Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska Defensive Coaches Cooper, Knighton Focusing on Fundamentals of Development

March 30, 2023

Two of Nebraska’s three defensive positional coaches shared their impressions of spring camp with local media on Thursday. Nearly two weeks complete, they’re still working on details with player roles remaining fluid.

Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said he’s worked with the interior defensive linemen and edge rushers about half the time. Linebacker coach Rob Dvoracek, who did not speak to media on Thursday, oversees edge rushers the other half. That’s partly because some of Nebraska’s edge rushers can succeed out of a two-point stance or lined up over guards with their hands in the grass. Coaches are also trying a few of those edge rushers to linebacker and moving some linebackers down to the edge.

New enrollee Princewill Umanmielen and transfer arrival MJ Sherman can play linebacker and edge, Knighton said. Umanmielen even lined up at middle linebacker during Thursday morning’s practice and made a play. Jimari Butler can also step into both roles. Knighton also noted early enrollee Maverick Noonan and junior college transfer Kai Wallin as capable dual-threat guys.

“We have a lot of guys who can line up at linebacker, line up at d-end and sometimes bump down to three-technique,” Knighton said. “They’re tough enough to do it so, right now, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Knighton’s currently working with a depleted interior defensive line. That leaves Ru’Quan Buckley, Nash Hutchmacher, Jacob Herbeck and Stephon Wynn Jr. to get more direct training from the seven-year NFL veteran. Transfer arrival Elijah Jeudy can move from the edge and potential linebacker to the defensive interior.

Coaches are emphasizing technique and mentality. Knighton said they’re reiterating the proper fundamental technique to players while making sure they’re grasping the defense and ready to attack in it. That’s what the spring is for. They’ll build the rest after more practices and scrimmages.

Secondary coach Evan Cooper held a similar belief when discussing the players he directly coaches. He inherits a big defensive back room, one that head coach Matt Rhule joked on Tuesday may be the biggest in the country. Cooper agreed on Thursday, saying “there’s a bunch of ’em.” Each one wants to start so Cooper doesn’t have to remind them of the competitive mindset. At the base level of any athlete are fundamentals and Cooper explained why they’ve sharpened those basics so much through the first six practices.

“Football in general is a bunch of detail. Offenses and defenses, they game plan all week to try and make you make a mistake,” Cooper said. “You’ve just got to be tapped into what you’re doing and very detailed.”

Cooper said it’s been fun to see how Tony White’s defense looks on the field. Players, like defensive back Omar Brown, shared their joy of playing within the system as well. Cooper is excited to see the group improve in that system with experience and coaching. It’s a coachable group and they’ve taken to the new staff’s instruction well. They’re listening to what coaches say, doing those movements on the field and soaking information. Cooper typically looks for alignment, assignment, technique, effort. So far, that’s what he’s focused on this spring.

“To me, the spring is about honing in on the things you need to do specifically for your position,” Cooper said. “I don’t get caught up much in the outcome. Every day just try to attack something and make sure that you deliver at practice and try to get better at something. One percent.”

Coaches aren’t molding a depth chart now and likely won’t until the summer. That’s a Rhule mentality item that Cooper and Knighton agree with. Cooper said that hasn’t been difficult because of the growth each player has made through each practice. At his previous stops he’s watched players grow weekly and season to season. He isn’t in a rush to evaluate and possibly put a cap on player development.

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