As with an efficient offense, winning on the defensive side starts with the linemen. Unfortunately, the losing also starts there, which was the case for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2017.
This defensive line has talent, but it was miscast in Bob Diaco’s new scheme. Don’t get me wrong, all three facets of the defense went wrong under Diaco, but the linemen really stuck out. The Huskers ranked last in yards per carry on third-and-short (allowing 9.89 yards on average) and had hardly any sacks.
In 2018, however, a switch to an attacking 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Erik Chinander should help all involved thrive.
Manning the Middle
Last year, Mick Stoltenberg was asked to put on weight to play nose tackle. He did it without any questions and was the most consistent and disruptive player along the defensive line. He started in all 12 games and finished with 33 tackles. This year, he has been a standout in the weight room yet again. Expect the senior to be a leader and play a huge part in a defensive resurgence.
While a position move has shaken up the nose tackle depth chart, Scott Frost is putting faith in Peyton Newell to be the primary depth behind Stoltenberg. The big senior played sparingly last season and ended the year with only two tackles in the season finale. Newell has made leaps this spring and will now be the primary backup in the middle.
The wild card at nose is Damion Daniels. A 315-pound three-star, Daniels has reportedly trimmed some weight and impressed Huskers defensive line coach Mike Dawson. He has two seniors in front of him, so it may be hard for him to crack the regular rotation. He should, however, see some snaps to get some real experience. He will most likely be in line for a starting job next season.
The man who backed up Stoltenberg last season, sophomore Deontre Thomas, will be switching to end this season. At 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, Thomas is a bit undersized for nose, especially in Diaco’s scheme, which benefits bigger lineman to fill gaps. Thomas was a solid contributor through the first half of the season, but lost playing time and trailed off. This year, Thomas should be part of the main rotation and gain more experience for his senior season. I like his potential.
When Carlos and Khalil Davis committed to the Huskers, it was seen as a big win and created some major noise among the Nebraska faithful. That seems like eons ago, but here we are in their junior season. Carlos is the only other surefire starter at defensive end. His skill set did not fit perfectly in Diaco’s system, but he still racked up 42 tackles, four of which came for a loss. He should be a much better fit with Chinander’s attacking scheme, so look for Carlos to make some noise.
Khalil is a little smaller than his brother, but every bit as strong, twitchy and athletic. No matter where he plays among the line, he should be part of the primary rotation and provide solid depth along the entire defensive line.
Let Freedom Ring
Is Freedom Akinmoladun just another ‘what could have been?’
Not yet, as he still has his senior year to prove otherwise. Freedom burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2015, where he had 21 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He looked like he had the potential to become the next great Nebraska pass-rusher. His sophomore season, he finished with 32 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble. Not necessarily the breakout many expected, but still a solid season considering the double teams.
Then last year happened. Diaco’s gap scheme and his theory that only three men should rush and eight should drop did not highlight Freedom’s strengths. He got double-teamed on nearly every play and was ineffective, finishing the year with only one sack.
It’s a good thing that Chinander believes in attacking defenses. Expect more four or five-man rushes this season, which will give Freedom more one-on-one opportunities and a chance to show that all his potential didn’t go to waste. While he isn’t even a guaranteed starter, I foresee him getting back to at least the levels he was during his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Pass-Rushing at a Premium
While he originally started off his career at defensive end, Ben Stille was moved to outside linebacker by Bob Diaco. Stille was one of the few bright spots for the Huskers defense last season, finishing with 3.5 sacks and ten tackles for loss. Considering he didn’t start playing regularly until a few games into conference play, that’s impressive for a redshirt freshman. This season, he will move back to defensive end and challenge Freedom for pass-rushing snaps. He’s looked good all spring and should be a big contributor this season.
A surprise behind Freedom and Stille is junior DaiShon Neal. Neal has been a stud this spring and found new life in the Frost era. He shined in the spring game and looks like a genuine contributing pass-rusher after being lost in the previous regime. It’s nice to see resurgences from promising recruits under the new coaching staff, and Neal is a prime example of that. I’m excited to see him hit the field.
Lastly, Fyn Anderson, a senior walk-on from Lincoln (Southeast, for those wondering), had himself a nifty little spring game and is exactly the type of unheralded, homegrown player Scott Frost wants to see make a return. We’ll see, come fall, if he’s done enough to make the rotation.
While it may be hard to crack a seemingly deep group, that won’t stop Casey Rogers from making a push. Rogers had a lacrosse scholarship to play at Syracuse but decided to go to prep school for an extra year to try and get a shot at football. Well, it worked, and now the skilled pass-rusher will try to skip the redshirt and play immediately. It will be a challenge, but if anyone can do it, it’s Rogers.
His recruited counterpart, Tate Wildeman, will most likely redshirt, but that’s a good thing. With a 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame, Wildeman’s year off will help the coaching staff build him into whatever they need him to be. He plays smart, too, so watch out for him in a couple years.
Last But Not Least
I wasn’t going to go this whole article without mentioning the player on the roster who is a former Navy SEAL. Damian Jackson, who will be 26 by the time the season starts, is listed as a defensive lineman, but will most likely play on special teams. Want a complete dark horse to root for? Look no further than Jackson.
Other linemen on the roster include: Colton Feist, Matt Jarzynka and Ben Lingenfelter
Next Week: Linebacker will see a lot of changes and potential new faces this season. Who will step up?