ATLANTA – Former Central Florida head coach George O’Leary was a buttoned-up guy, and expected the same of his players. No endless armbands, no eye-catching socks, keep you hair at football-playing length. That suited Tre Neal, a defensive back from Atlanta, just fine.
“I’m a ‘yes sir, no sir’ kind of guy,” he said.
Neal was in for a change between his freshman and sophomore seasons, however. O’Leary was out after the Knights went 0-12. In his place, Scott Frost and, most relevant for Neal, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, a pair of imports from the glittering palace of freewheeling and fun football known as Oregon.
What Chinander found when he got to Orlando was a defense that couldn’t be much worse than it had been in 2015. The Knights allowed 6.54 yards per play (115th nationally) and 37.7 points per game (37.7). They didn’t sack the quarterback (114th) and only 12 teams had given up more plays of 20-plus yards.
But what Chinander didn’t see may have been even more important – a roster lacking for talent.
“That 0-12 team didn’t need to be an 0-12 team. It probably spiraled out of control a little bit,” he said. “But all it needed was a little spark. It needed a little change in culture.”
One of the first things Chinander and his fellow coaches did was allow the players to be themselves.
“He was like, ‘listen guys, I don’t care what you wear, I don’t care how long your hair is, I don’t care about any of that. As long as you guys give me 100-percent effort, 100-perent buy in, you can do whatever you want. But I need the effort and the buy in,’” Neal recalled of one of the unit’s first meetings with its new coordinator. “Once we actually bought in to what he was doing, it was crazy the difference that trust makes. They let you be kids.”
That trust paid immediate dividends in 2016. UCF jumped to 12th nationally in yards per play allowed (4.78), 41st in scoring defense (24.6), 19th in sacks (38) and 29th in 20-plus gains allowed (53). The Knights hung their hat on defense that first year as the offense found its footing.
The massive turnaround wasn’t just about trust, however. It also had a lot to do with freedom, something some of the more hard-boiled coaches in the game sometimes struggle to grant.
“He doesn’t care about mistakes that happen on the field, because mistakes are going to happen,” senior linebacker Chequan Burkett said. “He never yells at us throughout the game. We all sit down and come to a conclusion about the problem that arose in the game.”
Chinander described it as a two-pronged approach to defense.
“Desire to excel and no fear of failure,” he said. “When you have a fear of making mistakes and guys start getting pulled out of the game for making mistakes everybody gets tight. Everybody starts making physical errors, not mental errors. They’re not going fast. I want guys going fast.”
Following Monday’s Peach Bowl, UCF’s staff will officially become Nebraska’s staff full-time, and they’ll be bringing this holistic approach to preparation with them. With the Knights the lone unbeaten team in the country, it’s fair to marvel at how simply it all snaps together.
What’s the objective? Play fast. What could slow us down? Fear. Hesitation. Strict regimentation.
For a generation of coaches, those things could’ve been considered standard tools of the trade. Nebraska’s defense in particular seemed paralyzed by many of those things during a disastrous 2017 campaign.
But change is just a few days away now. There will be changes to scheme, of course. Chinander’s good at that.
“Coach Chinander is a mastermind,” Burkett said. “He sits in his office all day, scheming up things.”
The bigger change, however, will once again be cultural. Last week Frost said he thought Nebraska “had more talent on the team last season than the record indicates.”
That will feel familiar to these coaches when they officially make the move to Lincoln. Chinander echoed those sentiments, but about his current team, on Satuday. He said the UCF team he inherited didn’t look like a winless team talent-wise, but it did culturally.
Seems like a big problem, but at least it’s easy to diagnose. And it’s not like this staff hasn’t done this before. There will be no confusion about the way forward, little second guessing.
Listen to these guys and the solution seems almost simple.
“Culture beats scheme 100 out of 100 times,” Chinander said. “That’s what we believe.”
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.