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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s New Defensive Front Continuing to Evolve Through Personnel, Vision

December 29, 2022

Nebraska fandom eagerly waited to hear who the new defensive coordinator would be. The Huskers, with their rich tradition of defensive football, chose former Syracuse defensive coordinator Tony White. He’s a disciple of defensive mind Rocky Long and implemented a diverse 3-3-5 defense at Syracuse. By doing so, he flipped a bottom-third defense into the top 30 in the country for multiple seasons.

Beyond White’s creative adaptations for the system, there’s intrigue in personnel. Most of Nebraska’s defenders are returning for at least another season. Coaches recruited defensive players heavily in the 2023 recruiting class so far. There’s potential for even more arrivals. Head coach Matt Rhule chose White for the position out of familiarity and trust. White was a linebacker at UCLA when Rhule coached the defensive line. Rhule turned to a 3-3-5 defense to embolden his athletes at Baylor and White’s already proven his meddle for strategy and recruiting (former Group of 5 Recruiter of the Year at San Diego State, via Rivals).

This defense could largely work, at least in Rhule’s eyes, because it’s a fluid concept. And White, a creative mind, can adapt with the personnel.

“In terms of the defense, I’m not saying we are going to run the 3-3-5 defense,” Rhule said during his Early Signing Day press conference. “I’m not saying we are going to run this defense. What I loved about Tony (White) is that he is creative. We had a top-ten defense at Temple and we were 4-3. We went to Baylor and we went to the 3-3-5.”

Those defenses also worked because of the personnel themselves. Of the first nine Temple players drafted into the NFL after Rhule arrived as head coach, eight played defense. Allotment evened out at Baylor until Rhule’s recruiting classes came in. Of the most recent 11 Bears drafted, eight played defense at Baylor. Most of them were, at least at one point, recruited by Rhule.

White said his connection to Rhule and his energy were parts of his arrival to Lincoln. He also told Jessica Coody that Nebraska’s defensive lineage played as big of a role as anything else. White graduated from UCLA in 2002. He played his high school ball when Nebraska won National Championships and his days as a Bruin came at a time when the Blackshirts still held a national reputation. White said the opportunity to bring that unit back to prominence was too good to pass up.

“To lead the Blackshirts, I mean, I’ve still got some studying to do because I want to do this thing right,” White said. “I want to bring the tradition back the right way and there’s some great resources here to do it. … When you talk about college football and some of the best defenses in the country, I want to make sure that they mention Nebraska first.”

While scheme matters, his game plan comes down to player execution. And he looks for passion in the athletes he wants to bring into his defense. It’s a passion built out of representing the school, teammates and self.

“If you’re not juiced up and you’re not lively and you don’t play with no spirit,” White said, “you’re just not going to play here.”

The initial set of defensive bodies opposing offenses will encounter will already look different in 2023. Big bodies up front like Ty Robinson and Stephon Wynn Jr. return for another season. Then there are returning edge rushers like Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler. Nebraska also benefited on Early Signing Day with the arrivals of Vincent Carroll-Jackson, Elijah Jeudy, Maverick Noonan, Princewill Umanmielen, Riley Van Poppel and Kai Wallin. Coaches are excited about that recruiting class, with defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said in a recorded segment that Umanmielen could play immediately.

Nebraska’s dynamic linebacker duo of Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer also returns. New arrivals Chief Borders, Eric Fields, Dylan Rogers and Korver Demma fill out the linebacker room with returning Grant Tagge, Jake Archer and Garrett Snodgrass. Borders transfers in from Florida, where he largely played special teams. His involvement in the defense could expand in White’s system.

“You always want speed, physicality and aggression,” White said of the linebacker traits he looks for. “On tape you want to see if they’re a guy who’s moving sideways or if they’re going downhill. And as they’re going sideways you want to see some playmaker in them.”

Of course, the Huskers suffered two personnel losses with the departure of Columbus native Ernest Hausmann to Michigan through the transfer portal and former team captain edge Garrett Nelson leaving for the NFL Draft. Another edge rusher, TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis, declared for the NFL Draft after his only season in Lincoln.

At the back of Nebraska’s defense is its new secondary. New positional coach Evan Cooper, an active recruiter, is already bringing energy to those positional meetings. His vision for the back end of the defense matches White’s. They’re both excited about how they’ll mesh once players return to campus.

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