be scouring the transfer portal for. Perhaps an addition could come from elsewhere on the roster, too.
For instance, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said redshirt freshman defensive back Javin Wright could play outside linebacker in addition to corner or safety.
“First and foremost, he’s ridiculously smart player,” Chinander said of the 6-3, 205-pounder. “He can tell you what all the guys did before I even pulled him into a different position. He’s really, really smart. Has a great football knowledge. Second of all, he’s a very good-sized kid. We can do whatever we want with him. If we decided secondary and the back end is going to be his best position, I think he can stay lean and be a 205, 210-pound safety or corner. And if we have to move him down … I think (strength coach Zach) Duval can do a good job with him and get him up to 225, 230 pounds.”