Watch the hands, Husker fans.
The hands of the Blackshirts, that is. Keep an eye to see if they’ve got their head on a swivel. That’s how you’ll be able to tell if Nebraska’s young, athletic defense is communicating well.
“We’ve got 90,000 people in the stands so we got to communicate through hand signals,” Ross Els said. “The other thing is, if you see people running wide open, that’s not us. We match routes, so if there’s people running open, we’ve done something wrong.”
“Number two is seeing guys acknowledge another guy,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. If you see a guy give a hand sign of approval or tap his helmet, it says “hey, I heard what you said.”
Communication is key in Bo Pelini’s match-read defense players and coaches say. Proper lines of communication prevent busted plays, help every defender recognize his role and ultimately allow him to do his job properly. “There’s no question,” Papuchis says, that each defender has to be just as aware of his 10 teammates on the field as he does the 11 guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“Within every defense,” he said, “there’s not one thing that any defense – I don’t care how complex or not complex the defensive system is – where you can just line up and play in your own world. Very rarely does that happen.”
Opening up those lines can be challenging though with a defense like Nebraska’s which might feature up to six freshmen or first-year players on the defensive front seven. At MIKE linebacker, true freshman Josh Banderas is responsible for defensive checks, getting the defense into position and, of course, playing his own role in the middle.
“A whole key part to the defense is doing your job,” Banderas said. “That’s what coach stressed to me, was to communicate and let everybody know what their job is too.”
Banderas said you can’t really point out a line between good and poor communication. If the defense is all on the same page, the play will often work itself out.
“You just know that you have to make sure everybody is on the same page, because even if it’s the wrong defense or the wrong call is made, we all run it, you know, we can survive the down and live to play another one,” he said. “So everybody just has to be talking.”
Even with clean communications, things can get complicated with mobile quarterbacks that shift in the pocket and extend plays, like Wyoming’s Brett Smith or Brett Hundley of UCLA. Nebraska defensive backs match routes, but what happens when the route ends, and the opposing quarterback still has the ball?
Play to the whistle, Ciante Evans said. The defensive backs can’t be looking in the backfield late in the down.
“You don’t really practice it,” Evans said. “You practice extended plays, you know, with mobile quarterbacks in practice. Deep routes come forward and short routes turn into verticals. You can’t really practice it, it’s just something you have to be able to play through.”
All the players in the back seven match routes to certain degree, and it’s the job of the safeties and the MIKE linebacker to get them in the right position. The corners don’t necessarily make a lot of calls, Josh Mitchell said.
“Our safeties are our quarterbacks,” He said. “Our linebackers are also our quarterbacks, but if you see something before someone else, it’s your job to echo it to everyone.”
Even the true freshmen on defense have become more willing to speak up and make calls and checks, linebacker Zaire Anderson said. Anderson, Els and Papuchis said the willingness to communicate on defense started poorly against Wyoming, and the adjustments were “lousy.” Anderson said he can tell by how much faster during the week the defense picked up on game plans.
“I think that absolutely from Josh [Banderas], even from me, even from the young D-linemen, like Gregory,” he said. “I think everyone’s starting to speak up, everyone’s starting to get used to each other.”
A complete understanding of the communication on defense might not ever happen though, Anderson joked. Even the coaches learn more about it every day.
“With this type of defense I think you’ll never be close,” he said. “You gotta keep on reaching every day.”