Yesterday was pretty heavy, so let’s shift the conversation back toward the football field, shall we? Last week, Derek Peterson wrote about the offense, so I’ll balance things out and hit on the defense in my column.
After a rough first couple of games for the Blackshirts, Nebraska showed some signs of life on defense by holding Northern Illinois to one offensive touchdown. That being said, this defense is still throwing me off a little bit.
My initial thought when I heard that Nebraska was going to be switching to a 3-4 defense was one of excitement. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan and have been watching Dom Capers’ base 3-4 and various sub-packages for years now. I’ve enjoyed watching the likes of Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and others rushing off the edge with reckless abandon and punishing opposing quarterbacks.
When I started to think about this roster realigning into the 3-4, I actually thought it might be a good fit right away. Nebraska was short on linemen but had plenty of linebackers. The Huskers struggled to consistently create pressure off the edges with the four-down-linemen scheme but Nebraska had some potentially good pass-rushing types that could play outside linebacker in the new defense, not to mention the expanded blitz package a 3-4 scheme makes possible.
Guys like Alex Davis, Marcus Newby, Tyrin Ferguson, Colin Miller, Guy Thomas and others seemed like they’d be perfect fits as pass-rushing outside linebackers. However, I wasn’t sure how the linemen fit into a typical 3-4 defense. Carlos Davis is the perfect size for a 3-4 defensive end and has the ability to match, but Nebraska didn’t have a prototypical nose tackle with the 6-foot-5, then-sub-300-pound Mick Stoltenberg tackling that challenge and Freedom Akinmoladun seemed more like a tweener between end and outside linebacker than a pure end.
Furthermore, when we broke down each position group before the start of the season I (and others) felt the secondary would be the strength of the defense, followed by the linebackers and then the defensive line.
So far, everything I thought about this defense coming in has been dead wrong.
Of the three levels on defense, to my eye the defense line has been the most impressive. Stoltenberg has thrived at nose tackle — something I was a bit skeptical of — and true freshman Deontre Thomas, though undersized, has been a brilliant change of pace as Stoltenberg’s back-up. Neither Davis nor Akinmoladun have accumulated much in the way of stats, but they’re doing their jobs for the most part. Khalil Davis has come off the bench to keep the other linemen fresh and give Nebraska a bit of depth up front, and had a break-out performance against Northern Illinois.
Each of the linebackers that have set foot on the field has struggled at one point or another in his new role, to the point where Diaco is choosing to play his top two Cat linebackers the majority of the snaps rather than starting someone listed at the Dog position. Now, with two of the three Cat ‘backers who have seen the field out for the Rutgers game and Dog ‘backers Alex Davis and Sedrick King seeing most of their snaps as ends in a four-man front, I’m not quite sure who will be playing across from Luke Gifford.
The secondary has struggled as well, though a great deal of that can be attributed to injury after the unit lost its best player in corner Chris Jones and a promising young back-up in JoJo Domann to preseason injuries, then safety Joshua Kalu went down in week two as well. Nebraska has some talented prospects in the defensive backfield, but most of them have moved up the depth chart out of necessity and have been thrust into the spotlight, perhaps before they’re entirely prepared for the responsibility.
As for the scheme, I had read over and over again how focused Diaco’s scheme was on limiting big plays over anything else as more of a bend but don’t break defense and I knew where his teams ranked in sacks over the years, but I underestimated what that actually meant.
Nebraska finally forced some negative plays against the Huskies, but they still only recorded two sacks which raised the season total to three through three games. The players talked about some of the fun blitzing schemes the team was working on during fall camp but we have yet to see much evidence of that.
Nebraska has shifted back and forth between four and three man fronts fairly liberally, but Nebraska has played the vast majority of its snaps with just four defensive backs; Nebraska has barely played any nickel and dime. That combined with the lack of pressure has put a lot of stress on the linebackers in coverage and they have struggled a bit.
I thought coming into the season that Nebraska’s personnel was a pretty solid fit for the 3-4 scheme, but it looks like I was way off, just like I was with all my expectations for this defense. It is going to take some time either for Diaco to get players that fit his scheme into the system or for the ones already here to adjust to what he wants from their positions.
Unfortunately, they don’t have much time at all following a 1-2 start and Shawn Eichorst’s firing.
Does Diaco try to get more creative and adjust to fit his players for a better chance at short-term success? Or does he continue with the status quo as he attempts to establish his expectations for the players? Time will tell, but either way the Blackshirts have to continue to trend up if Nebraska wants to turn this season around.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.