Padding the Stats: Tracking Nebraska's Participation on Defense
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Tracking Nebraska’s Participation on Defense

September 14, 2018

If you haven’t already read part one of this week’s Padding the Stats focusing on the offense, start here.

Are you back? Good. Let’s look at the other side of the ball. As is usually the case when they’re handed out, the Blackshirts were a hot topic this week. Scott Frost and his staff handed out seven of them after Nebraska’s 33-28 loss to Colorado.

A closer look at the defense’s performance and Erik Chinander’s usage of his personnel goes a long way towards explaining why the guys that got their shirts did so.

Nebraska spent 77 percent of its snaps in its base 3-4 defense and split the rest of the snaps pretty evenly between two different nickel packages (3-3-5 and 2-4-5) and a dime unit (2-3-6) for long passing downs. Twenty-three players saw the field on defense.

Let’s start with the linebackers, a pretty straightforward group based on what we saw last Saturday. All four starters — Dedrick Young II and Mohamed Barry on the interior and Luke Gifford and Tyrin Ferguson on the edges — got their Blackshirts and all four played more than 70 percent of Nebraska’s snaps.

If Gifford, a senior captain, left the field at all, it was for one snap (can’t remember if he actually did take one play off or if I simply failed to log that particular rep for Gifford). Regardless, the point is that the coaches seem to view Gifford as an indispensable part of their defense regardless of what the down and distance is. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though as many who watched the team last year thought Gifford was arguably the team’s best defender before he got hurt.

Ferguson’s usage was a little more surprising; he didn’t leave the field when the team was in base and he was on the field for more than 87 percent of the team’s plays overall. No Breon Dixon, Caleb Tannor or Guy Thomas at that spot. Ferguson spent a lot of his time dropping back into coverage with Gifford rushing the passer off the opposite side, but Ferguson got some chances to pin his era back as well.

No matter who is coaching him or how many players are in the room, Young just seems to find a way to stay on the field. He led the inside ‘backers by playing 86 percent of the snaps and was a part of all of Nebraska’s subpackages. He finished with nine tackles including two for loss but got absolutely rocked and washed out of the play by a tight end on Colorado’s three-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 that put the Buffaloes up 14-0. 

On the first drive of the game, Young got fooled by the quarterback and ran the wrong direction as Steven Montez took off, giving up 14 yards on second-and-8. He also got stuck in coverage on the next play and wasn’t able to make a play on a all thrown to Lavish Chenault for a 28-yard gain. That being said, Young was the guy who beat his block to make the tackle on fourth-and-1 late after Gifford forced the pitch in the option.

Barry led the team in tackles despite only playing 71 percent of the snaps. Will Honas rotated in for each of the starters and was right around 28 percent.

The only other two ‘backers who saw the field were Alex Davis and Collin Miller, as both were part of Nebraska’s 2-4-5 nickel package in pass-rushing situations. They played six snaps apiece.

 The cornerback position was pretty straightforward. Travis Fisher said he doesn’t rotate his corners and he didn’t rotate his corners on Saturday. Both Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle played every snap. The only other corner that saw the field was true freshman Cam Taylor who appears to be the team’s dime back.

It is noteworthy to me that Jackson didn’t receive a Blackshirt. He had some lowlights (a miss on his first open field tackle attempt and a blown coverage in zone on third and 19 that led to a first down) but he held up in coverage a number of times and apparently played well enough to stay on the field. Fisher has called out Jackson publicly a number of times (mixing in some praise here and there) and I wonder if this is the continuation of Fisher trying to motivate and get the most out of the former 4-star recruit with great physical tools.

Safety was another story, however, as the three seniors — Antonio Reed, Aaron Williams and Tre Neal — split the reps almost evenly with each playing between 65 and 70 percent of the snaps. When Nebraska went nickel, it included three safeties. Reed spent most of the time as the deep safety while Williams and Neal both moved around all over the field. The only other safety who saw some action was sophomore Deontai Williams who was one the field about 15 percent of the time. Colorado targeted him twice in coverage with no success. The junior college transfer was impressive in his debut despite his limited playing time.

No Cam Jones, no CJ Smith, no Marquel Dismuke, no Avery Anderson.

Finally, no position saw more rotation than the defensive line where Mike Dawson deployed several different lineup variations up front that included nine different players. Senior end Freedom Akinmoladun (received a Blackshirt) led all linemen in snaps as he was out there 54 percent of the time. Senior Mick Stoltenberg (also received a Blackshirt) led the nose tackles in snaps, playing nearly as many as the other two (Peyton Newell and Damion Daniels) combined at just under 35 percent compared to just under 20 percent and 16 percent for the other two.

The third starter, Ben Stille, was second on the line in snaps as he played about 50 percent of the snaps. Stille wasn’t particularly productive for much of the game but he came up big on Colorado’s final drive, shedding the center like he wasn’t even there on his way to a sack that set up a third-and-19.

The Davis twins, Carlos and Khalil, combined to log right around 70 snaps. Khalil was the most productive lineman in the game with six tackles and two sacks, but both brothers were moving guys all game long. Carlos also saw some action at nose tackle.

Sophomore Deontre Thomas, now playing at end where he belongs, saw 15 snaps and combined with Carlos Davis to wreck the entire left side of the Colorado offensive line on third and 1, clearing the way for the inside linebackers to stop the ball-carrier at the line of scrimmage, setting up a fourth-and-1 that the Huskers also stopped. Even junior DaiShon Neal saw eight snaps in the game.

With the distribution of snaps at safety and defensive line, it’s not surprising that the Blackshirts were limited for those positions. The coaches are still trying to figure out who will consistently make a difference, and they have a lot of options from which to choose.

Moving forward, I’d only expect the number of defensive participants to rise as they seek to get guys like Tannor involved or experiment with young guys that might redshirt like Dixon or Smith or Taylor. 

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