Photo Credit: John Peterson

Sacks, Takeaways and ‘X Plays’: How NU’s Defense Continues an Upward Trend

July 26, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS — The defense Erik Chinander inherited when he arrived as Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator following the 2017 season had just given up 36.4 points per game over 12 games. It was the second-worst mark in school history, ahead of only the 2007 season (37.9 PPG) that paved the way for the Bo Pelini era.

In the four seasons since, Chinander’s Blackshirts have made steady gains on an almost annual basis—31.3 points per game in 2018, 27.4 in 2019, a slight step back to 29.4 playing a conference-only schedule in 2020 and then a big leap forward last year to 22.7.

It was a seasoned group in the secondary and on the line, experience that largely has to be replaced in 2022. The Huskers return 57% of their defensive production, based on the Action Network’s calculations, which ranks 45th nationally and seventh in the Big Ten. It’s not a number that points to likely regression or probable improvement. It’s in the middle, one more piece of complex puzzle as the new season begins, though the names on defense may still be more familiar than the overhaul currently happening on offense.

The Blackshirts’ trajectory has been clear, but it has some questions to answer if that upward trend is to continue.

What will it take to do that, specifically?

“Coming over the walls on pass rush,” linebacker Garrett Nelson said at Big Ten Media Days. The junior from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, led Nebraska in tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (5.0) last season, crossing the mythical Suh line. The breakout season has shown up this summer. Nelson landed on multiple preseason All-Big Ten lists and earned three votes for preseason defensive player of the year in the conference in Cleveland.com’s poll of sportswriters.

Despite the individual numbers, Nelson knows the perception and reality out there of the Huskers’ pass rush in particular. Nebraska’s 4.9% sack rate ranked 105th nationally.

“I see the comments of people, and I know me personally, and us as a position group can get more sacks and affect the QB more,” Nelson said. “I put that on my shoulders and put that on us as a front seven.”

Cornerback Quentin Newsome’s prescription for continued progress perhaps reflected his position as well.

“We need more takeaways for sure. That’s something that we’re really striving on.”

Such has been the case at Nebraska for years. The Huskers haven’t had a positive turnover margin since 2016, Nebraska’s last winning season. In 11 seasons in the Big Ten era, Nebraska has had a negative margin nine times.

While a high-turnover offense may be the primary reason Nebraska’s been in the red so consistently, there’s room for the Blackshirts to improve its piece of the equation. After forcing 20 and 21 takeaways over 12 games in 2018 and 2019 respectively, the Huskers’ defense—a good defense—managed 13 in 2021.

Every defense that has ever played the game wanted more turnovers, particularly in the offseason, but Newsome said Nebraska’s roster turnover at some spots might be a positive in this regard if a new mindset comes with it.

“It’s just wanting it more,” he said. “We’ve got new guys up front, new guys in the back end, just guys that want to get to the ball.”

Newsome was tested often as a first-year starter in 2021. His 57 tackles led the secondary—topping a pair of super-senior safeties and an NFL Draft pick, Cam Taylor-Britt—but has yet to record his first career interception.

He’s setting his sights on four picks this season. “At the least.”

Safety Deontai Williams hit that number in 2021, the most in a season at Nebraska since Nathan Gerry had four in 2015.

Improving Nebraska’s defense isn’t only about what the Huskers can potentially add in 2022. Simple maintenance in one key area might be the best way to setting an even higher ceiling.

The Huskers were elite at limiting big plays a year ago, ranking third nationally by giving up an explosive play (rushes of 10-plus yards, passes of 15-plus) 10.4% of plays.

“Limiting the ‘X plays,’ that’s what we call it,” Newsome said. “We did do a really good job of that against every team we played for the most part. There’d probably be one or two mistakes a game.”

Zero, of course, is the aim.

Nebraska’s defense enters 2022 with both mystery and some momentum. How does momentum win out?

Ask the edge rusher, and it’s sacks. Ask the cornerback, and it’s takeaways. Keep limiting the big plays, and that’s sort of become the recipe for defending in today’s game.

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