The theme out of the first full week of spring practices was that the defense is ahead of the offense at this early stage. That shouldn’t come as a surprise with how dramatic of a makeover the offense is undergoing under Coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters.
However, it’s not just a matter of the offense struggling while learning the system. Erik Chinander’s defense is going to cause problems for the offense all year.
“Our defense is the hardest defense that we will play, schematically,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said. “I’m not talking about personnel-wise because I don’t know these guys as it relates to anybody else in our league, but it was the hardest defense we played at UCF. When we went out there on Saturdays, our guys were like, ‘Really? That’s all they do?’ Because we have to block everything here and in the heat of a practice, you can get the multiplicities of everything that they do. Coach Chinander’s an awesome coach, really smart, knows defense well so he gives us issues.”
A quick comparison of Central Florida’s defense from last year to Nebraska’s shows the yardage totals aren’t all that different — 428 yards allowed per game for the Knights (94th) and 436.2 for the Huskers (101). However, the Huskers surrendered about 11 points more per game (36.4 to 25.3).
The difference is Central Florida’s ability to make plays to make up for the yards it allowed. The Knights were solid but unspectacular in terms of making plays behind the line of scrimmage, racking up 27 sacks (tied for 57th) and 77 tackles for loss (tied for 60th), but that was nearly double what Nebraska did with 14 sacks (tied for 125th) and 44 tackles for loss (129th).
Where the Knights shined, however, was in forcing turnovers. Central Florida intercepted 20 passes (tied for second) and recovered 12 fumbles (tied for 13th). Nebraska was one of the worst in the country at takeaways with just nine interceptions (tied for 77th) and three fumble recoveries (tied for 125th).
This defense is going to test the offense unlike anything the players saw in practice last season.
“I know for certain the reason why we were good on offense last year was because our defense made us better day in and day out,” Austin said after Thursday’s practice. “Our defense made us better today. I can tell you right now our defense came out and they had a lot of energy today. They were flying around, active. Not only are they good schematically but those guys get to the football. The mark of a good defense is how many hats do you have to the football and those guys are building an awesome, awesome, awesome culture over there.
“I have a saying, iron sharpens iron. Proverbs 27:17: As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Those guys sharpen us and we sharpen them and it creates a situation where both units work together and are benefited by the work we do with each other.”
Perhaps no position group will determine Nebraska’s success or failure in 2018 as much as the offensive line, and Walters said the snaps those players will get against against Chinander’s defense will be incredibly valuable as the linemen attempt to adjust to Nebraska’s new up-tempo system while simultaneously dealing with all the pressure this defense creates.
“Coach Austin’s one of the best offensive line coaches in the game so he’s preparing them mentally and physically,” Walters said. “That’s an adjustment that they have to get used to, the tempo, but everything starts up front. I don’t care how well your quarterback is, how well your receivers are, if you don’t dominate up front, you don’t have an offense. Those guys are doing a good job of grasping everything and they go against a good defense, a good defensive scheme. Our defense, they’re not going to see that in terms of scheme in this conference.”
That is just as true, or perhaps even more so, on the other side of the ball. While Central Florida wreaked some havoc on the defensive side of the ball, it was Frost’s offense that got all the attention. The Knights were top-10 nationally in scoring and total yardage, passing yards and touchdowns and rushing touchdowns, and they were in the top-35 in rushing yardage.
“This offense is so dynamic,” defensive line coach Mike Dawson said. “They can give you spread sets, condensed sets, one-back, two-back, no-backs, the whole deal. Obviously these guys had the No. 1 offense in the country a year ago, and for a good reason. This is good stuff, and they put their players in a great position to make plays.”
The sheer number of ways that the offense can attack and the tempo with which it does keeps all 11 defenders on their toes at all times.
“You really have to know your stuff,” junior cornerback Eric Lee Jr. said. “The offense moves so fast, there are so many shifts, so many motions that if you don’t know your stuff, it’s going to be easy to tell on film. I think that their fast pace is definitely one of the key advantages they have for themselves right now.”
The offense’s break-neck pace not only stresses the defense, it provides opportunities for more players because of the sheer number of reps in each practice.
“You get a ton of reps,” Chinander said. “We get a lot of reps for every kid on the defense. You’re a third-team guy, a lot of places you get like three reps of practice. Our kids are getting a ton of reps in practice because of the speed we go at.”
According to Chinander, by the time the season rolls around, opponents won’t be able to throw anything at Nebraska that the defense hasn’t already seen in practice.
“By the time we finish spring ball there won’t be a formation, there won’t be a play, there won’t be a motion, there won’t be any kind of trickeration, there won’t be anything we haven’t seen,” Chinander said. “So when we get to the regular season, they’ll be doing some crazy stuff and our kids will go, ‘Ah, no big deal, we saw that 10 times.’ They really stress out whatever defense you’re going to play, they stress coverage, they stress the run game. I think it’s a really good thing.
“A lot of times when you play against a traditional power-I team, you learn how to defend it but you don’t learn those fine coaching points because there’s not the quarterback pulling the ball, there’s not the triple option aspect of it, there’s not that RPO off of it so our kids have to be really dialed in to what they have to do every rep.”
In Orlando, iron sharpened iron to the point of an undefeated season behind the best offense in the country and a defense that produced more turnovers than every team but Wyoming. In Lincoln, Nebraska’s new coaching staff is hoping to see the same results.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.