LINCOLN — Nebraska outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson has a saying he likes to use with his players.
“Each rep they get is like a piece of gold,” Dawson said Thursday night on the Husker Sports Network. “They’ve got to take that rep as seriously as they can.”
The Huskers lost a lot of gold when 13 of their 15 spring practices were canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. Starting Friday, when NU coaches are allowed to work with players for six hours a week in walk-through practices, Dawson will get to start distributing snaps again.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said earlier in the week that Dawson, in his second stint as a Husker position coach, has his work cut out for him with the outside ‘backers, where only fifth-year senior JoJo Domann has proven, with any consistency, that he can make plays in NU’s defense. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Domann, who had 52 tackles and 11 tackles for loss last season, is a “Swiss Army Knife” for the Huskers, Dawson said, who can be used in a variety of roles. Who joins Domann in a significant role is the perhaps the biggest question of Nebraska’s 2020 defense.
Could it be Caleb Tannor? The junior came to Nebraska has a highly-touted recruit but has produced sparingly over two seasons. In 12 games last season he produced 17 tackles and 2½ sacks. That’s 2½ more sacks than delivered by Alex Davis, the departing outside linebacker that Tannor is likely to replace.
“Caleb is a guy we’ve talked about not being a flash guy,” Dawson said. “You’re going to be a guy who’s a play-in, play-out, every down guy. He’s got the tools, he’s got great length, he’s got good athleticism, he’s a guy who can go forward and rush the quarterback, he can also do a little bit in coverage ... he’s just got to tie it all in.”
Sophomore Garrett Nelson is “easy to fall in love with,” Dawson said, because of his passion and physicality. He’ll keep improving as he plays more in the Big Ten, Dawson said.
After that trio, the position is wide open. Javin Wright moved over from defensive back and “did a pretty good job of learning how to set the edge and using his length,” while Jamin Graham is also come off of a redshirt year. Incoming sophomore Niko Cooper — a junior college recruit — is “wanting to get better and better and better.” His height, length and hand size will be a challenge for offensive linemen.
“He’ll be able to put his hands on people and be physical and strike,” Dawson said. “He’ll do a good jobin the run game for us and, with that, flip the switch and be able to go rush the quarterback. It’s going to be a lot of fun getting to work with Niko.”
Dawson is excited, too, to work with incoming freshmen Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler beyond the typical Zoom meetings.
“For new guys coming in and learning, you can meet and meet and meet about it, drawing on the board, show them some film and you kind of have the interactive, and ‘hey, you got this and you got that,’ and they kinda say ‘yeah,’ Dawson said. “Not many times will guys say, ‘no, I don’t got you. It’ll be good to get on the field and get both of those guys reps.”
NU inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud also talked Thursday on the “Sports Nightly” program and remains bullish about his group.
Fifth-year seniors Will Honas and Collin Miller — both in their third years of the Husker defense — are poised to have strong senior seasons after playing extensively last season.
Honas, Ruud said, is now two years removed from knee surgery. He’s "100 % healthy” after a 2019 season in which Honas could feel the effects of surgery from time to time.
Miller is a “good communicator” who is one of the vocal leaders on defense.
“Where you’re really going to see him flash is his overall movements, technique at the position,” Ruud said. “Mentally, he’s got a great grasp of it, verbally he can run the show and now, physically, his movements are going to be where they need to be to have a good year.”
Ruud is excited about redshirt freshman Nick Henrich — now more than a year past his knee surgery.
“He’s gained 25 pounds since he’s been here,” Ruud said of Henrich, who has “all the tools to be a really, really good football player.”
Ruud is equally high on sophomore walk-on Luke Reimer, who played last season on special teams and had a strong, head-turning training camp last season to push his way onto the depth chart.
“At (Lincoln) North Star, he played about 15 positions out of need,” Ruud said. “I think he’s found a home for us here at inside linebacker and I really think he’s got the potential to be a big-time player, not just at Nebraska, but around the conference as well.”
Redshirt freshman Garrett Snodgrass “is easily one of our sharpest players” and already knows the defense as a redshirt freshman, while Jackson Hannah, Ruud said, needed a redshirt season to develop his frame in the weight room. Incoming freshman Keyshawn Greene could be an “anchor” on special teams who is a “natural player at the position,” while junior college transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements “loves football” who “has a lot of raw, natural ability.”
“I wish he would have had a full spring to see what he can do with pads on but I think he’s got a good future here,” Ruud said.