It’s better to be wrong at full-speed than correct but indecisive. Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White already addressed that with one Husker defender within the first two days of preseason camp. White is once again throwing the playbook at his defenders in order to maximize potential in the 3-3-5 defense. But the defense’s baseline remains simple—run to the ball, make dominant contact and do it with Husker speed.
“Husker speed, that’s the way we’re going to play here,” White said. “Full-go, full-tilt, I’m not worried about making mistakes and I’m going to play my butt off.”
Players rely on practice and studying the playbook to build confidence to play with Husker speed. White’s definition of “Husker speed” isn’t entire dissimilar from wide receiver coach Garret McGuire, who said the same thing in the spring. McGuire described the phrase as “playing with overwhelming effort, play after play.” The root message is unchanged regardless of whichever coach’s definition. Play hard, play fast, play with confidence.
Returning defensive end Blaise Gunnerson kept his words short and sweet with media on Tuesday. “It’s a very aggressive defense,” he described it. “That’s all I’ve got to say about it.” Gunnerson is one of the defensive linemen along with Nash Hutmacher, Ru’Quan Buckley and Ty Robinson, who are making gains this fall. Robinson told media on Monday that he’s feeling great back on the field. Gunnerson said Robinson brings an “elite, dominant mentality,” to the line. Hutmacher is carrying a leadership role he earned in the spring into the fall. Buckley, meanwhile, is as confident as he’s ever been. He complimented strength and conditioning coach Corey Campbell, nutritionist Kristin Coggin and physical therapy staffs. Most of the linemen are in exceptional shape and the coaches notice.
“Our skinny guys are gaining weight and our big guys are losing weight,” defensive line coach Terrance Knighton summarized. Knighton also recognized younger players who bought into the system. That allowed some to gain 20, 30 pounds in months while others gained muscle mass while dropping body fat. That’s a credit to Campbell, Coggin and the sports science staff.
The buy-in from those players helps build depth, which the Huskers are relying on. White told reporters on Tuesday that he wants to play as many people as he can. Head coach Matt Rhule holds a similar belief, stating in the spring he would like to see hockey-style substitutions on defense. In order to build depth, players need reps. The Huskers will continue breaking into different groups at practice in order to maximize reps. Personnel among those groups is a daily competition, White said. Sometimes the red and white jerseys fluctuate frequently.
“We want to reward guys who do it the right way and do it well,” White said. “And we want to make sure we send a message to guys that if you’re not going to do it the way it’s supposed to be done then you’re not going to play.”
The right way means, at least on the defensive line, they’re being aggressive with dominant contact and getting vertical. Knighton explained how even the defensive linemen will have to recognize the ball and run to it. “We’ll attack in waves so everyone has to be in shape,” he said. This is the first time White and Knighton have worked together on the same coaching staff. Still, the defensive line mentality sounds similar to the one White coached at Syracuse, where the defense earned the nickname, “The Mob” for its relentless ball pursuit.
Knighton and White are both encouraged by the team’s current status. Linebacker MJ Sherman maintains his confidence from spring ball and feels good after two days. Multiple Huskers said they need to “get 1% better every day,” which Sherman described as not making the same mistakes.
The only noteworthy personnel movement within the defense so far pertains to freshman Eric Fields. He signed with Nebraska as a tackling machine at linebacker from Ardmore, Oklahoma. White said Fields is working across the defense but taking most reps at rover. “He’s doing a good job,” White said of the freshman after two days.