What’s the highest level of math you completed during your academic career? If it was anything more than an intro-level course, congratulations, you are in the same spot as a veteran-laden Nebraska defense this season.
“We’re not in general math anymore,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Monday, following the Huskers’ fourth practice of fall camp. Calculus might be more like it for a defense that returns eight of its top nine tacklers from 2020.
“We’re there. We’re getting these formulas figured out instead of two-plus-two.”
The hope in Lincoln is that Nebraska’s experience edge adds up to continued improvement in 2021. Playing a conference-only schedule, the Huskers allowed 29.4 points per game, down from 30 against Big Ten opponents in 2019 which was an improvement over the 34.3 allowed in 2018.
That’s a promising trajectory, though there’s still plenty of room to grow. Nebraska’s 29.4 points per game allowed ranked 63rd nationally (counting only conference games for all teams in the country) and seventh in the Big Ten. That’s where experience should help.
ESPN’s Bill Connelly uses a weighted returning production metric to measure not just how much a team returns, but the potential value of what returns.
“My returning production formula looks at the most predictive key personnel stats––the numbers that have the most impact on improvement or regression from season to season,” he wrote in unveiling this year’s initial rankings.
Nebraska’s defense had the ninth-highest returning production in the country at 88%, high enough that progress, in the form of better numbers yet again, should be the expectation based on what teams with similar returning production have done in the past.
But in a less theoretical sense, here’s what the Huskers’ enviable level of experience means today, in half-racks on the practice field in August. For the veterans, ready for new formulas and theories, it results in a little bit of redundancy for now.
“You get to the install with the older guys and they’re almost like, ‘Seriously? We’re going to install this again?” Chinander said. “You have to do it for the rookies, but it just feels different. It doesn’t feel like it’s Groundhog’s Day where we’re starting over every single day.”
Past seasons, Chinander said, did feel that way as first the new coaches installed their system and then, in subsequent seasons, dealt with attrition and departures. The 2019 defense entered the season without five of its top six tacklers. The 2020 defense had to replace leading tackler Mohamed Barry, its top cornerback in Lamar Jackson and three starters on the defensive line.
The 2021 defense must replace cornerback Dicaprio Bootle and, after a spring practice injury, inside linebacker Will Honas. Honas was the Huskers’ second leading tackler last year, one tackle behind outside linebacker JoJo Domann’s 58.
But even the unfortunate loss of Honas comes at a position where inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud has four real contenders for playing time, three of which–Luke Reimer, Garrett Snodgrass and Nick Henrich–have already appeared in at least seven games.
The fourth, Chris Kolarevic, made 144 tackles over two seasons at Northern Iowa. He arrived in Lincoln in January to take part in spring drills and, as a newcomer, may directly benefit the most from being surrounded by seasoned defenders.
“It helped me learn the defense a lot because everybody around me knew it,” Kolarevic said. “It’s just a lot of guys in the right spot. Everybody knows their job, nobody’s just doing their own thing. Everybody’s going to be in the right place, everybody’s going to fly around, everybody’s going to play fast because they know what they’re supposed to do.”
Scott Frost is fond of the old college coaching saying, “Get old and stay old.” He’s mentioned it more than once in his three seasons at Nebraska.
Both ends of that equation can be hard to solve, but entering 2021 the Blackshirts have found the answer to the first half.
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.