Last year, when Mick Stoltenberg went down to injury, the staff looked around but didn’t see a lot of viable alternatives at the DT position. So Carlos Davis was moved from the DE position and simply did the best he could playing out of position all year. This created issues not only at DT but severely hampered the depth at the DE position as well. As other injuries mounted, by the end of the year the coaches scrambled to find healthy bodies to put on the field.
Fast forward a year, and the outlook looks much brighter for the defensive line both in terms of starters and over all depth.
Let’s take a look.
For the most part, when looking at the interior of the defensive line, we are talking about the Nose Tackle position. Keep in mind, NU may elect to use 4-3 sets which would necessitate having two interior lineman. But for the purpose of this analysis, we will mostly focus on having just one interior lineman.
What a difference a year makes. In spite of losing their starter from last year to graduation and moving his replacement back to DE, the Huskers find themselves with several attractive options on the interior.
Redshirt senior transfer Darrion Daniels is certainly a name must Husker fans find familiar. That’s because he is the older brother of current Husker Damion Daniels. The elder Daniels transferred in from Oklahoma State where his senior year was ruined by injury. Okie State was disappointed he chose not to return for his extra season, but NU was delighted to land him.
The original thought was adding another talented player for the interior, plus the benefit of his relationship to his brother, plus the leadership intangibles he was credited with having.
But Daniels has blown the coaches away with what he has brought to the table. He is now one of the unquestioned leaders on this team—respected by coaches and players alike. He is also in great shape and ready to have the season of his life. If he can stay healthy, he could be one of the great stories of 2019.
Speaking of his brother, redshirt sophomore Damion Daniels should benefit from having his older brother on the team to help guide and mentor him into the player Husker fans hope he can be. Talent is not the issue for Damion—he is loaded with it. Staying in shape is the issue. It was stated in an article in the spring that coaches worry about having Damion on the field for more than three plays. After the third play, Damion hits a wall that opponents would have very little hesitation to exploit. A by-product of weight issues is usually health issues. Damion has been healthy, but it is worrisome what would happen if he had to play more snaps than the 173 he played last year. Damion has been working on his conditioning. There appears to be enough depth to keep him fresh for solid duty in 2019.
The Huskers knew they needed someone ready to play immediately in 2020. So they looked around and happened to find an unsigned JUCO player who is actually a late part of their 2019 class. Redshirt Junior Jahkeem Green arrived very late in fall camp but looks like an absolute steal. The dream is for him to redshirt in 2019 (playing four games) and then be available for 2020 and 2021. However, Green has NFL aspirations and it seems doubtful he would want to stick around that long anyway. Given his obvious talent, Green is looking for immediate playing time in 2019 and may simply be too good to keep off the field. The question has been, how good of shape would he be when he reported to camp? The early signs are that he is ready to play. He gives the Huskers three very solid options for the upcoming season.
Redshirt senior Vaha Vainuku is back after playing 5 snaps in his return to football in 2018. Don’t expect much help there unless injuries really force the issue.
The Davis twins—Carlos and Khalil—are both capable of playing inside as Carlos did most of 2018. Hopefully, they can stay at DE. But don’t be surprised if they move inside on obvious passing downs to create a bigger pass rush. The same could be said of DE Deontre Thomas who played DT his freshman year.
In 2020, the depth drops off the table. Darrion is gone. Vainuku is gone. Even the Davis twins are gone. That leaves Damion Daniels and Jahkeem Green. And I am still not convinced that Green won’t be a one and done player for 2019. If Green leaves after 2019, then what? If he stays, then fans will appreciate what a great catch he was. His value is for 2020 more than 2019. He would likely be the starter and Daniels a great backup. Deontre Thomas may be called upon to be a third guy if needed.
In 2021, technically no one leaves. I’d be stunned if Green were still here. Daniels would be the man as it stands now and Deontre Thomas would most likely have to play at least some DT.
Keep in mind, that the staff used 4 players at DT last year usually rotating three per game. The third DT generally played around 10 snaps. This is important to remember when you think about what kind of depth is needed.
Also, DT is a tough position for freshmen to come in and play right away. This position is going to be a tricky one recruiting-wise. There was a thought that Ethan Piper might be a guy to move inside. That could still happen, but he looks slated to play on the OL. Perhaps moving a guy like Ty Robinson inside for 10 snaps or so a game could help with depth.
In any case, the Huskers struck gold when they secured the commitment of Nash Hutmacher for the 2020 class. His commitment should go a long ways toward filling the void on the roster. Will he be ready to play right away? Look for the Huskers to try to add another NT in the 2020 class—possibly two. A JUCO is a very definite possibility. Another JUCO (or graduate transfer) in 2021 is also a possibility if things don’t go according to plan.
Three years into the 3-4 and fans still don’t understand that DE’s in the 3-4 are not necessarily the players you look for to create a pass rush. That pass rush should come from the LB’s—which of course is depressing given the lack of pass rushing LB’s currently on the roster. Be that as it may . . .
No one has sacked the QB more than redshirt sophomore Ben Stille the last two years. His five sacks last year gave him 8.5 sacks on his career. That puts him at the very head of the class in that category. With Gifford gone, no one else is even close—talk about depressing. Unfortunately, Stille hasn’t exactly been the most proficient DE. A former OLB, Stille has taken some time to adjust to the duties of a DE and has struggled particularly against the run in his early career. The problem has been that Stille hasn’t had the mass to stand up against the run particularly against power downhill running teams. This is something Stille worked diligently to improve in the offseason. It sounds like a broken record, but Stille is yet another player that has added some nice weight and looks to be much more battle ready for 2019.
