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If JoJo Domann had reached his physical limit, he wasn’t showing it.
Penn State was almost finished running the most plays seen by a Nebraska defense in eight years — and the Husker senior outside linebacker hadn’t missed one of them. Yet the biggest snaps were still looming.
Domann had already helped deny the Nittany Lions in the red zone moments earlier, late in the fourth quarter of a one-score game. He rushed quarterback Will Levis on second down, forcing an early fade pass that fell to the turf. He sagged off All-America tight end Pat Freiermuth on the next play, diving to deflect a ball over the middle.
Now Penn State had first-and-goal at the 9-yard line with less than a minute left. Domann (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) dropped to cover Freiermuth (6-5, 258) twice and receiver Parker Washington (5-10, 205) once, though his men weren’t targeted. Then on fourth down — the Nittany Lions’ 91st snap of the afternoon — he handed off Freiermuth to inside linebacker Collin Miller on a route over middle and shadowed the quarterback as he rolled right.
Defensive lineman Ben Stille threw Levis to the turf, and Domann scooped up the desperation pass on a bounce, holding the football in the air like a trophy. Huskers win.
“It’s definitely a blessing to be out there and getting that (win),” Domann said afterward. “It just makes everything feel worthwhile.”
Scott Frost revealed which players have received the coveted Blackshirt jerseys, but he issued a reminder that "if they don't live up to the standards of the Blackshirts, they won't keep them."
A nickelback and pass rusher rolled into one, Domann has long been someone Nebraska wants on the field. Health this season has allowed the Huskers to prove that to the extreme. The product of Colorado Springs is the only NU defender to line up for all 225 plays opponents have run through three games. He has also appeared on multiple special teams units including kickoff, punt return and PAT block.
Miller, a fellow senior, said adrenaline carried him through Saturday before heavy legs and a sore body greeted him Sunday. Not only did Domann play more, Miller said, but the guy with a degree in advertising and public relations was constantly encouraging teammates on the field and offering insight on the sideline.
“I don’t think I saw him slow down one time,” Miller said. “Play 90 looked like Play 14 for him.”
The former three-star recruit has always been productive. The only active Husker to play in the 2016 Music City Bowl forced a fumble and made two tackles in limited action that day. His strip sack of Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins was perhaps Nebraska’s defensive highlight of 2018.
He filled up the stat sheet as a junior in 2019 and was among the team leaders in tackles (52), stops for loss (11), pass breakups (six) and forced fumbles (two). His three TFLs this fall are a team-best among his 23 total tackles, and he recorded a career-high 12 tackles last weekend.
Coach Scott Frost said Monday that Domann’s “bugaboo” had been staying disciplined and keeping his eyes in the right place. The defender blamed himself a year ago for Nebraska’s 31-27 loss at Purdue when the Boilermakers went ahead late on a reverse pitch to a receiver that went for a score. Domann, consumed by a zeal to make the stop, tackled the decoy running back instead of staying home and making sure no one ran outside of him.
“I didn’t do my job,” Domann said at the time.
A review of Nebraska’s defense suggests far more than the starting 11 may have earned Blackshirts. And Erik Chinander has added a wrinkle, too, used with great success by Wisconsin last season.
Not the case anymore. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Domann isn’t “going rogue,” instead playing within the schemes.
“That’s been a lot better this year, and I think he’s reaping the rewards of that,” Frost said.
A memorable senior year was never a given. Two ACL surgeries scuttled his entire 2017 season, and a stress fracture in his back cost him a month in 2018, putting him behind teammates in impressing Frost and the new coaching staff. A different injury in fall camp before the 2019 campaign delayed him getting his first Blackshirt jersey by a few weeks. His comments before the Colorado game that year — “Thank God I came here” — helped spice up the rivalry talk that week.
Domann remains versatile enough that defensive backs coach Travis Fisher often said last year that he still considers Domann a DB despite the defender shifting to outside linebacker midway through 2018. Outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson, who coached the position for the NFL’s New York Giants a season ago, said in September that Domann has the frame of a defensive back and the strength of an inside linebacker. With focus and assignment-sound play, Dawson said, Domann is someone coaches “expect production from all the time.”
The other players feel the same, Miller said. Domann is simply too talented in too many ways to come off the field.
“Everyone kind of looks to JoJo when things get hard and JoJo’s right there being a leader,” Miller said. “We see it throughout the whole week. He practices hard, he studies the film hard, he grades himself hard. What you guys see on Saturday is all the work he puts in. He finally gets to show you guys, too.”
With at least five scheduled games remaining in 2020 and the option for all seniors to return in 2021 amid a pandemic-related eligibility freeze, Domann’s future in red may still hold many big plays.
Certainly the opportunity will be there for Nebraska’s most-used defender.
“He’s playing really good football right now and he’s doing his job,” Chinander said. “But I still don’t think any of us have seen the ceiling on JoJo Domann yet.”
The Huskers have been outscored 59-6 after halftime in their first three games. But the team’s coordinators said Tuesday the gap doesn’t bother them as much as the raw numbers suggest.