If you were going to point to a bright spot or a pleasant surprise on the 2020 Nebraska football team, you might just aim the finger at Tony Tuioti’s defensive line group.
Tasked with replacing a trio of NFL players from 2019’s team (Khalil and Carlos Davis and Darrion Daniels), it would have been easy to figure that Tuioti’s young group might be in line to take a step back.
Instead, the group played well overall and showed depth in the form of young players such as Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers, junior Damion Daniels and transfer Jordon Riley, all complementing improved play from senior Ben Stille. Had Deontre Thomas not been limited to two games by injury, the rotation might have been even deeper.
Tuioti, the third-year Husker defensive line coach, saw no reason to celebrate the progress made under his watch after Nebraska’s fifth spring practice Wednesday.
“Everybody has to establish themselves. Nobody’s proven anything,” Tuioti said. “In the last three years, we talked about our group as well — (veterans) Thomas, Stille — we haven’t achieved what we’ve wanted to. This is going into my third year, and every single day it burns me that we’re not where we’re supposed to be yet right now. That’s the kind of chip I have on my shoulder and my guys know that.”
As he spoke, Rogers and Robinson walked by Tuioti’s interview station, looked at their coach and flexed their arms, smiling after a hard morning’s work.
“I love them boys. They work hard,” Tuioti said after acknowledging them. “They already know that. They haven’t earned anything. Did they play good? Yes, they played pretty good, but not good enough.”
Consider Rogers, a sophomore from Syracuse, New York. He broke through in 2020, ascending into essentially a full-time role in 2020 alongside Robinson and became one of the most promising young players in the program. On Wednesday, he did not sound like a player who’s assuming that means much of anything at this point.
“To a football player, reps are probably the most important thing you can get,” he said. “It’s tough, because I love Ty to death, but I want all of his reps. I bet it’s the same way for him. We have a lot of guys in our room and we all want to up our game, but you’ve got to deserve those reps, you’ve got to go out and show that you’ve earned those reps.”
Nebraska made steady progress against the run last fall, turning in particularly promising performances against Iowa (129 yards on 45 carries) and Rutgers (130 on 33). They mustered game-deciding pressure on Penn State quarterback Will Levis down the stretch in a victory against the Nittany Lions.
In the end, though, Tuioti is more concentrated on what his group and Nebraska have yet to achieve.
“I haven’t been happy the past two years,” he said. “I love it here, but I haven’t been happy the past two years because I know we can do better. We can fix that by how we attack and approach meetings, how we attack and approach practice.
“To have a good practice means you have to practice great in all of the individual periods. You can’t just wait for the last period and try to win and say practice was good. It’s got to start with meetings. That’s an hour and a half before practice. It’s got to start with walk-throughs. That’s before practice. And then even the post-practice stuff. There’s plenty of opportunities to grow and get better at (it), and I think that our guys have that mindset now.”
Nebraska’s defensive line has grown steadily since Tuioti joined the staff in February 2019. The rotation could be a deep one in 2021 if any of the young players in the room — Nash Hutmacher, Mosai Newsom and Marquis Black come to mind — show the ability to join the established rotation this fall.
In the meantime, Tuioti will continue operating as if the group is starting from square one.
“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder. We definitely have a lot to prove. I have a lot to prove as a coach,” he said. “We have a lot to prove as a program. So every single day when we come out to practice, we’re not try to waste a single one of these opportunities. …
“Tomorrow’s not promised and all we can do is do our best today. Even next season’s not promised. All I’m focusing on is what we can do today and starting off with practice five, which is the most important day of football.”