In an ideal world, Nebraska assistant coach Barrett Ruud would have more than three options he felt good about putting on the field for his two inside linebacker spots, considering the regular season starts in less than three weeks.
The good news for Ruud midway through preseason camp, though, is that he doesn’t just like his top trio of senior Mohamed Barry and juniors Collin Miller and Will Honas, he practically raves about them.
“They’ve all been really, really good,” Ruud said Tuesday. “They’re playing at a high level and I’ve been really happy with them.”
These three have always been the most likely to earn the lion’s share of snaps this fall after Dedrick Young graduated and considering Nick Henrich, Garrett Snodgrass, Jackson Hannah and walk-on Luke Reimer are all freshmen.
Even so, the older group came with some question marks. Barry is a stalwart, having started all 12 games last season and finishing tied for sixth in the Big Ten with 112 tackles. Honas, though, played just three games before a season-ending injury against Michigan and was not cleared for full contact work during the spring.
“They did a good job with his rehab here,” Ruud said of Honas. “When he was in spring, he wasn’t live, but he was moving around with us and did all the individual with us. He moved around pretty well in the spring and he’s even upped it throughout the summer. The fact that he was back and pretty much back fully recovered in the spring and then got a true summer conditioning session with the whole team, he’s playing faster than he was last year.”
Miller just moved to inside linebacker a year ago and spent the past 12 months learning the finer points of the position.
“This is the best football he’s ever played, at least since I’ve been here,” Ruud said. “Now he’s got a full year at inside linebacker and he’s a different guy out there now. He’s going to play a ton of football for us. He’s been as good as anybody during this fall camp.”
That sentiment is why Ruud has confidence in his trio. And don’t assume that Barry will play full-time and the other two will rotate.
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“He’s got guys that are playing just as well right now,” Ruud said. “He’s got guys on his heels all the time and those guys are doing a great job not only of competing with each other but they’re helping each other all the time, too.”
Just the way Barry likes it.
“I love the competition in the linebacker room because, honestly, I don’t come in every day like ‘OK, it’s my stuff,’” he said. “I come in there like I’ve got to prove something every day.”
Both Miller (6-foot-3 and 245 pounds) and Honas (6-1, 225) are reaching the point where they can play the two inside spots — “Mike” and “Will” — interchangeably.
“Honestly, I came up playing a little bit more of a specialized spot and I kind of used to believe in that a little bit more, but I think with this defense, it really helps when you can play multiple spots,” Ruud said. “I’ve made it non-negotiable for those two guys that they’ve got to do it. They’ve been awesome at it. They go back and forth, they make all the calls from each spot and they feel real comfortable.”
So while the Huskers will have two designated “starters,” as long as all three are healthy, they are all going to play substantial snaps.
“Obviously you’ve got to name a starter and somebody’s got to start the game, so it’s going to be a battle right up to the start in all honesty, because those guys have been awesome,” Ruud said. “The good thing is I’m going to make it real clear to them that all those guys are expected to play a bunch of snaps and play really well, whoever the starter is.
“More than likely the third guy is going to be rolling in there the second series. We’ll see what happens. I like the competition right now and hopefully they keep helping each other get better.”