There Are Holes to Fill but a Whole Summer and Fall to Fill Them
By Steve Beideck
For a group that entered spring football with a number of concerns, real or imagined, Nebraska’s defensive line had a solid showing in the 2022 spring game.
With five starters and regular contributors gone from last season’s lineup, a new crew of defensive linemen was eager to show that they’re prepared to fill those positions.
News on April 20 that Casey Rogers was entering the transfer portal puts more pressure on an inexperienced crew to stop opponents’ run games. The junior from Syracuse, New York, played in 19 games during his three seasons in Lincoln.
The 2021 campaign was a difficult one for Rogers, who missed the first five games because of a knee injury during preseason practice. Near the end of the season finale against Iowa, Rogers reinjured the knee and missed all of spring ball.
There’s a chance that Rogers could return if he doesn’t have any suitors, but the Huskers now will be looking even harder for additional depth at an already-thin position now coached by Mike Dawson.
Fourth-year sophomore Ty Robinson (6-foot-6, 305 pounds) and Rogers were expected to be anchors of the interior line. More will now be expected from Nash Hutmacher and walk-on Colton Feist of Yutan.
Feist (6-2, 280) went through Senior Day ceremonies before the Iowa game but has elected to return for a fifth season. Injuries kept Feist out of Nebraska’s first two and final two games in 2021.
With so many roles to be filled and injuries limiting or eliminating time for others, the extra reps for players like Feist were valuable.
“We only have eight interior guys, so you’re getting a lot of reps each practice,” Feist said. “I think it was big for us to all stay healthy. I think we’re confident with the guys we have up front to be able to play versus the Big Ten teams and do well.”
The play of players like Feist, Hutmacher, Blaise Gunnerson and Garrett Nelson was encouraging to NU coach Scott Frost and his defensive coaches.
“I think that has been a highlight for us today and through spring,” Frost said. “I have seen improvement from Garrett and improvement from Caleb (Tannor) and Jimari (Butler) and Blaise. Those guys have really taken a giant leap forward.”
During the first half, when defenders weren’t allowed to finish tackles, there was plenty of pressure put on every quarterback who took snaps. Whether that’s a product of improved defensive play or even deeper concerns about the offensive line, Frost said remains to be seen.
If it’s determined that additional personnel is needed, Frost said the Huskers will make the necessary moves in the portal if the right players are available.
“We had trouble blocking them today,” Frost said. “Hopefully that is a sign that they are playing good football as opposed to we did not protect well enough.”
One of those youngsters who might be ready to make a bigger contribution is Gunnerson, a 6-6, 255-pound redshirt freshman from Carroll, Iowa. He was one of the players who was applying his share of quarterback pressure.
“I thought we had it going pretty good at the beginning,” Gunnerson said. “Had some good moves on the speed series, have to work on my power a little bit. But overall, it was a pretty good day from the pass rush perspective. I got off the ball, had a good double swipe move a couple of times.”
Hutmacher made his presence known. At 6-4, 325 pounds, the sophomore from Oacoma, South Dakota, consistently pushed the pocket with a bull rush and mucked up the run game.
Making things tough on Nebraska’s quarterbacks was something sophomore Mosai Newsom (6-4, 285) smiled about when asked about disrupting pocket protection.
“I thought it went pretty well,” Newsom said. “That’s a big thing, getting the pass rush. It’s a big part of playing D-line. A lot of the guys did a really good job, especially those outside ’backers. They were getting to the quarterback.”
Several players were impressed by how much Nelson has improved both as a player and a leader since last season.
“When I need to I will scramble,” quarterback Casey Thompson said. “But Garrett and the defensive line did a really good job today. Hopefully we will improve on blocking those guys, but it is also a good sign for the rest of the team and for our defense that we are going to have good pass rushers.”
Nelson (listed at 6-3, 245) said his offseason focus was making improvements in the pass-rushing part of his game.
“That was the biggest thing for me,” Nelson said. “Last year that last kind of peg in my game was pass rush and being faster and being quicker to get off and (quicker) off the ball. There was one big thing I focused on. (It was) definitely emphasized by coaches, (so) I’ve been working on that.
“I think statistically I gained 10 pounds of muscle and lost like 4% body fat just eating correctly, taking it serious and emphasizing those points of my game trying to get better.”
Being ready for the physical Big Ten opponents, especially in the second half of the season, is the ultimate goal for which Nelson is aiming.
“The quickness is definitely there and it has been throughout the spring,” Nelson said. “I want it to keep getting better. As we start playing in the Big Ten with those first-round tackles, I want to be able to do that against them as well just to cement myself and cement the edge guys as a true threat in the Big Ten and nationally.”
Gunnerson noticed how the edge rushers were consistently getting the job done no matter who was on either side of the ball.
“I know Garrett had a really good day pass rushing, Jamari had a really good day pass rushing,” Gunnerson said. “Days like today, when we’re straight rushing a lot, it’s really important to focus on just getting off the ball and focusing on our fundamentals. That’s the type of stuff we work on a lot.”
He also is especially appreciative of the way Nelson has taken him under his wing, even during the recruiting process.
“Garrett’s one of those guys who has kind of been by my side the entire time since I got here,” Gunnerson said. “He’s just taken the leadership role to the next level this year. He’s done a really good job of leading the troops.
“I think coach Frost recognizes him as one of the biggest leaders on the team. Garrett is one of those guys who is going to give it all every single day. He’s going to give it all in the weight room, give it all on the field, whatever we’re doing.”
Frost also is looking for leaders like Nelson to step up in other position groups, especially the defensive backfield.
“I thought the defensive backs played well,” Frost said. “I thought Quinton Newsome had a good day and he has had a really good spring and we are going to have to count on him. He has kind of been the No. 2 guy for us for a couple years here and he needs to step up.
“Myles Farmer needs to step up in the back end and we got some new guys playing really well. But those two have got to kind of transition from following to leading, and I feel good about our talent in the back end. We are a little inexperienced and they are going to need the leadership from those two guys.”
Now, all thoughts are on summer and getting ready for fall.
“Summer conditioning starts today,” Gunnerson said after the game. “It’s really important that we all understand that and that we all can get better. We (need to) watch the film from today and we learn where we can get better. From there, just keep getting faster, stronger, more physical to compete in this Big Ten.”