LINCOLN — Nebraska outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt has one seasoned vet, injured senior Luke Gifford, standing next to him in practice and a lot of relatively unproven players of all sizes — from 6-foot-5, 255-pound Alex Davis to 5-11, 206-pound Breon Dixon — mixing and matching throughout practice for the sake of evaluation and competition.
All of Dewitt’s guys are learning both outside linebacker positions and trying to find their strengths. Walk-on Jordan Paup is better on the line of scrimmage. Dixon, a converted safety, is better in coverage.
Junior Tyrin Ferguson, Dewitt said, is more skilled “in space.” He has good peripheral vision and can see multiple players at once. He’s working on the pass rushing component that’s so important to Nebraska’s desire to increase sacks and forced fumbles.
And, according to Dewitt, the 6-2, 225-pound Ferguson is attentive.
“He’s probably got the thickest set of notes of anybody in the meeting room,” Dewitt said. Ferguson will text Dewitt questions about a specific play from practice. He’ll visit Dewitt’s office after practice. Good players, Dewitt said, make the little mental notes.
“You can tell when someone’s really adopted a learner’s philosophy — when they come in with specific questions about specific plays,” Dewitt said. “He’ll text me throughout the day, ‘Hey, play 24 in team, they lined up in this, what was I supposed to do there?’”
Dewitt noted that sophomore Quayshon Alexander recently had a strong practice and redshirt freshman Guy Thomas — perhaps ideal for the position — is still learning the system, but occasionally makes big plays when he understands where he’s going.
Dixon, who played safety at Mississippi, naturally gets compared to Dewitt’s star pupil at Central Florida, Shaquem Griffin, the 6-1, 220-pound converted safety who had 18½ sacks and 33½ tackles for loss in his last two seasons at UCF.
“God, that’d be nice,” Dewitt said, smiling. “(Dixon) is just learning the scheme — like everybody else is — but every now and then there’s a flash of his athletic ability from his DB days. He has the ability to burst you don’t normally see.”
Inside ‘backers emerging
Barrett Ruud is looking for bodies. Six spring practices in, Nebraska’s inside linebackers coach feels like he’s off to a good start.
Ruud would like to play more than two guys in the middle of the 3-4 defense, and ideally it would be four to six men. That depth is important considering Scott Frost’s ultra-fast offense quickly puts a defense back on the field. At UCF last season, the Knights’ final six opponents all ran between 76 and 89 plays.
The top four linebackers to this point aren’t surprises: senior Dedrick Young, junior Mo Barry, juco transfer Will Honas and sophomore Avery Roberts. Others “who need to play a little bit of catch-up” include redshirt freshmen Willie Hampton and Andrew Ward. Junior Jacob Weinmaster, a special teams contributor last year, is another candidate for minutes.
”(Weinmaster) is a guy eventually we’ll probably have to count on at some point this year,” Ruud said. “I’m going to put it on him to learn both spots really well, be a utility-type guy.”
Spring practices right now are more about fundamentals than scheme, Ruud said. One concept that should help his group play at greater speed is that no one is responsible by himself for tackling a ball carrier in space.
”There’s no such thing as a bad missed tackle if you’re on the right leverage,” Ruud said. “A bad missed tackle is when you miss with the wrong leverage. Once you grasp the freedom that you have help, it really frees you up to tackle faster, to tackle more aggressive, to tackle with more certainty.”
The coach said Nebraska “probably went a little overboard” installing new terminology and techniques Thursday, leaving players “spinning a little bit” and going slower than Tuesday’s quicker standard. Ruud said he prefers new mistakes to repeat ones and hasn’t seen too many of the latter to this point.
Ruud also touched on multiple players in his “top four”:
On Honas: “He’s doing a good job correcting issues and he’s got some work to do — footwork, keys, fundamentals. It’s a new style of defense for him. But he’s putting the work in, so he’ll be fine.”
On Roberts: “I was very happy with his intelligence. He’s a smart kid, he really is. He picks things up fast. He’s got to clean up, more than anything, his fundamentals, his footwork. And I think that will come because he’s got a lot of want-to in him. But he’s done a really nice job learning what we’re asking him to do. Now it’s going to be about getting in better shape for him, getting his feet better, getting more agile. He’s a guy I’m confident will learn the system really well.”
Ends get work at nose
With Mick Stoltenberg out, the nose tackle position is wide open this spring. And defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is doing a little experimenting.
“I think the depth is good, and obviously with some guys getting nicked up here and there you have the opportunity to play some of the guys who are playing defensive end,” Chinander said. “You have the opportunity to roll some of those guys at nose, so we can see what we’ve got.”
With that, Chinander said redshirt freshman Damion Daniels is playing well, as is senior Peyton Newell. Both of the Davis twins, Carlos and Khalil, also are getting reps at nose.
It isn’t difficult to switch guys from the ends to nose, Chinander said. It’s the same basic principles in his defense.
“It’s football,” he said. “We’re striking people. We’re escaping blocks, we’re rushing the passer, so I don’t think it matters if you’re doing it on a nose or a tackle. It’s a little bit different being out in space or a little bit different being close confines, but at the end of the day, who can strike, who can see, who can throw and go, all those type of things? They all still play no matter what position you’re at.”
Tackling is improving
The orders for the football program clearly come from coach Scott Frost, but when it comes to tackling, Chinander happens to align perfectly with his boss.
“If I didn’t believe what he believed I’d either fall in line or go somewhere else,” Chinander said. “But fortunately we’re aligned perfectly.”
Chinander said the tackling at the beginning of spring was not great. But with Frost’s new system of coaching tackling, the defensive coordinator has seen improvement across the board.
“We believe in not breaking down at the ball carrier. We believe in running through, to and through the ball carrier,” Chinander said. “(Scott) has a great saying: ‘Long stride, short stride, shuffle and shoot,’” Chinander said. “Like he always says with everything, we’re not afraid to fail. If we miss tackles, we’re going to miss them at 100 miles an hour with proper leverage and bouncing that thing around, and the rest of the dogs are gonna hunt.”
» Defensive line coach Mike Dawson said Newell was doing a good job at nose tackle. Stoltenberg was seen at practice on crutches.
» Omaha Burke tight end Chris Hickman unofficially visited Nebraska on Thursday.
» Metuchen (New Jersey) St. Joseph’s offensive linemen John Olmstead is scheduled to visit Friday. Olmstead, a consensus four-star rated as a top-100 prospect by Rivals, has 10 finalists and plans to visit them all, including NU. Ole Miss got a visit on Wednesday. Olsmtead, who goes by the nickname “Johnny O,” recently told NJ.com that he picked his top 10 based on the amount of communication he’d had with each school. Ohio State, Rutgers, LSU, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Penn State comprise the rest of Olmstead’s top 10.
» Thursday appeared to be a Husker parents day, as dozens attended practice and talked with their sons afterward.
» Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne attended practice.
» An interesting visual moment occurred when elementary school students, on a field trip to Memorial Stadium, began to descend the same stairwell Husker players ascended after practice. Kids gawked and smiled as players crossed their paths.
Nebraska Spring Game
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, April 21
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM