Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander certainly has his work cut out for him in his third year at the position in Lincoln. He loses his entire starting line to graduation, all with NFL aspirations. A struggling linebacker corps remains a huge question mark even with the return of assistant Mike Dawson to guide them.
While cornerback Lamar Jackson's departure will no doubt be felt, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has proven to be worth his weight in gold when it comes to providing necessary talent. We've already run down the likely starters for Scott Frost's springtime offense in 2020. Now, we look at who gets the first shot to eventually claim the title of "Blackshirts."
Note: Players referred to as "sleepers" are those who are currently positioned to give starters the biggest challenge over the course of spring ball.
Starter: Ty Robinson
The rebuild of Nebraska's defensive front seven starts here. Heavily recruited by the Huskers, Robinson already has the size (6-6, 315) to be effective as part of the first line of defense. He got his feet wet in 2019, playing versus Wisconsin and Maryland, but now it's time for the Arizona native to prepare for his next big test.
Sleeper: Casey Rogers
Starter: Damion Daniels
It had to be a wonderful experience for Daniels to play side-by-side with his older brother for a year. While Darrion heads off to test his luck at the next level, a year of brotherly love sets the younger Daniels up well to at least make a determined run at his sibling's former spot. Now an upperclassman, he's got the seasoning and size (6-3, 340) to do proper work in the middle for Chinander.
Sleeper: Jordon Riley
Starter: Deontre Thomas
A little lighter than the Big Red might like along the defensive line at 295 pounds, Thomas must be able to use proper leverage and good technique to frustrate opposing offensive lines. He hasn't broken out by any true metric as of yet, but he has perhaps his best opportunity to date through March and April.
Sleeper: Ben Stille
Starter: JoJo Domann
One of the few outside linebackers who can claim to be a likely starter come the fall, Domann proved to be an enforcer in 2019. Whenever he was on the field, the Blackshirts played with a little more fire and opposing offensive coordinators had to take No. 13 into account. Already a senior, he should provide badly-needed leadership to a corps that needs direction.
Sleeper: Blaise Gunnerson
Starter: Collin Miller
Miller was a pleasant surprise despite last season's woes across the board at linebacker. There's no reason to think he can't increase his production and be an effective force in the middle throughout spring camp and beyond. While all members of the corps need to step up their game, Miller's spot appears secure for now, at least.
Sleeper: Nick Henrich
Starter: Will Honas
Despite being Nebraska's second-leading tackler in 2019, Honas hasn't quite lived up to the hype expected of him coming out of junior college. His actual FBS experience does give him the edge when the Huskers break out their equipment come March. However, Scott Frost's recruiting strategy has ensured that he'll have plenty of competition moving forward, even if he can maintain a top spot at the depth chart once the Spring Game concludes.
Sleeper: Eteva Mauga-Clements
Starter: Caleb Tannor
This should be a hotly-contested spot. Tannor has all the tools to be effective, but others like Garrett Nelson have shown a passion and intensity that he hasn't been able to match. The latter also provides a bit more size and surprising agility considering his heft. If there's going to be any spot on the spring depth chart that features an "OR" on it, this is one of the most probable.
Sleeper: Garrett Nelson
Starter: Cam Taylor-Britt
Taylor-Britt likely ends up serving multiple rolls for Erik Chinander in 2020. He's shown his talent as both a cornerback and nickelback. No doubt his defensive coordinator will attempt to get as much talent on the field as possible, which means we';ll probably see CTB shift around as the year goes on.
Sleepers: Braxton Clark/Quinton Newsome
Starter: Dicaprio Bootle
This is another intriguing battle. After being one of the biggest annoyances for offensive coordinators in 2018, Bootle regressed and was actually switched to safety for a stretch last season. Chinander likely gives him a shot to get his groove back, but again, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has done a good job in providing him with enough talented options to swap in if Bootle can't get the job done.
Sleeper: Jaiden Francois
Starter: Marquel Dismuke
The story about Nebraska's safeties should be more about building depth than any real shots at usurping the current players at the top of the totem pole. However, having highly-touted prospects push players like Dismuke can only mean good things in the long-term.
Sleeper: Noa Pola-Gates
Starter: Deontai Williams
Another hard-hitting force in the Nebraska secondary, Williams suffered a major shoulder injury which kept him out of the vast majority of 2019. Still, what he brings to the table cannot be denied and he should get the chance to remind the Husker faithful of what he's capable of this spring. That said, he still has to prove to himself and the locker room that he is just as much the top dog he was prior to getting sidelined.
Sleeper: Myles Farmer
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) and enjoy the Big Red Three and Out Podcast. To contact him, click here.
(Top photo by Nebraska Communications, courtesy of huskers.com)