Nebraska’s defensive coordinator said this summer he wasn’t coaching this experienced and hungry group of Blackshirts any differently than he did three years ago when they were a young group just looking to show improvement. The standard is raised each day but the goal is the same: meet the standard.
Erik Chinander doesn’t need to say much, this defense has their own set of expectations.
“Show the world that we can change the narrative of Nebraska Cornhuskers football,” said safety Deontai Williams.
Williams is one of five super-seniors on this defense alone, players who opted to take advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility freeze and return for a fifth or sixth year of college. In total, Nebraska has 12 scholarship defenders entering at least their fourth year with the program.
Returning production typically means improvement year-over-year. That trend will look slightly different in 2021 with nearly every team across college football able to return more than normal, but that isn’t stopping the Huskers from viewing this upcoming year as an opportunity to do something special.
“I think it is a big opportunity for us as a defense especially to build on what we had last year, knowing what we did last year defensively, and just being able to build on that,” said defensive end Ben Stille.
From the 2016 signing class, Stille and two of his classmates—outside linebacker JoJo Domann and safety Marquel Dismuke—have seen exciting heights and disappointing lows throughout their college careers.
They were redshirt players the year Nebraska started 7-0 and climbed up to as high as seventh in the AP poll.
“Those men expected to win,” Domann said of that team. “Those dudes were confident, we practiced like it and we played like it. There were no what ifs. They were expecting to win every game.”
Some would say that has been lacking across the board in the years since. Over the last four seasons, Nebraska is 16-28 and just 12-23 in Big Ten play. In 2017, the defense specifically slipped to depths Nebraska isn’t used to being at.
The Huskers gave up over 6 yards a play, 5.6 yards a run (124th nationally), and 36 points a game (116th). Opponents scored more that season than they had on Nebraska in a decade.
With the changing of the guard at head coach, Nebraska’s defense experienced a spiritual and philosophical overhaul.
Gone was the buttoned-up, bend-don’t-break, keep-everything-in-front style that had defensive players thinking rather than reacting, and in was an instinctual brand of football that emboldened defenders to just seek and destroy.
Chinander preached playing absent a fear of failure. That phrase, one of Nebraska’s mantras when the coaching staff arrived, was nowhere more appropriate than on the defense. Fly to the football. If you make a mistake, there are 10 teammates coming behind you to clean it up.
The attitude has shifted as Nebraska has grown.
This defense has improved upon itself each season under Chinander.
From 38 points surrendered each game in conference play in 2017 to 34 in 2018 to 30 in 2019 to 29 in 2020.
From 6.3 (112th) yards allowed each play in 2017 to 5.8 (75th) in 2018 to 5.6 (62nd) in 2019 to 5.5 (44th) in 2020.
From 5.6 yards allowed each run in 2017 to 5.0 (107th) in 2018 to 4.8 (102nd) in 2019 to 4.2 (56th) in 2020.
And with their growth, now it’s about playing fast, but playing absent mistakes.
“It’s been a tough summer. We’ve been putting in a lot of work in our off time,” said corner Cam Taylor-Britt. “DBs in there 9 o’clock at night, nobody’s in there, we’re just trying to get a little extra in.”
Maybe that’s different from years past. These guys don’t really seem into making comparisons, though. With age comes maturity. I asked Stille what the difference is between a team that stops the run well and one which does not, and his answer was a pretty good indicator of why so many feel so optimistic about the coming season.
“A ton of it is just—and this has been my recurring word throughout the week—consistency and maturity, guys being able to do their job play in and play out,” he said. “It doesn’t just happen. It takes a level of maturity, a level of experience to be able to do that, the confidence to be able to do that play in and play out. In your mind, if you know there’s nothing that’s gonna stop you from doing your job because you’ve done it so many times and you’ve done it in so many difference instances and situations, that only helps.
“Having young guys out there, myself when I was a first-year player, the confidence and ability to do your job play in and play out isn’t always there. That comes with experience.”
Nebraska’s run defense last season—its sturdiness up front—was no doubt the most eye-opening part of the defensive campaign, but the Huskers weren’t without warts. Pass coverage, particularly early in the year, was leaky. Nebraska gave up third downs at one of the worst rates nationally through the first four games.
The last four was a different story.
The Huskers were holding teams to just 24.5% on third down and to 6.4 yards per pass attempt over their final four contests. Their back-half numbers over a full season would have ranked first in third-down defense and 15th in pass defense
“It was how you start your first game of the season,” Williams said. He felt like the defense got off on the wrong foot. “We lost to Ohio State, boom, we’re gonna start off slow. Just like this game this year, Illinois. We’ve got to win. It’s the most important game.”
So how does Williams go about preventing another slow start on an individual level? Is it on the seniors to turn up the intensity for everyone else?
“You can’t really get guys ready to go. They need to be ready every day they step on the field,” Williams said. “That’s just telling me that they don’t really love football if you’ve got to get them ready to go.
“I love the game, and I’m passionate about this game, so when I step on this field I’m already ready to go. I don’t have to get ready to go.”
Domann says fall camp begins with clear expectations of everyone. From the walk-ons to the younger players on the roster all the way up to the most experienced veterans, everyone has a role and there’s a standard to be met. “This isn’t a time to be complacent,” Domann said. “That’s not what we’re looking to do.” This group, Williams says, is ready to go.
Of course, saying what needs to be said has to be accompanied by doing what needs to be done on the practice field.
Nebraska had seven turnovers in eight games last season, a number it desperately hopes to improve. Taylor-Britt has already told the rest of the defensive back room he’s going to be tops on the production chart when it’s all said and done.
Competitive excellence is a word that comes to mind.
“I love to win,” Taylor-Britt said. “I believe my teammates love to win.”
Even with so much back, Nebraska is having to replace a starter at corner opposite Taylor-Britt and at inside linebacker. To help, the Huskers dipped into the transfer portal to secure commitments from former blue-chip Buckeye recruit Tyreke Johnson and former UNI linebacker Chris Kolarevic.
The latter turned heads in the spring with his athleticism and ability.
The former arrived this summer eager to make a name for himself after being somewhat buried on the Ohio State depth chart.
“He adds that extra pop to the defense,” Williams said of his former high school teammate. “The guys we already have are special, but just adding him makes it even more special. … I know Tyreke, I know how he plays. I know he’s got that dog in him just like I do.”
For the most part, this group is as familiar as a defense can be. There’s a unique opportunity on the board in 2021 because of that collective experience.
“The bond we have is unbelievable,” Williams said.
Nebraska’s hoping for its first winning season since 2016. This defense will go a long way toward determining success. So how does it compare to the one Domann and Stille and Dismuke experienced from the sideline years ago?
“I’m not here to make any comparisons,” Domann said. “We’re going to find out this fall.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.