Caleb Tannor

With 20 more pounds of muscle than he had as a freshman, sophomore outside linebacker Caleb Tannor is confident his second year as a Husker will be more productive on the field.

LINCOLN — Can we try again?

Let’s just try this again and see what happens. That’s what Caleb Tannor wants.

So go back. Pretend the last 12 months didn’t happen. Let’s reintroduce you.

This is Caleb Tannor. He’s a 6-foot-2, 220-pound outside linebacker from Stone Mountain, Georgia. In high school, he was one of the top pass rushers in the country, an all-state selection in the talent-rich state of Georgia. He held offers from Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida State. He chose Nebraska, and appeared to give NU an SEC body with SEC pass-rush skills.

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During Scott Frost’s signing day press conference in February 2018, he compared Tannor to Shaquem Griffin, the former Central Florida linebacker now playing for the Seattle Seahawks.

“Caleb is the type of guy who can rush the passer from the outside, but he’s also athletic enough to make plays in space,” Frost said.

Tannor played as a true freshman last year, as you might sort of recall. He appeared in all 12 games, but had just 10 tackles. He was often trotted out on third down in hopes he’d make a play, but generally found himself away from the play or swallowed by Big Ten tackles.

If you forgot about all that, that’s OK with Tannor.

“That wasn’t the real me,” he said on Monday after practice. “I don’t know. I wasn’t on full go, really.”

He wants to shake your hand now and reintroduce himself. Because the version of Tannor you see now? This is the real him. He’s over his issues from last year, he says. He’s hit the weight room, he’s studied his film. He’s done some internal digging and figured out why his motor wouldn’t turn on last season. The Tannor you see now, he insists, is different. Outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt agrees.

“He’s so much better,” Dewitt said. “He’s a lot better player.”

It’s fall camp, and Nebraska is just four practices in. So declaring Tannor a starter, the pass rush issues fixed and claiming all’s well in Huskerland because Tannor feels better would be disingenuous. But Nebraska needs an outside linebacker to step up. And for the Huskers to keep up with preseason expectations of eight to 10 wins and a Big Ten West title, they need a pass rush.

Because that pass rush has been on hiatus for a few years.

Nebraska was sixth in the Big Ten in sacks last year, with the now-departed Luke Gifford leading the team with 5.5. NU was 14th in 2017 and 11th in 2016. So the pass rush was better under Erik Chinander than under Bob Diaco or Mark Banker. But Gifford’s 5.5 sacks still ranked 14th in the conference.

For a defense predicated on chaos, NU needs more helmets in a QB’s facemask.

Tannor thinks he could be that guy this year.

“I think I got faster, stronger, way smarter in the game now,” he said. “I understand the defense way better. I’m able to make plays.”

When he joined the program and played immediately, Tannor was happy. This was exactly what he wanted. But during games, he noticed his own hesitation. He wasn’t sprinting to plays. He wasn’t playing as hard as he could have, or should have. He wasn’t overwhelmed, he insists, but he found himself lost in the moment, thrown into a game he wasn’t quite ready for.

“I just knew this wasn’t really my full potential,” he said. “I was playing like, ‘This ain’t my full potential, this isn’t what I do.’ I used to be mad. I was like, ‘Man, what am I doing? I’m not going hard, I’m not going as hard.’ I guess it was like, damn, being a freshman playing that fast, even though that’s what I wanted, I was expecting that, it was just like, ‘Damn this (stuff’s) for real.’ Like, I’m out here, in Michigan, I’m out here for real. Man.’ ”

After the season, Tannor had surgery on his shoulder. He was fully healthy this summer when, for the first time in his life, he spent three months lifting weights. In high school, lifting wasn’t a priority, he said. And before last season, he realized during workouts that he just wasn’t ready for what strength coach Zach Duval wanted him to do.

So he attacked this summer and put on 20 pounds of muscle.

Four practices in, the confidence is back. Because he’s tossing around offensive tackles and tight ends again, like back in high school.

“Duval gave me Big Ten strength,” Tannor said. “That’s what I have this year. That’s on my side right now. Big Ten strength.”

Two things have changed with Tannor, Dewitt said. He’s smarter. He’s stronger. It is that simple.

“Once you combine a little bit of knowledge with lifting weights, I mean, the sky is the limit for as good as he wants to be,” Dewitt said.

Tannor will have to compete for a starting spot with some vets. Seniors Alex Davis and Tyrin Ferguson might be better bets to get the first snap against South Alabama at his outside linebacker spot. But competition is hot and ongoing. And Tannor’s ready for it.

You don’t have to believe him right now. He knows the trust between you two might be a bit frayed. But this version of Tannor wants to live up to the hype this time.

“Man, I’m everywhere,” he said of the early practices. “The best I’ve been feeling since, shoot, best I’ve felt on the field ever.”

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Chris Heady covers Husker football and is the Nebraska men's basketball beat writer. He started at The World-Herald in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @heady_chris. Email: chris.heady@owh.com.

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