Bad teams have no leaders. Good teams are led by the coaches. Great teams are led by the players.
That was said Wednesday by defensive coordinator Erik Chinander after practice No. 11 wrapped up, but you know he’s not the only member of the Husker coaching staff to utter those words. Leadership with this group has been a topic of conversation for almost the entirety of spring practice. Wednesday provided another teaching moment.
When head coach Scott Frost stepped in front of cameras, he said Wednesday was maybe the best practice he’d been a part of at Nebraska. Around this time, intensity drop-offs are far more common. The excitement from the beginning of spring has worn off and the grind has taken over.
“I haven’t seen it this year,” Frost said. “Last year, the drop-off happened quick. It was three or four practices and then they kind of reverted back to their [old] practice habits and it didn’t look very good. We just continue to be on the rise now.”
He called it clean. The natural progression from a first-year team to a second year together. Every practice, he said, he’d lose his voice yelling at guys to line up correctly or play harder. Not this year. Senior wideout Mike Williams lined up in the wrong spot during a competition drill Wednesday and redshirt freshman Andre Hunt corrected him immediately.
Wednesday was competition day and the offense won. “It was great to see a response from the offensive side of the ball, because defense has been getting the better of us all spring,” he said. Quarterback Adrian Martinez had one of the better days Frost has seen him have. So maybe that’s why the offensive coaches thought it was such a strong day.
Because Erik Chinander had the exact opposite response.
“No,” the defensive coordinator said bluntly when asked if he had the same evaluation of the defense as Frost did for the offense. “We lost the competition period. We lost by one. We came out and got punched in the mouth a little bit, which was awesome for us, it was a little slice of humble pie. I don’t think they were ready to play, I didn’t like the attitude.”
Chinander said there was a breakdown in communication for the first time all spring, a good teaching moment but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. He credited the offense, adding he also thought Martinez brought his best stuff, but after 10 practices of the defense playing like it had “smoke flying out of our ears” and taking it to the offense, things sagged.
“I think it was a combination [of effort and mental errors], and it got better as practice went on, we got down early and we pulled that score back within one, so it got better, but I don’t want to do that anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to have to call them up and be the one to do it, I want them to do it.
“I don’t want to have to gather everyone up after every period and tell them how we need to refocus and how we need to get the energy up. That’s up to them. If you want to be a really good defense, you’ve got to be ready to go as soon as you walk across that line and strap it up. Today I didn’t think they were.”
He liked that some of his leaders on defense—guys like senior middle backer Mo Barry—took over as the nearly-two-and-a-half-hour practice went along, but the next step for the defense, and the whole team really, will be doing that from the opening whistle.
“When a head coach can get the team to a point that I can just sit back, blow my whistle and watch practice, we know we’re getting somewhere,” Frost said. “That means I don’t have to coach effort, that players are coaching each other, they’re fixing things so coaches don’t have to, the work ethic’s there. We’re getting closer.”
Other News and Notes
>> Junior wideout JD Spielman missed practice Wednesday as he’s dealing with an unspecified injury, but Frost said it was minor. “We’re trying to protect him,” he said. Sophomore running back Maurice Washington also missed practice, but there’s nothing new on that front. As he handles a legal case in California, he’s a “limited participant” at Nebraska. Wednesday was a no-go day for him. Redshirt freshman safety Cam Jones was absent for academic reasons.
>> Sophomore defensive lineman Deontre Thomas is up to 300 pounds. Line coach Tony Tuioti said it’s helping him in the run game.
“You guys hear me say it over and over again, I spend a lot of time talking about the run because in this league, it’s all about that and we’ve got to have that physical mentality,” Tuioti said. “He’s more stout in the run game for us. He’s doing a better job striking, using his hands, but then he’s also athletic enough to be able to transition and help us out in the pass rush.”
Chinander said the defensive line group, as a whole, under Tuioti “has been elevated a little bit right now."
