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LINCOLN — If Ty Robinson breaks out in the trenches this fall, he wants to be clear it was far from a one-man effort.
One of Nebraska’s headline recruits in the 2019 class saved his redshirt last season but lost any preconception that he was ready for big-time college football. He appeared in three games late in the year — including against Wisconsin and Iowa — showing flashes of his four-star talent but also at times swimming mentally and physically against “grown men” who moved him with a purpose.
OK, thought Robinson, so ability alone won’t do it. What now?
What happened was an all-in investment from everyone around the 6-foot-6, 315-pound defensive lineman. Senior D-lineman Ben Stille holds daily “football IQ” film studies with him after practice, explaining why this technique would work best in this situation, or why that approach would be better against that offensive alignment.
Meanwhile, position mates Chris Walker and Damian Jackson — two of the best weightlifters and trainers on the team — chose Robinson as their workout partner. On the field, assistant Tony Tuioti continued to hammer his “good, better, best” philosophy. That play might have been good, he often says, but it can be better.
“It’s either you’re ready or not,” Robinson said Tuesday. “And I feel like I’ve progressed enough from last year to this year to where I can at least do my part of the job — hopefully well. I feel like I can produce for this team just a little bit more than last year.”
The theme works for Nebraska’s defensive line as a whole as it replaces all three starters, now on NFL rosters, and brings back a total of 15 career Division I starts (14 by Stille). The group lost the majority of spring ball to coalesce amid the COVID-19 pandemic and only recently returned to full contact for the first time in 10 months in observance of Big Ten rules.
The good news, Tuioti said, is that “tremendous strides” made by a collection of newcomers and former reserves has him confident in a six- or seven-man rotation along the three-man front. In particular, gains made by sophomore Casey Rogers (6-4, 300 pounds), junior Keem Green (6-5, 315), junior college transfer Jordon Riley (6-6, 290) and Robinson have helped NU “fill up the load” in the offseason.
"Iron sharpens iron" when Nebraska's offensive and defensive lines square off in practice. And one player in particular has enjoyed significant improvement from those physical battles.
“I think we have the guys this year that have the length, that have the size, to be able to help us out with that,” Tuioti said. “... But it’s being able to do that consistently, not just one snap. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize is being tough and physical up front.”
With the departure of big men and big leaders Carlos and Khalil Davis as well as Darrion Daniels, other upperclassmen filled the considerable void in the offseason: Stille, as the lone scholarship senior; Deontre Thomas, who has fought through various injuries to appear in 26 Nebraska games; Damion Daniels, whose nickname of “Snacks” endures, but is now less reflective of his on-field conditioning.
Daniels, at 6-3, 340, is slated to see considerable time at nose tackle a year after coaches couldn’t count on him to stay on the field for more than a quick series because he would wear down. The junior can go for upward of eight plays now, Tuioti said, and eats up space the way a nose in a 3-4 scheme should.
Said Tuioti: “If we’re going into war, going into a fight, I want to go fight with Snacks.”
Senior inside linebacker Collin Miller, who has stared at the backs of Nebraska D-linemen for years, said the group clearly learned from the way last year’s starters handled themselves. How to study film, approach practice and stay healthy. How to prepare. He listed Robinson, Riley and walk-on Colton Feist as standouts for their speed and athleticism after a week of live practice.
“I think we’re definitely in a good position with them,” Miller said of the line.
Nebraska defensive line coach Tony Tuioti identified seven players he can trust right now to play, and many of them have improved physical development to thank for that.
Others at the position are sophomore Tate Wildeman — who has battled injuries in his young NU career — redshirt freshman Mosai Newsom and true freshmen Nash Hutmacher and Marquis Black. Tuioti said Pheldarius Payne, a juco transfer who is 6-3, 275 and known for his quick pass-rushing ability, has shifted from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Exactly what combinations of players Nebraska’s line will use is not yet decided, Tuioti said. Players earn his trust if they “do their one-11th” reliably, are tough enough to knock back blockers and keep a steady, relentless effort in pursuit of the football.
Stopping the run has been a struggle for the Huskers in nine Big Ten seasons. Only once in that span have they finished in the top half of the league in yards allowed per rush (3.78 in 2013, good for fifth). They have finished 102nd or worse nationally in the category each of the previous three years despite gradual improvements (5.57 allowed in 2017, 5.00 in 2018, 4.82 last season).
With Ohio State and Wisconsin representing the stiffest of tests to open the abbreviated season, Nebraska’s first line of defense will find out quickly how its offseason changes and gains stack up against the epitome of bruising Big Ten run offenses
“Our young guys are going to have to learn on the fly,” Tuioti said. “You just gotta drop them at the deep end of the pool and they gotta swim. These young guys are eager, they’re prepared, they’re fighting every day to try and get themselves ready to show up when it’s game time.”