Nebraska interim head coach Mickey Joseph was asked ahead of the Purdue game what changes he made to the defense in the last month.
He took over the day after Nebraska gave up 45 points to Georgia Southern. The Eagles were a traditional triple-option offense before the arrival of former USC head coach Clay Helton in the offseason. In their second game of a new pass-reliant offense the Eagles tallied 409 passing yards — in addition to 233 rushing yards — on Nebraska in a 45-42 win that ultimately ended the Scott Frost era in Lincoln.
Joseph’s first game as head coach was against Oklahoma, then No. 6 in the country. The Sooners carved through the Husker defense for 580 total yards. Joseph fired defensive coordinator Erik Chinander the day after.
In the two games that followed, wins over Indiana and Rutgers, the Husker defense allowed a combined 638 yards. How?
“We made a change at defensive coordinator,” Joseph said plainly. “That was the change.”
But it wasn’t the only shift Joseph’s made. In his introductory press conference he announced coach Travis Fisher would coach cornerbacks while the defensive coordinator took safeties and nickels. Fisher came to Nebraska with Frost in 2018 and coached the entire secondary. He coached playmakers like Cam Taylor-Britt — and the rest of the secondary.
“That’s miserable,” defensive coordinator Bill Busch said last week. “We were able to divide it up so Coach Fisher can have the corners, I can have the nickels and safeties.”
Busch coached the entire secondary by himself at LSU. It’s not easy and no longer the norm. Every NFL franchise and the vast majority of college programs split defensive backs among two coaches. That’s what the LSU coaching staff eventually did, moving Busch to safeties coach and bringing in Corey Raymond to coach corners, like he does now at Florida.
Nebraska’s defensive coordinator explained last week the importance of distinguishing between safeties, nickels and corners. Lumping them together under one coach would be the equivalent of having one offensive coach oversee quarterbacks and running backs. By splitting secondary players among Fisher and Busch, players received more specific coaching. They’re also able to distribute more reps.
“That helps us a bunch on just time to get things done,” Busch said. “That is really hard because you’re talking about press man coverage, working on that, where the safeties are and where they’re going. We felt it maximized that and how we divided it up.”
Nebraska has worked almost exclusively with man coverage and a press since Busch took over. Huskers jammed receivers at the line, whereas under Chinander corners allowed more cushion off the line of scrimmage. Nebraska allowed 314 (Northwestern), 409 and 230 passing yards against FBS opponents in Chinander’s three games this season. Under Busch, the Huskers have allowed 223 (Indiana), 233 (Rutgers) and 391 (Purdue) passing yards.
Players said they’re comfortable playing in Busch’s system. With comfort comes the confidence to make plays. Players are able to move faster and without hesitation. In the three games under Busch the Huskers have five interceptions. In as many games against FBS opponents, the Huskers made two interceptions under Chinander.
Freshman Malcolm Hartzog is a beneficiary of the change. Started his first collegiate game against Indiana and ran in the blocked punt for a touchdown. He’s also been in the right spot to secure interceptions in each of the last two games. Sophomore Myles Farmer nabbed an interception against Rutgers. Senior defensive back Brandon Moore also found the field for an interception against the Scarlet Knights. All three of them were directly impacted by the coaching shift.
“I think you’ve got to do that because it’s two different positions,” Joseph said last week. “It’s hard to see all four. That’s why you see more spread teams on offense and you have two receiving coaches, one’s on the inside, one’s on the outside.”
Fringe top 25 Purdue put up the most yards Nebraska’s defense allowed since the coaching shift. It’s also worth noting the Huskers were without senior linebacker Luke Reimer, who did not dress for the game. The Huskers lost team captain Nick Henrich during the game to a knee injury. Bruised cornerback Quinton Newsome started and played throughout.