LINCOLN — Last year, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher had a steady rotation of safeties.
Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed and Tre Neal all started at one point. But Williams was banged up all year. Reed hadn't been a starter his entire career and was prone to mistakes. Neal was brand new to Nebraska from UCF. Deontai Williams was new, too, a JUCO transfer who ended up leading NU in interceptions. Then JoJo Domann had some time at safety, too. He's now an outside linebacker.
Fisher played them all. But laughs now at the juggling act with all of those guys.
"Last year it was all about making the room strong, it wasn’t about making the individual strong," Fisher said.
Fisher has a better idea of his guys after a year. But he still wants at least five safeties to play in a game.
He returns Deontai Williams, who he said is the most athletic, and said he likes his incoming freshmen a lot.
“I’ve got Myles Farmer, who is already probably my biggest safety right now, Quinton Newsome is also a big one, I got Noa Pola-Gates who is a little bit more, a little bit smaller than those guys but he’s more explosive," Fisher said. “I hope my freshman can come in and be impacts. I don’t wanna be too positive before it happens, but I really like my freshmen.”
Nebraska will also try out Cam’ron Jones, who redshirted last year with a shoulder injury. Head coach Scott Frost said he’s been impressed with Jones early. Junior Marquel Dismuke also saw time last year.
Will Mo Barry lead the defense?
Scott Frost said he hopes senior linebacker Mo Barry is the ringleader of the defense.
Barry isn’t shy about his desire to be great. And that’s easy to coach, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said.
“You want guys that want to be great,” Ruud said. “You want guys that want to work at it and really be around it.”
Barry led Nebraska in tackles last year. He’ll lead a room of inside linebackers who will be on the hunt to replace multiyear starter Dedrick Young.
Junior Collin Miller moved from outside linebacker to inside and has a good shot at the open starting spot. So does Will Honas, who transferred in last year but missed the final eight games after an injury.
And don’t count out true freshman Nick Henrich, Ruud said. With Barry around, it sets a tone for a room in need of some juice.
“Mo has embraced probably what we want to do here as much as anybody on our whole team,” Ruud said. “Now it’s just a matter of refining everything, making sure all the details are in place and not letting it slip from that standpoint.”
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Ruud talks in-state recruiting
Ruud runs in-state recruiting for Nebraska. He went 5 for 5 in the 2019 recruiting cycle, helping lock down Henrich, tight end Chris Hickman, linebackers Garrett Snodgrass and Garrett Nelson and lineman Ethan Piper.
At times, it feels like the easiest job in the world, Ruud said.
“At times it’s the hard job, because you don’t want to ever lose a guy from the state,” Ruud said. “That’s my biggest thing. If you have a guy that you feel is good enough to play at Nebraska, you don’t want to ever lose them to a competitor. So the guys that are in state that are really good players, we want to make sure they’re playing for Nebraska.”
Huskers make gains in the weight room
A few weeks ago, offensive line coach Greg Austin walked into the weight room.
“There was a feeling of euphoria,” he said, “because they had competed with themselves, and they had lifted, squatted, much more weight than they’d ever squatted before.”
There was a pride he could feel from his guys that he’d not seen before. Which is a huge deal, he said.
“Just that feeling of ‘This matters. This is a big, big, big portion of who we are and what we believe in and how we’re going to get this program turned around.’ That’s a big deal.”
Coming on strong
It wasn't the best feeling for Ben Stille last fall knowing he was the smallest one playing on the defensive line. That comment Scott Frost made after the Iowa game about how Nebraska needed to get stronger? Yeah, he took that personally.
So the junior from Ashland hit the weights with the rest of his team in the offseason and gained 10 pounds of muscle, putting him at 288 pounds. After Monday's practice, he felt he looked more like the rest of the line. He was holding his ground better too.
"Last year it was time to put on an excessive amount of weight and it just wasn’t enough time for me to put all the weight on that I needed in that time," said Stille, who played some outside linebacker in 2017. "I was definitely starting at a better point this year and able to slowly put on a good 10 pounds.”
Frost again touted the work strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval has done in sculpting the roster on Tuesday. He said players have gained an average of 100 pounds in their lower-leg strength in the squat and more than 50 pounds per man, on average, in their upper-body measurables.
"They’re in better shape, they can run longer, they can practice like we want them to practice more efficiently," Frost said. "That was obvious in day one of spring ball, so hopefully we’re starting at a lot better place than we were last year.”
Barry said he now weighs 232 after coming in around 225 last fall. Quarterback Adrian Martinez, listed at 220, also wanted to add weight to his frame. Jackson said defensive backs are now benching new personal bests following winter workouts.
Daniels setting the tone
Darrion Daniels is quickly making his presence felt around North Stadium.
The senior graduate transfer from Oklahoma State was mentioned often during a 2½-hour session of interviews with players and coaches Tuesday. Linebacker Mohamed Barry identified the defensive tackle along with cornerbacks Dicaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson as other defensive leaders. D-lineman Ben Stille said Daniels has fit right into the group and could play nose tackle or either end spot along the three-man front.
Tony Tuioti, the new defensive line coach who went through his first practice Monday, said Daniels has emerged as a tone-setter in the way he attacks meetings and practices.
“He was running (to) the ball so hard,” Tuioti said. “I have a lot of example clips of him of how we should run to the football. He wants to prove himself to this group. He’s just like me; we’re in the same boat. He wants to prove himself to his teammates and he wants to earn their trust. The best way to do that is to go as hard as you can.”
