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Nebraska Recruiting: Puzzle Pieces Coming Together for Defensive Line
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

How Good Can Nebraska’s Defense Be in 2019?

February 27, 2019

Erik Chinander and the rest of his defensive staff had a lot of work to do upon arrival in Orlando in 2016. The defense he inherited had been one to forget. In 2015, Central Florida ranked 118thnationally in points-per-play allowed, 116thin takeaways, 111thin sacks and 114thin red-zone defense. The Knights also ranked last in wins that year because the Knights didn’t win any.

A year later, UCF’s defense ranked 25thin points-per-play allowed, 18thin takeaways, 19thin sacks and second in red-zone defense. The one-year jump in points-per-play, an improvement of .214, is fourth-best in college football in the last five years. The Knights improved to 6-7, setting the table for an undefeated second season, the story of which everyone reading this knows by heart by now.

Even the part where it was the Knights’ defense that got there first. In Year 2, it was the offense’s turn and UCF responded with the biggest improvement of the past five years. If you didn’t read about that a few days ago, it’s worth checking out so what’s to follow makes sense. It’s the Kill Bill: Volume 1 to this Volume 2, which is to say that the changes on defense are a little more subtle, hopefully still interesting and part of the larger story.

As we did on offense, we’re looking at the 15 most-improved defenses of the past five seasons using points-per-play allowed as the measure to see if there’s anything we can glean about improvement in general and what might be possible for Nebraska in 2019.

Here’s the top 15:

Key: Year 1 of new HC and/or DC | Year 2 of new HC/DC | 85%+ Returning Production | 75–84% Returning Production)

Wyoming, 17 -.251 7 (104) +
Purdue, 17 -.245 16 (119) +
FAU, 17 -.232 24 (120) +
UCF, 16 -.214 25 (118) +
Ball St., 18 -.213 86 (125) +
UNC, 15 -.203 23 (117) +
Georgia St., 15 -.203 55 (126)
Marshall, 17 -.203 17 (102)
FIU, 14 -.199 58 (118) +
Ga. Southern, 18 -.188 32 (113) +
Colorado, 15 -.177 60 (124) +
Air Force, 14 -.172 43 (116) +
Cincinnati, 18 -.168 9 (91)
California, 17 -.167 64 (125) +
E. Michigan, 16 -.166 72 (123) +

As with last time, the emojis here offer a key piece of information. On offense, the most-improved list showed the improvement was often accompanied by a coaching change—as you hope it would be—and Year 2 under a new staff was a little more common than Year 1. Pair either of those factors with an upgrade at quarterback—especially in Year 2 with that shiny, new quarterback—and an offense really has potential to boost its point-scoring ability. (See Also: UCF + Y2 Scott Frost + Y2 McKenzie Milton)

There are a couple of things of note with the same group on the defensive side. Big improvements, including four of the top-six, happened in Year 1 with a new coordinator. That was the more common path here. Maybe there’s something to the classic fall-camp cliché of “the defense is always ahead of the offense.”

The more drastic difference, however, is the role total experience plays. There’s no perfect analog for a returning quarterback on defense, but experience overall was the one thing all but one of the teams on the list had in common.

Using SB Nation’s returning production percentages as the measure, 10 of the 15 teams on this list returned between 75 and 84 percent of their tackles, tackles for loss and passes defended from the previous season. Another four returned more than 85 percent. That 2015 UCF defense that Chinander inherited ranked near the bottom in most key measures, but it ranked near the top (sixth nationally) with 84 percent of its production returning for 2016.

Cincinnati was the only team with minimal production returning (56 percent, 92nd) to land on the most-improved list. The 2018 Bearcats jumped from 91st to ninth in points-per-play allowed despite that, but certainly seem like an outlier.

That presents an interesting case for Nebraska in 2019. Five of the Huskers’ top-six tacklers a year ago were seniors, which is the kind of thing you’ll read 100 times this offseason when someone needs to convey quickly that NU has holes to fill. (I’ve written it a handful of times already myself.) But there’s only one senior after that top group that made more than 10 tackles in 2018 (and three more after that). The Huskers rank 48thin returning production on defense at 70 percent.

That’s not bad. Lower than all but one team on the most-improved list above, but perhaps within range? Or maybe that doesn’t matter at all?

It’s improbable that Nebraska lands on that five-year list above after 2019. To do that the Huskers would need to improve by about .170 points-per-play, which would mean the 2019 defense would need to give up .249 (about 17 points per game). That’s top-10 territory in any given season. Probably not happening.

But it probably doesn’t need to. 

One, the Huskers made some pretty strong gains on defense in 2018 even if it wasn’t always easy to see. Nebraska’s change from .529 points-per-play (116th) in 2017 to .419 (81st) was the 11th biggest improvement in 2018. Yes, the Huskers had a long way to go from 2017’s 36 points per game, but 2018 was a nice step in the right direction. Another step in 2019, even if slight, would have a big impact on the overall strength of the team.

Two, I’m pretty confident in Nebraska’s ability to not just improve on offense but make some significant gains. In that earlier story, I threw out a points-per-play of .540 for Nebraska on offense in 2019. That’s top-15 offense most years and perhaps on the high side, but then again I think the Huskers’ ceiling is quite high on offense, too. If you think Nebraska is going to be averaging 40-plus points in the near future—it was at 30 last year—the Huskers are probably going to take the biggest chunk out of that deficit this year.

So let’s assume .540 is the number for Nebraska’s offense for the sake of argument. If the Huskers’ defense made no improvement at all from 2018 that would put Nebraska’s points-per-play differential at +.120. Teams in that range last year: Syracuse (10-3), North Texas (9-4), Utah (9-5), Boise State (10-3) and Houston (8-5). It’s a top-40 level.

Say Nebraska’s defense is a field goal better than last year. That’s basically one rung up the national ladder and about 28 points per game allowed in 2019. At .400 points-per-play allowed, with the sake-of-the-argument improvement on offense, that produces a differential of .140. Teams in that range last year: Troy (10-3), Temple (8-5), Stanford (9-4), LSU (10-3), Oregon (9-4) and Washington (10-4). I’m not ready to bank on this modest level of defense improvement yet, but it’s certainly possible.

Want to really dream big? A differential of .200 will typically land a team in the top 15. At that number a team is outscoring its opponent by 14 points per game on average. It doesn’t matter how a team gets there, but based on our assumed number for the offense, Nebraska’s defense would have to be about six points better per game.

Based on the Huskers’ returning production, that level of improvement on defense is unlikely. Some improvement is reasonable to expect. A full touchdown? That’s taking it too far, but it’s all about the sliding scale. The more the offense improves the less the defense has to and vice versa. (UCF in 2017, for example, regressed a tiny bit on defense but the offense more than made up for it.)

For the Huskers to get to a .200 points-per-play differential they would need a total improvement (offense-plus-defense) of .200 as Nebraska was nearly dead even (-.004) in 2018. That’s a big chunk of points, but not unattainable.

Kansas, among seven others, improved by at least that much last season. The problem for the Jayhawks was it only took them from 1-11 (including 0-11 against FBS teams) in 2017 to 3-9 (with three one-score losses) in 2018. Instead of being outscored by 24 points a game, Kansas was outscored by six. Huge change, but because the record still felt pretty Kansas-y nobody noticed, the Jayhawks made a coaching change and Les Miles inheirts a team that was already improving a year ago.

If Nebraska does it coming off a 4-8 season––a season that was more like 6-6––nobody will miss it.

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