Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Tony White Wants to Be Aggressive With Defensive Installations During Nebraska’s Spring Season

March 19, 2023

Greg Sharpe sat across from Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White on a recent episode of Sports Nightly. The veteran voice of the Huskers tried slightly steering the conversation away from football to ask if White and his family are settled. In a blur, like a slip of the tongue, White peeled back his philosophical curtain.

“We’re at Nebraska now,” White smiled before Sharpe mentioned some of the other coaches hadn’t grown roots. “Listen, I don’t know what’s taking them so long. Look, we blitz from play one so we’re going to do this thing right now, alright?”

White developed his football acumen in high school, then as a linebacker at UCLA. His knowledge grew in various coaching roles under 3-3-5 defensive mind Rocky Long. That mentor’s mindset helped generate White’s general philosophies and attacking schemes. White’s decade of defensive back coaching experience brings an extra coaching resource for Nebraska’s secondary. While this upcoming season will be only his fourth as a defensive coordinator, his body of work contains turnaround art.

Syracuse head coach Dino Babers’ seat was so hot in 2022 that outlets pondered if the university would eat a $10 million buyout. Then the Orange started 6-0 with wins over Syracuse and NC State. White’s defense played no small role in the Orange’s turnaround. The Orange finished 21st in total defense (328.6 yards per game) and 14th in passing defense (184.8). The defense called themselves “The Mob” because of their aggressive, ball-hawk mentality.

White brings that mentality to a program removed from its defensive identity. The Blackshirts finished outside the top 100 in yards per game last season and haven’t finished inside the top 30 since 2016. White brought a few defensive analysts from Syracuse, where his defense brought immediate improvement. That group joins Matt Rhule’s coaching staff with having worked with any of the other positional coaches.

“He has his system and his verbiage,” Rhule said of White teaching his system to other assistants. “They have to learn that and also learn all the coaching points, like ‘when we were in our three-down stuff and the guard pulled, we ran through the backside a-gap.’ That level of detail is difficult.”

White previously explained his 3-3-5 defense is more based on personnel than numbers. On the eve of spring practice, Nebraska’s coaching staff prepares to determine who plays where on defense. The defensive interior is a position of need. Ty Robinson is out for the spring with injury and the Huskers will need some roster movement there to assure themselves in the trenches. Promising new arrivals on the edge bring different skillsets to the line’s perimeter. They could shuffle and move along the line as needed to create mismatches and opportunity. When meeting with local media back in January, White said he’s curious to see how the linebacker room plays out. There’s plenty of experience and transfer contributors there as well. Of course, those positions could also be fluid and involve the some of the same personnel play-to-play.

Nebraska’s secondary returns multiple starts from last season and could yield immediate results in White’s system. He admitted he wanted to see them in movements on the field before deciding on the rover position, who fits it and how much it would be involved. Just like how transfer MJ Sherman, for example, could move from the edge back to outside linebacker on consecutive plays, Myles Farmer could move from safety to rover based on circumstance.

Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said opposing teams will lose sleep over the defense’s scheme. Linebacker coach Rob Dvoracek called it chaos. Secondary coach Evan Cooper said he was excited to learn all about the defense. White complimented strength and conditioning coach Corey Campbell for his work this offseason. White also complimented all those other coaches’ football minds and optimism to quickly get on the same page.

A few players have already caught White’s eye. There’s Chief Borders, Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer who all stood out in winter workouts or in their roles from last season. He mentioned Isaac Gifford and John Bullock as two among the secondary who made names for themselves. While White’s defensive system differs from what Nebraska utilized previously, he checked the tape to see what commonalities could translate.

“You kind of just get a feel for their movement skills and seeing how naturally aggressive they are,” White said. “It’s a new slate. Everything is going to start from what we’ve seen them do and the changes we’ve made in terms of positions and schematics. Come the 20th we’re going to let them loose and that’s where the evaluations start on the grass.”

The defensive coordinator wants to install as much of the defense as he can in the 15 allowable practices this spring. Some curious defensive players already got a look and lined up against trash cans. This is the best practice he’s learned from working his way from San Diego State to Arizona State then Syracuse and now at Nebraska. He crunched Nebraska’s defensive film last year to learn more about who he inherits. White explained he wants to see their movements, reactions and instincts on film in certain positions.

“You want to throw as much at them as you can now and then taper back versus not having enough and then putting it in in the fall,” White said.

Rhule said he’s learning White’s defense along with everyone else. White, also associate head coach, said he’s learning about the process and aspects of coaching from someone who’s coached in the NFL. Together, they’re rebuilding a football program in Lincoln. They hit the recruiting trail hard right away to get the best class of 2023 they could. They attacked winter workouts to get players into shape and establish a new standard. This week, they’ll finally lace up the cleats and see what aspects of all that work applies to the field.

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