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Nebraska Defensive Player(s) to Watch: All of the linebackers

The Huskers have an eclectic, talented group in the middle of their defense. These four will be looking to slow down the high-powered OSU offense on Saturday.

Nebraska’s terrific quartet will have their work cut out for them against the Buckeyes
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Remember when Ohio State’s defense was regularly referred to as the “Silver Bullets”, and it really meant something? Now the moniker has sort of faded away, although you will still hear die-hards like myself reference it from time to time. OSU has, and has had, more recent nicknames or terms that position groups would like to go by, such as Zone 6 and BIA (or DBU for the school itself).

Teams go through different phases or iterations where they create an identity or adopt certain media-created nicknames. Specific to football, the NFL had The New York Sack Exchange, Purple People Eaters, and Monsters of the Midway (among other great ones). In college, Texas A&M’s defense has gone by Wrecking Crew in years past, Ole Miss defenders are occasionally called the Landsharks, Michigan State’s secondary had the No Fly Zone, and Texas recently came up with Trick-or-Treat Monkeys. All great nicknames, all come and go.

Sometimes it’s best to retire a nickname when it is no longer relevant, or when the group being referred to no longer deserves it. Blackshirts is one of those names. Nebraska’s defensive players were originally referred to as Black Shirts due to the practice jerseys they wore in the 1960’s. The name was shortened to one word in the 70’s, and it carried a certain mystique for decades. Black (I guess?) was supposed to be intimidating. A logo was eventually created for the Blackshirts with a skull and crossbones. The team has occasionally worn black alternate jerseys to honor the name, and the whole thing generally just seemed kind of cool.

Well, there’s nothing cool or impressive about Nebraska’s recent performance(s) on defense.

Under Scott Frost and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, the Huskers have finished 88th, 66th, and 64th nationally in points per game allowed. They currently sit 27th — possibly a sign of resurgence. The pass rush has been average to above-average under this current regime, and same goes the rushing defense. Nebraska has been adept at creating turnovers or turnover opportunities, which is surely something they coach up. The team racked up double-digit interceptions and forced fumbles during the 2018 and 2019 seasons (throwing 2020 out), and are on their way to at least double-digit interceptions in 2021. The on-field product often looks better than the stats would imply, but point are points, and Nebraska have given up plenty in recent seasons.

Now the Huskers are tasked with limiting the effectiveness of what is arguably (or not) the best offense in the country. The Buckeyes are averaging over 47 points per game and racking up over 500 yards. I don’t believe there is a defense in college football capable of putting the clamps on Ohio State’s offense, but that is the challenge Nebraska will face on Saturday. As unlikely as the Huskers are to shut down the Buckeyes’ impressive offense, there are some players on this defense who are capable of making life more difficult for Ryan Day and his guys. They all play in the middle of the field, so this week’s Defensive Player to Watch is actually a group of players.

Nebraska runs a 3-4 base defense, and their linebackers are the unquestioned strength of the unit. This year, a different linebacker leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks (tie), and forced fumbles. DB Deontai Williams leads the team with four interceptions, but behind him is four-way tie for second — including two linebackers. Chinander presumably deploys the 3-4 because he likes the additional speed and versatility he can put on the field with four linebackers.

Despite the Huskers not having a top-25 defense, it’s hard to argue with his thought process. The goal is to get your best players on the field, and I think his four best players start at linebacker.

On the outside, JoJo Domann and Garrett Nelson are both solid athletes and very good at creating pressure. They have a combined five sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss on the season. Domann is the more experienced OLB, and after being named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last year, he was named to the Nagurski Trophy Watch List prior to the 2021 season. He also recently made the cut as a quarterfinalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy.

The redshirt senior transitioned from safety to OLB earlier in his career, but he fills a hybrid-type role for the Huskers. He can tackle, get after the quarterback, and still be useful in coverage, so Buckeye fans could see him dropping back often against C.J. Stroud and the OSU pass catchers. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Domann has one hell of a Twitter handle.

Domann’s counterpart on the outside is third-year sophomore Garrett Nelson. Nelson is a good fit for the outside role at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds. If he received the proper coaching, he could definitely play defensive end – especially in a 4-3 set. After starting all eight games for the Huskers last year, Nelson has enjoyed a subtle breakout in 2021. His 9.5 tackles for loss put him in or around the top-25 nationally, and he leads the team with three sacks. He plays with great physicality and toughness, willing to stick his head in there even after losing his teeth. Because Nelson is the stereotypical big, nasty, blitzing OLB, I will have my eyes on him come Saturday. He is more than capable of creating chaos in the Ohio State backfield.

Patrolling the middle for Nebraska are two more third-year players, Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich. This duo has combined for 165 tackles through nine games, and if they stick around, they could be part of a bright future (along with Nelson and others) for the Huskers defense.

Reimer is an awesome story. He is a former eight-man football player, turned zero-star recruit, turned walk-on Husker. He is now on scholarship for the team, leading them in tackles, and has earned the Blackshirt distinction (now given out preseason, to the core leaders of the defense). Reimer is everywhere for Nebraska, as proven by his early season performance against Buffalo. The MLB totaled 16 tackles and an interception on his way to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. You can bet he will be involved in plenty of stops against the Buckeyes.

Last, but not least, is Nick Henrich. He is a former four-star recruit out of Omaha, who earned 2018’s Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year as a high school senior. He stayed true to his roots and joined the Nebraska program in 2019. His career got off to a rough start, as he appeared in only game as a freshman (injury). After taking a redshirt, Henrich played both inside and outside linebacker spots in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

He has since shot up the depth chart and Big Ten leaderboard. He has 79 total tackles on the season, good for fourth in the conference — two spots behind his buddy Reimer. He only has half a sack, zero passes defended or intercepted, and zero fumbles forced or recovered… but Henrich has a strong presence on the field without those stats. He can play inside or outside, coaches love his worth ethic and football IQ, and from what I have seen, he is in the right place at the right time. He is a great complement to Reimer.

Nebraska’s defense is facing a juggernaut on Saturday. Ohio State’s offense has been hitting on all cylinders (for the most part), and it is just a statement of fact that the Buckeyes have more talent than their opponent. But don’t tell that to the Husker defenders. These guys play fast, aggressive, and hungry. They don’t want to be lit up at home. The players in the middle will do their best to contain OSU, and they are a talented group. The Blackshirts may be a dated nickname and one that needs to take a seat on the bench until Nebraska is “back”, but Domann, Nelson, Reimer, and Henrich are the most deserving recipients.