Fixing Nebraska's Defense Starts with Improved Communication
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Fixing Nebraska’s Defense Starts with Improved Communication

November 13, 2019

This season has been filled with things both large and small that Nebraska needs to clean up. That’s how you get to 4-5 with three games left while fighting for your bowl lives. There are three games this season that could have had different results. If only the Huskers got off the field on third down. 

Derek Peterson dove into this on his Sunday column and the numbers are jarring:

Nebraska is 88th nationally in opponent conversion rate on third down. Opponents are getting 41.9 percent of the third downs they face. Purdue’s average distance to gain was 7.4 yards. Indiana’s average distance to gain was 7.2. Both hit above a 50% clip. Nebraska’s average distance on third was 3.8 yards against Indiana and it posted a lower third-down conversion clip.

As Peterson concluded, communication is a fundamental issue for Nebraska’s defense. There are many examples this season of the Huskers’ defense looking confused at the snap. Or where a simple motion causes the group to be disjointed. One of the buzz phrases around here for the last two seasons has been “run fits.” I set out to find out how communication plays a role into guys fitting the run and reading plays.

“That’s the biggest thing. People don’t understand that in run fits, you have safeties and corners in it, too,” senior captain Mohamed Barry said on Monday. “You could have someone on the other side of the formation in the run fit. So, communication is the biggest thing. We could have a different coverage or something that tells someone he has to be in this gap instead of another gap. Or he has to spill instead of lever. 

“That’s the biggest thing. I agree that it’s something we have to get better at. Communication matters because that’s how you know who is working with you or not working with you.”

Barry’s position coach, Barrett Ruud, echoed those sentiments on Tuesday. I asked him about communication’s role in improving Nebraska’s third down defense. 

“I think that’s always one of the first things you look at,” Ruud explained. “Not only on third down but any time you give up something on defense. Was the communication right? Did this guy know exactly what he was supposed to be doing? A lot of times third down, coverage-wise specifically, you’ve got extra communication involved. You may be doubling a route, playing a coverage to a certain look. From a coverage standpoint specifically, third-downs are very important.”

It's not a secret that communication is a problem. After the Indiana game Barry called that game the team’s worst in terms of communication. On Monday he said that part of fixing that issue is that everyone must stress communication. Ruud believes it all starts in practice. 

“With defense, good defenses find a way to fix their problems,” Ruud said. “It’s about detailing it in practice. Beating it in those guys’ heads. You can’t line up without knowing exactly what you are going to do. You won’t know unless you talk about it and communicate it. It’s on us [coaches] to make to sure they are in the right stuff and calls. In practice they have to execute it by talking about it on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.“ 

There is only so much you can do in-season to fix things like adding speed to your group or improving the pass rush. Nebraska must get better at controlling things it can control. How much and how well the defense communicates has nothing to do with which opponent they are playing. It must improve if the Huskers hope to get key stops to win games. 

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