Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Rebuilding the Blackshirts from Scratch

February 11, 2018
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Forgive defensive coordinator Erik Chinander if he doesn’t know every last detail of Nebraska football history. After just two months on the job, he’s still learning. But make no mistake, he’s going to learn. 

In front of a room full of Husker fans in Grand Island Thursday night, Chinander pledged that he’d learn it all. This job is that important to him.

One of the places he’s going to start: the best tradition in college football. His words.

“For me, to be the leader of those Blackshirts is a scary deal a little bit,” Chinander said. “I talked to Dick Vermeil and he told me, ‘You take a job on like that, that big of a job, just understand one thing: that office ain’t yours, you just rent that thing and rent’s due every day.’”

Rent was long overdue with its last occupant. In 2017, the Husker defense tumbled. The numbers are bad; you know it, your neighbor knows it, your dog knows it. Most want to forget last season. Chinander and the rest of the staff won’t even watch it.

“I don’t want my judgment on these kids to come from what other people have told me,” Chinander said. “I don’t know what they were coached to do last year. It’s not a fair evaluation. I don’t know what that kid was told to do. I don’t know what we’ve got to be quite honest with you, I have no idea what we have. We could have a nasty defense, we could have a thing that needs a lot of work. 

“I’ll watch a couple games — I watched the Wisconsin game — to be honest with you just to get a look at the guys running around, but I want to make my real evaluations in winter conditioning and spring football to give these kids a fair chance. I want to start over from scratch. I don’t care if you were the starter last year and you were the second-string guy, I don’t care about that, I’m going to find out for myself.”

I want guys that want to play with a desire to excel and no fear of failure.
- DC Erick Chinander

The staff took the same approach when they inherited the Central Florida program. The defensive coordinator was told the players were bad, the attitude was worse and the only way out was to bring in new guys. But he didn’t care what anyone else thought, he wanted to know for himself, so they entered the year with a clean slate. Shaquem Griffin went from fringe role player to AAC Defensive Player of the Year in part because the staff gave him a chance.

They’re going to do the same with the Huskers. But Chinander wants to see work.

“I want guys that want to play with a desire to excel and no fear of failure,” Chinander said.

He wants his players playing fast. He wants them playing instinctually. He wants them playing loose. Don’t think, do.

“If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never be any good,” he said. “I will never yell at anybody for making a mistake. Now, if we have an issue with effort, if we have an issue with some other things, then I’m gonna paint somebody’s back porch red probably, but if you make a mistake I could care less because then I know what you know and I know what you can do and I know what you can’t do.”

Chinander shared his vision for the Nebraska defense and as he continued to talk, Husker fans in the room grew more in love with their new coach. There was clapping, fist-pumping and the occasional “that’s right.” This staff knows they have a project on their hands. Ryan Held, the running backs coach who made the trip with Chinander, reminded everyone that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nebraska won’t be rebuilt in a season.

But Chinander did have another kind of guarantee for everyone, a promise that the tradition of the Blackshirts would return.

When the staff first arrived back in December, they were introduced at a Husker basketball game inside Pinnacle Bank Arena. Before Chinander walked across the court, he was implored to throw the bones.

“I did, but I kinda felt weird about it,” he said. “I hadn’t earned that yet.”

Last season 16 members of the defense received Blackshirts. Despite the Huskers trudging their way towards statistically one of the worst defensive seasons in program history, they were never taken back. Chinander has already gotten questions about who will be getting them this season.

“They said, ‘Coach, how many Blackshirts?’ Or ‘Who’s getting the Blackshirts on the team?’ And I said ‘This is how many Blackshirts we’ve got, boys.”

He held up his hand in the shape of an “O.” 

“That’s something that has to be earned,” he said. “In talking with some of these guys on defense, it kind of feels like that’s become a slogan in that building and that’s not what it’s going to be anymore. It’s going to be back to the Blackshirts.

“That’s going to be something that’s going to be held accountable and that’s going to be an honor and a privilege to wear that Blackshirt. You guys are going to be proud of those guys again.”

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