A group that was better than expected in 2015, the Nebraska linebacker position looks promising next season with every starter back and a group of young hungry second-year players looking to make a contribution.
Linebacker coach Trent Bray’s efforts were well praised by Huskers fans throughout the fall. Continuity was a luxury the first-year position coach didn’t experience. Five different linebackers started in the fall and the same three starting week to week was limited.
“Whoever was up, those guys in the room were really positive and helped each other a great deal,” said Bray. “It helped a lot, because a lot of guys had to play.”
A senior next fall, Josh Banderas started nine contests in 2015, battling a groin injury. The former Army All-American was still fourth on the team in tackles, with 61 on the year. At 6-foot-2, 235-pounds, Banderas has a NFL body, but is still looking to put together a clean full season. The Lincoln native has appreciated the move to Mark Banker’s defensive scheme and should be even more comfortable in year two. Banderas is a starter locked in.
A projected starter coming into the season, Michael Rose-Ivey also struggled to stay healthy in 2015, playing in seven games and starting three contests. The former Under Armour All-American recorded 27 tackles on the year, but was limited to only 10 to 15 snaps in multiple games. When 100 percent, the Kansas City native is a big asset to the position - especially on run defense. Rose will look to have a similar season as 2013, when he logged 66 tackles as a redshirt freshman.
One of the more interesting storylines in the spring will be the growth in year two of Dedrick Young. The former four-star prospect had 61 tackles as a true freshman in 2015, after enrolling early and participating in spring football. Young exceeded Bray’s expectations and has all-conference potential.
“He’s had a really good year, and done a really good job for us, but could be so much better for us at the same time,” said Bray. “His potential if he keeps going in the way he’s going, could be a really good player for us.”
Many eyes will gravitate towards sophomore Tyrin Ferguson in the spring, after the Louisiana native played in ten contests this fall mostly on special teams. Ferguson couldn’t crack the two-deep at middle linebacker, but bulked up over the fall. His versatility playing both inside and outside will give him a chance to make a contribution.
“Physically he’s progressed great,” said Bray. “Almost thirty pounds since he got here…he hasn’t gotten game experience, but a lot of practice experience. We expect him to be in the mix next year and in spring ball.”
A forgotten man, Marcus Newby will be a junior in 2016 and should have a lot of confidence after starting six games in place of Rose-Ivey. Newby only recorded 34 tackles but at times was the best player at the position. After playing safety in high school and his hand in the dirt in 2014, Newby really settled into the position. It’s very possible we see a situation where Newby is a linebacker who focuses on the pass, while Rose is geared more towards running attacks.
“I was very (proud), he has come such a long way,” said Bray. “When we first got here, he just had his hand in the ground and we were told that’s all he can do. He’s really grown a lot on how to play the position.”
Ferguson won’t be the only player trying to dethrone Banderas in the middle. Walk-on Chris Weber started four games as a sophomore, registering 49 tackles in 10 appearances. Playing time might be tough for Weber in 2016. He doesn’t possess the same speed as Banderas or Ferguson, but is praised for his football IQ. If injuries are to arise again, the Elkhorn native is more than a capable backup. Look for Weber and Ferguson to battle for the second MIKE spot.
Mohamed Barry redshirted in 2015 and spent the fall adding weight, after hitting Lincoln a bit undersized. Barry was a big recruiting win for a new staff last recruiting cycle. He came to Lincoln with big high school numbers, but played in a defense that afforded him quite a bit of freedom to make chase the football. Barry will likely be contending for a spot on the second-team and special teams work.
Also hoping to make a contribution to the second team will be Luke Gifford, who’s season was cut short in 2015 due to injury. Playing in six contests, Gifford made seven tackles. A former safety, Gifford is an asset in passing situations.