Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Rhule, Borders Give Glimpse Into Initial Steps Learning Tony White’s Nebraska Defense

March 07, 2023

Defensive coordinator Tony White is one of the rare members of the Nebraska coaching staff that head coach Matt Rhule hasn’t worked with before. Rhule coached at UCLA when White played there, but that’s the extent of their career overlaps.

Rhule tabbed White as the new defensive coordinator at Nebraska following White’s turnaround of the Syracuse defense. His aggressive 3-3-5 philosophy reshaped the Orange’s defensive success. Rhule tapped Phil Snow for the Baylor offensive coordinator job back in 2017 and Snow implemented a 3-3-5. The new head coach wanted to go back to that well at Nebraska.

Now Rhule’s worked with White. They’ve been together in the football offices for weeks, preparing for spring ball to start in less than two weeks. Rhule shed some light on their interactions while speaking with local media on Monday. He liked his quiet confidence, his humility as a person.

“I think it shows a real strength of Tony that he would take a job as a coordinator and have the other coaches not tied to him but tied to me, previously.” Rhule said. “He’s confident in who he is, what his system is.”

While White didn’t hire his position coaches, he brought in familiar analysts. Kevin McGarry is a senior defensive analyst at Nebraska following coaching stops with White at Syracuse and San Diego State. The two worked together at San Diego State for nine years. McGarry has over three decades of experience in college coaching, mostly in various defensive roles. He’s established in coaching circles and his bonafides were welcomed. White hired two young assistants in Josh Bringuel and Jack Potenza. Bringuel is a defensive analyst after the two worked together in Syracuse. Before that, Bringuel was a student assistant coach at San Diego State. Potenza served as a graduate assistant coach on White’s defense at Syracuse. Potenza is a defensive quality control coach at Nebraska and will specialize on the line after three seasons at Syracuse.

“The greatest compliment I can give both of them is if Tony left, I would hire them again,” Rhule said of the staff. “They’re fantastic.”

The head coach still can’t say what the defense will look like, outside of its collective effort. That’s because they don’t know exactly.

“The most important thing to me is they’re watching the players and how they do things,” Rhule said Monday. “Are we a 4-3 or are we a 3-4, are we a man team or a zone team? His system has the flexibility that gets all that but we have a lot of defensive backs. I’ve got to see what guys can do this spring and then figure out, hey this is the system that gives our guys the best chance.”

Rhule said White’s system is a learning experience for other coaches. They have to know the specific points of emphasis as well as verbiage. It’s a learning curve, Rhule said. The head coach insisted he’s still learning the defense so he can comprehend it and teach it. Coaches first need to get on the same page before instilling it to players. Linebackers coach Rob Dvoracek called it chaos. Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said opposing offenses will lose sleep preparing for it. On Monday, linebacker Chief Borders stepped in front of local media and shared his impression of the defense.

“Very fun,” he smiled. “You can rush off that edge, you can drop, you can handle the ball and play as a stack linebacker. You’re able to not just put yourself in a box and strictly play one position. You can be versatile. You can be a dynamic player and that’s what I love doing.”

Borders said he’s still in the linebackers room and plans to play there. He’s also fully prepared to move around within White’s defense if he’s asked. Spring practices haven’t started yet. He hasn’t gotten on the field to learn the system through action. But the Florida transfer laid out how he’s approached learning the new defense.

Start with the front. Are the Huskers lining in a stack personnel. Is it an even front? From there, the defense becomes dynamic with who blitzes, their direction, their alignments, if the first-level defender stunts to one side and if they complement each other.

“It’s all about a step process, you’re just taking your time, gradually consume the information, then you set yourself up for success getting those right,” Borders said. “Everything else is just play football.”

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