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Nebraska Football

'Raising the Bar' for Nebraska's Defense Begins with Fundamentals

September 29, 2020
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A switch full-time to outside linebacker, six starts, extensive playing time all year, and career-highs across the board as a Swiss Army Knife-kind of playmaker. That was JoJo Domann’s junior season. He had 52 total tackles, he had nine tackles for loss. He got to the quarterback for 2.5 sacks, forced two fumbles, and deflected six passes. 

“JoJo’s a guy with a lot of talent,” said outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson. 

“He can play like a defensive back. He can be your guy that’s a safety, almost nickel, but at the same time he’s very physically fit and strong. He’s got the body type of almost an inside linebacker. That combination of that skillset and that strength is what makes him a guy you don’t feel bad about putting him to the field as an outside linebacker.”

Some outside ‘backers you’re scared to kick out into the field and put on a pass-catcher. 

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Colorado native ain’t one of those guys. 

He’s perhaps someone Nebraska can construct a flexible, aggressive defensive gameplan around. 

“My challenge to him is he’s a guy who can flash and make great plays—and we’ve talked about this a bunch of times—but we’ve got to get to the point with him where he’s the bell cow for our group, the guy we’re going to expect production from all the time,” Dawson said. “Can’t miss snaps, can’t have a ‘my bad,’ can’t have an almost. You’ve got to do it all the time. That’s something, as a senior, I think that’s a challenge he’s looking for. He wants the bar set high and he wants to be pushed.”

Pay careful attention to that last line. “Setting the bar high.” 

Throughout his Husker career, Domann has battled a litany of injuries. An elongated offseason meant Nebraska will bring one of its healthiest teams into camp in some time. Instead of rehabbing bodies, Nebraska can instead focus energy on fine-tuning games. 

Domann feels like the perfect case study in this regard. No injuries this year, only 100% attention paid to making the most of a senior year.

In the spring, before things were shut down en masse, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander talked about the need for less install and more refinement, lessening the amount of verbiage so technique can take center stage. 

In Year 3 of Chinander’s system, guys know (or, at least, they should know) what’s expected of them. Now coaches can harp on the little things. 

Dawson has been a welcome addition back to the coaching staff for this reason. Before a brief stop in New York coaching outside linebackers for the Giants, Dawson was Nebraska’s defensive line coach in 2018 and with Chinander at Central Florida prior. With turnover in the Meadowlands, Dawson is back in the heartland with some nuance.

“He pushes each and every one of us to our limits,” Domann said. “He knows when it’s a mental error, when it’s a football error, and what the difference is. He holds us accountable.”

Which is important, because a huge emphasis for the defense this offseason hasn’t been about reaching some numerical milestone—“We haven’t talked about specific stats,” Domann said when asked about defensive goals—but rather playing as a cleaner unit.

“Just working on the fundamentals of the game,” Domann says. “A lot of the time we overlook those. You think of schemes, you think of alignment, but the fundamentals you’re talking about of striking and winning the point of attack is the essence of football. We’re excited to get going on that.”

Where the head coach has had to split his focus between football and protocol, the defensive coordinator hasn’t had his days interrupted with Big Ten zoom meetings or the politics of playing a season in a pandemic. 

Chinander got to fill up his computer screen with side-by-side high school football games when the prep scene opened play a month ago. 

It has helped not being the first team to play. Chinander has been able to survey the college football landscape, call up friends around the country, and poke brains about what worked and what didn’t in getting ready for the year.

“What they thought they did wrong, what they thought they did right leading up to those games,” he said of questions asked. “Is it live tackling? Is it not live tackling? Is it live up front? Some people just went completely no-contact because they wanted to get to the game healthy and safe. Did that work? No.” 

A week ago Scott Frost said the Big Ten’s reluctance to put the pads back on has forced Nebraska to alter its practice schedule. The expectation is the team will be in pads Wednesday for the first time since November 2019 (though Chinander didn’t seem 100% confident; it feels inexplicable the coaches wouldn’t have a clear answer from the league at this point). 

Frost, Chinander says, has a plan of action, and a good one. Enough situational work, and the occasional two-back look to prepare for Wisconsin in Week 2.

“Not being the first ones to play—even though I would have loved to have played a month ago—I think gave us a little bit of an advantage to talk to a few people and find out how practices worked,” he said. “Can we find that balance of what’s going to work for Nebraska football?”

It’s an important question. 

Back in Dawson’s room, every guy who steps on the field needs to be able to set the edge. Run-stopping, he said, requires all 11 guys to do their part. It’s hard to truly simulate those situations without pads. 

It’s harder, too, to know for sure what you have without hitting. Nebraska needs to replace four starters from its front seven, including all three defensive linemen. It needs to find a new emotional leader after the graduation of Mohamed Barry. It needs to know who’s going to answer the call when the chips are down.

“Right now, with the season back on, I’m fired up,” said senior safety Deontai Williams as a wide smile broke across what was an otherwise expressionless face while talking with the media Tuesday afternoon. “I’m ready to hit and I’m ready to fly around and show what I’ve got.”

That’s the mindset Nebraska wants from all 11 guys on its defense. Easy to talk, harder to show, though. 

“Leadership is a contact sport,” Chinander says.

On the flip side, you don’t want to overdo things.

“The fine line is getting them ready to play a football game and not driving them into the ground,” Chinander said. 

You hope the Zoom meetings have held, the information passed through computer screens sticks. If Nebraska is a cleaner football team—fitting right at the second level, playing assignment sound—Nebraska stands to be a team that can hold its own against the heavy-hitters on its side of the conference. 

“We got an extra three months with Coach (Zach) Duval,” Domann said. “We’re ready to strike and win it at the point of attack. Our front seven, we have to win in the box.”

Nebraska’s riding a 10-game losing streak against Wisconsin and Iowa, typically two barometers of physicality. When the pads come on, coaches will see who’s about that life and who’s not quite ready yet. 

Domann is looking to play fundamental ball. Make big plays for his teammates on first down or third down or special teams. His individual goal is the collective goal.

“Just raising the bar, raising the standard,” he said. “We’ve got to continuously do that personally and as a unit. Just always pushing ourselves. … The whole energy is just raise the bar.”

 
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