When Nebraska opened spring ball, and the Huskers took the practice field for the first time with new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, they lined up to do a tackling drill that’s a staple “teaching progression” in Diaco’s system.
“To say alarming would be an understatement,” Diaco said of what he saw.
The tackling wasn’t anywhere near what he expected to see. Not the form, not the execution, not the results. And he could tell, as he grilled his new players on fixing what had become a broken technique, he could tell they were getting frustrated.
“My heart went out to them,” he said. “They were so incredibly frustrated.”
Tuesday night after practice, Diaco shared a story he had been told, but wasn’t around to actually confirm about a mandate sent from the Nebraska administration – not the coaching staff – about how the Huskers would tackle, using a rugby-style technique developed by Atavus.
“Mandated to the defensive staff was a tackling fundamental teaching progression, that they were going to tackle that way, mandated from the administration,” he said. “So, the tackling really degenerated so when you think about it, you think about a player showing up here who’s a really great tackler and then becomes a worse tackler, that doesn’t make any sense.
“So I had no idea until we went to our tackling drill on the first full-padded practice of spring football and found that the players were spectacularly frustrated during the drill because they’re willing, talented enough to tackle, tough enough to tackle, they’re willing players, they want to do well but they don’t fundamentally know anymore how to tackle at all.”
So, tackling has been a key part of every single day since, every single practice. Diaco said the team has focused hard on reteaching how to properly tackle. It’s something that takes time, he said, and it’s something that starts to add a little more clarity to his comments made after the Huskers’ 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern.
“We’ve worked hard on tackling,” he said. “And you’re going to work at tackling but this has been an over-emphasis, one that I didn’t – me personally – anticipate having to make at the level we’ve had to make it.”
Missed tackles have been an issue all season. Players like cornerback Lamar Jackson have been heavily criticized for poor tackling technique. It’s part of the issue that has led the Huskers’ run defense down into the basement of the Big Ten – not the main issue, gap assignments and busts have played a role as well – but, over the time Diaco has been here, he has seen substantial improvement.
“I think the tackling is coming on,” he said. “You see some more knock-back tackling happening. … You see [linebacker] Marcus [Newby]’s tackle, was a beautiful tackle. [Linebacker] Alex Davis had a couple of nice tackles. You see [linebacker] Chris Weber has had a couple of really nice knock-back tackles. And you saw, two games ago, for sure the last few games even, you’ve seen Lamar more physically tackle on the perimeter.”
Diaco said that in building his defense, there’s a process the players have to go through. There’s a physical one, a mental, a spiritual and a skill one. Right now, the Huskers are still in the skill development process.
“Defending, as I pointed out, it’s not fun to say, it doesn’t make it any less real, but it is a process and it is a year-long process and, like I said, it is a ‘years’ process to get the defense built back to being great,” Diaco said. “We’ve seen moments of greatness and we’ve seen moments of poor play and even with that … we want the game to end and just try to figure out a way defensively this year that they can have one less point than we have. And that’s been very hard to do in the games, the way that they’ve gone, very, very hard to do.”
What does Diaco need to get things back on the right track? Time.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Definitely, definitely, definitely a full cycle. … They need a full cycle of strength conditioning, nutritional conditioning, intellectual conditioning, more skill development.”
Diaco stressed that throughout his tenure, there has been a history of significant improvement from year one to year two, both in terms of aesthetic and outcome.
“There’s no doubt what we’re going to become,” he said. “It’s proven. We’ve done it before. It is the course of things. What everyone’s expectations are about what it should look like, I respect and I understand the sensitivity of the moment. And, as I’ve said, seniors it’s magnified times 100. So, I understand the now piece. It’s just not real.”
He said he has yet to speak with new athletic director Bill Moos about timelines or anything like that, but he feels like Moos is someone who understands what it will take to get the program back on the right path. Several times, Diaco referenced a common denominator. He didn’t say exactly what it was, and he offered a disclaimer that he’s not a Nebraska football historian, but if you look back over the last 12 years of Husker football, there has been a common denominator in the path the program has taken to where it is now.
“With all the changes that have happened over the, let’s say, dozen years, there is one consistent thing and that’s the team, but all these other pieces have changed, so what are the common denominators that have created this team that looks the same?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically. “So, obviously the leadership has done a beautiful job of trying to begin the process of those corrections and they all relate to defending. It manifests itself on defense most, visually.”
That’s where Diaco comes in.
“I don’t want to be anywhere else,” he said. “I love this place, I love the players, I love the people, I love the university, I love how important football is to everyone, I love that even though sometimes it feels a little attacking, I wouldn’t have it any other way personally, and like I said, I never want to be anywhere else doing anything other than trying to win championships here and play great defense.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.