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Breaking down the Blackshirts

On Monday afternoon, Mike Riley and the Husker coaching staff awarded Blackshirts to 16 defensive players, a move controversial to some. While 16 is a large number, it’s not without precedent: The Huskers rolled out 20 Blackshirts in 2011. While not abnormal, it does break from the original tradition which featured the top 11 starters heaving to earn their stripes (or jerseys, in this case) during every single day of practice.

With so many Blackshirts slated to play this season, we want to provide an in-depth breakdown of each player and what fans should expect from them this season:

Defensive Line

Freedom Akinmoladun – Defensive End – Junior

Statistically, Akinmoladun is one of the Huskers’ top returning defenders, accounting for 32 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and another 10 quarterback hurries during his sophomore season.

Trying to pick up where he left off last fall, he has been putting in work all summer and fall in order to have a big junior campaign in Nebraska’s new defense.

Mick Stoltenberg – Nose Tackle –  Senior

Throughout fall camp, the coaches have been raving about Mick’s ability to take on his new position in Bob Diaco’s defense. His Blackshirt backs that praise up. He should do well in taking on multiple blockers this year and helping the inexperienced line look like a veteran group when executing the new 3-4 scheme.

“With Mick, there have been strides there intangibly. He’s really developing as a leader for the unit, if not the team. Really appropriate sights and sounds, and that’s consistent, that’s day to day. He’s cleaned up his fundamentals, he’s improved in all areas.” – Bob Diaco, Huskers defensive coordinator

Carlos Davis – Defensive End –  Sophomore

Voted one of the most improved players after the 2016 season, Carlos Davis has been a terror throughout fall camp for offensive linemen and has shown an explosive ability to wreak havoc from the edge of the line. Watching him this summer, the offensive line has very rarely been able to keep him in check.

Davis put an exclamation point on his freshman season when he finished with 2 sacks, 5 tackles for a loss, and 3 quarterback hurries. If his noticeable continued growth in spring ball and fall camp is an indicator of things to come, expect him to do the Blackshirt tradition proud in his second season starting for the Big Red.

Khalil Davis – Defensive End –  Sophomore

Much like his twin brother Carlos, Khalil has been everywhere during fall camp, spending time at both defensive tackle and defensive end positions. Listed as the No. 2 DE behind Freedom Akinmoladun, don’t expect Khalil to only be featured there. Davis is likely the No. 2 DE at both positions and would take over for Carlos should there be a situation where his brother slips inside to play a snap at nose tackle or defensive tackle in a 4-3 formation.

John Parrella is blessed this year with a treasure trove of versatile linemen. While I wouldn’t expect Davis to have a monster year, I do expect him to step into the starting lineup without missing a beat when his number is called. He’s not so much a backup as he is the next man up on a very talented Nebraska defensive line.

Linebackers

Luke Gifford – Outside Linebacker (Dog)

One of the most notable performances during the Husker spring game was the play of dog linebacker Luke Gifford. The junior pulled in a circus interception and stripped a ball loose all while playing with one good hand.

Luke is one of the best linebackers in space thanks to all the time spent as a defensive back before changing positions to outside linebacker. As noted in the spring game, he has been a menace to quarterbacks and has taken his play up a level this summer.

“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.” — Trent Bray, linebacker coach

Marcus Newby – Outside Linebacker (Dog)

One simply cannot mention Luke Gifford in one breath without mentioning five-year senior Marcus Newby, too. Newby has been a constant presence on the Huskers’ defense the last three years and is one of the most capable pass rushers the Huskers have when he’s healthy. While he and Gifford play the same position and will split time, they have a firm hold on the Dog linebacker position together.

Marcus Newby is one of the hardest working Huskers and is positioned to have his best year yet.  Watch for Newby to add to his career totals of 3 sacks, 8 tackles for a loss, and 4 pass breakups as he starts at the Dog position alongside Luke Gifford.

Dedrick Young II – Inside Linebacker

Tabbed as the most impressive player on the Huskers’ defense by BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart during their fall camp tour, Dedrick has been rock solid at the inside linebacker position the past month.

Making the move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker seems to have paid off for Dedrick in the Huskers’ new 3-4.  Already a linebacker who flashed playmaking ability during his freshman and sophomore seasons, he appears to have taken a much-needed step forward at his new position.

“Most impressive player: LB Dedrick Young. The 6-1, 235-pound junior was all over the field today. He will team inside with Chris Weber in the Huskers’ new 3-4 defense. No doubt, the ILBs are the strength of new DC Bob Diaco’s unit.” – Tom Dienhart, BTN.com

(Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

Chris Weber – Inside Linebacker

Cutting his teeth on special teams and in a reserve linebacker role the last few years, senior Chris Weber has blossomed from a former walk-on into a starting linebacker. After enjoying a strong spring, the Elkhorn native is primed for his first season as the starting inside linebacker.

Highly regarded not only by the coaching staff but his peers as well, Weber is as smart as they come. He has made a smooth transition into the Huskers’ 3-4 defense. At 240 pounds he’s one of the largest linebackers on the Huskers’ roster and will be counted on this fall to plug up the middle of the field.

“Chris is probably one of the smartest guys on the team, probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my age group right now. He’s very detailed, and he’s very serious about his work,” said Huskers safety Aaron Williams.

Alex Davis – Outside (Cat) Linebacker –  Sophomore

Having played football for only two years prior to his arrival at Nebraska, Davis was supposed to add weight in the old defense to become a pass rushing defensive end. With the move to the 3-4 defense, Alex has moved to the linebacker position all while holding 30 pounds of muscle to his 6-5, 255-pound frame.

