Maybe you heard or saw, but Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said a thing yesterday. It’s a thing that can seem ridiculous in the current context, what with the Huskers defense last seen giving up eight straight touchdown drives to Ohio State. Say this sort of thing at this specific time and the snarky Twitter and Facebook replies sort of write themselves.
But here’s my thing about the “thing”: I sort of buy it.
I’m going to present the thing in its full, Faulknerian context, but I’ll bold the key part (though it sort of bolds itself, as mentioned above):
It’s one of those things where we met and I’ll be honest. I’m not going to give you coach speak. I’m not going to give you the coach-speak company line. You want an honest answer about the game, where we’re at or the defense moving forward, and I want to give it to you. Unfortunately sometimes that can sound like making excuses. I don’t want to be that way. I’m not that way and I don’t want to be framed that way, but I want to answer the question. As you think about — and I thought deeply about it — Mick Stoltenberg, for example, and it’s a great example and there are a few other examples that this is an infant. When we met in January, February, it’s not instant; this powder, add water, shake. It’s a holistic all-encompassing, all-consuming process to create a great defense and it takes time. Like I said, Mick Stoltenberg is a great example. Mick is physically capable to do all the work at a very high level, first and second down, third down and short. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s smart, he’s tough. He’s got great confidence, because he’s a veteran player, to do all the jobs. The gap he has is our new defense, so he’s new to the defense and that gap is shrinking. The gap I’m talking about is the gap between his play and dynamic production. That gap is shrinking with participation and time.
You take Dicaprio Bootle [and] he’s big enough, fast enough, courageous, possesses all the tangible traits and the intangible [traits]. He’s invested, passionate. I can’t say enough about those guys. They are awesome guys. I love them. Dicaprio, he’s new to the system so that’s a gap which is closing but he’s also never played in college football games before, so he has two gaps. There’s two gaps. That’s just two quick examples of the reality of defending. In one case there’s one gap which closes with time and participating in the system. The other one as a brand new player doing a brand new defense. So there’s two. Now, there’s more. There are more gaps. There’s another gap created for every person in the organization. Maybe a challenge to focus. Is that real? Possibly, maybe? Yeah, I’d say. So there’s a gap there.
There is no doubt that we are going to create a great defense. We are going to create the best defense in the country here; there’s no doubt about that. It’s just going to take time as these gaps are eliminated and minimized for every player. And the players are good enough to do just that, the ones on the team and the ones we’re trying to have join the team, so it’s exciting. The future is exciting. I can personally see all the people and the gaps, and the staff included, gaps there. It’s not just the players. The staff is new to the system. There are some staffers that are new to the work, and all the other gaps that could exist per person per situation. We know them. We are closing them, we are eliminating them and with each one that closes and minimizes and gets smaller, we’ll get better.
(Transcription assist: Jacob Padilla)
Now there are a couple of reasons I think Diaco actually could create one of the best defenses in the country (“best” depends on how you want to define it) at Nebraska given enough time.
One, he’s done it before at Notre Dame. His first two defenses in South Bend were good, but his third one was undeniably one of the best in the country. Can Nebraska attract similar talent to Notre Dame? It hasn’t recently, but I actually think Notre Dame’s recent recruiting track record is about Nebraska’s ceiling based on all of the recruiting things we always talk about in Lincoln. The Irish have ranked between 10th and 15th nationally in recruiting each of the last five years, and that's part of why I think the same opportunity to produce a top-five or top-10 defense exists at Nebraska. (It’s also worth noting here that Diaco’s first UConn defense ranked 86th in scoring defense – the number that matters the most to him – in year one and 15th in year two. Similar jumps happened in most categories. Then they fell off again when the Huskies lost 10 starters on defense the following year. The track record indicates that experience does matter in this defense.)
