LINCOLN — Garrett Nelson's eyes sparkle. His breathing gets heavy and a grin creeps across his face.
All this in response to a question about how it feels to be earning a larger role as a Husker.
Nelson, a true freshman from Scottsbluff, saw 13 snaps at outside linebacker against Northern Illinois. He was added to the kickoff unit. He made two of his three career tackles Saturday.
"It's a blast, man," Nelson said. "Doing my job, making plays. Once those things start coming, I can't imagine the fun I'm going to have."
Nelson said his playing time has been what he hoped it would be when he enrolled early and got to work. He was up to 255 pounds in the spring, but had added so much muscle so quickly that he needed to lean up a bit and learn how to move again. Now he's around 245, learning week by week what it takes to be successful in college football.
Ever a perfectionist, Nelson points to older players like senior Reid Karel and junior Eli Sullivan as guys "like GAs" who have helped hold him accountable and set daily standards. The goals of the defense at large, he said, are even loftier.
"I don't even know how many rushing yards NIU had but it was too many," Nelson said (it was 74). "That's not good enough for us. We want to stonewall guys every single play. We don't want them to get a yard."
Illinois RB among best in conference
In a running back-rich conference like the Big Ten, Nebraska coaches believe Illini tailback Reggie Corbin might be the best.
He’s averaging 7.5 yards per carry through three weeks.
“He can cut on a dime, he’s fast, he’s hard to tackle, he can do a lot of things in the pass game,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “And they do a nice job of, when there’s two backs in the backfield, not giving him the football and not making him the back, but he’ll go block willingly and go be the lead block too.”
Inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said Corbin might be the best back Nebraska will face this year.
“He’s got a great ability to test your leverage — he can bounce the ball outside — and he blocks for guys, too,” Ruud said. “He’s a complete running back.”
Tackling a back like Corbin, Ruud said, comes down to knowing a teammate’s help might be coming and having a plan on a tackle.
Defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said the Huskers will have to keep regular tabs on Corbin.
"He's probably one of the best backs we have in the conference, I believe, especially on our side," Tuioti said of the 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior. "We're up for the challenge; we're looking forward to it. We just have to make sure we do a good job, all 11 guys understanding where he's at."
In Game 1, Corbin got just six carries for 36 yards. He missed Game 2 after a big hit against Akron. He returned for 18 carries for 144 yards and one touchdown against Eastern Michigan.
Last year in Lincoln, Corbin had 59 yards on the ground on nine carries.
Stuffed at goal line
Nebraska’s goal line stand continues to be a talking point around Memorial Stadium.
Chinander said he wasn’t necessarily pleased Northern Illinois got all the way down to the 1-yard line. But once they got there, he liked that Nebraska stuffed the Huskies. Especially because there were backups on that fourth-and-1.
“You had Damion Daniels in there, and then Eli Sullivan gets put in the football game, so not only is it big scheme wise, but its big for our confidence,” Chinander said. “Some players that are not ‘starters’ out there making big time plays, so the trust in those guys, the confidence in those guys, the confidence we can be put in any situation and get the job done, it was huge for our team.”
Chinander wants turnovers.
He’s gotten them so far. Nebraska has forced 10 through three games, which is tied for third in the country.
“The guys are embracing that that’s important to our staff,” Chinander said.
At this point last year, Chinander’s defense had only caused three turnovers.
“I’m happy its happening, I hope it keeps happening,” Chinander said. “Knock on wood we don’t talk about it too much in the media here and then all of a sudden it stops.”
» Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said NU’s corners — Lamar Jackson, Dicaprio Bootle and Braxton Clark — played well in Saturday’s 44-8 win over Northern Illinois.
» Fisher found a negative in the final play of NU's goal-line stand against Northern Illinois. "Needed an interception on that play," Fisher said, noting the standards of his group. "... That's a good play, but we need a pick on that play."
» Though Ruud wouldn’t reveal the tweaks, Nebraska’s defense has been helped by the arrival of Tuioti as defensive line coach, who has “helped us fix some of the issues” that came up in 2018.
» Nebraska's rotation of inside linebackers continues to be optimal, Ruud said. Mo Barry (52 snaps), Collin Miller (47) and Will Honas (44) continued to split their workload fairly evenly, with reserves Chris Cassidy and Joseph Johnson (nine apiece) also getting in late against NIU. That cooperation and versatility will be even more important as NU embarks on Big Ten play.
"It's really hard to play a full season with one or two guys always playing 85 or 90 snaps a game," Ruud said. "So having the ability to rotate guys in is going to be huge for us."