Nebraska's Preparing for a Changing Illinois Defense
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Nebraska’s Preparing for a Changing Illinois Defense

November 07, 2018

Illinois’ defense with recently-resigned defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson running the show was not pretty. The Illini gave up 63 points to Penn State, then 17 to Rutgers, then 46 to Purdue, 49 to Wisconsin and 63 to Maryland. The Terps were the final straw; Maryland’s offense currently ranks 100th nationally in S&P+. Head coach Lovie Smith took over defensive play-calling duties and replaced Nickerson on staff.

The Illini responded with a 55-31 win last week over Minnesota. The Gophers’ offense averaged 6 yards a play, 4 points per scoring opportunity and 41 percent success rate (27 percent passing).

“Big change,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said of the defense when he met with the media Wednesday. “They’re playing kind of like Tampa and Chicago in the NFL with Lovie.

“They’re disciplined, they don’t do a whole lot but what they do they do well. They play with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. It was a whole different defense their last game. Our guys noticed that and we know we’re going to have to be ready to go.”

Smith, of course, made a name for himself in Chicago with the Bears. He won a 2006 NFC Championship behind a defense that ranked third in scoring defense and fifth in yards per play.

While this Illinois team isn’t anywhere close to that yet, Smith knows how to coach defense and things are looking different after just a week.

Nebraska sees some benefit this week to having a guy that has been in a Lovie Smith system before. When head coach Scott Frost was in the league, he worked with a Tampa 2 defense. Asked if he can help scheme, running backs coach Ryan Held said, “Yeah I think so.”

“Some of the different things they’ll do and the techniques and where they’ll be landmark-wise and all that, I think it’ll help us with our vertical passing game and the underneath passing game,” he said. “Obviously with the running game it is what it is, we’re going to line up and if they’re too high we’re going to know they’re too high. They do a little bit of disguising but for the most part we’ll know. Really it’s for helping our receivers and letting the other guys know where they’re going to be dropping.”

Other News and Notes

>> Freshman running back Miles Jones is done for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Jones made his debut against Bethune-Cookman but did not travel with the team to Columbus this past weekend. Walters said surgery happened after the B-CU game. Held said Jones likely could have toughed it out the last three games of the season but Nebraska chose to be smart with him and have him ready for spring ball.

>> Tight ends coach Sean Beckton said his group is “leaps and bounds” different in the passing game now compared to earlier in the year, but there’s still plenty to work on.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with them working on individual release with them,” he said. “I try to pick one or two things a week to get better at. We've spent a lot more time this week on releasing off the line of scrimmage. Also, split wide trying to teach those guys to be more receivers. Getting them to be more fluid off the release so they can get downfield quicker."

>> Mario Verduzco was a little worried about his quarterback on the phones Saturday at The Horseshoe.

“It was kind of funny because when he got on the phone, when we were talking on the headset, he was so relaxed I thought that maybe there was something wrong with him,” the quarterback coach said. “I’m serious, I was like ‘Adrian, are you all right?’ He goes ‘Coach, I’m fine.’”

Martinez was strong Saturday, earning another Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor, so there wasn’t a lot for Verduzco to be worried about, but there was the one fumble in the first half. You know, that fumble.

“Obviously after the one tragic error, I wanted to offer him some choice words but I thought better of it,” Verduzco said. “He didn’t need to hear that from me. Now, next year it might be a different story. I think just how he handled the environment and all that part of it was really good.

“I think just like defensive backs, they have to have short memories but at the same time long memories as to never do it again. He’s good that way. He lets things go and doesn’t get too wrapped up into it. 'Okay, let’s get on to the next play.' He beats himself up a little bit but nothing more than what it takes for him to say ‘Hey, let’s just move on, we’re going to need to bounce back.’ He was good.”

>> Nebraska is still searching for that third wide receiver to be a constant behind senior Stanley Morgan Jr. and sophomore JD Spielman. The Huskers have gone with a collective effort recently from senior Bryan Reimers, junior Mike Williams and redshirt freshman Kade Warner — something Walters says has worked fine — but they want a guy to really step up and grab the position.

Probably won’t be freshman Andre Hunt, who Walters says “probably needs another year, another offseason of just getting stronger in the weight room, learning the offense where he can go out and be more consistent.”

It probably won’t be junior Jaron Woodyard, either. “Woodyard hasn’t played as much but he needs a year just to get in the playbook,” Walters said.

>> The way the offense is playing right now, Nebraska’s coaching staff has a ton of freedom to get creative in its weekly planning meetings.

“We can throw anything at our guys and they’ll pick it up,” Walters said. “Now they understand the concepts and why we line up in different formation, why we do certain motions. We’re lightyears ahead of where we were in the spring and the fall.

“You can tell on Mondays, we add some new stuff on Mondays and the guys pick it up really quickly. It’s fun when guys really know what we’re doing because the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can throw at them.”

>> Held said Nebraska would love to get running back Devine Ozigbo to 1,000 yards rushing, just like it would like to get Morgan and Spielman each to 1,000 yards receiving. If they’re in a game and Ozigbo is 20 yards away from it, they’ll dial up a few extra running plays to get him there, but the emphasis is on winning, not stats.

There are benefits to getting those guys to those milestones, though. Definitely on the recruiting trail but also as a way to show guys that hard work brings with it plenty of reward.

“They’re such good people, they’re role models, they really reflect the culture and what we want players to be,” Walters said. “They come to work every day, they work their tails off, they’re unselfish and team-first. When you’re team-first and you’re unselfish, we want all the awards that those guys can get.”

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