As Nebraska continues to build its 2019 recruiting class — the group stands at 18 verbal prospects with the Thursday addition of athlete/receiver Darien Chase (Vancouver, Washington) — the puzzle is steadily coming further into focus.
It will undoubtedly be a big group, think 25-plus scholarship players when it’s all said and done, but some positions have crystallized.
Luke McCaffrey (Littleton, Colorado) is the only quarterback NU plans to take.
Chase and Jamie Nance (Blanchard, Oklahoma) might not be the only two receivers, but that’s a good start. If the Huskers land dynamic running back Wandale Robinson (Frankfort, Kentucky) on Nov. 1, they might be about done in the backfield, too.
Others are less clear. Greg Austin said Wednesday the current plan is to take five offensive linemen. The Huskers currently have three known pledges and would love to add massive tackle Bryce Benhart (Lakeville, Minnesota), plus one more.
It’s a similar story at defensive back, where NU has several irons in the fire like Tavian Mayo (Leesburg, Georgia) and Noa Pola-Gates (Gilbert, Arizona), who both just visited this past week.
Maybe the most uncertain at this point falls in the pass-rush category at outside linebacker or edge rusher. Whatever you want to call it, beefing up the pass rush is one of the Huskers’ most pressing needs overall. It’s also maybe the hardest position to find difference-makers, considering everybody in the country wants the types of size/speed combination athletes that frequent the position.
Asked recently what NU looks for, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander deadpanned, “A guy that sacks the quarterback a lot.”
Then, he expanded.
“Obviously we’re looking for some of the things that we kind of lack right now,” Chinander said. “Just one of those guys that’s very twitchy on the edge, a guy that can bend, a guy that can work his hands and is explosive.”
The Huskers’ best pass-rusher currently is senior Luke Gifford (team-best 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss), who will have to be replaced after this year. Then there are all kinds of body types, from Alex Davis (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) to Breon Dixon (5-11, 205), Caleb Tannor (6-2, 210) and others.
The Huskers think Tannor can grow into a pass-rushing force. They have guys who look the part like Guy Thomas at 6-3 and 230, who flash like Tyrin Ferguson (6-2, 230) or maybe could move back outside in the future like Collin Miller (6-3, 245). But there’s not a consistent underclassmen in the bunch right now.
“We are always trying to put our guys in the best position to get a good pass-rush, but you know, you’ve got to find some guys,” outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said. “You’ve seen throughout the course of the season there’s a lot of guys rolling in and out based on the situation and (the variety in body type) is partially why.”
The solution to the problem at Central Florida was already on campus in Shaquem Griffin, who went from reserve safety to game-changing, two-time conference defensive player of the year. Here, the answers are going to have to come from recruiting and development.
“First things you look for are a little bit of length, first step and playing radius,” Dewitt explained. “Those are probably the three things you look for the earliest. Some guys have a natural ability to kind of bend the corner a little bit and you’ve got to look at those things.
“There’s two different ways to look at length — one, they’re either 6-4 or 6-5, or two, maybe they’re 6-2 but they have really long arms. The better metric to use is probably playing radius.”
The Huskers already have Scottsbluff’s Garrett Nelson (6-3, 240) verbally committed. Mosai Newsome (6-4, 250) is likely more of a defensive lineman, but perhaps it depends on his development.
Otherwise, NU is searching high and low. The Huskers expect to get touted Lakeland, Florida, prospect Lloyd Summerall (6-5, 205) on campus in November, but he’s a hot commodity among the state’s power schools. They recently offered another Florida prep player in Seth Coleman (6-4, 205), who’s verbally committed to Illinois.
In the junior college ranks, Nebraska has offered Kuony Deng (6-6, 235) of Independence (Kansas) Community College and a host of others, and a pecking order may become more clear as those players set visits for November or December.
It’s an especially important position in the Big Ten, and will continue to be among the Huskers’ main areas of focus over the next two months.
“I think the (offensive) tackles are very good in the Big Ten and they’re long guys, so we’re looking for more length, speed, ability to bend and some twitch,” Chinander said.