Nebraska completed its fourth practice of the spring on Saturday afternoon. It was the second workout in full pads.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, defensive assistants and a smattering of players on both sides of the ball were available to the media after practice.
Much like the other coaches have said after Tuesday and Thursday’s practices, Chinander likes the buy-in, energy and enthusiasm, but nailing down the technique is still going to take some time as anticipated.
“So far, I like the energy,” Chinander said. “The kids, they’re really trying. They’re buying in, they’re doing what we ask them to do, a lot of learning left to go, a lot of coaching technique-wise and just what we’re trying to get done in this scheme, but I like where they’re going.”
Chinander is Nebraska’s third different defensive coordinator in three years. The safeties have had three different coaches, while the cornerbacks have had four.
Building trust and relationships with the team has been one of the top priorities of Coach Frost’s staff since arriving.
“I think you need to get to know these kids as people before we start going too hard on them for errors and all of that kind of thing,” Chinander said. “I think our coaching staff is a really good teaching group. I think we all are so willing to travel with Coach Frost anywhere, because we believe what he believes, and that’s if we make these kids into good dads and good brothers and good sons and good husbands and good people in the community, then we’re not going to have to talk about wins and losses very much.
“So, the starting point is getting to know these kids as people and then we’ll get into the football real hard.”
Secondary coach Travis Fisher believes in building trust by showing the team how he’s taught secondary in previous stops. Fisher has previously spent four seasons at UCF and one at Southeast Missouri State.
“It’s about showing these guys,” Fisher said. “You can talk to these guys until their face turns blue, but it’s about showing them. Pop some film up of myself doing it. Pop some film up of us doing it, us being successful with it, and then pop some film up with us not being successful in it. Then usually, guys will buy in once they see both sides of it.”
Senior safety Aaron Williams said there’s some benefit to having several different coaches at his position over the years.
“Even if you don’t listen to everything they taught you, you will still use some of the stuff they taught you,” Williams said. “Then, when a new coach comes, somebody’s technique will be the same and a playing style. It’s not hard, you just have to learn how to adapt and build relationships.”
The biggest difference between this year’s defense and last year’s, Williams said, is the communication has increased significantly in the early going of 2018.
“The whole side of the field has to be on the same page,” he said. “The biggest thing right now is communication and we have to stay on top of that.”
Getting to know the team is the first step, and then changing the mind set is the second. Chinander is inheriting a defense that allowed 36.4 points (13th Big Ten) and 436.2 yards (14th Big Ten) per game last season.
“We want to get turnovers, we want to be aggressive,” Chinander said. “We want to get to the quarterback. We want to get the football out. We need to be an aggressive unit to match up with our offense. I think we just need to change the mindset. Getting guys pressed up against receivers, letting guys loose, making guys free to make plays on the football instead of letting something go over their heads.”
Nose tackle, defensive line
This position is going to be manned by senior Mick Stoltenberg again this season, but there are high hopes for sophomore Deontre Thomas, who showed strong capabilities early in the 2017 season at that position.
“So far, I’ve been really happy with those guys,” Chinander said. “We’ve got a few guys that are rotating in. (Defensive line coach Greg) Dawson is kind of playing everybody at every position so we can get a good evaluation on who should be where.
“I’m happy with it so far, but we still have to find out who’s No. 1 and No. 2, because that guy has to be the heavyweight champion of the world for us.”
Stoltenberg said playing in the 3-4 last season and getting to know the nuts and bolts of the system has helped him going into this spring.
“There’s some things that are transferring over, and also there’s a lot of things that don’t,” he said. “Some old habits. Not necessarily bad, but some old habits that wouldn’t work in this defense that we kind of need to drop and learn new things. I’ve learned a lot of different systems, and it’s kind of fun to do, and it’s exciting for me.”
Defensive line coach Mike Dawson said that Stoltenberg and Freedom Akinmoladun have provided strong senior leadership for younger players along the defensive line.
“Both of them have been pulling the group from the front,” Dawson said, “which I think is a really great trait from those guys as leaders. I’m looking forward to see them perform out on the field. They’re doing a nice job.”
Dawson also mentioned that most guys on the D-line are playing several different positions, whether it be nose, tackle or defensive end.
“If you can play multiple positions, you become more viable to the team,” Dawson said. “I want those guys learning how to play on the right side or the left side. Playing the nose would be great. The more they can play, the more they can do, the greater chance they have at seeing the field.”
Nebraska ranked No. 12 in the Big Ten last season in overall pass defense and last in pass defense efficiency. This is a position group that saw many ups and downs during the Riley era, but Chinander sees plenty of potential in both the corners and safeties.
“There’s definitely some talent there,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what they were asked to do before, but I know what we want them to do, and they’re making that transition nicely. It’s really cool to watch those guys. We got a couple of picks in practice the other day. It was very, very cool to watch those guys get excited and get on each other’s hats and understand what this thing’s about. We’re going to be some ballhawks back there.”
Chinander said junior Lamar Jackson has the capability to thrive in any defense, regardless of scheme change. His 6-foot-3, 210-pound build can make him tough to deal with in the secondary, but it’s now a matter of making him a more physical player.
“He’s got talent,” Chinander said. “He needs a little more physicality, we need to work on that, he knows it, he wants to work on that, and he’s going to be a great guy pressed up on receivers, because of the length he possesses.”
Nebraska returns a plethora of talent at this position, most notably seniors Luke Gifford (out this spring) and Dedrick Young, junior Mohamed Barry, and sophomores Ben Stille and Avery Roberts.
Junior Will Honas, who Nebraska added to the fold at the start of 2018, is also expected to make an immediate impact.
“There’s a lot of kids playing really well,” Chinander said. “I thought Mo Barry did a nice job the last couple of days. Will Honas has come in, he’s swimming in deep water a little bit being brand new to division one football and Big Ten football, but he’s done a nice job. Dedrick Young has done a nice job at that inside position. There’s a lot of guys coming along right behind them.”
The speed and tempo of practice has perhaps been the most talked-about change this spring. With that speed has come the sense of urgency.
Urgency to show the nation that last year’s record doesn’t reflect Nebraska’s standards.
“I think there’s a sense of urgency from the whole team to prove themselves,” Chinander said. “I don’t think 4-8 is where anybody wanted Nebraska Football at, and I don’t think these kids came here for that, so I think there’s a sense or urgency to do it the right way, to be held accountable, to get this thing back to where it needs to be.”
- Senior running back Devine Ozigbo said junior Greg Bell looks “very fluid” when he runs, and can be a real asset to the running back room.
- Sophomore tight end Jack Stoll said that his position group is “one of the deepest on the team” and he has faith that any of the nine TEs that see playing time will be successful, noting that Tyler Hoppes broke a school record in 2017 with 34 catches; the most receptions by a TE in Nebraska history.
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.