LINCOLN — For a moment during his Monday press conference, Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander almost seemed satisfied.
No college football coach ever quite allows himself to feel that way, but Chinander finds no fault with the effort and passion of his defense this training camp. What matters most is NU’s defense continuing to do its best. No “mush faces,” he said.
“There hasn’t been one day where I’ve been disappointed with the energy of the team,” Chinander said. “We definitely got a lot of things to work on. We’re not there, but the energy’s good.”
Chinander liked most of the work in Friday’s scrimmages from the top two units but cited a couple “dumb plays” as concerns — including an interception in an end-game situation where the defensive back, instead of going down, tried to score a touchdown.
Situational scrimmages are important for Nebraska, Chinander said, because its default practice style is “fast, fast, fast, fast, fast.” So the defensive line has to practice what it looks like to get a hard count on third-and-1, Chinander said.
“The defensive line hasn’t had their earmuffs on in two weeks,” Chinander said. “And all of the sudden they get hard-counted, and they jump offsides.”
The growth of the defense has created some “hard” choices for the coaches, Chinander said. There are “five or six” defensive backs who could start, for example. The defensive line is “pretty deep.” Chinander continues to wonder whether outside linebacker JoJo Domann — who missed the first week of practice with an undisclosed injury — will be fully ready for the season opener against South Alabama. At inside linebacker, Chinander said, Nebraska has three players qualified to start — Mohamed Barry, Will Honas and Collin Miller.
These are good problems for Nebraska to have, Chinander said.
“What you’re going to see, and everyone’s going to see, is a lot of guys rotating in,” Chinander said. “I think we need that. Whether you’re a ‘starter’ or not, I love to have 22 starters, so we can roll that through and keep everybody fresh, as many reps as we have on defense. But there’s definitely going to be some hard decisions on who walks out there for the first snap.”
Linebackers looking the part
Strong, fast, big.
“They look like Big Ten linebackers,” Chinander said. The coordinator was talking about Barry, Honas and Miller, who have separated from the pack at inside linebacker.
“We’ve got three really solid guys who can come in and play,” Chinander said.
Barry was the known quantity entering training camp. He had more than 100 tackles last season.
Honas and Miller aren’t nearly as proven. Honas got hurt in NU’s fourth game last season and was able to preserve his redshirt. Miller moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker before last season and slowly learned the position behind former starter Dedrick Young.
Punting battle continues
Both have experience kicking in the Big Ten. Both have similar leg strength. Both are even left-footed.
So, special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt said, it should be no surprise that the battle at punter won’t be decided until the end of the week.
The incumbent, Isaac Armstrong, is a walk-on senior who was NU’s starter the final seven games last season and also the starting holder. His punting average was third in the Big Ten and ninth-highest in school history at 43.6 yards. His competitor is William Przystup, a transfer from Michigan State who was MSU’s starter by the end of last year and averaged 40.6 yards per punt.
“If you had to give one edge to one guy, it would probably be Isaac because he’s been around, he’s familiar with what we’re doing probably a little bit,” Dewitt said. “But again, I would tell you it’s going to come all the way down to the last day.”
Dewitt said only one punt out of 12 was out of direction during Monday’s practice. The tiebreaker, he said, will likely come down to accumulated data relating to catch-to-kick time and hang time.
“It’ll come down to the wire,” Dewitt said. “It’s been fun.”
Still looking at in-state talent
Nebraska has one in-state commit in its 2020 class, and much of the state’s top talent has already announced college plans.
But Barrett Ruud — the point man for in-state recruiting for the Huskers — said he’s not moving past this cycle yet.
Ruud, the former Lincoln Southeast and Nebraska standout who enjoyed a successful career in the NFL, said he’ll want to look at senior film of players before making final determinations. Part of that comes down to his own experiences on the field.
”To me, it’s a personal deal,” Ruud said. “I just know how much different I was from a junior as a 16-year-old to a 17-year-old.”
Ruud has offered scholarships to prospects before their final prep year in his brief time back at NU. That was the case in the 2019 cycle with Omaha Burke grads Nick Henrich and Chris Hickman, along with Norfolk Catholic product Ethan Piper. Bellevue West receiver Zavier Betts is already a verbal pledge for the 2020 cycle, and Burke’s Xavier Watts also received an early offer before choosing Notre Dame.
One possible candidate for a senior-year offer is Lincoln Southeast safety Isaac Gifford, a three-star recruit with offers to Oregon State, Northern Iowa and Army. Ruud said there are many athletes he’s looking forward to seeing.
“A lot of times you got so many offers out there where guys are sophomores or juniors,” Ruud said. “But, heck, I remember I got an offer going into my senior year, and I was a different player from junior to senior year.”
» Domann has been easing back into practice reps, said Dewitt, who is also the outside linebackers coach. He said if there were 60 reps Monday, Domann took 35 as he returns from an offseason injury. Domann participated in Friday’s situational scrimmage.
» Dewitt said there are six or seven outside linebackers he has no issue putting into a game. The closest true freshman to being game ready, he said, is Scottsbluff grad Garrett Nelson, who, at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, is physical on the edge and is learning the defense quickly. Dewitt said he’s never had to get on Nelson for any bad practice habits and that he will be a factor on special teams and defense.
“Oh, he’s going to play right away,” Dewitt said. “I mean, he’s going to play early.”
» True freshman inside linebacker Jackson Hannah is still gaining confidence in the technique and scheme of the defense, Ruud said. The 6-3, 225-pound Hannah simply needs more repetitions.
“Now it’s just a matter of trusting it,” Ruud said. “And at some point it’s all going to click. And then you don’t think about doing it, you just do it.”
» True freshman Luke Reimer is a “day-by-day process” at inside linebacker, Ruud said, as he works through an injury. Fellow walk-on Joseph Johnson “took a bunch of reps” Monday and is recovering well from a previous undisclosed injury.
» Count defensive backs coach Travis Fisher among those not interested in hypothetical trash talk that could crop up between the secondary and Nebraska’s quarterbacks in practice. The former NFL defender said if players are doing too much talking, they’re probably missing something on the field.
“I’m more focused on hearing those guys make the calls and the checks,” Fisher said. “The smack talk? Not really. I’m not really a smack-talking guy. But if it’s fun, and it’s not harmful, and they want to entertain that, then that’s them.”
» Newcomer defensive end Jahkeem Green has to “get comfortable” with NU’s scheme and “play himself into shape,” Chinander said.
» The experience of NU’s defensive linemen allows some of the younger players — like Casey Rogers, who has put on 50 pounds since arriving 15 months ago — to develop at an appropriate pace. The younger linemen are fortunate to have good leaders in their room, too, Chinander said.
“When you have really good people who are the best players, that helps the locker room tremendously,” he said.