Nebraska is still working through plenty of things on defense and figuring out what it has — we’re only six practices into the spring, after all — but one thing is already clear to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
“I don’t think we’re the defense I heard about,” he told media Thursday after practice. “I think we’re ahead of that curve a little bit. I think they’re buying into the system, I think they’re doing what we want them to do.”
That’s probably the best way to measure progress at such an early point. There’s no depth chart yet, there are still key contributors on the shelf with injury (on both sides) and this new coaching staff is still getting a feel for where everyone works best, but so far the buy-in has been pleasing.
“They’re eager to learn. We made it very clear they’re the most important asset in this building so they need to come find us,” Chinander said. “You know you’ve got something when they’re coming up on their own, they’re watching film together, they want to grab a coach and watch some more film. That’s when you know it’s starting.”
Reports out of Tuesday’s practice — a competition day — were that the team had its best practice so far. Chinander said the energy dipped a little into Thursday, a day more heavy on install. They’re still trying to get the team to a place where every practice has the same intensity of a game day; offensive coordinator Troy Walters has talked about that and now Chinander.
“Kids need to understand that it doesn’t matter if it’s a competition, a scrimmage, it doesn’t matter, it’s always on the line every time we walk on the field,” Chinander said.
That part of it is coming along, as is the tackling. Head coach Scott Frost talked Tuesday about his tackling philosophy — to and through the ball-carrier — and Chinander doubled down Thursday. He believes what Frost believes; they’re “aligned perfectly.”
“We believe in not breaking down at the ball-carrier, we believe in running to and through the ball carrier,” Chinander said. “[Frost] has a great saying: ‘long stride, short stride, shuffle and shoot.’
“We’re not afraid to fail. If we miss tackles we’re going to miss them at 100 miles an hour with proper leverage bouncing that thing around and the rest of the dogs are going to hunt.”
During the first few practices, Chinander said that wasn’t what the team was doing, but “it’s coming” as guys get more comfortable.
“They’re slowly starting to shoot their guns, they’re slowly starting to run to and through ball-carriers, they’re slowly starting to take their shots and not be afraid to miss a tackle, going 100 miles an hour and shooting their guns,” Chinander said. “It’s not there yet, I’m not going to say we’re the ’85 Bears yet, but it’s coming.”
Other News and Notes
>> There hasn’t been any news on whether Ole Miss transfer linebacker Breon Dixon will be granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, and until there is Dixon will continue repping like normal with the team. When a decision comes back from the NCAA, that’s when they’ll make an adjustment. Dixon was working with what looked to be the first unit Tuesday.
>> The “no fear of failure” theme is everywhere with this staff. Everyone preaches the same thing. That’s not surprising but it is interesting to see how each coach approaches teaching that mindset. Inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud focuses on new mistakes versus repeated ones.
“I like new mistakes, I don’t want repeat mistakes,” he said. “Now, if I keep getting guys who have proven to me that they’re smart guys, if they keep making the same mistake, then I’ve got to look at myself, too.
“When you’ve got mistakes, you look at it two ways. Is it guys who aren’t trying or they’re not grasping a concept and then you have to look at yourself as well. If there are a bunch of repeat offenders then I have to look at how I’m teaching it.”
>> Will Honas has gotten plenty of love from the staff recently but Chinander said the junior college transfer linebacker still has work to be done.
"He’s got a ways to go learning the system,” Chinander said, “but he’s doing some nice things technique wise and also physically.”
He also had an interesting quote about coming from junior college to the Division I level:
“Those guys are usually better full-pad players than in their underwear. No pads and no helmets they don’t do very well right away because they just don’t do that at their junior college or high school. So that’s a hard adjustment but once we get the full pads on and they can really let themselves go, they seem to rise to the top a little bit.”
Chinander said Honas looks “like every other really good junior college player” that they’ve had.
>> Asked about guys that have looked good early, Chinander dropped a few corners and some defensive linemen.
In the secondary, he said junior Lamar Jackson is “doing some nice things once he uses what God gave him a little bit.” He said something of the same for sophomore Tony Butler, that he’s learning the system but just needs to figure out how to utilize his length. Chinander said sophomore Dicaprio Bootle is “playing really well right now” and junior Eric Lee Jr. is also playing “some good football.”
He also gave praise to walk-on sophomore Ethan Cox. Cox spent some time with the second unit Tuesday, opposite Lee, already has an interception to his name this spring and has surprised the new staff.
"Ethan Cox has kind of come out of nowhere,” Chinander said. “He’s playing some good football.”
As for the defensive line, senior Mick Stoltenberg sat out again Thursday (nothing major) and in his absence, senior Peyton Newell and redshirt freshman Damion Daniels have looked good.
>> From the defense’s perspective, the Husker quarterbacks have looked good so far. Chinander says he doesn’t know what they’re being taught to do but they’re “throwing some pretty nice balls.”
“When we’ve gotten to a couple other places when we’ve taken over fresh, those guys are new to the system and the balls aren’t coming out so good right away,” he said. “These guys are throwing some really nice footballs, they’re doing a nice job of reading what they’re supposed to read and running appropriately.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.