LINCOLN — Ben Stille has some advice for the many junior-eligible Huskers who must decide whether they will return for another season in 2022.
Anyone who doesn’t really want to come back for another year should move on.
Nebraska’s sixth-year defensive lineman made the choice himself 12 months ago. Now the fork in the road falls to the next wave of players after the pandemic granted everyone a free 2020 campaign.
“If it’s something you’re dragging your feet on, you’re doing it for a lot of reasons other than you really wanting to, it’s going to be a miserable year for you,” Stille said. “There’s a lot of work, obviously, that goes into it. Those guys know what it takes. All those guys weighing those decisions, I think they know what goes into it and they know what to expect for another year if they sign up for it. You just really have to have the want-to.”
Austin Allen — fresh off setting a school single-game record for receiving yards by a tight end (143) against Wisconsin — is one of those juniors with a decision to make. He said he plans to walk on senior day, though he hasn’t determined his future beyond Friday.
Among the factors, he said, is an emotional connection he has with Nebraska and the desire to get the program on the winning track for fans and the coaching staff. The emergence of NIL possibilities — and an ability to be paid while still in college — is a consideration too.
“It puts me in a unique spot,” Allen said. “But there’s great opportunities at the next level too. There’s pros and cons to both that I need to weigh. That’s a decision that still needs to be made on my part.”
The most high-profile decision will come from quarterback Adrian Martinez. Scott Frost said he’ll encourage the QB to take part in Friday's ceremonies, but he hopes it’s not the last on-field moment at Nebraska for the longtime starter.
“But if it is, he needs to be honored,” Frost said.
Some — but not all — players who are part of senior day have already made up their minds about their next steps. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said he anticipates most defenders who are recognized Friday won’t return.
Among the fifth-year defenders with options are linebackers Damian Jackson, Chris Kolarevic and Eteva Mauga-Clements; defensive linemen Damion Daniels, Deontre Thomas, Jordon Riley and Chris Walker; and reserve defensive backs Lane McCallum and Kyan Brumfield. Fourth-year contributors in the same boat include linebackers Pheldarius Payne and Caleb Tannor, and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.
“There may be a couple guys that aren’t 100% sure,” Chinander said. “But I think most guys at this juncture are either walking and leaving, or not walking and coming back. But there’s always a couple out there.”
Farewell to senior DBs
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher leads the position group that will likely lose the most after this season.
Three senior safeties — starters Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke, and reserve Lane McCallum — are graduating. Fourth-year junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt will walk out with the seniors on Friday and is expected to enter the NFL draft after accepting a Senior Bowl invitation.
"I can’t explain how proud I am of those guys,” Fisher said. “Those guys have done so much, been in so many football games, experienced so much since they’ve been here.”
Fisher credits that group for building the culture for the secondary of a defense that is Nebraska's best in points allowed since 2010. He speaks of their resilience in a trying senior season as a defining trait.
Before they pass the torch to waiting talent like Marques Buford and Noa Pola-Gates, the Nebraska seniors have one final game to play. With no bowl game ahead, they’ll get to play their final game as Huskers at Memorial Stadium against rival Iowa.
“To watch those guys play their last game at home, it’s gonna be emotional for me especially, but that’s gonna also be rewarding to watch them go out there and play the game that they love,” Fisher said.
Johnson likely out
Running back Rahmir Johnson, who missed the Wisconsin game after getting hurt against Ohio State, is not expected back for Friday’s tilt against Iowa.
“We’ll see, it’s kind of been day-to-day with him,” Frost said. “I’d say likely not, but he’s fighting to get back.”
Markese Stepp, Marvin Scott and Brody Belt logged snaps at Wisconsin, combining to rush 25 times for 83 yards with two catches for 16 yards.
Jaquez Yant, who did not play at Wisconsin, will be available against Iowa.
“That was a coach’s decision, to go with the other guys,” Frost said as to why Yant, who has 254 rushing yards this season, did not play.
Of other backs, Gabe Ervin was lost for the season with a knee injury, and Sevion Morrison left the program to enter the transfer portal.
Tannor growing up
Caleb Tannor’s production has spiked this season. So has his maturity.
The on-field play is easily quantifiable. The fourth-year outside linebacker owns a career-high 30 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, plus three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He’s started all 11 games this year, though he left the Wisconsin game in the first quarter with an injury.
But behind the scenes Tannor has also stood out to coaches and teammates. Fellow outside ‘backer Garrett Nelson said Tannor used to miss meetings, show up late or not give total effort in practices. That began to change when position coach Mike Dawson showed him how to be a leader and set a standard.
“He turned himself into one of the hardest-working guys in practice and the film room with what he does,” Nelson said. “Great guy to be around. Leader of the position group.”