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound senior is the older brother of redshirt sophomore lineman Damion Daniels and has been pushing his younger sibling, teammates say. Add in twins Carlos and Khalil Davis, Stille said, and the position meetings are “definitely a sight to see.”
“If you ever get a chance to sit in a room with them at the same time,” Stille said, “I’d encourage it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Frost a big fan of Moos
Scott Frost is bullish on his boss.
“I’m as big of a Bill Moos fan as you’ll find,” Frost said Tuesday.
The coach was asked about Moos’ support for the Husker football program over the last several months. Frost has conducted several speaking engagements with Moos and said NU coaches have received what they’ve asked for, as well.
“It was important to me, before I took this job, that we had an athletic director that was going to do everything possible to give the football program, and every sports program what they needed to be successful,” Frost said. “Bill hasn’t disappointed me. We haven’t asked for anything out of line. When we do ask Bill for something he tries to find a way to get it done. He’s been a great support and a great resource for me. I probably wouldn’t be here — possibly wouldn’t be here — if Bill Moos wasn’t the athletic director.”
Will Jaylin Bradley step up in 2019?
Ryan Held sighed. The sigh said a lot.
The question: What did Nebraska sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley fail to do last season that coaches want to see this spring?
“In the spring, he did some good things and then, in the summer, he had some personal things going on in his life,” Held said of the Bellevue West graduate. “That might have contributed to the fall not being as focused as he needed to be.”
Bradley essentially redshirted last season, even if he was technically available to play. He didn’t log a carry. In 2017, as a true freshman, he had 24 carries for 93 yards and four catches for 38 yards.
Held said Bradley had a “really good offseason,” and, with Maurice Washington’s legal situation making him a limited participant in spring practice, Bradley may get a good share of the carries.
“This is a make-or-break spring,” Held said. “We need to see what he can do, because we have some guys coming in that we’re really excited about that will change my room. It’ll be a lot different come Aug. 1. So this is a big spring for him in a lot of aspects.”
NU welcomes 2019 signees Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to the roster this summer.
JoJo Domann will play outside linebacker
One of the best defensive plays of Nebraska’s 2018 season — JoJo Domann’s strip-sack and forced fumble of Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins — has carried over to 2019 spring camp.
Domann, up to 230 pounds according to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, will spend time at outside linebacker this spring after a successful stint at the position late last year. Domann will also play at safety against power teams that feature bigger sets and more tight ends.
Against the spread — or the offense Ohio State and many other Big Ten teams run — Domann may stay down at linebacker, where he had 19 tackles in 2018. Domann’s playmaking skill impressed coach Scott Frost.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” Frost said. “We can put guys in position to make plays but at the end of the day they’ve got to make a play. That was one of the bright spots about watching JoJo. So when he came off the edge and wasn’t blocked, we got sack fumbles and saw him make a bunch of tackles.”
Frost said NU’s first spring practice revealed the same trait about Domann, who played nearly every position on the field as a prep star in Colorado Springs.
» Frost said he's concerned about the depth at running back. With Washington limited, Nebraska will have to rely on Jaylin Bradley and Wyatt Mazour, plus walk-ons this spring. Freshmen Wan'Dale Robinson and Miles Jones will both primarily play wide receiver, but both took reps at running back on Monday.
» New defensive line coach Tony Tuioti is "as good of a guy to hire" for Nebraska. He replaced Mike Dawson after he left for a job in the NFL.
» Frost wants sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez to grow as a leader this spring. "He can't back into that he's gotta take it on, accept it and embrace it," Frost said.
» In general, Frost said he doesn't care where the leadership comes from, but the team needs it. That could mean underclassmen captains. He said senior Mo Barry needed to be "the ring leader" of the defense.
» JoJo Domann, who played at safety last year but moved to outside linebacker, was the No. 1 outside linebacker on the first day of camp.
» Frost said he's much more comfortable with Nebraska's quarterback depth this year. Behind Martinez, NU will have UCF transfer Noah Vedral, early enrollee Luke McCaffrey and junior Andrew Bunch. Frost said McCaffrey had "as good of a first day" as he could have.
» Frost said Nebraska will take it slow with redshirt freshman Cam Jurgens, who is coming off a foot injury. Jurgens is moving from tight end to center.
» Nebraska is slim at wide receiver with the graduation of Stanley Morgan. Frost said he doesn't need the receivers on campus to become All-Americans. "But I just need them to improve."
» Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Troy Walters called Wan’Dale Robinson “the real deal” as a player.
» Nebraska’s spring football roster is 117 players. That doesn’t include any of the scholarship freshmen or walk-ons who have yet to arrive.
» Chinander said he’ll coach outside linebackers when Jovan Dewitt — who is battling throat cancer — isn’t available at practice because he’s getting treatments. Special teams quality control Zach Crespo will assist with special teams coordination.
» NU interviewed “four or five” candidates, Chinander said, on campus for the open defensive line coaching job that eventually went to Tuioti.
When was Nebraska last ranked No. 1? Husker football's entire history in the AP Top 25
How often has Nebraska football been ranked at each position? When did the Huskers first appear at No. 1? When was the last time NU was in the top 10? Check out this photo collection featuring how Nebraska has fared at each spot in the AP Top 25.