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Questions for Nebraska’s Defense Entering Spring Ball

February 27, 2019

Football returns in just a few short days.

Leading up to that point, we’re looking at a bunch of different angles, storylines and questions that might loom large throughout the spring period. On Tuesday, we looked at three questions facing the Husker offense. Now, time for the defense. 

More so than anything else, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s unit is facing an existential question this offseason. 

What is “good” for this team with this offense in this league?

At UCF, the defense accomplished its goal by forcing a ton of turnovers and putting pressure on coordinators to keep pace with the Knight offense. That strategy worked, as the Knights accomplished the most basic goal of the sport, winning all your games, and captured a national championship in the process. But it didn’t always look “good.” 

When it was obvious the Knights’ coaching staff was about to become the Nebraska coaching staff, Husker nation gave UCF a nice little ratings boost and tuned in for the AAC Championship game against Memphis. 

UCF gave up 55 points in that game, almost 500 yards passing, almost 300 yards rushing and 32 first downs. Not a great first impression. But UCF scored one more touchdown than the Tigers and that was all that mattered. A month later, the Knights beat Auburn on a neutral field while giving up 421 yards of total offense and 28 first downs. 

It didn’t matter that things weren’t always aesthetically pleasing, the defense accomplished what Chinander wanted most of the time. UCF, under Frost and Chinander, were elite at forcing turnovers and creating negative plays. The table below shows some of the important numbers for this scheme, with national rankings in parentheses. 

  2015 UCF 2016 UCF 2017 UCF 2017 NU 2018 NU
Success rate 44.7% (98) 36.9% (23) 37.2% (23) 49.9 (129) 43.5 (90)
Yards per play 6.54 (115) 4.78 (12) 5.74 (74) 6.34 (112) 5.81 (75)
Takeaways 13 (t116) 26 (t18) 32 (2) 12 (t115) 20 (t57)
Havoc rate 13.4% (109) 20.1% (9) 16.5% (56) 10.4% (129) 16.2% (63)
PPG 37.7 (118) 24.6 (41) 25.3 (52) 36.4 (116) 31.3 (88)

Havoc rate tracks the percentage of plays a defense faced in which it recorded a tackle for loss, defended pass or forced fumble. The national average over the last four years has been about 16 percent. Going from college football’s basement to the middle of the pack in both havoc rate and turnovers forced is no small feat, but it speaks to a shift in emphasis more than anything else. UCF did almost the exact same. 

So how much better does it need to look to win in the Big Ten? The common refrain is that Chinander will need more than what he got from his UCF defense during that magical 2017 season, but maybe not in the categories that matter. (Fun fact: the average offensive S&P+ rank for AAC teams in 2017 was 57.9, the Big Ten’s average for 2018 was 57.1.) Where does that improvement come? 

Here are three areas to keep track of in the spring.

Stopping the Run

Nebraska got pushed around on the goal line, rarely stuffed its opponent in short-yardage situations and gave up 5 yards every time the other team ran the ball (only 23 other FBS teams gave up more per carry).

Generating more of a pass-rush was the hot topic of the offseason, but a large portion of the Huskers’ 2018 defensive woes came from an inability to slow the other team’s running game. The Huskers gave up 8 yards a carry to Illinois and Wisconsin, 6 to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan and 5 to Purdue. The Boilermakers were the only member of that group to throw for more than 252 yards against the Huskers. 

If everything else stays the same and the front seven stops the run a little better, does Nebraska still go 1-5 in those games? Maybe not.

With Mick Stoltenberg, Freedom Akinmoladun, Dedrick Young II and Luke Gifford all graduated from that front seven, there’s plenty of room for new faces to step in and make their mark. Whether that means good things for the run defense remains to be seen, but Nebraska isn’t lacking on options. 

Several linemen have shown up on Hail Varsity’s freshman, sophomore and junior spring watchlists so far and there might be one or two more on Thursday’s senior watchlist. Point being, some of these guys need to step up. 

Every part of the defense showed statistical improvement from 2017 to 2018, but the run defense represented some of the smallest gains. 

