LINCOLN — Nebraska landed its second-highest-rated recruit Saturday afternoon when Wynden Ho’ohuli announced on NBC that he had picked the Huskers.
Or perhaps Ho’ohuli was No. 3. It depends on whether you view JoJo Domann’s decision to return to NU — permitted by the NCAA’s pandemic allowance — as a recruiting win.
The Husker defensive brain trust likely saw it that way. And there are five more names on that side of ball who, if they choose to return for 2021, can transform the Blackshirts from decent to one of the Big Ten’s best defenses. Or, more to the point, a unit that can look Oklahoma squarely in the eye Sept. 18 and hope to slow down the Sooners.
Domann — who began his career as a safety, moved to linebacker and now plays a position somewhere in between — was arguably the most important returning piece.
Domann is stout enough to play on the line of scrimmage as a backside pursuit option and agile enough to cover tight ends and slot receivers on deep routes. Domann doesn’t have to come off the field whether NU is playing Iowa or Oklahoma.
Nebraska perhaps has players in the pipeline who can approximate Domann’s skills, but they don’t have the down-in, down-out experience in the role. What’s more, they haven’t learned — as Domann generally has in the past 10 games or so — when to go make a play and when to fit within the scheme as help.
“When you’re a really good football player, that’s you do,” NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said midseason. “You help other people and your teammates make plays when their number is called, and when your number is called, you make one.
“I don’t think any of us have seen the ceiling on JoJo Domann yet.”
He said that before about Domann, who amassed 110 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 11 pass breakups, and I suspect it’s part of the recruiting pitch Nebraska is offering these senior defenders.
You’re good. You can be even better.
Defensive tackle Ben Stille got the same treatment from Chinander just before Senior Day.
“I hope we get him back for another year because I think he’s on the verge of having a big-time breakout here,” Chinander said of Stille, who has always been an effort guy but had to lift and eat his way into a Big Ten defensive line body after starting his career at outside linebacker.
Will Honas — much better in 2020 than 2019, when he was still coming back from a knee injury — is a strong candidate to return because he missed almost the entire 2018 season with the torn ACL.
In a four-man rotation — with Luke Reimer, Nick Henrich and incoming Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic — Honas wouldn’t have to play as much. He might be NU’s best interior blitzer, as well.
If Nebraska gets back Domann, Stille and Honas, for argument’s sake, that would be a big boost to the primary function of any Big Ten defense — stopping the run.
But the pass defense hinges on the forthcoming decisions in the secondary. Again, Chinander’s philosophy — as good as you are, you can be better — looms large.
It’s especially true for Cam Taylor-Britt — a junior corner who probably could enter the NFL draft and, with good testing, get picked, but stands to improve his stock with one more year at NU. Taylor-Britt announced on Monday that he would be returning in 2021.
“After much thought and consideration … Let’s take it back for one more ride Husker Nation!” Taylor-Britt wrote on Twitter.
The league’s first-team corners — Shaun Wade and Greg Newsome — are NFL-bound, leaving Taylor-Britt with Indiana’s Tiawan Mullen and Michigan State’s Shakur Brown as the top returning corners. Taylor-Britt gets three crucial games — Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan — on tape for 2021. All three teams possess talented pass catchers. Taylor-Britt’s return helps the Huskers lock down one side of the field.
Quinton Newsome, a likely replacement for Dicaprio Bootle, can man the other side, as might Braxton Clark, returning from another injury in his short career. If Taylor-Britt leaves, NU may need to explore the transfer portal. (Already, the Huskers are looking at running backs and a big wideout like Arizona’s Jalen Curry.)
One could make an argument that the safety spot — where Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke teamed up for generally strong seasons — is more important than corner.
That duo had a few hiccups early — tackling problems at Northwestern, for example — and allowed a few fourth-down touchdown runs against Minnesota and Rutgers, but Nebraska would rather not start over there. Myles Farmer had an ankle injury at Purdue that was bad enough to keep him out the rest of the year. Behind Farmer, there’s Noa Pola-Gates, Isaac Gifford and incoming freshmen.
You can see how the needle on the 2021 season shifts a bit on the return of some or all of those five.
Running back Dedrick Mills is an important player to watch, too, but the portal options, should NU need them, will be decent. The Husker offense remains appealing for skill players.
There probably isn’t a Stille, Taylor-Britt or Dismuke in the portal — not guys NU could easily land, anyway, or who already know Nebraska’s defense the way they do.
And while the Huskers’ D still didn’t generate as many turnovers as Chinander wants, consider how often the defense was put in awful positions by NU’s mistake-prone offense. Consider that NU’s 4.62 points allowed per red zone trip is the program’s best mark since 2012. That defense, with Will Compton, Baker Steinkuhler, PJ Smith, Eric Martin, Daimion Stafford and Sean Fisher, was full of experience, too.
Imagine if all of those guys had the chance to come back. Imagine if they did.
If Domann is a domino, the Blackshirts could have one heck of a 2021.