Stille will likely start at one DE position and one of the redshirt senior Davis twins will start at the other. But which one?
Not that it matters because both will play—and play a lot. At present, Khalil Davis looks to have the early edge. Davis had a solid 2018 season with 41 tackles and 3 sacks. At times, he looked like one of our best players. Other times, he seemed to disappear. Always freakishly strong, Davis is reportedly lifting at an all-time high level. It is frightening to think how strong he could be now. It also gives Husker fans hope that a great season could be in the cards for Khalil. He has said that he is in the best shape of his career and is ready to roll.
Meanwhile, twin brother Carlos is back from his duty as the emergency DT last year. His reward? He has no starting job this year. Thank you very much. But Carlos is very much like his brother—freakishly strong, lifting at an all time high level, and incredibly agile for such a big man.
The Davis twins have been fan favorites from the very beginning. Nothing would thrill fans more than to see both go out with a big season.
The top three players should all play plenty of snaps and will likely rotate as though they are all starters. But the cupboard isn’t bare at that point. Redshirt sophomore Deontre Thomas is healthy again after getting hurt in his fourth game last year (thus the redshirt). Having played as an undersized DT his freshman year, Thomas was quiet most of last year but was starting to make some noise when his injury happened. This may be another case of an injury being a blessing in disguise. Thomas could have come back later in the year, but wanted to preserve the redshirt and continue to work to get stronger and bigger. Now he is ready to go and has been mentioned as a guy that should see plenty of action. Hopefully, our DT recruiting will be enough to keep him from having to move inside again. Thomas has great agility and with the added bulk he has acquired could be a nice player going forward.
Fans keep asking what has happened to redshirt senior DaiShon Neal. The answer? He keeps getting hurt. Last year, he had a solid spring and fall camp and was starting to see some time in the rotation. But after 64 snaps, the mounting injuries finally forced him out of action. Physical tools aren’t the issue—he looks like a great player getting off the bus. It is unclear if he will have a role in 2019. Silence isn’t necessarily a good thing here.
Fans were excited to welcome two young players to the defensive line last year, but both players suffered season ending injuries. Now both redshirt freshmen Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers are working their way back into form. Wilderman was considered as a candidate to potentially move fast before his injury and Rogers was projected as a bit more of a project. Both have talent and are said to be doing well. You shouldn’t expect much for 2019 though.
Redshirt sophomore Chris Walker is a workout warrior with a heart as big as anyone on the team. Unfortunately, his feet have a hard time moving his impressive frame. There are those that think he should return to OT—but slow feet aren’t exactly a recipe for success there as well. Walker still has a few believers out there—but he has his doubters too. He played 11 snaps last year.
Incoming freshman Ty Robinson was one of the top prospects from last year’s class. It won’t take long for him to force his way into the lineup. Given the depth at the position, he may have to wait a year—but if there are injuries, don’t be surprised if the coaches turn to him.
Freshman Mosai Newsome is on the other extreme than Robinson. Newsome is seen as a project. Don’t expect much from him for a couple of seasons.
Keep in mind that both Jahkeem Green and Darrion Daniels are versatile enough to take some snaps at DE.
Former Navy Seal and redshirt sophomore Damian Jackson is almost a legend for his toughness and leadership skills. Last year he saw the field for a few plays. Fans would love nothing more than for him to carve an on-field role for himself. Not sure if that can or cannot happen. But in any case, his value in the locker room cannot be stated enough.
Redshirt senior walk on Fyn Anderson played 11 snaps last year.
In 2020, the Davis twins are gone as is DaiShon Neal. That leaves Stille and Thomas as the holdovers with Ty Robinson perhaps ready for prime time. If Chris Walker has it in him to make a more, now would be the time. It will also be interesting to see if Wilderman and Rogers are ready to make a move by then as well.
In 2021, Stille is gone. So the Huskers would have Thomas, Robinson, Walker, Wilderman, and Rogers to work with.
The DE position has been a bit of a slow process but the Huskers have been doing it right. They have brought in a couple of DE’s each year and should continue to do so in 2020 and 2021. A JUCO doesn’t seem too likely—especially for 2020. Blaise Gunnerson has verballed to NU for 2020—but his position might be at OLB.
It will be interesting to see how some of the young DE’s develop over time as well as seeing what kind of recruits NU continues to bring in. The Huskers seem to like versatility and length. To create the necessary depth at DT, it may be necessary to recruit a number of players who can play both inside and outside. DE/OLB hybrid recruits may be part of the plan as well going forward.
Another interesting development to watch is the hiring of the new DL coach Tony Tuioti. What kinds of players will he bring in? Can he develop the players inherited from Coach Dawson and the previous regime? Can he develop a “Poly Pipeline?”
Nose tackle recruiting is a huge need in the next recruiting classes. Meanwhile, the Huskers need to harvest the crop from their recent recruiting classes at DE while continuing to bring more talent in to stock the cupboard to build the necessary depth to sustain excellent defensive lines for years to come.
Next up . . . the Offensive Backfield—QB and RB.