Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Can Huskers' Second Level Take the Blackshirts to Another Level?

August 7, 2017
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Back in 2013, then-Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen brought in Dave Aranda to be his defensive coordinator, ushering in an era of 3-4 defense in Madison. In the four years since, Wisconsin has finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense.

Aranda has since moved on, but the 3-4 remains at Wisconsin and the Badgers have continued to be one of the best defensive teams not only in the conference, but in the country.

Fast-forward to 2017 and Mike Riley is seeking to follow in Andersen’s footsteps, bringing in Bob Diaco to transition Nebraska to a 3-4 scheme. However, current Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst hasn’t heard from Nebraska Coach Mike Riley looking for tips.

“Mike ran the 3-4 in Canada,” Chryst said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “He was one of the first guys [there] to run it. He knows football, he knows defense. The last person he’d call is me and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about the 3-4?’ That’s not going to happen. I learned from him.”

Taking a defensive lineman off the field to add another linebacker places a premium on the second level, and Wisconsin has had some serious talent at the linebacker position with the likes of TJ Watt, Vince Beigel, Joe Schobert and Chris Borland hearing their names called during the NFL Draft over the last three years. Depth and talent at the position is key for success in the 3-4.

“I think we do have a lot of guys who can play,” junior Wisconsin inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said about his team. “It’s what makes us so good, is that we can hopefully keep guys fresh throughout the year. At the end of the day we still have to come out and we still have to do camp and determine who is going to play and stuff like that, but we hold ourselves to a high standard because we should be amongst that talk [among the best].”

Camp still has to play out for the Huskers too and rotation spots are up for grabs, but on paper it seems like depth at linebacker should be a strength of the Huskers as well. Nebraska has 16 linebackers on scholarship for 2017 including eight with experience on at least special teams and eight true or redshirt freshmen.

Marcus Newby and Luke Gifford provide a reliable duo at field-side linebacker and Nebraska is still sorting out the boundary outside linebacker rotation, but it all starts in the middle and Nebraska has two veteran starters in the middle in senior Chris Weber and junior Dedrick Young II.

"Those two inside linebackers, you just don't have to worry about those guys in any phase; the football phase, the school phase, life - Chris Weber and Dedrick Young," Coach Mike Riley said after Saturday's practice. "To me that's tremendous leadership. They do everything they're supposed to do, they're great examples."

Weber, a former walk-on, got a chance to start as a sophomore when starter Josh Benderas went down with injuries, and Weber responded by racking up 36 tackles in three games before suffering an injury himself.

However, Banderas stayed healthy throughout 2016 and Weber saw his role cut back to being primarily a special teams contributor.

“I just tried to embrace the role that I was given,” Weber said. “I just think on any team you have roles that need to be played. For me, my job last year was to be ready to go and to make an impact on special teams. I learned a lot about preparation and what it takes to prepare and be successful in the Big Ten.”

Now Weber is in line to be the starter and a leader of the unit. Communication is key for inside linebackers in a 3-4, and Weber is trying to embrace his new role.

“I’d much rather just be a lead-by-example guy, but the great thing about it is when you get outside your comfort zone a bit good things happen,” Weber said.

Weber has been an inside linebacker his whole career at Nebraska, but his partner Young is making that transition after starting at outside linebacker his first two seasons in Lincoln.

“I think Dedrick did great last year where he was but I think inside the box and how we’ll use him in this defense, I think he’ll absolutely excel,” Weber said.

Weber said he anticipates a smooth transition as the pair adjust to the new scheme.

“I love Dedrick, I love playing next to him,” Weber said. “The nice thing about it is we’re mirrored positions, really, so there’s not too much difference. You can kind of coach them in a lot of ways the same way. I play on the strong side, he’s on the weak side. But it’s a 3-4, so it’s a mirrored position.”

According to Edwards, the ability to communicate and the chemistry between the two inside linebackers is vital to the defense.

“Being able to communicate is huge because there are a lot of moving parts in the defense and there are a lot of different looks and things like that and getting people in the right spots,” Edwards said. “I think having trust in that guy next to you is huge because we rely a lot on our D-line, especially the inside ‘backers, to get those blocks and hold those gaps so that we can roam free. They do a great job of that.”

Wisconsin junior Jack Cichy is also very familiar with what it takes to succeed at inside linebacker in a 3-4.

“You kind of just have to be relentless,” Cichy said. “You see that with linebackers all across the nation, especially a lot of them that are probably going to be in this room [at Big Ten Media Days], a lot of the Big Ten linebackers. It’s the fact that you really kind of have to have total disregard for your body. If it’s downhill run, you have to throw it in there, you have to stick your face in the fan we kind of call it. If you’re really a linebacker and you really like football, there’s no problem in sticking your face in the fan like that.”

The coaches seem to think Weber and Young have that toughness. But the real test will begin on Sept. 2. Fans have plenty to get excited about with the new scheme, but it is ultimately on the players to make it work.

“Scheme is important,” Chryst said. “I’m not going to minimize that, but players make the difference. Why have we been good on defense? We’ve had certainly good schemes and coaches, but we’ve also had really good players.”

Do the Huskers have really good players? We will find out soon.
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