The 2021 college football season is going to test a system we’ve used to project year-over-year success for a while. ESPN’s Bill Connelly has baked returning production into his SP+ model, a way to contextualize how guys back can lead to gains made. What he’s found is that teams that return huge swaths of production tend to show improvement in ways that impact the bottom line.
Bring everyone back, get better. It’s fairly self-explanatory and pretty common sense, but football is rarely either of those two things. It is in the context of team-building, though. Continuity breeds chemistry which breeds success in a lot of ways.
But what happens when everyone in the country returns everything? What happens when bad production comes back? Can everyone improve if “improvement” is taking that next step?
Nebraska’s defense has shown improvement each year under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. From 38 points surrendered each game in conference play in 2017 to 34 in 2018 to 30 in 2019 to 29 in 2020. From 6.3 (112th) yards allowed each play in 2017 to 5.8 (75th) in 2018 to 5.6 (62nd) in 2019 to 5.5 (44th) in 2020. From 5.6 yards allowed each run in 2017 to 5.0 (107th) in 2018 to 4.8 (102nd) in 2019 to 4.2 (56th) in 2020.
Fly to the football was all Chinander asked early on. If you make a mistake, there are 10 teammates coming behind you to clean it up.
Nebraska’s defense certainly plays hard and it plays fast. Improvement has been made. And only six FBS programs return more production than Nebraska’s 88%. Everyone is back on the defensive line. Technically everyone is back at linebacker, though Will Honas will miss most of the year with a knee injury. Three of four starters are back in the secondary. Seventeen defenders played at least 100 snaps, 15 of them are back.
The offensive side of the football carries most of the question marks. On the defensive side, there is only one question that really needs answering: What’s next?
Here are three predictions.
No. 1: Modest, not drastic, improvement stopping the run
This would be continuing a trend. It’s not bold, but these aren’t supposed to be; more what I think will happen, not what could.
(And I lied a smidge earlier when I said there’s only one question worth answering. Call this No. 1, Step 1, considering a number of tweaks to the recipe should cook up the intended dish.)
Take this from Brandon Vogel’s defensive preview:
Team’s ran the ball 54% of the time against the Nebraska defense in 2020, the highest rate yet of the Frost era, yet did so to increasingly diminishing returns. The Huskers’ success rate against the run, 41.1%, was the best of the past three seasons, ranking 51st. That’s still not something I’d be willing to call a trait, but it’s in the neighborhood. Improving by 2 percentage points in rushing success rate would put the Huskers in the vicinity of Ohio State and Iowa from last year. It would take an improvement of 10 points to be close to what Wisconsin, the conference leader, did in 2020 and that’s probably not in the cards. But 2 percentage points? Assuming a similar amount of non-garbage-time rushes as in 2019, the Huskers’ last 12-game season, improving by 2 percentage points would be the difference of stopping about 10 more runs on the season.
From a per-carry standpoint, Nebraska’s defense made “the leap” last year stopping the run, or maybe just A Little Leap™, though that was from dreadful to passable, so maybe not yet The Leap™, if that’s still in there. I suppose we’ll see.
The defensive line did the things that signal stout line play snap after snap, but they didn’t do things that created splash plays. Generally, that’s not what this scheme asks of the defensive line, even though those guys serve as the table-setters for a good run defense.
Still, Nebraska stuffed opposing running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage on 21.4% of plays, a rate that ranked 30th nationally (Football Outsiders) and speaks to a pretty strong front even if those guys weren’t getting the credit for finishing the play.
How does Nebraska make up those 2 percentage points Vogel wrote about? I think internal development on the defensive line could prove the answer.
A quick run through of the cast of characters: Damion Daniels, Ty Robinson, Ben Stille, Casey Rogers, Jordon Riley, Deontre Thomas, and maybe one of the young guys who look like they drank 80g protein shakes twice a day from the time they were 7 months old.
Daniels, now a captain, is in for a big season and that’s not really a hot take anymore, the bandwagon is full. Robinson has a pretty high ceiling he’ll move a step closer to reaching. Rogers has grown into a fine player. Those three had a combined one missed tackle last season in over 400 rush snaps faced and the three lowest broken/missed tackle rate on the team when playing the run (courtesy of the SIS Data Hub).
I don’t necessarily see Nebraska becoming one of the 10 or 15 or so best run-stopping defenses in the country mostly because the schedule features a heavy dose of teams that lean on the run and do it well. But I do think they have the juice to keep trending in the right direction, moving from passable to good in the process.
No. 2: Nebraska’s secondary is much better at taking the ball away
Five interceptions in eight games does not a ball-hawking secondary make.
Nebraska’s secondary was not without talent, though. Nor was it without opportunity. Teams threw on the Huskers. And they did so to pretty decent success—NU ranked 77th nationally in defensive success rate against the pass and 62nd in explosiveness.
But the Huskers, either through luck or scheme (probably some combo of both), found ways into situations were interceptions were possible. They created one less pick than what was expected based on their statistical profile. Not terrible, but to reach the heights that secondary talks about, they have to make their own luck, so to speak.
The big name is Cam Taylor-Britt, the Huskers’ fourth-year corner many in Lincoln expect has a chance to be one of the conference’s best cover corners. Taylor-Britt faced 31 targets last season and allowed a completion percentage of 54.8% on those targets. That was 10th-best among league defenders. (Dicaprio Bootle ranked fourth.) He allowed 7.2 yards per pass attempt as the primary defender, a mark that ranked eighth in the Big Ten.
For Taylor-Britt to take the next step, he needs to produce more than just two interceptions. Nebraska knows that, Taylor-Britt knows that. The Alabama native does well to put himself into positions to break on the ball and when he seems out of a play, his exceptional athleticism changes that quickly.
He should lead the secondary in takeaways. But it can’t just be Taylor-Britt. Nebraska has to be more opportunistic. More snaps for Myles Farmer, who has shown a nose for the football in limited action, could help. A big year from Deontai Williams could help. Tyreke Johnson breaking out after his transfer from Columbus this summer would certainly help.
Nebraska has all the talent necessary to do it. They just need to make those plays.
No. 3: Pheldarius Payne will lead the defense in sacks
Greg Smith has won me over.
And, I guess, throw some credit Mike Dawson’s way as well.
“He’s a slippery guy, a guy that can make plays,” said the Huskers’s outside linebacker coach at the start of camp. “He can contort and twist his body and sometimes I’ll see him kind of do a pass-rush move and it’s nothing that you’ve seen or coached before and you’re like ‘Yeah, that’s not something we worked on but heck, that worked, keep doing it buddy.’ One of those types of deals. He can get to the quarterback and find a way. I think that’s definitely a strength for him.”
Nebraska has been searching for that kind of player as an edge rusher for years. Maybe Payne can be the answer this season. Perhaps not on a scale that puts him up there with the best of the Big Ten—this league just continues to churn out remarkably gifted pass-rushers—but enough to move the needle for a Husker defense that needs to generate more of a pass-rush.
Their pressure rate of 31.5% last season ranked 89th nationally. The sack rate ranked 75th. The Huskers put pressure on the quarterback on only 46% of third-down dropbacks. Those numbers have to show improvement.
Look for Payne to bring some.
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.