Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander's linebackers, much like their lineman counterparts, are growing into their roles on the Cornhuskers' still-evolving defense. Nebraska is currently in the middle of a developmental period defensively, especially their front seven in Chinander’s 3-4 alignment. That said, depth is being set in place, size is becoming less of an issue, and the staff’s emphasis on turnovers should start creeping into games shortly.
Last season saw a number of linebackers struggling to fill gaps early and on roller skates while trying to provide pass coverage. Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry thrived and grew to be the leader of the Blackshirts, if not one of the team’s captains in an unofficial role.
As run stoppers, the Husker linebackers were hamstrung by a defensive front that struggled to gain proper leverage and win battles in the trenches. They often had to make their own luck. Barry is the best example of this with a stat line of 112 tackles (55 solo), 10 tackles for a loss and two sacks. Outside linebacker Luke Gifford did provide the team with an exterior threat leading the team in tackles for a loss (12) and sacks (5.5). These are the kind of numbers you want to see out of linebackers in a 3-4 defense.
However, pass coverage was an entirely different matter. While Dedrick Young II finished the season second in tackles with 83 (41 solo), many of those came past the initial line of scrimmage. He also struggled mightily against aerial attacks. He wasn’t the only major offender but was frequently abused on short and intermediate passes.
As a result of the lack of proper work up front, the linebacking unit was unable to properly assist the secondary resulting in more than 237 passing yards per game allowed, which ranked 78th in the nation. Outside of Barry, there wasn’t a true playmaker and it showed.
Key Departures: ILB Dedrick Young II, OLB Luke Gifford
Key Returners for 2019: ILB Mohamed Barry (Sr.), ILB Will Honas (Jr.), OLB Tyrin Ferguson (Sr.)
Barry’s spot is obviously locked down, but who replaces Young next to him is up in the air. The odds-on favorite is junior college transfer Will Honas, who missed much of the season after a knee injury put him on the shelf last October. Watch for incoming freshman Jackson Hannah to provide depth behind Barry and Collin Miller to be another option if Honas struggles.
As mentioned earlier, much like the defensive line, Nebraska’s linebackers are starting to develop into what you'd expect for a 3-4 scheme in terms of size. Barry (6-1, 230) and Honas (6-1, 235) aren’t ideal in this respect but their speed and physicality make up for it. Hannah (6-3, 220) is a step in the right direction as a true freshman, as is Miller (6-3, 245), a rising junior.
With the interior solidifying, the exterior linebackers are still cause for concern, at least at this point. Tyrin Ferguson appears ready to man one spot while JoJo Domann brings excellent speed and physicality to the other end. Caleb Tannor showed flashes of what Nebraska needs from its outside linebackers in 2018, so watch for him to sub in for Ferguson. Breon Dixon provides depth behind Domann, but will need to vastly improve his on-field performance.
We see a similar situation in terms of size on the outside that we do with Nebraska’s interior. Domann checks in at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds as of the last roster update while Ferguson is a little bigger (6-2, 230). Nebraska would do far better with players around 6-foot-4 and 240-245 pounds manning the outside roles.
Look for Big Ten offenses to attempt to wear down the Huskers’ interior as a whole before trying to expose the outside if they still struggle with pass defense cues.
Position Grade for 2019: B
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) and enjoy the Eight Laces podcast. To contact him with tips, story ideas or for interview purposes, click here.