Husker Notes: Linebacker Battle Producing Results
By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Suffice it to say senior Marcus Newby and junior Luke Gifford are pushing each other to a high level in their battle for a starting outside linebacker spot.
Well, with one clarification.
“My only hesitation is I'm not sure we're really seeing that so much as a battle,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said, “as a cooperative performance to put together the very best outside linebacker overhang production.”
In other words, the practice performances of Newby and Gifford are creating a healthy competition that will make the Nebraska linebackers unit a strong bunch, regardless of who's starting.
“It's been great because they're both playing at a high level,” Nebraska linebackers coach Trent Bray said. “Luke is really stepping up his game every day. He's getting his hand on the ball just about every day in practice multiple times. It's good to see Luke pushing Marcus and Marcus pushing Luke.”
Gifford, a Lincoln Southeast graduate, played in only four games last season after moving from safety. Nebraska's old 4-3 defensive scheme, which used a lot of nickel and dime looks, kept Gifford, a third linebacker, off the field, especially as a backup.
“That doesn't fit, really, his strength,” Bray said. “I think the position he's in now, playing in that overhang, really fits what he's good at doing.”
Indeed, Nebraska's chance to a 3-4 defense under Diaco, in his first season, has invigorated Gifford, who in the spring said his chance was now or never.
“He's sure playing that way right now,” Bray said. “His intensity, focus and playmaking ability is really showing right now.”
Similarly, Newby has had a long journey to his current position after beginning his career playing strictly as a pass-rush specialist.
“He's done a good job, because he's had to learn more in coverage because he was just a rusher before we got here,” Bray said. “So he had to learn coverage and run fits, so he's kind of just grown in those areas every year.”
Bray noted this is the first season in which Newby will have the same job two years in a row.
“Whenever you're switching jobs,” Bray said, “especially the way you're seeing the game from the line of scrimmage to behind the line of scrimmage, it's different.”
Bray added another name to the linebacker fray that may not have necessarily been at the forefront when camp started.
His name is Tyrin Ferguson.
Nebraska fans will remember Ferguson from 2015, when he played in 10 games a true freshman. However, he redshirted last season.
Now, he's adding more depth to outside linebacker.
“That's the guy that, out of spring, who's really stepped up his game the most as opposed to a guy we weren't really seeing as pushing those other guys,” Bray said. “But now he definitely is, and he's doing a good job.”
Bray commended Ferguson for working hard and watching film in the offseason and becoming a student of the game in asking questions. The results have been more production in practice.
“Especially in the last three or four practices, his production has skyrocketed,” Bray said. “We're liking what we're seeing from Tyrin. He gives us that extra depth and ability, if things happen, to move guys around.
“He's back in that position more similar to what he did in high school, outside the box, line of scrimmage type player, vision inside, rather than being stacked, which I think is better and easier for him to do. It's showing. His production is drastically different.”
Defensive line coach John Parrella backed up coach Mike Riley and what he said Saturday about redshirted freshman defensive end Ben Stille making a surge. “Ben's been flying around, getting better every day,” Parrella said. “He's a big, strong kid and we think his future there can help us.” ... New assistant coach Scott Booker, who oversees special teams, said he anticipates a “happy medium” of starters and freshmen on special teams, noting Riley has the final say. ... Look for freshman lineman Deontre Thomas at either end or tackle. In fact, same could be said for most freshmen up front on defense. “You've got guys who are athletic like Deontre, you can move them around a little bit,” Parrella said. “We're trying to see what they can do.” ... Booker said sophomore punter Caleb Lightbourne is a hard worker who's dedicated to his craft. “I don't think he'd say he's a finished product yet,” Booker said, “But he's a willing young man that has a lot of good things for him.” ... Booker said it's too early to name candidates for return men on kickoffs and punts.