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How deep is Nebraska's defense? Huskers say second-teamers could be starters

How deep is Nebraska's defense? Huskers say second-teamers could be starters

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Erik Chinander on the defense's depth

LINCOLN — As a veteran-laden defense pushes through the dog days of fall camp, one big question persists for Erik Chinander.

How low on the depth chart can the Blackshirts go?

The Huskers bring back nine starters on defense, many with dozens of games already banked. The conversation following the 10th preseason workout Tuesday centered on the guys behind them.

Chinander, entering his fourth year as Nebraska defensive coordinator, said he’d feel comfortable deploying up to 17 linebackers and defensive linemen because the roster can finally handle it without a steep drop-off.

“There’s that first string — even though it’s not solidified yet — (then) there’s still a lot of guys battling for reps, probably a lot of guys that deserve reps in games,” Chinander said. “Don’t know if we’re going to get all of them to play just because there’s so many guys that are playing at a high level right now.”

The coordinator hinted fans will see hockey line-style substitutions on the first or second levels of the defense in games this year. At least two platoons are game ready at those spots, Chinander said, and “probably a third.” The balancing act is between rotating enough players to keep everyone fresh while also getting the best guys enough chances. That depth should also spill over into special teams more than at any other time under coach Scott Frost.

“We’re stacking,” defensive lineman Casey Rogers said. “We have guys on (second team) who could be starting.”

Defensive backs may not rotate so drastically because the secondary is responsible for so many presnap calls. Position coach Travis Fisher said he considers Myles Farmer and Quinton Newsome veterans even though each has started just one career game.

Someone new seems to step up every day, Fisher said, including freshman Marques Buford, who is practicing like he didn’t suffer a serious knee injury in the spring. Ohio State transfer Tyreke Johnson is another making a strong impression as the latest addition to a full and healthy position group.

“He’s doing a great job as well, especially if I’m speaking his name this early with (10) practices in,” Fisher said.

Rogers, suddenly a vet as a third-year sophomore, described younger players as “sponges” because they take everything in. He wants to give help because it wasn’t long ago he received it from former NU linemen like Carlos and Khalil Davis.

Said Chinander: “We’re to the point with maturity that those older guys are taking those younger guys and helping them and saying, ‘Take my job, but you’re not going to do it. I want you to try and take this thing, I want you to practice hard, I want to see you get in the game in a reserve role or special teams and I’m going to help you. But I know you can’t take my job.’ And I think that’s a pretty good feeling.”

Other nuggets from Tuesday’s interviews:

» Deontre Thomas, who battled injuries most of last season on the D-line, said he feels “really good” entering his junior season.

» Among previously injured DBs, cornerback Braxton Clark is fully healthy, and freshman Marques Buford is moving around as though he didn’t suffer a knee injury in the spring, Fisher said.

» JoJo Domann almost never came off the field last year at outside linebacker, but Chinander said his workload can’t be that heavy over a 12-game regular season. He said NU has developed depth behind the senior including freshman Isaac Gifford, redshirt freshman Javin Wright and sophomore walk-on Simon Otte.

» Newsome, who may start at corner this year, said he plans to play extensively across special teams as well.​

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