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LINCOLN — Part teacher. Part student. Whatever job Chris Kolarevic is doing, it’s making a difference for the Nebraska defense.
Life has been busy since the junior inside linebacker committed to the Huskers through the transfer portal in late October. He graduated from Northern Iowa in three years with an economics degree, but didn’t need it to know the demand was high around the country for a smart and productive second-level defender with two more seasons of eligibility.
Nebraska coaches and program tradition won him over last fall, and he watched from afar as the Blackshirts became an asset in 2020. He liked their energy and how sound they were in preventing big plays.
Now he’s an important part of the mix. He’s learning NU’s terminology while helping lead film sessions on concepts. He’s both new to the system and a veteran with 144 career tackles.
“Having been around college football for a while, I kind of understand what it takes to prepare mentally, understanding the scheme and how to prepare myself and how to study so I can put it out on the field and go play,” Kolarevic said. “… Just having been around, I think that’s an advantage to understand how to take care of myself and how to prepare.”
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The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder was one of three offseason transfer additions for NU along with running back Markese Stepp and receiver Samori Touré. Kolarevic garnered the least fanfare, to the point that he began his interview session Monday by pronouncing his name. It’s “Kuh-LAR-vick.”
A native of Traverse City, Michigan, Kolarevic is used to thriving under the radar. He chose UNI over a walk-on offer to Michigan and a scholarship to Northern Colorado, among other options. He arrived in Lincoln as "a ready-made product," according to position coach Barrett Ruud, and immediately measured among NU’s best athletes through the team’s sports performance testing.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander — a Northern Iowa assistant from 2004-09 who still knows the current staff there — said Kolarevic is learning a new language of sorts as he acclimates to the Nebraska schemes. But the defender already has strong instincts and an understanding for how he fits in.
“(It’s been) like getting a free agent in the NFL,” Chinander said recently. “I think that he's going to have a huge impact on the football team.”
Opportunity and practice reps have been available with inside linebacker a relatively inexperienced position amid NU’s well-established defense. Collin Miller, a 2020 captain, retired. Will Honas, a returning senior, has been limited this spring coming off groin surgery. Meanwhile, third-year players like Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer are still adjusting to larger roles.
Saturday's open practice featured full pads, lots of drills, and lots of cheers for the group Nebraska coaches haven’t been afraid to praise this spring. The wide receivers.
Nebraska has a whopping 17 inside linebackers in meetings — “Barely got enough seats in that room,” Kolarevic said — but it has been happy to make space for someone it already trusts to be a leader of the defense and a source of energy and toughness on the field.
His teammates have noticed. Reimer recently called Kolarevic a “stud” with good habits and a knack for making plays. Henrich labeled him “a perfect addition” with technique as refined as anyone.
“He's a freak of nature, I'll tell you that,” Henrich said. “Physical. Obviously it's a little bit different for him, because he's played in college for quite some time, so he's got that game experience, but he's also been outstanding learning the defense.”
Kolarevic didn’t play football last year — the pandemic postponed the FCS season to the spring — but said the transition to the Power Five level hasn’t been daunting. Aside from more physically gifted athletes, football is still football.
The ‘backer has proven for years he’s up to the task. He said there’s no reason that won’t continue with his new team.
“Speed and size-wise, maybe there are a couple positions that are a little bigger,” Kolarevic said. “But for the most part, it’s been pretty similar.”
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