Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Big Red Blitz: Huskers Hit Columbus to Talk Women’s Hoops, OL Growth, a Defense Raising the Standard, and More

June 16, 2021

COLUMBUS, Neb. — Husker women’s basketball coach Amy Williams, joined by football assistant coaches Erik Chinander and Mario Verduzco, took to Columbus, Nebraska, on Wednesday to meet and engage with Husker fans as part of the Big Red Blitz tour. 

Hail Varsity will have more to follow later after in-depth conversations with the coaches, but here are some of the highlights of what they discussed.

>> Jeff Griesch, a radio commentator for Nebraska women’s basketball and the emcee of the event, kicked things off by saying Nebraska is committed to and confident it will be able to have Memorial Stadium and other fall sports venues at 100% capacity for the upcoming season. 

Nebraska has yet to announce anything official on seating capacity for upcoming fall sports, but several emcees at various spots across the state Wednesday echoed the same sentiment: Nebraska wants everyone back.

>> Griesch also urged fans at the event to follow Nebraska athletes on social media as Name, Image, and Likeness legislation inches closer to becoming a reality. “It will help them and it will help Nebraska athletics in the future,” he said.

>> Williams was first to take the mic, and said on behalf of her team that they are “so excited” to get fans back inside Pinnacle Bank Arena for the upcoming season. Awkward was the word she used to describe playing games in an empty arena with artificial crowd noise last year. 

>> With what Williams called “experienced leadership” from team captains Sam Haiby, Issie Bourne, and Kate Cain last season, Nebraska was able to return everyone from last year’s team but Cain, who graduated and moved on to the professional ranks. 

Remarkable, Williams thought, that with over 1,000 women’s basketball players in the transfer portal Nebraska hasn’t lost a single player to transfer this offseason. 

And with everyone back, plus the addition of a top-25 recruiting class that features local studs and a transfer guard from Oregon, Williams says there is a “dramatic” difference in the depth on the team. 

At points last season, Williams had seven available players on her bench in-game, both of whom were first-year players. This year, Nebraska has 16 on the roster who could all conceivably play a role. 

>> The squad has begun an eight-week summer camp already, and Williams said the message she and the rest of her coaching staff have been preaching is to “compete and connect.” Williams told me later she doesn’t want to take for granted the returning leadership, and knows that with increased competition, it could have a negative effect on a team’s culture if a player feels their skillset isn’t being used. 

So this summer is about making sure that culture within her program, led by Haiby and Bourne, remains strong. 

“A team’s culture, that’s what you do,” she told the crowd. “A team’s identity, that’s who you are.”

>> Verduzco, Nebraska’s quarterback coach, was up next. He went straight to questions from the crowd. The first, fittingly for a QB coach like Verduzco who only really likes to focus on his guys, was about the offensive line room and the running backs. 

Will they be improved this fall?

The o-line, Verduzco says “finally” looks like a Big Ten offensive line in terms of their size across the board. Albeit young, he couched, the look good up front. 

Chinander later agreed, and offered what will easily be the quote of the day across the state. His father, he said, has a saying to describe truly big guys: “eats hay and poops in the street.” That, I suppose, is Nebraska’s offensive line. 

>> Verduzco got a nice applause from the crowd when he said “take care of the damn football.” The question had been how do you cure the fumblitis starting quarterback Adrian Martinez has had over his career (27 fumbles, 15 lost). Verduzco said there’s a psychological component at play, echoing what he said in the spring. 

“He just wants to do so much too much of the time,” Verduzco said of Martinez. “Trust Chins and the guys on defense to get us the ball back.”

>> Asked about the depth in the quarterback room, Verduzco reiterated what has been the messaging since the end of spring: Nebraska is comfortable with the group. “Really comfortable,” Verduzco said directly. Part of that is improvement that Logan Smothers, a second-year guy in the room, has made. Verduzco said there was a bit of inconsistency last year in the way the release occurred each time, but they’ve worked on that. Smothers is a special runner with an innate vision to see things develop before they do, Verduzco said.

>> Chinander, Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, closed things out. With the combination of youth that has been coming up through the developmental program in recent years and the return of well-experienced seniors at the top of the depth chart, Chinander said this defense has him more excited than he’s been. 

He later said he senses no stagnation within the group after improvements made last year, and knows they have personally raised internal expectations for themselves. 

Nebraska’s pair of senior safeties, Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams—who Chinander jokingly referred to as 30-year-olds— wouldn’t come off the field in spring ball. Chinander would send subs on to replace them and the senior duo would wave them off and remain on the field. Chinander said that was important for the defense to see, that it was a tone-setter of sorts. 

“Rebuilding a culture with 100-plus people on the team can be dirty, nasty work,” he said. “You can do it right, or you can do it fast. Coach (Scott) Frost has done it right.”

>> Chinander loves the new private workout rules enacted for this summer by the NCAA. The Huskers have been able to bring individual players onto campus for specific workouts with position coaches as an attempt to make up for lost time after a 15-month dead period. Chinander said he hopes it remains a permanent thing. 

>> Asked why he’s as involved in recruiting as he is when other defensive coordinators are more hands-off, Chinander said it’s simply because he enjoys to do it and he knows that at the end of the day if things aren’t working, the burden falls on his shoulders, so he wants to make sure he’s involved in the build every step of the way, from evaluation to recruitment to development to deployment.

>> Travis Fisher has said he thinks Nebraska can have one of the best secondaries in the country under his watch. Chinander agrees. Asked how close they think they are, he said “I think we’re going to figure out who shakes out at that other corner (spot) and if we can get that all squared away, I think it’s pretty close.”

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