The April 13 spring game will be particularly interesting in this regard. Quarterback Adrian Martinez will more than likely be one of the best quarterbacks the Husker defense goes against all year, but he might not have any of his expected backfield running mates during the scrimmage. Dedrick Mills and Rahmir Johnson don’t arrive on campus until the fall and Maurice Washington’s status is up in the air. A poor running day might not necessarily be a sign of good things to come defensively, but a great one would certainly signal concern.

TakeOpps to Takeaways?

Sophomore cornerback Dicaprio Bootle’s emergence was one of the best stories of last season. His 15 pass breakups were the most of any Big Ten defender. As the year went on, Bootle made it clear passing schemes should avoid throwing to where he was at. 

But if you take the glass half empty approach, a pass breakup is just a dropped interception. On defensive back coach Travis Fishers’ production chart, a PBU is a missed opportunity. 

And Bootle missed on every opportunity. The corner didn’t pick off a single pass in 2018. Of the 76 players to get their hands on at least 10 passes last season, only 13 of them went without an interception. The odds of that happening to him again are low.

Which is good, because the Huskers will need some of those breakups to become turnovers. If you took every player on the Huskers’ defense and added up their career interceptions, you’d be counting to five. Lamar Jackson has two (both came last year), Deontai Williams has two (same) and Tyrin Ferguson has one (2017).

The Huskers were fine at forcing fumbles and most of the guys who did so are returning. The punch-out drill Nebraska’s defenders work every day at the beginning of practice will continue to be a thing. If Nebraska is taking possessions away from the opponent and giving its own offense extra, basic football knowledge says that’s good. But when the Nebraska offense is supercharged, the benefits of a takeaway are as well. 

In 16 games with at least two takeaways, the Knights went 14-2 with a scoring margin of plus-20.1. In 10 games with fewer than two, the Knights went 5-5 with a scoring margin of plus-4.5 There seems to be a pretty direct correlation here with Chinander’s unit between creating turnovers and winning football games. Nebraska was 3-3 when creating multiple turnovers and 1-5 when it didn’t.

MORE: Questions for Nebraska’s Offense This Spring

The emphasis this offseason will be on capitalizing on those opportunities where a big play is there for the taking but isn’t made.

In 12 games, the Husker defense averaged 6.75 TakeOpps (Brandon Vogel’s number; Takeaway Opportunities are forced fumbles plus passes defended), which is a truly elite number for a defense. The national average over the last five years is around  5.3 a game, 2017 UCF was at 6.5. The Huskers’ expected turnover margin based on those numbers would have been the 42nd-best mark nationally. Instead, the actual turnover margin ranked 81st. 

We can’t really know if the Huskers are going to be better in-season at converting opportunity into reality solely based on practices, but Fisher will be able to tell if his secondary is developing some ballhawks this spring. That would be a good sign. 

Well, that and Bootle picking off Martinez in the spring game.

Where are the Playm6kers?

Turnover talk leads to the third and final question: who are Nebraska’s playmakers on defense?

This is one that can absolutely have some clarity in spring ball. 

Luke Gifford led the Huskers in sacks, quarterback hurries and tackles for loss last season.

Antonio Reed led the Huskers in total turnovers forced.

Those are all game-changing plays and guys who were good at making them and guys who are no longer around to make them.

Who on the defense is taking over those roles? 

The Huskers are replacing five of the team’s top six tacklers from a season ago. The safety spot was arguably Nebraska’s strongest a season ago but lost its three top players. Linebacker needs to replace half of its starting four. The defensive line, as discussed earlier, doesn’t currently have any bonafide playmakers causing havoc at the line of scrimmage. There is going to be open competition up and down the depth chart on the defensive side of the ball as Nebraska searches for some game-breakers.

Leading up to the 2017 season, Nebraska had at least one representative on the All-Big Ten Second Team or better every year of being in the conference. No one earned even an honorable mention spot that season. Make it now two years in a row without someone on the second team or higher and four years without a first-team all-conference selection. 

Is there a guy outside of Mo Barry who can kick that trend? 

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