Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: What's the Secret the Blackshirts Are Keeping?

March 15, 2018
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Scott Frost's offense might be one of the most dissected topics in the state of Nebraska. There's a good reason for that. Nearly 50 points a game and a product description that includes elements of Nebraska's option combined with the more contemporary offensive fireworks of Oregon's attack makes it hard not to look (and marvel) at.

But what about the defense? The Huskers that spoke yesterday were hesitant to say too much about it.

"Systematically, it’s different, but it’s still 3-4 defense. You guys just have to wait and see the difference. I can’t really say too much about it yet," junior defensive lineman Carlos Davis said.

OK. I mean we know some things about what Nebraska's defense should look like. We know the general math defensive coordinator Erik Chinander used at UCF, "sacks plus turnovers minus explosive plays." We know about "no fear of failure" and the aggressiveness that mindset is supposed to instill.

We know the numbers. If there was a moment of pause for Nebraska fans during the UCF download that started in December, it probably stemmed from the 97 points that Knight defense gave up over the final two games before that staff aimed their individual moving vans for Lincoln. That made some sense. Football fandom is often an exercise in fretting over potential weaknesses, and it is an eyebrow-raising total for two games. But it's worth nothing that those 97 points, in what were still wins over two pretty good opponents in USF and Memphis, were 30 percent of the total UCF allowed in 2017. The Knights allowed 21.1 points per game in the other 11, an average Nebraska hasn't been better than since 2010.

But the bigger thing as it pertains to the installation of a new defense that begins Friday is the 2016 season. UCF leaned on its defense that first year for good reason. It ranked 12th nationally in yards per play, 29th in gains of 20 yards or more allowed, 18th in takeaways and 19th in sacks. That sort of trajectory in Year One makes a lot of sense for Nebraska given the experience returning. I found it notable that four of the five players to speak at Wednesday's press availability were defensive players (three of them defensive linemen). On paper the Huskers are probably better suited to be a defense-led, run-heavy team in 2018 than they are the nearly point-a-minute squad UCF was last year.

And maybe that's part of the reason for secretiveness ahead of spring practice. Perhaps those veteran defenders know that the fun, fast, fearless ethos of this staff isn't just limited to the guys who get to possess the football. Takeaways are fun. So are sacks and the Knights' six sacks in the Peach Bowl win over Auburn certainly caught the attention of the Huskers sitting at home this winter.

Davis mentioned it yesterday. So did senior defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun.

"Oh yeah, sacks are nice and if you can have more than five in a game then that’s going to be a real eye opener," he said.

That might be understating it. Nebraska had 14 sacks over 12 games in 2017. To play the shock-stat card, Ndamukong Suh had 12 on his own as a defensive tackle in 2009. I'm sure Akinmoladun doesn't really care about that, but he seemed to be well aware of this: Of those 14 sacks last season, just 5.5 came from defensive linemen. (Suh had 4.5 against Texas in 2009 to play that card again.) If the Huskers got home in 2017 it was typically a linebacker doing it, which is usually indicative of some sort of blitz call. (For comparison, three of UCF's sack leaders were defensive linemen in a 3-4 that asks for a good degree of D-line drudge work.)

Akinmoladun was asked if Nebraska would be similarly blitz-reliant for sacks in 2018.

"Oh no, that’s the interesting thing," he said. "You’ll find out soon about that."

I like cliffhangers. Consider me interested.

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