JoJo Domann is an outside linebacker now.
Except for when he’s playing nickel. And, well, except for when he maybe slides back to safety.
Really, the most important descriptor for Domann isn’t a position at all. It’s this: healthy.
The junior from Colorado Springs, Colorado, said this week that he’s in the midst of his first healthy offseason since between his junior and senior years at Pine Creek High.
“It’s amazing. I’m having fun again. I’m having a blast and living my best life right now,” Domann told reporters this week. “It’s amazing to have my body back, to not have to worry about the actual movements and just being able to play football. It’s a blessing for sure.”
That health is also helping to facilitate a change that began last season and has continued through the winter and the first two weeks of spring practice. Domann doesn’t have one locked-in spot in Nebraska’s defense, but he’s been spending most of his time at outside linebacker. He bulked up to 230 pounds this offseason and is learning the rigors of playing closer to the line of scrimmage regularly.
“Excuse my French, but he’s kind of built like a brick s---house for being 230 pounds,” outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said this week. “The aspect that he’s got to improve at a little bit is obviously the physical nature of being down in the box, but he gives us the ability to morph in and out of some defenses with him on the field as opposed to being locked into one style of defense.”
It’s took Domann a long time to get the chance to prove that versatility to head coach Scott Frost and the second-year NU staff. When they were hired in December 2017, he was fresh off a second ACL surgery of the calendar year, meaning he missed all of spring ball and didn’t get healthy until the summer.
Domann played in NU’s season-opener against Colorado, but by that time had already developed a stress fracture in his back.
“There wasn’t a moment where it happened. … It was just getting thrown back in the mix of things in fall camp on top of squatting and all the stuff I was doing in the weight room, all that heavy weight getting moved around,” Domann said. “My body obviously just wasn’t ready for it. … After the Akron game I was hurting so bad, and then the CU happened and that was that. I’m honestly just happy I got over that hump and I was able to contribute.”
He missed a month and returned to at least play special teams on Oct. 13 against Northwestern. At that point, the coaches approached him about moving to outside linebacker.
Domann’s thought on the matter: “I’m trying to get on the field. That’s it.”
It didn’t take long for the big plays to follow. Two weeks later, he forced a fumble and broke up a pass against Bethune-Cookman. Then he made his first career start against Ohio State on Nov. 4, finishing tied for second on the team in tackles with seven and making a memorable play when he came free on a blitz, blasted Buckeye quarterback Dwayne Haskins and forced a fumble.
“I think that was the key when he got his chance as he made plays,” Frost said recently. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. We can put guys in position to make plays, but at the end of the day they’ve got to make a play. That was one of the bright spots about watching JoJo. So when he came off the edge and wasn’t blocked, we got sack fumbles and saw him make a bunch of tackles.”
Domann said that week was when he finally felt as though the coaching staff knew who he was — and who he could be — as a player. Making a position change in-season almost always means a player is just trying to keep up. Now Domann has several months to really figure some things out.
His final stats for 2018 — 19 tackles (one for loss, one sack), two pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one recovery in eight games (two starts) — aren't going to blow anybody away, but the manner in which he made them stand is an exciting harbinger of what the staff believes is coming next.
"Let JoJo be JoJo," secondary coach Travis Fisher said. "Let him do what he can do and help us win football games."
Wherever that is on the field, Domann doesn't mind. He'll figure it out.
“Playbooks aren’t hard, it’s just the read and reaction and actually making plays,” he said, adding that his time at safety has helped him process information faster now that he’s closer to the action. “Seeing your key, then reacting on it.
"In that aspect, I’m processing information a lot faster now, and it’s going to lead to me making more plays on the field.”