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Tannor's growth off the field has been most satisfying to watch.
“In my opinion he has become a really good teammate,” Chinander said. “He’s starting to develop leadership traits. He’s taking care of business in the classroom. He’s taking care of business off the field. He’s just really fun to be around right now.”
Tannor, who doesn’t do media interviews, is set to graduate next month and must decide whether to return or move on in 2022. He has played in 43 career games, including 21 starts.
Tackling must improve
This isn’t “popcorn football,” as Nebraska defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said Monday, this is Nebraska-Iowa. Big Ten football. Rivalry week.
And if the Huskers want to snap their six-game losing streak against the Hawkeyes — or their five-game losing streak in 2021 — they need to tackle better than they did against Wisconsin, which ran for 253 yards and three touchdowns Saturday.
“Not good enough,” Fisher said when asked how his position group tackled against Wisconsin. “To be honest with you, I think we were in place to make easy tackles. … Some of the missed tackles in that game were easy missed tackles, and some tackles in the game that they actually made were hard tackles to make.”
According to Fisher, easy tackles occur when a player is in position to wrap a ball-carrier’s legs and either bring him down or “let the big guys come help you out.” Hard tackles occur in space, where the ball-carrier has options and the defender has no help. The Huskers missed too many of the former trying to make the Badgers “feel” them, Fisher said.
They threw shoulders where they should’ve grabbed ankles. They played with "great aggression”, Fisher said, but bad technique. And while those issues are an “easy fix,” they tend to appear during physical games. Players prepare so hard for a street fight they forget their combat strategy.
Iowa doesn’t run quite as often as Wisconsin (67% of the time), but the Hawkeyes still prefer it to passing. They’ve run the ball on 57% of their offensive snaps, which will again spotlight the Huskers’ tackling at every level.
Ahead of Friday’s game, Fisher and Chinander are coaching the Huskers to tackle lower and “miss the correct way.” If the Huskers grab a leg, they can slow the ball carrier enough to allow “the rest of the posse can hunt,” Chinander said.
That’s especially important against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa that crowd bodies at the line of scrimmage. The Hawkeyes employ more zone concepts than the Badgers, but both teams create what Chinander calls a “mass of humanity” up front. “And if that (play) gets bounced around and somebody misses (a tackle)," he said, "There’s nobody left to make that tackle.”
Nebraska encountered that problem too many times against the Badgers, who broke touchdown runs of 71 and 53 yards. Chinander assumed some blame for getting his players too “wired up” to fit their gaps, which led to overeager pursuits. But Fisher thought his defensive backs let Wisconsin’s physical foundation knock the them off theirs. And as the last line of defense, those players can’t afford to slip.
If the secondary makes a mistake, Fisher said, it’s a touchdown.
“You don't want to take too much aggression out of a player,” Fisher said. “You try to keep the aggression in the player, but teach them how to make that same play without bad technique. What you witnessed last week was bad technique on a couple of those plays.”
He didn’t get pancaked or even feel the blow right away. But against Wisconsin, freshman outside linebacker Blaise Gunnerson learned what Big Ten physicality felt like when a tight end kicked out to block him.
“It’s like a headache after the game-type thing,” Gunnerson said Monday. “But that’s good for you. That’s football and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Gunnerson played 24 defensive snaps and made two tackles after Tannor left Saturday’s game with an injury. The freshman thought he played well in some areas and can improve in others. If his track record is any indication, he will.
Gunnerson arrived at Nebraska nursing an injury that forced him to miss all of fall camp. But from there, Chinander said Gunnerson made “steady progress.” He caught coaches’ eyes playing with Nebraska’s first team while starters rested during the Huskers’ first bye week.
Chinander said Gunnerson played “really good Big Ten football” despite making errors. Garrett Nelson, Gunnerson’s position mate and NU’s current leader in sacks (5), said Gunnerson reminds him of himself.
“But a lot smarter,” Nelson said. “When I was his age, I didn't really know what was going on. He has a (much) better understanding (about) what his job is and what he does on the field."
Gunnerson’s football mind helped him reach the field in his second season on campus. And if he plays again this week, he’ll line up against the team he grew up hating.
Gunnerson, an Iowa native, comes from an Iowa State family and has several friends who are Iowa fans. And while he refused to share his favorite piece of Hawkeye trash talk, he knows how important Friday’s game is to Husker fans.
“It’s certainly a big week,” Gunnerson said. “Iowa-Iowa State, the whole state’s watching. That’s a huge week.
“It’s very similar here — obviously (Iowa is) a huge rival. So (we’ve) just got to prepare like no other and Memorial Stadium has got to be loud.”