No matter the position group, there are always moving pieces in Nebraska’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme.
With players rotating in and out while others move around the formation, the Nebraska defense aims to confuse opposing offenses. Each position has unique roles and responsibilities in this defensive setup — and the most important of them all might just be the “Jack” linebacker.
Nebraska lost some of its depth at the spot with freshman Maverick Noonan ruled out for the rest of the season, but three other players have spent most of fall camp working as a Jack. MJ Sherman, Chief Borders and Jimari Butler are the likely contributors at Jack linebacker — and they’re all enjoying their role in the defense so far.
“We can disguise like we’re playing inside linebacker, walk down on the edge and rush the quarterback or we can disguise like we’re going out to cover,” Borders said of the Jack linebacker role. “You can do a lot of things, rush from the boundary or rush from the field; we coming from all over, baby.”
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A heavy focus during the spring for linebackers coach Rob Dvoracek was making sure his players not only understood all three linebacker roles, but that they could also fill in at any spot if needed. That focus has since faded as players gained the overall knowledge of the system and quickly settled into spots that fit their skills best.
At Jack, size is a must — and it’s why Nebraska’s three prospective starters all have nearly identical builds. Borders and Butler are both listed at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, while Sherman stands at 6-3 and 250 pounds.
There’s also a lot of movement in the world of a Jack linebacker. As Borders alluded to, crashing off the edge in a pass-rushing situation is a key responsibility of the Jack — but defenses won’t be surprised if they do the same thing on every snap. Being able to seal the edge on rushing plays, drop into coverage and fight off blocks from a tight end are also skills that a Jack linebacker needs.
In the spring, Butler spoke positively about how he was developing his coverage skills in order to fit into the role. As a result of Nebraska’s offseason conditioning and nutrition programs, Butler said Friday he’s “feeling better than I have since I’ve been here.” Those physical changes and on-field improvements have allowed Butler to fly around the field both vertically and sideline-to-sideline — just like a good Jack should.
“It plays to my strengths but it also helps me work on my weaknesses because I’m not just a pass rusher,” Butler said of the role. “I’m everywhere, I’m doing everything and I like that. It’s given me a chance to get to the ball in ways I never could have imagined.”
While Borders (Florida) and Sherman (Georgia) both spent several seasons at SEC programs, they never quite cracked the starting rotation. Butler, on the other hand, played just under 90 snaps as a rotational pass rusher for the Huskers last season. A new scheme and new coaching staff meant a slight transition for Butler in the spring, but after several months spent learning, the sophomore’s growth has impressed his position coach.
“He’s grown a lot and I think all the guys in the room have grown a lot since the spring,” Dvoracek said of Butler. “We ask a lot of them, there’s a lot that they do in the defense and all the linebacker positions are demanding, so he’s done a nice job of learning the system and playing the way that we want to play.”
While only one player will get the starting nod, it’s likely that Butler, Borders and Sherman will all play key roles in Nebraska’s 2023 defensive success. In an already unique defensive position, the Jack linebackers’ attitudes also stand out. All three prospective starters are upbeat, energetic personalities who’ve worked hard to establish a bond among themselves.
Whether it’s Borders, Butler or Sherman who eventually claims the starting role, Nebraska’s Jack linebacker will have two talented backups ready to step in and support them as needed.
“It’s a competitive effort of constructive criticism; you learn from one (rep), teach one, learn one and keep grinding,” Borders said. “We keep doing what we do best on the field — striking, (hard) hands and making sure we stay outside to keep that edge and rush the quarterback.”