The flight home from Evanston, Illinois, to Lincoln runs about an hour and 45 minutes. Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, Erik Chinander, spent that entire time thinking about what went wrong Saturday against Northwestern.
He showed the defense the game film. For 55 minutes, Nebraska held a good Wildcat offense to 14 points. The last five minutes, as head coach Scott Frost would say, changed the narrative.
So, on that flight home, Chinander was running through in his head what they could have executed better and what they could have prepared for more and what they could have called differently. He felt like the game plan was working pretty well until the end.
“They’re really, really close,” he said. “They’re getting really, really close. That’s encouraging. We have wins on the horizon, we have really good games on the horizon and the kids are finally, it seems like, turning the corner in practice and meetings with the culture of the team right now.”
Getting over the hump and actually reaching that final destination will require fixing the one or two things that continue to pop up late. Misalignments and missed assignments popped up on several occasions when the Huskers tried to go man.
Safety Aaron Williams played down in man coverage in subpackages frequently Saturday and had one of his poorest showings of the season.
“Probably we’re going to give some other kids the chance to get in there in some of those packages and play some man coverage,” Chinander said. “We need to just dial down in some of those sets. When you play man coverage in some of these sets or some of these splits that the offense gives you, it’s critical to be aligned correctly, critical and we were misaligned on some of those ones that hit us big time.”
Right now, the quarterback pressure the Huskers can, or in this case can’t, generate goes hand-in-hand with the coverage in the back half.
“You look at the pressures,” Chinander said, “it’s the safety playing off-man, are you inside leverage at 9 yards rerouting when the receiver gets there? If you do that, the pressure’s home. The blitzers, if you don’t step out instead of blowing your gap, if you don’t take that step out, you’re home. The other guy coming, if you get your hand to the throwing arm, you’re not home but he’s throwing the football away. It’s not like it’s one guy but it’s a collaboration of a whole bunch of guys.”
Going forward, Chinander said freshman corner Cam Taylor and sophomore safety Deontai Williams are two guys who could get more run at nickel in man coverage. He also mentioned freshman corner Braxton Clark, who still has three games left to play while still keeping his redshirt eligibility.
He said linebacker Luke Gifford has done a good job of getting after the quarterback, as have the Davis twins on the defensive line, Carlos and Khalil, but Nebraska needs to find more of those guys. Freshman outside linebacker Caleb Tannor has already burned his redshirt this season so maybe there’s more playing time for him in the near future.
Other News and Notes
>> Freshman corner CJ Smith was going to be looking at an increased role on the defense had he not suffered what sounds like a season-ending injury against Northwestern. Chinander said Smith was building but they’ll be without him now. He also alluded to guys like Smith, Casey Rogers and Tate Wildeman might not be back in time for spring ball.
>> Safety Antonio Reed, who was injured Saturday as well, left practice in the typical yellow jersey but no pads.
>> Deontre Thomas broke a bone in his left hand against Purdue and has seen fewer reps in practice on account of the club he’s had to wear since.
“Deontre’s got a big giant club on his hand, so it’s a little harder for him but he’s working it,” defensive line coach Mike Dawson said. “He’s had some great strides in the last two days even just kind of almost one-handed.”
Dawson said Thomas, a true sophomore, is a redshirt candidate right now and went on to offer some pretty high praise for the way he’s worked.
“He’s a guy that, for me since I got here, he’s done nothing but work his tail off and improve himself both on and off the field,” Dawson said. “He’s had a great semester in the classroom so far, I’ve been getting some great feedback that way. He’s just a guy that’s dialed in and I think wants to try to be the best that he can be.”
>> Secondary coach Travis Fisher said both JoJo Domann and Eric Lee Jr. are available again this week. Domann has been out with an injury but popped up on the travel roster for Northwestern. Lee started against Wisconsin in place of junior Lamar Jackson, but Jackson has earned that spot back.
Fisher also said Clark will be part of the game plan this week.
>> Chinander was asked who on his defense is playing winning football. His answer wasn’t necessarily surprising, but still interesting.
“[Linebacker] Mo Barry gives you the effort that you need to win. He needs to clean up some of the assignment stuff but he gives you the effort that you need to win,” Chinander said. “Luke Gifford gives you the effort you need to win. The Davis twins are playing at a high, high level right now. Antonio Reed had a great game, he’s had some games where he hasn’t, but last game before he got hurt he was playing at a high level. That pick he made was a really, really good play, the plays we need. I would say Dicaprio Bootle but he’s got too many penalties right now for me to say that.”
>> Asked what he looks for when recruiting pass rushers, Chinander was pretty quick on the trigger.
“A guy that sacks the quarterback a lot,” he said.
More seriously, Chinander wants “length, speed, ability to bend and some switch.”
“Some of the things we lack right now are one of those guys that’s very twitchy on the edge, a guy that can bend and work his hands, a guy that’s explosive,” he said. “Also you have to have some length in this league because I think the tackles are really good in the Big Ten.”
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.