I got a sense of urgency from offensive coaches this week. I got a different vibe from defensive coaches (and the players we spoke with), particularly from defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. After about 10 minutes with the leader of the Blackshirts, I thought to myself, “He looked confident.” If there’s one side of the ball dealing with more stress in its approach to the new season, it’s certainly not the defense.
Nebraska’s offense needs to fix what has ailed it. Nebraska’s defense needs to build on what it has grown. Big difference.
Mind you, “build” is emphasized a bit there; Nebraska hasn’t arrived as a defense yet, and maybe I’m the only one who read comments from Chinander and others in this same way, but the Blackshirts hit all the right notes this week.
First, on Monday, it was nickel linebacker JoJo Domann answering what the expectation should be of the 2021 Blackshirts:
“We’re not invincible,” he said. “We’re going to get beat out there. But the way we rally and the way we hold down the fort and help control the game for our offense—getting more three-and-outs, forcing more turnovers, and making the game easier on them and giving them more opportunities to score—that’s what you’re going to see from us.”
Then, it was defensive backs coach Travis Fisher on Wednesday, answering a sequence of questions about creating turnovers and turning down interest from other programs.
“I want to lead the country in takeaways. That’s the goal. It’s on paper, it’s in the room, and that’s the day one meeting,” Fisher said. “And limiting explosive plays down the field. We want to be No. 1 in the country at limiting explosive plays, that’s plays 15-yards-plus.
“… I want to be the top secondary in the country. Here. At this school. I think I’ve got guys that can do it. I really do. I believe in the guys that I coach. I believe in the staff and the direction we’re going as a staff, as a team, and just this secondary. Those kids are good football players, and I think those guys can be some of the top guys in the country this year.”
This is where we pause, and for most who have lived the same song and dance for seemingly years at this point, this is where you cringe. There’s a gag reflex. It’s understandable. Proclamations in the spring fizzle in the fall. Nebraska wins the preseason and then takes Ls when the actual games begin. I get it.
For a few reasons, the defensive mentality right now seems a little different, and in a very encouraging way.
No. 1, there are actionable steps toward attainable goals that would add up to the big pie-in-the-sky best-case scenario. Domann mentioned takeaways. Fisher said he wants to lead the country in that category. Chinander said two a game.
Twenty-three programs averaged two takeaways a game last season. Arizona State led the country with 3.25 per contest. Twelve programs did it in 2019, with Florida Atlantic’s 2.36 pacing the pack. Fifteen programs did it in 2018, with Utah State’s 2.46 leading the country.
Get to two, you’re in an exclusive club. That’s the point.
Nebraska averaged 0.88 last season. “There were some balls that touched our hands that we should have picked (off), and I wasn’t totally happy with that,” Fisher said of a group he felt made plays but left plenty more out on the field. Nebraska averaged 1.75 takeaways in 2019 and 1.67 in 2018.
Two doesn’t seem unattainable.
Chinander spelled out a few other areas as well.
“If you look at what we had going on last year, the missed tackles were down from 11-something down to eight-something per game,” Chinander said. “If you can get that down a little lower and you can hold teams… I think we were giving up about five explosives a game last year, if you can get that down to a couple and you can find a way to create two or more turnovers a game, those are real improvements.”
Without knowing what Chinander’s categorization of explosives is, I’ll offer this: Nebraska gave up an average of 4.6 plays each game last year that gained at least 20 yards. It gave up an average of 7.3 plays each game that gained at least 15 yards. In terms of explosive play rate (10-plus runs, 15-plus passes; a bit more illustrative of ability), Nebraska ranked 41st nationally at about 14%.
Whatever way you slice it, Nebraska can be better here, too. And Chinander’s first point about missed tackles directly ties the two together. Typically, a big play is born either from a missed tackle or a missed assignment. Get more clinical with your tackling and you can help yourself in a number of areas.
Domann talked about third down. Nebraska made great strides down the back half of the 2020 season at both forcing longer third downs and preventing conversions on them. Get into advantageous situations for the defense more often and you create an environment more conducive to forcing turnovers.
While it’s important not to forget the run defense, I wonder how much of that mountain Nebraska has left to scale for the time being. They were significantly improved last season from a yards-per-carry standpoint—4.17 (56th) down from 4.82 (102nd) and 5.00 (107th) the previous two years—and held up well in short-yardage situations.
Do you want a top-25 run defense? Sure. Though, the difference between Nebraska at No. 56 and UCLA at No. 25 was 0.57 yards per carry. Not like they have to cut their averages in half to reach an arbitrarily “good” mark. How much help could the other two phases of the game provide the Blackshirts in that regard? A lot, I’d think.
NU had one of the 30 worst starting field position averages on defense and saw the run on a higher percentage of plays than all but 28 other defenses. Maybe if Nebraska had a lead to play with more often…
Cut down on the missed tackles, be a little more opportunistic with your takeaway opportunities (Nebraska broke up 25 pass attempts and intercepted five balls), and hold the line up front… seems like a pretty clear path toward a pretty good defense.
And when I say clear, I don’t mean its easy.
“You can expect a lot of improvement, but you have to put it in front of the guys in obtainable situations and if you can break it down as small as you can and try to accomplish those goals, then a lot of improvement is very reachable,” Chinander said. “I’m looking at the little things first, looking through the microscope, and then hopefully that grows into something huge throughout the season.”
Now, the second reason why this vibe feels different: it’s not a promise, it’s a bar being set.
Travis Fisher didn’t come out and say Nebraska is going to have the best secondary in the country, he said it could get there. He didn’t say Nebraska would lead the country in takeaways, he said they could. Chinander didn’t say Nebraska was going to do X, Y, and Z, he said those were the goals.
There was confidence and yet no “you’re going to adjust to us” statements to be found.
And to that confidence, I say show more.
This is Nebraska. The Blackshirt tradition is not to aim to be average while the offense carries you to wins. The Blackshirt tradition is to be the best. Not in your division, not in your conference, but in the country.
If this defensive coaching staff has confidence the talent on hand can get there if they accomplish goals X, Y, and Z, then let’s hear it. It’s important the group attacks spring ball with the same fire the offense is—no room for relaxation on the field—but it feels equally important they know the plan of attack and they know the staff has confidence in their ability to execute that plan.