With the season opener on the horizon, Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said at Tuesday’s media availability that the Huskers are looking forward to the challenge of defending the South Alabama offense.
“They have a really nice scheme, some really difficult things to defend, and I think they have some good athletes running around,” he said. “So it’s going to be a good first game for us to get a lot of things fit up correctly and matchup personnel, and they are very multiple in what they do.”
Although it is game week, Nebraska’s mentality hasn’t shifted from any other fall practice.
“You don’t shift into game mode, you [are] already in game mode,” Junior safety Deontai Williams said. “You come to practice like it’s a game, so you’ve always got to stay ready and you’ve got to just prepare so when it comes game time it comes easy.”
Blackshirts were recently handed out and the depth charts were released, but coaches made it clear that more players would see the field than the ones listed as starters. Chinander said one of the toughest decisions is at the middle linebacker spot, where he said Nebraska has “three starters.” However, he’s confident in the depth at that spot and on the defense as a whole.
“The hard decision is who walks out for the first snap, and then like I said, to those kids, it probably makes a lot more difference than it does to me,” Chinander said. “Because I just see we got depth and we can roll in.”
Outside linebackers and special teams coach Jovan Dewitt also expressed confidence in the defensive depth, mentioning things will change throughout the season.
“The depth chart will probably change from week to week based on the personnel groupings we’re going to see from game to game,” he said. “It’s one of those things that’s going to kind of be in flux, it’s a living document if you will.”
One player coaches are excited to see on the field is junior outside linebacker JoJo Domann, who redshirted in 2017 due to injury and missed four games last season for the same reason. He is listed on the depth chart as a starting option at outside linebacker along with sophomore Caleb Tannor.
Domann still played 8 games in 2018, mostly appearing on special teams early on, but also starting two games at outside linebacker near the end of the year. By the end of the season he recorded 19 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles.
“He’s up to about 235 right now, but he still moves really well so he’s way on the upper echelon in terms of coverage skills for an outside backer and he’s got the weight on now that allows him to be a little more physical in the box,” Dewitt said.
Despite his injury history, Domann has done his best to look past concerns with his body and concentrate on football.
“It’s tested me for sure, but you know, I’ve come out better from it, so really just focusing on our first game, focusing on the season and try not to think about my body and play football again,” Domann said.
For the last few years, the defensive unit was a weakness for the Huskers, but they seem to be turning it around this offseason. Senior cornerback Lamar Jackson knows that it hasn’t been easy to flip the script and become a force to be reckoned with.
“Coming from that point where we were kind of the team that was the weakness to now being a strength, we know that we put in the work to be seen this way and we believe in ourselves,” Jackson said.
Even with strong practices, defensive coaches and players both know that they have to show improvement in game situations, and that’s what the Huskers expect to bring to Saturday’s contest.
“You can expect a lot of guys out there willing to make a lot of plays, a lot of guys flying around, high intensity,” Jackson said.
“What I’ve seen so far is guys playing really really hard,” Chinander said. “The effort’s been unbelievable, communication’s been unbelievable, hopefully we cause some turnovers, hopefully we’re well tackling, hopefully we’re a physical football team, that’s what I want to see in game one.”