In line to be one of the biggest linebackers in Bob Diaco’s new defense, Davis hopes to excel when taking on tight ends and offensive tackles from the Cat position after going against Nick Gates and Alex Lewis the last two and a half years.

“At first I was kind of nervous about it,” he said, “but I just prayed and trusted the process in the training room, and they got me right.”

Mohamed Barry – Inside Linebacker – Sophomore

Slated as the No. 2 inside linebacker to start the season behind Dedrick Young, Mohamed Barry has earned his stripes and cut his teeth during a redshirt year and another year spent in a reserve role. As he rebuilt his body from a budding high schooler into a full-time FBS linebacker, Barry’s stock has exploded in camp.

Being able to rely on Barry to step in without missing a beat will be vital for the Huskers — not only this fall but for years to come.

“Mo’s going to be a part of the game, and he’s going to help and he’s going to play and he’s going to be a big impact for us,” said Bray. “We’ve got ways how we’re going to rotate those guys to make sure we get guys on the field and that we’re always fresh so we can play at that maximum effort.” – Trent Bray, linebacker coach

Secondary

Joshua Kalu – Strong Safety

The newest safety but one of the longest-tenured Blackshirts, Joshua Kalu has done what very few others have done: earned a Blackshirt at a second position. One of the most versatile athletes on the team, Kalu had a promising career at cornerback before making the switch this spring under the guidance of the late Bob Elliott.

Kalu has taken what he learned this spring and rocketed into the starting strong safety role. In a moment of carefully released optimism, coordinator Bob Diaco steered away from his usual coachspeak to heap praise on the senior defender.

“He would be a very, very good corner, maybe even a great corner, but in my mind, there’s no doubt: He is and/or will be one of the best safeties in the country, if not the very best safety in the country.” — Diaco

Aaron Williams – Free Safety

At one of the deepest positions on the Huskers’ roster, Aaron Williams has earned another Blackshirt after a successful sophomore campaign with three interceptions and hammer-like resistance against the run game, adding two sacks and six tackles for a loss.

Labeled a likely starter after quickly picking up the Huskers’ new 3-4 scheme this spring, Aaron continues to shine in the Husker secondary and should build on a very bright sophomore season. He will be counted on heavily in the new defense.

“Aaron Williams is as smart a player as I’ve ever been around… He’s grasping things that I never dreamed that a safety could grasp this quickly.” – Bob Elliott, former Husker safety coach

Antonio Reed – Free Safety – Junior

Playing in 25 of the Huskers’ past 26 games, Reed has extensive playing experience having backed up safety Nate Gerry before his departure to the NFL. Reed is especially strong in run support and bringing pressure from the safety position.

Look for Reed to supply the secondary with much-needed depth and experience as the season rolls on. Reed will undoubtedly be a special teams maven. He should make an impact on the re-energized squad under coach Scott Booker.

Photo – Icon Sportswire

Lamar Jackson – Boundary Cornerback – Sophomore
At 6-3 and 210 pounds, Lamar Jackson is one of the most physically intimidating members of the Huskers’ secondary. Jackson is also one of the most humble after a freshman season in which he played in all 13 games and struggled to adjust to the college game.

Jackson has matured this offseason and brought a new mentality focused on “getting better” in everything he does. His approach has won the starting cornerback job and a Blackshirt. He will now set his sights on living up to the expectations that surround him this season.

“Once he learns techniques and exactly what he needs to do, talent takes over. And so I have no doubt in my mind when the talent takes over, he’s going to be better than the guy he lines up on.” — Donte Williams, cornerback coach, per Landof10

Eric Lee – Field Cornerback – Sophomore

As it stands today, Eric Lee is the starter opposite Jackson, occupying the field cornerback position. Eric Lee has flourished in camp, catching Tanner Lee on a cornerback blitz that would have left Tanner dazed and confused had it not been a game situation.

Battling every day with Dicaprio Bootle, don’t be surprised to see both Bootle and Lee on the field together if the situation calls for it. Both players have had their moments in camp with highlight reel plays and mental breakdowns alike. For now, it appears Lee has the edge as the listed starter.

“They’re (Dicaprio Bootle and Eric Lee Jr.) getting better, everyone’s getting better,” Diaco said. “They’re going to need to play in the games. You only get markedly better when you play in the games. Really none of those guys have played in a game.”

DiCaprio Bootle – Field Cornerback – Redshirt Freshman

Bringing his Florida speed to Nebraska, Bootle is famous as the player who showed up to the Huskers’ satellite camp in Miami and earned a scholarship offer after a blazing fast 40-yard dash. He has brought that same speed and tenacity to Lincoln, being one of the few Huskers in recent memory who has earned a Blackshirt while playing as a freshman.

Both Bootle and Eric Lee will be counted on this fall to provide depth after the loss of Chris Jones just before fall camp started.  While Lee is the starter, there’s a camaraderie between the two that puts the team’s needs over their own.

“There’s no competition. We just go out there and play, and work together. We just try to feed off each other,” Bootle said. “We’re in this together. It’s no type of thing where it’s me or you. We’re in this together and we’re in it for the long haul.”

For more information on the history of the Blackshirts directly from the university, check out this fantastic summary of how and why the Blackshirts came to be

–Stay tuned to Husker Hype for more of what fans can expect this weekend, when the Huskers host Arkansas State on Saturday, September 2.

To comment, question, or keep up with the author, follow John on twitter at @johnswedlund or comment below.

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