The Red-White Spring Game returns Saturday following a one-year absence due to COVID-19.
Here’s a quick guide to what to watch defensively.
Three veterans to watch
1. Cam Taylor-Britt, junior CB: Well, he’s arguably the team’s best overall player. Plus, “He doesn’t miss practices. He gets banged up, he jumps right back in. He’s a leader on the field,” secondary coach Travis Fisher says. Don’t underestimate the importance of playing through pain. It’s a critically important trait.
2. Damion Daniels, junior NT: If any 3-4 alignment is going to flourish, it needs a quality nose tackle to create havoc. This year could be Daniels time to shine. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 340 pounds last season, Daniels is down to 315. “It’s been a good spring for me, I feel like,” he said.
3. Caleb Tannor, junior OLB: A consensus four-star player coming out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, Nebraska fans had images of Tannor firing off the edge and becoming the pass-rush threat the program so often has lacked. But he’s been relatively quiet (5½ career sacks). Could this be the year?
Three fresh faces to watch
1. Quinton Newsome, sophomore CB: He almost doesn’t qualify as a “fresh face” anymore, considering he’s appeared in 18 games at NU and even started last season at Northwestern, his only career start to this point. He appears poised to lock down the starting corner spot opposite Taylor-Britt. That alone is reason to watch Newsome closely.
2. Chris Kolarevic, junior (graduate transfer) ILB: The former Northern Iowa standout finished up winter conditioning as one of the team’s standout performers in the index testing, and then proved himself at a high level on the practice field this spring. It appears he’ll be a key player in 2021.
3. Blaise Gunnerson, freshman OLB: Watch him in warmups and tell me you’re not intrigued. At 6-6 and 245 pounds, he’s strikingly athletic. He’s also healthy, and that’s somewhat of a victory in itself. He’s dealt with extensive injury issues in the past, including high school operations on each hip to shave down overgrown bones.
On the sideline with injuries
JoJo Domann, Ben Stille, Will Honas, Javin Wright.
Position Cliff notes (ranked in order of intrigue)
1. Secondary: How good can it become? It’s already the strongest position group on the team. Taylor-Britt gives Nebraska a surefire NFL Draft pick, and it isn’t like the program is producing many of those these days. Meanwhile, senior safeties Deontai Williams (age 24) and Marquel Dismuke (23) are two of the hardest-hitting safeties in the Big Ten. Newsome is a rising star in the program. Thing is, the second-string group is big, fast and athletic. Travis Fisher has done a superb job building this part of the team.
2. Inside linebackers: Honas suffered a knee injury late in camp, a setback for the defense and program in general. We’ll find out the exact nature of the injury in coming days but it appears to be serious. Honas, a 6-1, 230-pound senior, ranked second on the team in tackles last season with 57 and is among the defense’s most ferocious hitters. But Barrett Ruud in his own quiet manner has assembled a talented crew of inside backers. If Honas is indeed sidelined, it means a bit heavier load for Luke Reimer, Nick Henrich and Kolarevic.
3. Outside linebackers: Domann, a 6-1, 225-pound senior, hasn’t gotten much work this spring, but his position coach isn’t concerned. After all, Domann didn’t miss a single rep last fall in producing a team-leading 58 tackles, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Mike Dawson, the outside linebackers coach, calls JoJo’s durability “mind-blowing.” Dawson said Domann has focused this spring on staying mentally into practices and helping young players behind him. Meanwhile, sophomore Garrett Nelson of Scottsbluff supplies the sort of every-down grit and determination that coaches at all levels of football appreciate. The ongoing question is whether this group can produce more sacks and explosive plays in general.
4. Defensive line: Tony Tuioti said this week he feels he has six reliable guys. Stille leads the way. Even if the sixth-year senior had been healthy this spring, he would have seen a very light workload in an effort to preserve his body and also get younger players repetitions. Speaking of young guys, Tuioti said, “I think Ru’Quan Buckley did a good job this spring growing. Nash (Hutmacher) did a really good job, had a really good practice (Wednesday). Marquise Black, too. So the young guys have done a lot of good things that we’re really excited about.”