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LINCOLN — Count Nebraska defensive tackle Deontre Thomas among the big believers in this Husker football team.
"This is the best spring I've been a part of since I've been here," said Thomas, who has been in the program since 2017. "You can not only tell, but you can just feel everybody is bought in and just competing with each other."
Why? Thomas said the older players are leading well, and the younger players — Thomas cited Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers on the defensive line — are stepping into leadership roles and becoming more dominant players.
Young defenders making leaps was a theme during Monday's post-practice interviews. Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic may not be young — he played three years at UNI — but he is new, and he's impressing his teammates.
"He's a freak of nature, I'll tell you that," said Nick Henrich, competing with Kolarevic at inside 'backer. "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 (pronounced Kuh-LAR-vick) said Nebraska's defense is a little "different" than what he ran at UNI, but he's picked up the scheme quickly. Kolarevic committed to NU before the Huskers' season was over in 2020, so he spent weeks scouting his new team.
"I feel like I fit in really well with those guys," Kolarevic said. He added that Nebraska has a stunning 17 inside linebackers, and chairs are running out in position coach Barrett Ruud's room.
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Another linebacker making moves: Javin Wright, who is backing up JoJo Domann at the hybrid spot developed for Domann over the last two seasons. Wright had an impressive one-handed interception in Saturday's open practice, and outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson has been impressed with Wright's ability and willingness to learn.
"Javin's a real big guy and I saw he became Twitter famous with the catch," Dawson said. "I saw that popping up all over the place, which is awesome. He's got that great athleticism and he's super-long and he's another guy with a very high football IQ. It doesn't take him a lot of reps to say, 'OK I got you, Coach, I understand.' Not that he doesn't make mistakes, he's going to make mistakes, but he corrects his mistakes, and that's a big deal."
Nebraska's football team had an open practice Saturday afternoon for fans and the media. Here are the sights and sounds from the event.
More notes from Monday's interviews:
» Special teams remains a work in progress, even as Dawson coaches the group hard. Dawson said Connor Culp's injury that kept him out of Saturday's open practice won't be a long-term deal. A "good competition" continues at punter, where scholarship freshman Daniel Cerni is not 100% recovered from the injury he suffered last fall.
"All of the reps count," Dawson said. "You can't go, 'That was a my bad on that one.' We all know that. We saw it. The ball went 13 yards. We know it's your bad. We can't miss. Your shot is your shot. Right now you have an opportunity. You've got to be able to go out and perform and make the play. That's something we're on those guys all the time about."
» Wide receiver Omar Manning and running back Jaquez Yant are a "problem" for Nebraska's defense this spring, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said.
» Fisher said Quinton Newsome — in a battle for the cornerback spot opposite Cam Taylor-Britt — is taking his training to the field well.
» Outside linebacker Pheldarius Payne said he played like a "zombie" last year because of offseason shoulder surgery followed by a bout of COVID. Now down to 250 pounds, Payne expects to have a much bigger 2021.
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.