Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said before the season that he planned to rotate plenty of players in and out on the defense this season, and through three weeks he has held true to his word.
Nebraska has rotated liberally in the front seven in particular, giving young players like Khalil Davis, Deontre Thomas and Tyrin Ferguson a chance to see the field. Diaco said that rotation has two benefits for the defense, especially with the teams they’ve played so far.
“The players can play harder, longer collectively … We’re playing a lot of offense that make you defend the whole width of the field and predominately have to do it with speed and tempo,” Diaco said. “Some of these plays have been turning over every 10, 12 seconds, so having to run to the right and to the left and to the right and to the left, for a guy that’s 310 pounds, that can get really taxing. It’s not your prototypical or standard kind of 3 yards and a cloud of dust running, rushing attack. It’s a lot of side-to-side running, so the big boys get tired and we have to make sure we get them out before they get tired and don’t produce. You can see in production on third down, you can see in production in the red zone evidence of players being ready to play in those situations and not being extremely gassed to a point that they can’t produce.
“Then the side byproduct, which is fantastic, is development, so we’re getting a lot of guys reps and game experience. There are so many young players playing in these games, it’s incredible. The future is very bright.”
Ferguson saw a bit more action on defense against Northern Illinois than he had previously, showing his speed on a solid tackle to limit the Huskies to a short gain.
“I was very pleased with him, very pleased,” Diaco said about Ferguson’s performance. “I thought he went in and played hard, I thought he was on his job and his work, he prepared hard, he was ready to go in as the next man in. That’s fun to watch — a guy that may not get as many reps as the starter but he prepares hard, he studies the tape, he studies the defense, he studies the opponent and goes in and he’s ready to produce, and that was definitely the case with him. He was assignment-correct, played hard and did a nice job.”
Ferguson also made a big impact on special teams, playing a hand in the fumble recovery of a muffed punt that helped spark Nebraska in the second half. Safeties and special teams coach Scott Booker said he loved the effort by the redshirt sophomore linebacker.
“Him and [safety] Marquel Dismuke, both those guys, we wouldn’t have made the play unless both those guys did what they’re supposed to do,” Booker said. “Tyrin understood the situation — he couldn’t get on the ball but he pushed the returner off the ball and then Marquel got on the ball.”
Another player who made a significant impact off the bench is Khalil Davis, who had the best game of his young career wth two tackles for loss, half a sack, a pass break-up and a forced fumble. His brother Carlos, who starts at defensive end and finished with five tackles including one for loss, said he was happy to see his twin on the field.
“In the back of my head, I was like, ‘Man, he’s ready,’” Carlos said. “Because I’ve definitely been playing more than him. But when he got in there and when he made those plays, it kind of fired me up. He’s ready; he can play.”
This week’s opponent, Rutgers (1-2) dropped its first two games to Washington and Eastern Michigan but rebounded last week by putting up 65 points against Morgan State.
“Rutgers has some really talented skill players,” Diaco said. “They’ve got a veteran offensive line — I believe four of the five are returning starters. They have a really talented tight end; he can do all of the jobs. He’s probably one of if not the best tight end we’ve played up to date in terms of being able to do all the jobs. He blocks at the point of attack, he’s a threat in the passing game, athletic, big, physical player. Really, four talented tailbacks — they run hard, they run well, physical tackle-breakers, good speed, can attack the edge and circle the defense; four guys that all have a little bit different traits but can all get the job done.”
The Huskers will see a familiar face on the other side of the field as former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill is serving as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator.
“Coach Kill is a tough guy, he’s a brilliant football coach,” Diaco said. “No one needs me to say that, his record speaks for itself, his reputation proceeds him and his teams are hard-nosed, his offenses are hard-nosed and disciplined and they block and finish plays and finish runs and those are all the things you see with the Rutgers offense.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.