Mike Dawson sees the chemistry, leadership and experience. Nebraska’s defensive line room is full and seasoned, with three seniors, three juniors, two sophomores who played often last season and one precocious freshman who’s still 18.
Dawson, who coaches the bunch, is cross-training ends at nose tackle and nose tackles at end.
“This is about as deep as I’ve been, probably, coaching any position in my whole time I’ve ever been coaching,” Dawson said Saturday after NU’s practice. “Which is great. It’s also going to breed a lot of competition. The reps are going to be at a premium.”
If the Huskers went just two-deep at its three line spots, maybe a player could get 50 reps in Nebraska’s new, speedy practice style. But Dawson goes three-deep — and that’s just the scholarship players. So he tells them each rep matters — not only in NU’s future success, but a guy’s playing time.
Dawson said he’s lucky that two returning senior starters — Mick Stoltenberg and Freedom Akinmoladun — are unselfish and enthusiastic.
“Both Mick and Freedom have done a great job of being leaders and really putting the group ahead of themselves,” Dawson said. “A lot of times, guys think ‘This is my senior year, I have to show out’ or something like that, and they leave the rest of the group behind. Both of them have been pulling the group from the front, which is a really great trait for those leaders.”
Stoltenberg — who had 33 tackles last season despite constant double teams — has taken redshirt freshman Damion Daniels under his wing. Daniels, still just 18, is 6-foot-2, 310 pounds and an ideal fit for a 3-4 nose tackle spot. NU’s previous coaching staff pinpointed Daniels as the future nose tackle, then redshirted him as he developed in the weight room. He may be hard to keep off the field now.
“He’s got a great attitude. He comes to work with a smile on his face every day,” Dawson said of Daniels. “I haven’t seen him in a bad mood since I’ve been here. Wants to learn, wants to be a part of it. He’s got a lot of football ahead of him.”
Farmer in best shape of his life
As far as Tanner Farmer’s concerned, this spring is the start of both a personal and team football revival.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound senior feels he’s in the best shape of his life. He’s even cross-training some at center while trying to lock down the job at right guard, where he started the first eight games last season before an injured right ankle against Wisconsin ended his year.
Perhaps the biggest to-do between him and some lofty goals is learning the ins and outs of what Scott Frost’s offense asks linemen to do.
“The mental aspect, just having overall football knowledge and just being really quick and decisive with my movements,” Farmer said. “I think I have the strength — I’m okay in that area — it’s just being decisive, being comfortable in what I’m doing and just getting it done.”
The Highland, Illinois, native said All-American status is on his radar in his final college campaign. So is being a better teammate and building a relationship with NU’s new coaching staff.
“It’s a great, high-paced world,” Farmer said. “Everybody’s extremely positive. We’re all on the same track, we’re all on the same path, we all have the same ideas of what we want to do, who we want to be. It’s great. We’re unifying as a team and it couldn’t be better.”
Jackson has talent, physicality coming
Lamar Jackson should thrive in any defense. That’s how good defensive coordinator Erik Chinander believes the junior corner is.
“He’s got talent, he needs a little bit more physicality, we need to work on that and he knows it and he wants to work on that,” Chinander said. “He’s gonna be a great guy pressed up on receivers.”
Jackson finished last season with 38 tackles and three pass deflections, but zero interceptions. The highest-rated recruit in Nebraska’s 2016 class said earlier this week he isn’t scared of contact, it’s just something he needs to get used to.
But that’s a feeling Chinander said the entire defense is getting used to. Just playing more aggressive and attacking. That’s been the main focus this first week.
“The biggest challenge of this defense is just changing the mindset,” Chinander said. “We want to get turnovers, we want to be aggressive, we want to get to the quarterback, we want to get the football out. We need to be an aggressive unit to match up with our offense and I think we just need to change the mindset of getting guys pressed up on receivers, letting guys loose, making guys free to make plays on the football.”
NU defense is ahead
A few days ago, Nebraska’s offensive coaches said the defense was getting the best of spring ball through the first few practices.
Chinander said Saturday he believes part of that has to do with the effort on his side of the ball.
“Since the beginning of football, usually the defense is a little ahead, especially when you play like we do where we’re going to go attack people,” Chinander said. “So early on, just us trying to make some plays, and also the effort those kids gave the first couple days, I think their effort may have been a little higher than the other side of the ball.”
The sense Chinander gets from the defense — and the entire team, for that matter — is that they have something to prove.
“I think there’s a sense of urgency from the whole team to prove themselves,” Chinander said. “I don’t think 4-8 is where anybody wanted Nebraska football at and I don’t think these kids came here for that. So I think there’s a sense of urgency to do it the right way, to be held accountable and get this thing back where it needs to be.”
Tight ends doing more
What the tight ends are being asked to do in this offense, Jack Stoll said, isn’t too different from the previous offense.
It’s just more of some things than others.
“We did it in the last offense, it’s just we’re doing it much more in this offense,” Stoll said. “So for example, blocking in space. That’s something we had to do in the old offense but in this new offense that’s something we really have to have a heavy emphasis on.”
With the fullback position essentially non-existent, the tight ends now become a more versatile position. Stoll said they’ve been working more on route running than before, and the group is already gelling with tight ends coach Sean Beckton.
“I see us as kind of the most versatile position out there. I think we’re one of the deepest positions on the team. I’ve got faith in all our guys to go out there and ball out no matter who is in,” Stoll said.
>> Nebraska hosted several recruiting prospects on unofficial visits Saturday, including Wichita (Kansas) Northwest outside linebacker/defensive end Marcus Hicks, Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney linebacker Luke Fulton, Allen (Texas) guard EJ Ndoma-Ogar, and 2020 Bellevue West receiver Zavier Betts. Hicks and his family were escorted around the facility by associate athletic director for football Matt Davison.
>> Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said the smarts of safeties Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed has stood out.
“Those guys get us lined up every play,” Fisher said. “They’re able to pick things up. As a whole secondary, they’re very smart. You can throw the whole book at these guys and they’ll pick it up.”
>> Breon Dixon is working at outside linebacker, though he could also be a defensive back.
>> Several defensive backs — Deontai Williams and Avery Anderson among them — are cross-training several defensive back positions.
>> Nebraska long snapper Jordan Ober left practice on crutches. Only head coach Scott Frost can address injuries. He’ll speak again Tuesday.
>> Former NU defensive backs coach George Darlington attended practice Saturday.