Learn to play defense the Bo Pelini way

Let’s say you’re one of the 50 best high school linebackers in the country. You’re 6-2, 210-pounds, and covered in fast-twitch muscles. Because of that, football’s always been easy. Find the ball and go get it. Violently.

At age 18 you’re already better at being a linebacker than most people will ever be at anything. In February, you decided to play your college football at Nebraska. They sent out your off-season workout packet and you’ve dutifully done them, day in and day out, for the past six months. During that time, you’ve convinced yourself that, despite the odds, you’re going to play right away. You’ve put in the work. You’ve got the talent. You’re different. You’re going to wear a Blackshirt before the season’s over.

You show up on campus, get your dorm room in some sort of livable shape, get your class schedule, get your gear. It’s a whirlwind but football practice is on the horizon, a known after a few straight days of newness. You played at one of the best high school programs in the country. You know the game of football better than 95-percent of the population. But at your first practice it quickly becomes apparent that you don’t know much about football at all.

At your first practice, you get something like this.*

That’s Bo Pelini’s defensive install manual, culled from the somewhat strange but fascinating world of coaching websites and message boards. It’s a few years old and might not be totally current but it does offer an interesting peek inside the Blackshirts huddle. If you like to get really deep on Xs and Os, this will provide some excellent blizzard reading while you’re holed up in your Husker home over the next couple of days.

Since I’m assuming most of you don’t, here’s some notes and observations after spending a couple of hours reading it:

1. It’s a lot. Flip through the pages and just look at all the various terms and sets. It wouldn’t seem quite as much like a foreign language to a high school football player, depending on what level he played at and what camps he attended, but it would definitely come faster and in greater volume than he’s used to. According to at least one source — no doubt gleaned from another coaching conference — Pelini will install his entire defense in one day. Based on my conversations with the staff, it’s not just one day but it’s not weeks either. There’s simply not time to spend weeks on it.

Once you really look at it, you see there’s a ton of effort put into simplifying this massive amount of information. Eventually, you’ve got to have it all in your head, but everything is based off the offensive alignment — more specifically, the number of backs and tight ends — which eliminates a lot of your options on a play-by-play basis. But you’ve still got to be ready for every set.

If you’ve ever asked why it’s hard for young players to see the field early, this offers numerous clues.

2. Linebackers are the key. Pelini expects a lot of them and seems to take a lot of pride in their play. From page 4:

I will preach, teach and demand effort in every aspect of football and in the classroom. The linebackers will set the “effort bar” for everyone in the country. This culture will lead to an increase in turnovers and a decrease in big plays.

That makes 2013, where the Huskers will have one linebacker back with meaningful game experience, pretty interesting.

3. Why is everything so hectic for Nebraska pre-snap? Pointing, signaling, yelling. It’s a question Husker fans ask frequently. All teams do it but Nebraska seems to do it more than most. That’s by design. From page 17:

After identifying the formation MLB sets the front & the constant communication begins. It is the LB’s job to have the D-line & Secondary on the same page.

…It is a crime if we don’t communicate with our teammates to make sure we’re on the same page.

A crime. That’s one explanation for the frantic pre-snap gesturing.

4. Another explanation can be found under the “Alignment” section. One of the criticisms some people like to lob at Pelini is that he’s too precise, that he’s seeking the perfect defense for every possible situation rather than just letting players make plays. Right or wrong, that too is part of the philosophy outlined in the manual. From page 18:

We always say align for success. We are so precise in our alignments because football is a game of inches. With that being said, a correct alignment can spell the difference in making a play or not. Our linebackers are on a string, if there is motion you will see them all moving on a string.

5. Tackling. The oft-cited reason Nebraska has struggled to tackle in games recently is because it rarely tackles in practice. That theory shows up here too on page 24:

During the course of a day we don’t get many one on one full tackles. We try to see how many times our players can “CTB” get in tackling position and tag off on the hip.

There’s a ton more to be gleaned from this, but we’ll keep it (relatively) short for now. It’s important to remember that context matters too. Reading a text book is drastically different than having a teacher.

But if you’ve ever had questions about the Pelini scheme, and many do, the odds are good that an answer, or at least the beginnings of an answer, are in there somewhere.

* Update (2/21) 8:36 a.m. To clear up any confusion, we’ve replaced the pdf preview of the document with a link to the original.