Improved pass rush a highlight of Nebraska's spring
In a scrimmage in which there was only live tackling for the final two quarters, Garrett Nelson was still able to help to showcase the progress Nebraska’s defense had made toward achieving one of its top goals for 2022.
Led by Nelson’s two “touch” sacks, the White squad (aka the defense) was able to get to Red quarterbacks three times while creating pressure on numerous other drop-backs.
Considering the altered format, Saturday’s Red-White game offered little opportunity for a real evaluation of the Huskers. But when it came to the defensive front consistently collapsing the pocket and disrupting the passing game, head coach Scott Frost said it still illustrated one of his team's best improvements.
“I think that has been a highlight for us (Saturday) and through spring…” Frost said. “I have seen improvement from Garrett and improvement from Caleb (Tannor) and Jimari (Butler) and Blaise (Gunnerson). Those guys have really taken a giant leap forward, in my opinion.
“We had trouble blocking them today, and hopefully, that is a sign that they are playing good football as opposed to we did not protect well enough.”
Nebraska finished with 20 sacks through 12 games last season, an average of 1.67 per contest. That ranked just inside the top 100 nationally at 98th. Nelson, who led NU with 5.0 sacks, was the only Husker to finish with more than two on the year.
Having emerged as one of the top team leaders this offseason, Nelson set a goal to raise that average by at least one more sack per game.
"We were OK in that area (last year), but with this 'N' we can't be OK; we've got to be great,” Nelson said. “We want those pressures off the edge; we need those interior sacks. We want one more sack a game, and that's on me as a leader, that's on us as a position group and d-line/edge guys together.”
Nelson has been doing his part toward raising that bar for the defense, as he said he’d put on 10 pounds of muscle and dropped his body fat by four percent since last season.
His motivation was to make himself more explosive off the ball and strong enough to match up physically with the elite offensive lines he’ll face this fall.
“The quickness is definitely there, and it has been throughout the spring,” Nelson said. “I want it to keep getting better. As we start playing in the Big Ten with those first-round tackles, I want to be able to do that against them as well just to cement myself and cement the edge guys as a true threat in the Big Ten and nationally.”
New Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson was wearing a green no-contact jersey and only attempted four passes over three series in the spring game. Yet Thompson was flushed from the pocket on his second drop back and then sacked for a seven-yard loss on the next play.
”I have never gone against any pass rusher in the Big Ten, and to go against Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tanner and some of those guys that we have coming off the edge, they are very good players, so we have to give them the credit that they deserve…” Thompson said.
“Hopefully, we will improve on blocking those guys, but it is also a good sign for the rest of the team and for our defense that we are going to have good pass rushers."
As encouraging as that element may have been during spring ball, the depth issues on the defensive line have been a point of concern all offseason.
Among the 30 offered recruiting visitors Nebraska had in town last weekend, the most important was TCU defensive end transfer Ochuan Mathis, regarded as the top pass rusher in the NCAA Transfer Portal.
The Huskers are still waiting on Mathis’ decision, but whether it’s him or someone else, it’s a safe bet that NU will bolster his defensive line even more before fall camp opens.
“We are going to look to add pieces if the right ones are available at whatever positions a good player becomes available,” Frost said. “There’s certainly some that we think we could use another body, and we will pay more attention to those positions.”