Nebraska had its best practice of the spring on Tuesday, according to head coach Scott Frost.
The biggest challenge, he said, would be matching the energy of that practice for the remainder of the workouts this spring. The defense had a little difficulty getting to that level on Thursday.
“We had a competition day the last time we were out on the field,” Chinander said. “I thought the energy was a little better on Tuesday. Little bit less today, so we need to ramp that thing up. The kids need to understand that it doesn’t matter if it’s competition, scrimmage, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. It’s always on the line every time we walk on the field.”
Other than nose tackle, outside linebacker might be the most important position in any 3-4 defense. Their main roles are both rushing the quarterback and covering receivers down the field.
Nebraska has some capable players working out at this position who are making progress.
“Those guys are coming along nicely,” Chinander said. “They’re kind of learning the scheme, what they need to do in this defense. I think they’re making some good strides.”
Senior Luke Gifford is still out for the spring as he recovers from hip surgery.
Outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt, who spoke for the first time this spring, said guys like juniors Alex Davis and Tyrin Furgeson are learning how to play outside LB on both the field and boundary side, while also learning to how to play better pass coverage.
“You’ve got a guy like (Furgeson) who’s got a natural skill set out in space and maybe not quite as natural of a pass rusher, so he gets a little bit of extra work in terms of individual time in pre-practice or post practice to work on individual things that he doesn’t have a natural skill set for.”
Sophomore Breon Dixon, who came to Nebraska from Ole Miss in January, has been working out at linebacker with the team this spring, but his eligibility in 2018 remains up in the air as he waits to see if the NCAA will grant him a waiver, deeming him eligible.
“(Dixon) does a good job in terms of coverage and things like that,” Dewitt said, “because he’s got a natural coverage set and skill out in space that he does a really good job with. He’s doing really well.”
In terms of inside LB, Barrett Ruud pointed out four players who have separated themselves in the early going, along with four guys who Ruud says “need to play a little catch-up.”
Senior Dedrick Young, juniors Mohamed Barry, Will Honas, and sophomore Avery Roberts are the top four among inside LBs, while redshirt freshmen Andrew Ward and Willie Hampton are two of the four players playing “catch-up.”
“(Junior) Jacob Weinmaster is doing a great job,” Ruud said. “He’s a guy we’re probably going to have to count on at some point this year.”
Scott Frost pointed out on Tuesday that sophomores Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke have shown big play capability in the secondary. There’s also two players that can be moved around at either cornerback or safety.
When it comes to the corners in particular, Chinander likes what he sees so far.
“Lamar Jackson is doing some nice things,” Chinander said. “Once he uses what God gave him a little bit, those long levers, he can press and all those kind of things. DiCaprio Bootle is playing really well right now. Ethan Cox has kind of come out of nowhere and is playing some good football. Eric Lee is playing some good football. Tony Butler is learning the system and getting some of those things down. Once he learns to use his long arms to do some of the things we want him to do, he’ll be okay.”
Cox is a redshirt freshman walk-on from Blair, NE who hasn’t played yet. That’ll be a nice bonus for the Nebraska defense if he can provide depth at a position the Huskers struggled mightily with last season.
Frost talked in length Tuesday about his methods of teaching tackling, and why it’s important to him. Not surprisingly, Chinander aligns with those beliefs.
“If I didn’t believe what (Frost) believes, I would either fall in line or go somewhere else,” Chinander said. “Fortunately, we’re aligned perfectly. He has a great passion for tackling, because he learned how to do it in the NFL. He was, in his own words, a very average tackler when he got to the NFL, and then he got taught how to do it correctly.
“We believe in not breaking down at the ball carrier. We believe in running to and through the ball carrier. He has a great saying, ‘Long stride, short stride, shuffle and shoot.’ Like he says with everything, we’re not afraid to fail. If we miss tackles, we’re going to miss them at 100 miles per hour with proper leverage bouncing that thing around and the rest of the dogs are going to hunt.”
Chinander admitted that the defense’s tackling was “not good” through the first handful of practices, but sees them slowly starting to adapt to it and are becoming less afraid of making the big play.
The Honas hype has been swirling all spring, and likely won’t stop anytime soon. The junior linebacker got yet another solid review on Thursday.
“He looks like every other really good junior college player that we’ve got,” Chinander said. “That we’ve ever had. Wherever we’ve been. Those guys are usually better full-pad players than in their underwear (half-pads). They don’t do that very well right away, because they just don’t do that at their junior college or their high school. So, that’s a hard adjustment, but once we get the full pads on and they can really let themselves go, they seem to rise to the top a little bit.
“(Will) has a ways to go learning the system, but he’s doing some nice things technique-wise and also physically.”
The senior nose tackle missed practice again on Thursday with an undisclosed injury. With the leader at that position temporarily sidelined, a few others have seen reps in the middle of the defensive line.
Senior Peyton Newell, who hasn’t seen much playing time thus far in his career, has been getting some work at nose guard.
Chinander was asked about his expectations of the entire defense, and if they’re perhaps further along than he thought they’d be six practices in.
While he admitted to having no real expectations going in, Chinander has run into one surprise early on this spring.
“I don’t think we’re the defense I heard about,” Chinander said, referring to the 2017 group. “If that makes sense. I think we’re ahead of that curve a little bit.”
Nebraska will practice again on Saturday.
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