Two, I like the fact that Diaco talks a lot about teaching. It gets florid and exhausting at times, but at least he’s very obviously thinking about how to instruct his players. There’s a process there, a plan. I don’t know exactly what it is and I haven’t seen it up close, but you know it exists. Somehow this seems to be an uncommon thing among college football coaches at good jobs, despite the fact that a deep passion for teaching is probably essential. Urban Meyer thinks it is. He has said at various stops throughout his career that effective teaching is the real building block of a successful program. Diaco’s UConn tenure isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his big-picture methods, but as far as defense goes I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. And on this staff he sticks out as the person most passionate about teaching.
The problem with the “thing,” however, is that it’s apparent to me at this point that Diaco doesn’t have enough of the players he needs, nor enough games under their belts, to have Nebraska’s defense approach those heights right now. That wouldn’t be a problem if I was more certain that he’ll have the time he wants to continue building things, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is counting on that after seven games. And that’s where things get interesting.
Disco was fired at UConn last Dec. 26. It was odd timing. The Huskies’ season was over on Nov. 26, so if you’re going to make a change why lose a month of recruiting? Four days after that, Nebraska lost to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. Twelve days after that Mike Riley fired Mark Banker in a totally uncharacteristic way. Three days after that Diaco was hired by Nebraska. That is a strange and seemingly compressed timeline.
With the benefit of seven games under our belt and the current context, it seems like there were two potential misreads of that situation. The first may have been how long it would take Diaco to improve the Blackshirts beyond the improvements Nebraska made from 2015 to 2016. Injuries certainly didn’t help anything, but if Diaco’s past indicates a two- or three-year process, was Riley fully considering that given how quickly (and out-of-the-blue) that hire seemed to happen?
The second potential misread is a tougher one to answer: Should Riley have been considering the timeline? How much time did he think he had? Back in January, there was no reason to think 2017 had the potential to be a hot-seat year at all in my estimation. But since the Ohio State game Riley has made a handful of remarks about what this season is: a growth year. He declined to use the word “rebuild,” and had good reasons for doing that, but that’s what it is. That said, it’s probably a misstep for any coach to assume any amount of time is a given, particularly at a blue-blood program. Things can change in a hurry and they have.
So could Diaco build the “best defense in the country” here? I think so. In a vacuum, the only thing that gives me pause is that Diaco’s philosophy does seem to run counter with some of the prevailing trends of defense in a spread era. Running counter to prevailing trends isn't always a bad thing, of course, but coaches like Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, UCF defensive coordinator Eric Chinander are becoming negative plays proslytizers. “In this day and age, the way offensive football is going, the way to win games on defense is sacks plus turnovers minus explosive plays,” Chinander said in one of his first interviews at UCF. It’s sort of a smart baseball approach to football. If a game is typically 13 or 14 innings (drives) long, you can probably win five or six of those innings in short order with a big sack or tackle for loss. That's opposed to putting men on base and having to pitch yourself out of a jam with a red-zone stop.
Diaco’s defense is really just the “minus explosive plays” part. Just one of his Notre Dame (2012) or UConn defenses ranked in the top 25 in sacks between 2010 and 2016. None of those defense ranked in the top 60 in fumbles forced, and they were mostly feast or famine in terms of interceptions. Now, this sort of bend-don’t-break style with a special emphasis on big plays has worked very well in the past, it just seems fair to ask if, given the trends in offensive football, the more attacking style is becoming more effective.
All that said, Diaco’s comment yesterday wasn’t laughable no matter what the numbers currently say or how bad October has been so far for the Huskers. Holster that witty tweet because we all know this isn't one of the best defenses in the country right now. But with enough time, I do think he’d turn out a pretty good defense. That, however, may be the one thing he doesn’t have.
The Grab Bag
- Speaking of coaching situations changing in a hurry, here's USA Today's Dan Wolken on Michigan and Jim Harbaugh.
- Urban Meyer was asked if revenge is a motivator for the Buckeyes as they face Penn State this week. "Hell yeah, it is," he said.
- Dennis Dodd looks at Kirby Smart and Georgia's success in year two.
- ICYMI: Here's last night's full practice report.
Today's Song of Today
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.