Nebraska Recruiting: Setting The Stage for Contact Period Opening
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Husker Coaches Talk Surprises From First Year in Big Ten

March 17, 2019

Nebraska is entering Year 2 with the same offensive system, the same defensive system (bet money the Blackshirts are thrilled about that), the same offensive coaching staff and nearly the same defensive coaching staff. The quarterback is the same. There’s a lot of production that needs replacing on the field and leadership that needs replacing in the locker room, but there’s still continuity in key spots. 

You see that reflected in how we talk about the team. The jump is expected. But it’s also possible a boost is coming from the simple fact the coaches are more familiar with the Big Ten conference now. Of the nine returning assistant coaches, none had coached in the Big Ten in any capacity before last season. 

There’s a learning curve for them, too. Curious what, if anything, surprised these Husker assistants about their first year in the conference, Hail Varsity talked with four of them. We’ll have the remaining guys at a later time. Here’s what they had to say.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander

“Maybe not expecting but we found out those tight ends are another tackle, so we’ve got to do a better job of taking care of that edge and three-by-one stuff, we’ve got to do a better job of handling tight ends at the line of scrimmage I think.”

Nebraska gave up 337 yards and three scores on 25 catches to tight ends this past season. That’s a 13.5 yards-per-catch average. Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins had the best single game as a tight end against the Blackshirts, with five catches for 103 yards and a score. Nebraska held Iowa’s Noah Fant — arguably the conference’s best tight end — in check during the teams’ meeting on Nov. 24, but the elite tight ends in the league were able to find success against NU. 

Getting the tight ends more involved in the Huskers’ own offense is an emphasis of the coaching staff this offseason, so it’ll be interesting to see if that helps the defense out at all. Nebraska has a big-bodied, blocking tight end in Katerian Legrone, a couple of long receiving guys in Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal who can be flexed out wide and a do-it-all guy in Jack Stoll. That should help to give the Blackshirts plenty of looks.

Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher

“Now I know you need some of those bigger guys at the safety spot for some of those running backs and tight ends. But they’ve got to have the hips, because the type of defense we play, those guys have to play heavy in coverage as well. That’s kind of where the game is taking us in the Big Ten, some of these teams — Northwestern and those guys. We needed guys who could cover in that [Northwestern] game, we needed guys with the hips in that game, and also Purdue. 

“So the league is kind of putting that image, you’ve got to be big, you’ve got to be this 6-foot corner and I get it, but if you go to the National Football League, most of those corners are 5-10. There’s a few of them that are tall but most of those guys are 5-11. They say 200 pounds, 205. Most of those guys are 185. It’s just that deal. I know it, I get it, we do want to have bigger guys but at the same time we want to have guys who can run.”

When Fisher first got to Lincoln, he talked about wanting speed in his defensive backs, and if that meant sacrificing size, it meant sacrificing size. 

A year later, and the Huskers added defensive backs with the following measurements:

  • Javin Wright: 6-foot-3, 195 pounds
  • Myles Farmer: 6-foot-3, 194 pounds
  • Quinton Newsome: 6-foot-2, 180 pounds
  • Noa Pola-Gates: 5-foot-11, 165 pounds

Fisher called Farmer the biggest safety he’s got at his disposal. JoJo Domann is up to 230 pounds but still working at safety some. Cam Jones is a 6-foot, 200-pound heavy-hitter as well. It’s probably not likely the Huskers will be going away from track stars anytime soon, but having bigger guys that can fit in the run game while also maintain cover skills would go a long way towards helping out on those tight ends (among other things, obviously).

Offensive coordinator/wideout coach Troy Walters

“Knew it was a good conference, defenses, they play hard, coordinators on third down had more exotic packages than maybe we expected. I thought it would be more similar to what they did on first and second down but you get in third down and teams are a little more exotic, which means we’ve got to stay out of third-and-long because we’ve got some great defensive coordinators that come up with exotic packages and blitzes. 

“But, overall, good league. I think once we get the players that we feel like we need in this offense and this scheme, as you saw in the second half of the year, this offense was pretty explosive. So we’ve got to continue to get better. We know the defenses in this league are going to get better. The corners… I guess another thing that was impressive is the corners are bigger and more physical than I probably thought they were going to be. 

“As a receiving group we’ve got to be able to beat press coverage because they’re going to get up in your face and disrupt the timing. If we can do that, there will be plays to be made.”

Brandon Vogel looked at third-and-long numbers in Hot Reads and its worth a, well, read if you haven’t done so already. Third-and-long in the Big Ten was a bear. Nebraska struggled in third-and-extended situations last season (wrote about that here) but it seems the Huskers are taking steps to fix things. 

Walters said Nebraska has access to tape from every NFL game last season. They’ve watched Zac Taylor’s former offense, the Los Angeles Rams, as well as the Chicago Bears. 

“Just what they do with splits and reduced splits and bunch packages,” he said. “We’re studying it all. That’s kind of what this offseason is about, studying what’s been successful in college and in the NFL.

“Watching some Oklahoma offense and what they do offensively because they do some good things. We’ll take bits and pieces of different schemes and incorporate them into ours and see where they fit so that we can become even more explosive.”

One tweak might be going under center a bit more. “We’ve talked about that,” Walters said. It’s not something a team can just dial up on the fly if they’ve never practiced it before, and with the Huskers going almost exclusively shotgun during Year 1 install, it wasn’t easy to just line up in an I-formation and power run teams to death. 

But it could pose an advantage this season after seeing the way opposing defenses play. Don’t take that to mean Nebraska’s changing up its offensive approach after one season — this is still going to be a shotgun spread team — but putting Adrian Martinez under center in a third-and-inches situation would probably be a higher percentage play than lining up six yards back and trying to run something to the edge. 

“We’re definitely looking at different ways to be successful and under center is one of the things we’ll work on this spring so we have it, so we can always get to it and the different things you can do with the quarterback under center that you can’t do in the gun,” Walters said. “We’re looking at all those possibilities.”

(Alternate way to read that: TRIPLE-OPTION FOOTBALL IS BACK, maybe, in doses.)

Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco

“I think I mentioned the fact back when I first got here that the depth thing is interesting because they can replace one or two guys on defense and it’s like them not missing a beat, which was different than our experience in the AAC. Sometimes it’ll fall off, it’ll be a little bit different, so when they replace guys they don’t lose much, as you can see by the defensive line at Iowa. They’ve got some good looking cats.”

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