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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Tackling Tackles for Loss

June 25, 2019
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All across the country college football teams are getting better or worse right now. Few people outside of those programs can see it––the summer is the shadowiest part of the college football calendar––but it's definitely happening. You just won't know how those summer months were going for your favorite team for another few months.

For Nebraska, these summer months feel particularly important. The Huskers have about as much momentum as a team can coming off a 4-8 season. If you're a Husker fan, that's made for a nice offseason, but if Nebraska is going to really be a division contender this fall, as some predict, these summer months need to be productive. There are things from 2018, obviously, that Nebraska needs to fix.

This week in Hot Reads, we'll be taking a look at a few of those areas from a statistical point of view. It's an offseason punch list, if you will. On Monday we looked at first-down efficiency. Today it's tackles for loss.

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The outlook for Nebraska's defensive line in 2019 is bright. The Huskers are deep and experienced up front with a rotation that, on paper, looks at least six deep here in the summer. The new coach leading that group, Tony Tuioti, says all the right things about stopping the run in the Big Ten and draws on his experience at Michigan as the example. There's not much dispute here––Nebraska's d-line is trending up for this season.

Linebacker is a bit more of a crap shoot. The leading tackler and leader, full stop, of that unit, Mohamed Barry, returns, but the other three spots all come with a little uncertainty. Collin Miller and Will Honas will be the first two up to replace Dedrick Young II on the inside. Alex Davis and Tyrin Ferguson could share time at one of the outside linebacker spots while JoJo Domann is leader on the other side with Caleb Tannor in the mix. Outside of Barry, it's hard to know exactly what you'll get out of Nebraska's linebackers. People are excited about Domann, for good reason, but statistically speaking he might have the biggest shoes to fill as the 2019 equivalent of Luke Gifford.

Gifford led the Huskers in tackles for loss last season (12), which was nearly a fifth of the total for the team in 2018. Whoever gets them, Nebraska needs more of those negative plays in 2019.

Nebraska ranked 101st nationally with 63 tackles for loss last year. Look at that as a percentage of total plays defended and the Huskers were generating a TFL on 7.04% of plays, 110th nationally. Rutgers was better in 2018 (by 0.06 percentage points, but still).

The good news? Nebraska's 2019 rate was a reversal of a five-year trend in Lincoln. From 2013 to 2018, the Huskers' tackle-for-loss rate slid a little bit each year from 10.1% in 2013 to 5.3% in The Bob Diaco Year (registered trademark). Last season, then, represented some meaningful improvement, but defensive coordinator Erik Chinander will surely be looking for more in Year 2.

“In this day and age of the way your offensive football is going, the way to win games on defense is sacks, plus turnovers, minus explosive plays,” Chinander said in January of 2016. That was his way of introducing his style of defense to UCF fans.

Turnovers are easy enough to notice. So are explosive plays, though it takes some concentration to notice their absence. Tackles for loss, which include sacks, is maybe the easiest to miss. While they don't have the game-changing power of big plays or takeaways, TFLs are still pretty powerful.

The Huskers had 50 TFLs a year ago that didn't come on a drive ended by the half. (I'm removing those from this calculation.) Of those 50 drives with a TFL, eight ended in field goals (16%) and nine ended in touchdowns (18%) for a total scoring percentage of 34%. On Nebraska's 107 defensive drives without a TFL, the Huskers' opponents tallied seven field goals (6.5%) and 38 touchdowns (35.5%) to score on 42.1% of drives. 

While the run-of-the-mill tackle of a running back 2 yards behind the line might not merit much notice, those plays have drive-stopping power, or at least damage-limiting capabilities when you look at the difference between the touchdown numbers. Get a tackle for loss and a defense's odds of getting stop go up. Simple as that.

While last season's leader in this category, Gifford, is gone, the next three on that list return. Ferguson ranked fourth on the team with six TFLs in just eight games. Overall the Huskers return 62% of their TFLs from 2018. They only lost four TFLs from the defensive line and it seems reasonable to expect increases from that group. Two of the top TFL options at linebacker in 2019, Domann and Ferguson, missed time last year which is worth a little buzz of its own (presuming they stay healthy this season).

The prognosis for Nebraska when it comes to tackles for loss is promising in 2019. Should the Huskers be better this season than they were a year ago, I'm guessing you'll be able to point to––at least in part, always in part––an uptick in stops behind the line.

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