The air was hot and the event was outside, but the Huskers’ defensive coordinator had shade. Erik Chinander sauntered a bit. The slacks were pressed, the black Adidas polo was crisp, the hair was perfectly coiffed. Chinander doesn’t have much to stress about right now as the summer months heat up.
During the spring, he seemed to be in good spirits. As spring camp concluded, Nebraska felt encouraged by what its defense was able to accomplish.
“This is the most excited I’ve been for a year since we’ve been here,” he told the crowd in Columbus on Wednesday, one of two stops on the day for Chinander as part of the annual Big Red Blitz tour.
A bar was waiting at their last stop Wednesday evening. While Mario Verduzco—Chinander’s football companion on the mid-week excursion—took questions about how to cure the turnover bug that has held his quarterbacks in recent years and whether he felt comfortable about the depth in his room, Chinander needed only optimism to sell to a crowd that expects big things from the Blackshirts this fall.
“We’re fortunate we’ve got a lot of young guys that have come up through the program that have a lot of eligibility left, but they’ve made great strides,” he said. “We’re really young in some spots, and then we’ve got those super-seniors back.”
Speaking of guys like safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke, linebackers JoJo Domann and Will Honas, and defensive end Ben Stille, players who used an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA as a sort of redo on a final year made unsavory by covid.
“That leadership we’ve gotten from those super-seniors… shoot, in spring football those two safeties, I couldn’t get them off the field,” Chinander continued. “I’m trying to take care of them because they’re old—they’re old guys now, they’re like 30, and I’m trying to get them off the field. I’d send these young guys in and go, ‘Get Deontai out of there,’ and he’d just wave me off. I think the rest of the team sees the attitude and the leadership those guys bring and just the love for playing football.”
In the spring, Williams and Dismuke talked about the decision to forgo a bowl game last season. You should always want to be on the field because you don’t know when your last opportunity is going to come, they argued. For the defensive seniors, their decision to return was partially about cementing the culture within the program—one of winning at all costs and not shying away from competition.
“When you don’t have that on the team, it’s really hard. I don’t care how good the players are,” Chinander said. “Rebuilding a culture with 100-plus people on the team is dirty, nasty work. You can either do it right or you can do it fast, and I think Coach (Scott Frost) has done it right.”
On defense, that has resulted in steady improvement over each of the last three years.
The run defense has improved its efficiency each year since Chinander’s arrival, jumping from 5.6 yards per run allowed in 2017 (124th nationally) to 4.2 last season (56th nationally). Nebraska improved its third-down numbers last season. Over Chinander’s three years, havoc rate has improved and depth has deepened.
This fall, Nebraska’s defense is the side of the ball with expectations.
It returns nine of its 11 starters from last year (though practically the number is eight with Will Honas injured), while the combination of recruiting wins in recent years and development has put a number of young, promising underclassmen on the cusp of playing time.
Chinander said Nick Henrich, a third-year inside linebacker was playing “as good as anybody on the football team for three weeks of spring football.” Little things here and there had him hampered for part of the period. “Those two young safeties, they’re on the cusp of becoming really good too, they’ve just got those other guys in front of them,” Chinander said, talking about Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates.
“I think the potential’s unlimited for these guys,” Chinander said. “It’s partly due to the leadership we’ve got, partly due to the people coming back, and the youth that’s being infused into this thing.
“I’m not telling them what they have to do, they’re setting those goals and they’re setting them pretty high, but if they believe they can do it we’ve got a chance.”
It’s a bit of a role reversal for Chinander’s group.
When this coaching staff first arrived, the narrative was that the offense just needed to outscore the other team. Few expected the Huskers to field a dominant defense given their fast and furious style of play.
In 2017, Central Florida allowed 27 points or more in each of its final three games. But all three were wins. The offense scored 49, 62, and 34 points. Scott Frost was the bell of the coaching ball when it came to offensive innovation.
Through three years in Lincoln, the Huskers’ scoring output has gone the opposite direction. Nebraska has offensive goals, but few know what to expect from that unit.
On defense, however, there are not only expectations but a rising standard.
Asked if he felt he’d have to fight off any stagnation or “we’ve made it” thinking within the unit, Chinander said he won’t ever coach his side differently.
“There’s always a certain standard,” he said. “The thing that happens is the kids move the standard, it doesn’t stay the same. They’re gonna move it here or they’re gonna move it here, and they’ve continually moved that standard. My job now is to hold them to that standard, to meet and exceed that thing.”
Players like Dismuke and Williams, like Domann and Stille, they aren’t satisfied with improvement from bad to OK. They expect to be great. “I know they do,” Chinander said.
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said in the spring he felt like Nebraska could one day have one of the best secondaries in college football. And perhaps that day wasn’t quite far off. Asked if he agreed, Chinander said “100%.”
“I think we’re going to figure out who shakes out at that other corner, and if we can get that thing all squared away, I think it’s pretty close,” he said.
Certainly enough talent in this defense.
“You can have all the talent you want, but if you don’t believe in yourself, it’s really hard,” Chinander said. “I think they have that belief in themselves now that we can do whatever we want to.”
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.