Everything starts in the trenches in football, and the battle between the lines in practice has been fierce all spring long from what the coaches have said.
The defensive line was somewhat underwhelming in Year 1 under Scott Frost, but most of that group is back and a key graduate transfer has added some extra juice to that room. Defensive line coach Mike Dawson departed in February but from all reports, Tony Tuioti hasn’t missed a beat.
“Tony and the things that he’s teaching those guys, they’re playing better, they’re playing a heck of a lot better from last spring,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said. “Now, they have more knowledge of what they’re doing, they have discipline, they’re playing more fronts — they’re changing up their fronts. So they’re playing, overall, better. I have a quote — it’s more of a verse that a live by: ‘one man learns from another as Iron sharpens iron.’ We have it up in our room, so I expect the O-line and the D-line to sharpen one another.
“The better they get, the better we get. The better we get, the better they get. There’s always a healthy competition that goes on. I’m really, really enjoying watching the battles. I enjoy seeing us get beat and seeing what our response is. And then I enjoy kicking their asses and seeing what happens; what do they do? Do they come back the next play even more on fire and more ready to get after it or is it stick my tail between my legs? That’s been fun to see over spring, that’s been really fun to see, the battles between the O-line and D-line and it hasn’t been like that until just now.”
The feeling — and the mantra — is mutual across the line of scrimmage.
“I think we’re getting great competition up front,” Tuioti said. “It’s been great all year. Coach Greg Austin does a great job with his guys up front. The battle’s been going back and forth. It’s like we talk about all the time — iron sharpens iron. Good on good reps, that’s the only way we’re going to get better.”
In fact, those battles have spilled over past the whistle from time to time. The coaches certainly aren’t complaining about the skirmishes, though.
“What’s the worse that could happen?” Austin quipped. “You’ve got pads on.”
“From time to time, you’re going to finish a guy and he’s going to get all agitated and push you a little bit and you’re going to give a little something back,” Austin continued. “That’s normal. You should have some battles, you should have some little fights.”
Austin said the Huskers got into a few skirmishes last week because the offensive players finished a few blocks and the defensive ones took exception. That’s what he wants to see. What he doesn’t want to see is a team ready to fight at the drop of a hat, and that hasn’t been the case this spring.
“I love it,” Tuioti said. “I think when the guys are really trying to compete, it happens. Sometimes it’s like brothers versus brothers. You can get mad at each other, punch each other, but you still love each other when you get back in the locker room and that’s what it’s been. When the passion is right and everybody’s trying to compete to get the best out of each other, that shows up every now and then.”
Tuioti said he enjoys having players with that kind of passion. His job is to channel that into winning football plays.
“I’d rather have it be that way where they’re just aggressive all the time,” Tuioti said. “We can always teach them later that there’s a time and a place for all that stuff. We’ve just got to make sure we channel that energy the right way. Play the game within the whistle. Have that aggression, play as hard as we can, as fast as we can, as long as we can within the whistle and we’ll be all right.”
For the Blackshirts, the defensive line has to be the group that sets the tone up front while the back eight rallies behind them. Sophomore defensive back Cam Taylor said that’s the direction in which the group is heading this spring.
“They’re getting back there,” Taylor said. “They’re going to get back there. I 100 percent believe now we’ve got that dog mentality, the Blackshirt mentality that we’ve got to all rally to the ball, not just nine, not 10 but 11 people have to rally to the ball to be able to stop one person. That’s what we’ve got in our mind set. We’ve put it into competition mode — who’s going to make the tackle? So everybody’s rallying to the ball. That’s how the defensive line is — they preach it to us so we can make plays on the ball. That’s how it is as a defense.”
Tuioti said any players that get on the field and don’t rally to the ball or insert themselves into the action will quickly find themselves standing on the sideline next to their coach; those guys can’t play for the Blackshirts. Tuioti said the leaders in the room have done a good job upholding that standard.
“It starts up front and our guys take a lot of pride in doing that,” Tuioti said. “I’m just proud of the way they come out to practice each and every day. Darrion Daniels does an awesome job trying to set that tone. We’ve got vocal leaders and we’ve got some quiet leaders, and Ben Stille is one of those quiet leaders that has been great for us. He’s been consistent. He’s like the north star that’s always there — consistent and I don’t have to worry about him. It’s great to have those kinds of leaders. Is he a vocal guy? No, but when he speaks everybody’s going to listen and it’s great to have those type of guys.
“We’ve got different types of leaders in the room but one thing is they all buy into what we’re trying to do up front. We’ve got to set the tone and be accountable because if we’re not strong up front, if we can’t get after the quarterback when we need to, then we’re going to be playing defense all day long. We don’t want to play a to of defense. We want to get the ball back and I want to watch Adrian Martinez and the offense score the ball a lot.”
On Saturday, the trench warfare will take to the field at Memorial Stadium as both lines will get the chance to showcase what they’ve been working on in front of 90,000 fans.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.