As the first day of the early signing period came and went on Wednesday, Nebraska’s offense got the attention at Memorial Stadium.
After all, that side of the ball is searching for a transfer quarterback. It’s also the one breaking in three new assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, receivers coach, associate head coach and passing game coordinator Mickey Joseph and offensive line coach Donovan Raiola.
Those three controlled the room at Memorial Stadium’s press box, and rightly so as it was the first time they’ve talked to the media as members of Nebraska’s coaching staff. But tucked away in a corner was defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, who understands he has a challenge of his own for the 2022 season.
Nebraska’s defense showed improvement this season. The Blackshirts allowed an average of just 19 points per game if one takes out the safeties, pick-sixes and punts returned for a touchdown that they were not on the field for. Even if all those miscues were put on the defense’s tab, the average comes out to 22.7, which is still Chinander’s best mark since 2018, when he got to Lincoln.
But important pieces have since left. Eight players who were either starters or in the rotation—defensive linemen Damion Daniels, Ben Stille and Deontre Thomas, linebackers JoJo Domann and Pheldarius Payne and defensive backs Cam Taylor-Britt, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke—have moved on due to exhausting their eligibility, declaring for the NFL draft or entering their name in the transfer portal. Of those eight, six were in the top 10 for tackles, including Domann, Taylor-Britt, Dismuke, Williams, Stille and Daniels. Those eight defenders accounted for 332 of Nebraska’s 855 tackles this past season.
For Chinander, navigating the conversations with players who are weighing their options for the 2022 season can be difficult. But at the end of the day, Chinander said he’ll always want what’s best for the player.
“However I can help them, when they come to me, it’s usually I want to help them with the pros and cons and get them as much information as we can from our side and from the National Football League, or the job market if that’s what they’re looking to do as they move forward,” Chinander said. “But to me, it’s about the players. If they want to go, then there’s not a lot to try to recruit them back, because that’s not where their heart is. And if they want to stay, people who are trying to recruit them to the NFL or something else, it’s going to be hard on those guys too because their heart’s still in college football.
“But I think you need to have an open lens as you get into those conversations and see their point of view, they need to see our point of view, and then we all just need to get all the resources and information together and help that young guy make the best decision possible for him.”
With more wide-open offenses in today’s game, it’s become important for defenses to be more flexible than they once were. That’s helped create positions like Domann’s nickel, where he acted as a hybrid linebacker-safety who was sturdy enough to help in run support near the line of scrimmage, but also quick enough where he could hold his own against tight ends and slot receivers in space.
It’s also why Chinander and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher like to cross-train their defensive backs, like true freshman special teams maven Marques Buford Jr. did this season. Buford has faced adversity early in his career, but battled through it and put himself in position to earn playing time next season.
“That guy started off at corner, got hurt, rehabbed, came back to corner, we moved him to safety, he played all special teams, has a really good brain for football, really great attitude, really great work ethic,” Chinander said of Buford. “I think he’ll excel no matter where we’ll put him.”
The Huskers’ defensive backfield needs to replace three of the four starters, with Quinton Newsome the lone returner at corner. Safety Myles Farmer got a taste of being a full-time starter for four games after Deontai Williams went down with what turned out to be a season-ending injury at Minnesota.
“I think the biggest question marks is who’s going to win those jobs. Just like Quinton had to win that job last year,” Chinander said. “We’re fighting for another corner job and that might have to be a transfer, a junior college, a guy who’s currently on the team. And just like the other safety, Myles has to earn his job even though he played good football for us this year, he’s gotta do that.”
But there are holes to fill from others who did more than their stat sheet showed, like Daniels, whose job at times was to defend two gaps and take on double teams from offensive linemen. Guys like Ty Robinson and Nash Hutmacher could develop into the player that Daniels did over time.
Yes, Nebraska’s defense is losing playmakers like Domann, a super-senior sixth-year guy. Second-year freshman Isaac Gifford stepped into that nickel role admirably near the end of the season when Domann’s Husker career came to an early end with a hand injury. He could be in the driver’s seat to win that starting job next season.
Does Chinander think he has another player of Domann’s talents on the roster? He doesn’t know yet. But what he does know is this: He’s going to find ways to get his best players on the field.
“Whoever’s going to play in that role, we’ve got to find out what can they do best. Whoever’s going to play in those safety roles, what can they do best,” Chinander said. “And then, not only that, but, I think you would be a little bit remiss if you, let’s say if you had five DBs you felt great about. Well, if somebody goes down, to not be able to get that fifth guy on the field, and have to play maybe your eighth-best guy, who’s that safety, I think that’s a little crazy.
“So, I think the flexibility to be able to play those guys where we need to, and not only get the best 11 on the field but, when the next guy’s up, how do we get him on the field as well, I think, is a big deal in today’s football.”