>> Nebraska currently has two corners seeing a not-insignificant amount of snaps at safety in Eric Lee Jr. and Cam Taylor. Don’t think of it as a position change, but rather guys cross-training because of a lack of depth. Chinander said Lee is smart enough to handle either spot and it sounds like the defensive staff is just wanting to get Taylor on the field in whatever way possible.
At safety specifically, it’s open season until the fall.
“If I was one of those DBs, I don’t know what they think, but if I was one of those guys, I wouldn’t feel very safe right now,” Chinander said. “I don’t think anybody’s got a job. I don’t care if it’s Lamar [Jackson] who’s been a three-year starter or Dicaprio [Bootle] who’s the pass breakup guy. None of those guys better feel safe right now because there’s a good push coming and a lot of young guys coming in.”
>> Depth at linebacker is also an issue. Alex Davis is really having a strong spring (Jacob Padilla will have more on that later), and JoJo Domann is getting more comfortable banging in the box, but Chinander still feels like the Huskers need a year or two of strong recruiting cycles at that second level.
“We’ve got to get some of these walk-ons in here, get some of these new scholarship players in here and get them up to speed and see if we can compete,” he said. “I think over the next year or two we’re going to have to have some big recruiting cycles at those positions because we’re going to lose some guys and there’s not enough young guys right now.”
The big name at outside backer is Caleb Tannor, but he’s still learning and has yet to prove reliable.
“Last year he was kind of out there just running around,” Chinander said. “He didn’t understand the defense, he didn’t understand what the offense was presenting him, he’s a talented kid that was out there trying to make plays. Now we need him to do things within the defense that will let him be a really good football player in the Big Ten.”
Collin Miller has “greatly, greatly improved” at inside backer, Will Honas is “starting to come back” from the knee injury he suffered last year and freshman Nick Henrich is “meeting and exceeding expectations,” but that still only gives Nebraska four guys for two spots inside and four guys for two spots outside. Chinander wants more.
>> Scott Frost did not plan on taking Fred Hoiberg’s elevator Tuesday when Hoiberg was introduced as the next head basketball coach. Much was made about whether Frost would be in attendance for Hoiberg’s 3 p.m. press conference, but when Hoiberg arrived with his wife, Carol, and Athletic Director Bill Moos, Frost was right there with him.
He said he had been invited to Moos’ office to meet Hoiberg before, then walked to the elevator with Hoiberg “and next thing I knew I was on an elevator with them,” he said.
Frost, like most others, is excited about Hoiberg’s arrival. He said he was “good friends” with Tim Miles and thought Miles accomplished a lot at Nebraska, but he’s also excited by Hoiberg’s vision of the future.
There are similarities between the two coaches. Both are billed as somewhat of program rescuers, both are widely regarded as elite offensive minds in their respective sports with quick-paced attacks, and they share similar personal qualities.
“I’d be flattered if there were comparisons because he was a heck of an athlete and he’s a heck of a coach,” Frost said. “I’ll let other people draw parallels, I’m just excited to have him.
“We’re going to be on a similar track trying to get these two programs to where they belong and I can’t wait to watch him work.”
>> Freshman athlete Wan’Dale Robinson continues to draw praise. He’s not currently operating at 100 percent and he’s still making plays, both as a wideout and a running back.
“Learning the offense isn’t going to be an issue for him,” Frost said. “He’s one of those guys where not only does he know what to do, but he finds a way to make the job work within the play. He’s a very smart and instinctual player.”
On April 5 and 6, the Huskers will hold their annual Nebraska Football Coaches Clinic. Scheduled to be the keynote speaker is recently-retired Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder.
“To get a guy like him up here is pretty special for us,” Frost said.
Snyder went 215–117–1 at Kansas State. Frost has a tremendous amount of respect for the Hall of Fame-bound coach.
“I don’t think Bill Snyder gets enough credit,” Frost said. “The job Bill Snyder did at Kansas State is unbelievable. Taking a program that hadn’t won at all and turning them into a perennial winner, he’s got to be up there with some of the greatest coaches that have ever been in this game. On top of that, he’s a good person. I got to know him in my year at Kansas State, him and [son] Sean and their family and I have a lot of admiration for him.
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.