Ahead of Nebraska football’s season-opening game on Saturday, Aug. 28, The Daily Nebraskan is previewing all three phases of the team. We started by taking a look at the Husker offense yesterday. We’re now shifting our focus to the other side of the ball with a look at the Blackshirts, and we will round out our coverage tomorrow with an in-depth look at Nebraska’s special teams.
Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost has overseen five defensive units during his coaching career — two at the University of Central Florida and three at Nebraska. During that time, teams coached by Frost have deployed defenses that are best classified as statistically good but not great.
The Huskers’ 2021 defense, set to be the sixth defense constructed by a Frost coaching staff, has the pieces in place to be the best of the bunch by a significant margin.
Interestingly enough, Frost’s best defense from a pure numbers perspective came in his first season as head coach in 2016. That UCF squad finished an unremarkable 6-7 but allowed just 24.6 points per game, which ranked No. 3 in the American Conference and No. 41 nationally. Frost’s 2016 UCF outfit also maintained the best team defense ranking of any team he’s led in total yards per game, impressively finishing as the No. 39 defense in all of college football.
Frost’s undefeated 2017 UCF team finished with relatively similar numbers to the 2016 team, allowing 25.3 points per game and ranking No. 53 nationally in team scoring defense. Despite the consistent play of both defenses led by Frost at UCF, it must be said that neither played a great schedule.
Both UCF teams coached by Frost finished with a below-average strength of schedule, with the 2016 and 2017 teams checking in around the mid-70s in the metric nationally. For reference, Nebraska has had a top-30 strength of schedule in Frost’s three seasons in charge. On paper, the Huskers’ 2021 schedule is the toughest under Frost to date, ranking No. 19 in the country according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Based on this, it is clear that there was always going to be a period of defensive adjustment in order to assemble a defense that can compete at the Big Ten level. Despite the general defensive inconsistency, the unit has steadily improved over the last three years.
The 2018 Nebraska defense was statistically the worst of Frost’s tenure. The Huskers allowed 31.2 points per game in Frost’s first season in charge, good for No. 12 in the Big Ten, while boasting a defense that ranked No. 88 in the country. In 2020, the defensive unit finished No. 7 in the Big Ten in points allowed and No. 65 in team scoring defense.
Nebraska’s defense should no doubt improve in 2021, and it would not be a surprise to see the unit finish as one of the better ones in the Big Ten. The central reason for this is that Nebraska’s defense is built around a good amount of returning experience.
While Nebraska has yet to release a depth chart ahead of Saturday’s season opener at the time of writing, the Husker defense looks to be the most stable unit of the team with the potential to return as many as nine starters from a year ago.
Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s experienced unit starts with a deep defensive line corps. Sixth-year senior defensive lineman Ben Stille leads the way, coming off a 2020 campaign in which he started every contest, recorded 27 tackles, notched three tackles for loss and managed 1.5 sacks.
Junior defensive lineman Damion Daniels will once again be tasked with clogging up lanes on the opposing offensive line. Daniels, a 2021 team captain, recorded 20 tackles and four tackles for loss in 2020, both of which were career highs. Redshirt freshman Ty Robinson rounds out the projected starting trio and impressed in 2020. Robinson appeared in every game last season and finished with 17 tackles, two of which were for loss.
Nebraska has plenty of defensive line options waiting in the wings if the trio of Daniels, Robinson and Stille do not start. Sophomore defensive lineman Casey Rogers is a more than capable replacement and should see plenty of action this season following a stellar 2020 season. Rogers only started once, but he appeared in all eight games and recorded 24 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack.
Junior defensive linemen Deontre Thomas and Jordon Riley are quality depth pieces that should feature plenty in the Huskers’ rotation, and second-year freshman defensive lineman Nash Hutmacher impressed in the 2021 Red/White Game last May. All told, the Huskers’ defensive line boasts a proper mix of experience and youth.
The defensive line will look to improve upon its run defense, which was just about average in 2020. The Huskers allowed just under 170 rushing yards per game, which ranked No. 68 of 128 Division I schools. Nebraska’s overall defensive line quality should lead to that number’s improvement in 2021.
Familiar faces also litter the Huskers’ linebackers. Of Nebraska’s top eight tacklers from a season ago, five are linebackers that should see significant snaps in 2021. Sixth-year senior linebacker JoJo Domann was Nebraska’s leading tackler in 2020, an impressive campaign that saw him earn Honorable-Mention All-Big Ten honors. Domann started all eight games and recorded 55 tackles, defended five passes and forced two fumbles.
Sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer, the Huskers’ fifth-leading tackler in 2020, broke out a season ago before suffering an unfortunate season-ending injury. Reimer seemed to have a nose for the football and consistently made plays, with 40 total tackles and five tackles for loss in six games.
Sixth-year senior linebacker Will Honas (57 tackles in 2020), sophomore linebacker Garrett Nelson (30 tackles in 2020) and redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Henrich (27 tackles in 2020) round out Nebraska’s returning linebackers, although the former is returning from a knee injury and will not be ready to open the season. A pair of junior linebackers, Caleb Tannor and Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic round out the major pieces of Nebraska’s linebacking crew.
Experience, the central theme within the Husker defense, continues in the secondary, where Nebraska’s final two defensive sixth-year seniors operate. Senior safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke should be one of the best tandems in the conference. The two played a major part in helping limit half of Nebraska’s eight opponents last season to throw for less than 200 yards.
Junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt is Nebraska’s clear No. 1 cornerback, and there’s plenty of talent behind him. Sophomore cornerbacks Quinton Newsome and Braxton Clark have been in fierce competition for the other starting cornerback role, as well as sophomore cornerback Tyreke Johnson — a former five-star recruit and Ohio State transfer.
Johnson is a particularly interesting choice for the No. 2 cornerback role as he played sparingly in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten Championship season last year. He appeared in two games in 2020 for Ohio State and made five total tackles, including a four-tackle performance against Rutgers. He has plenty of experience in a highly competitive Ohio State program, and he has already made a big impact within the Huskers’ defensive back room.
The central difference between Nebraska’s offense and defense entering 2020 is this: the defense has a host of proven talent while the offense is littered with exciting, talented newcomers who for the most part have yet to make an impact at the collegiate level.
In what should be a critical year for the program, the play of Nebraska’s defense could be the difference between reaching bowl eligibility or not.