Nebraska Football Defensive Coordinator Erik Chinander Claps on Sidelines
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Looking at Defensive Position Rankings in the B1G and Wondering What the Huskers Need to Do to See Some Love?

July 11, 2021

If you missed it last week, this column space was dedicated to a bit of knee-jerk reacting to Phil Steele’s position rankings across college football, specifically on the offensive side of the football. 

I wrote then and will again,  Steele is one of the most recognizable voices in football in the country, and his CFB Preview mag is one of the more anticipated pieces of sports literature to hit newsstands every summer. For each position group, he cut his ranking at 60, meaning if your favorite school wasn’t listed, Steele is viewing it as a bottom-half group. 

This week is dedicated to some knee-jerk reacting to Steele’s rankings on the defensive side of the ball, of which there are three groups. 

Defensive Line (sorted by Big Ten standing, with national rankings to follow):

  1. Ohio State, No. 4
  2. Penn State, No. 17
  3. Purdue, No. 25
  4. Illinois, No. 31
  5. Michigan, No. 46
  6. Iowa, No. 47
  7. Indiana, No. 50
  8. Northwestern, No. 58

Unranked: Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin

Linebackers:

  1. Wisconsin, No. 6
  2. Penn State, No. 15
  3. Iowa, No. 21
  4. Ohio State, No. 30

Unranked, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue

Defensive Backs:

  1. Indiana, No. 7
  2. Iowa, No. 9
  3. Wisconsin, No. 10
  4. Penn State, No. 16
  5. Ohio State, No. 19
  6. Maryland, No. 28
  7. Northwestern, No. 39
  8. Michigan, No. 42
  9. Michigan State, No. 46
  10. Nebraska, No. 54

Unranked: Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois

Hmm.

Take these as a collective rather than individual pieces for a moment, because if you’re thinking is similar to mine you’re probably left scratching your head having read some of those parts of the whole.

Count me as one of the folks literally driving the bandwagon for the Blackshirts as we barrel toward the 2021 campaign. When defensive coordinator Erik Chinander says the expectations from the players rather than the coaches (notable distinction) are sky high and the coaches believe they can meet them, I believe him. I’ve written that the secondary can be one of the Big Ten’s best. I’ve written that Damion Daniels can make a jump in the middle of the line not once, but twice.

The numbers bear out why we locally believe this group is still on the rise. 

From 2017 to 2020, Nebraska’s run defense—measured by yards per carry allowed—has gone from 5.6 (124th) to 5.0 (T-107th) to 4.8 (T-102nd) to 4.2 (T-56th). From bottom of the barrel to middle of the park, with a huge jump coinciding with a Big Ten-only schedule last season mind you.

A trend I’ve cited before: Over the back half of the 2020 season, Nebraska was holding teams to a conversion rate of 24.5% on third down and a yards-per-pass clip of 6.4. In the first half of the year, Nebraska allowed opponents to convert 54.0% of third downs and average 8.1 yards per pass attempt. Their first half numbers extrapolated over the entire year would have seen them ranked 126th and 100th, respectively. Their back-half numbers over a full season would have ranked first in third-down defense and 15th in pass defense. 

NU has seen its overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, pass defended, and fumbles forced as a function of plays faced) climb from 10.4% in 2017 to 17.3% last year. In Mike Riley’s last season, the Husker defensive havoc rate ranked 129th out of 130 FBS programs, with the national average at 16.0%. Last year, NU’s havoc rate put it at 63rd, with the national average 1t 17.0%. Again, from bottom of the barrel to middle of the park.

Average defense, you say; Steele’s projections shouldn’t be a surprise. One of the tried and true barometers of year-over-year improvement is returning production within units, and only eight football teams return more defensive production than the Huskers for 2021. 

To the optimist, that reads as a defense that has made statistical strides in the years since Chinander’s arrival, has made noticeable gains in the weight room and through recruiting that have raised the overall physical profile of the group, and brings back just about everyone. 

Nebraska’s defense should be getting more pub, right? 

Perhaps Steele’s evaluation is best interpreted as a metaphorical line of demarcation between reality and expectation rather than the typical projection it serves as elsewhere.

There’s still plenty to show before the love starts coming in. That’s probably fine. Nebraska finished the 2020 year 38th in Bill Connelly’s defensive SP+ rankings.

That was the whole.

In thinking about the parts that make it up, I’m still just scratching my head.

The Huskers’ placement on the defensive back list is particularly interesting. It’s hard to argue with the talent Indiana has accumulated in the secondary, though the Hoosiers weren’t statistically elite in any of the typical passing metrics you look for. Still, if your question is “Who is the best corner in the Big Ten,” and you’re not selecting IU’s Tiawan Mullen, you’re probably picking NU’s Cam Taylor-Britt. 

Nebraska has recruited well in the secondary, developed well, and retained talent—with two super-senior safeties to top off the secondary. I’d be curious to know what drags them down. I’ll leave this as an open invitation to Steele to come on my podcast and we can discuss.

In the middle of the defense, NU has one of the Big Ten’s most disruptive and versatile linebackers in JoJo Domann. The super-senior’s 13.5 havoc plays last season were impressive. Another year of health and Domann should be able to cement his status as one of the league’s better defensive playmakers. 

But then again, that’s more hopeful projection than it is grounded observation. Domann was only Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last year; was that because Nebraska went 3-5 and gave up 29 points a game or was that because that’s actually where Domann’s value topped out at? (For what it’s worth, the advanced stuff loves Domann heading into the year.)

We’ll see. 

With so many questions still on offense, Nebraska certainly needs its defense to be an above-average unit. 

If that’s not what the national eye sees them as yet, they’ll need to prove some folks wrong. 

This local dummy thinks they can.

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