Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

On a Nebraska Defense Hungry to Emerge from the Background

July 18, 2019
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CHICAGO — Mo Barry is tired of waiting in the background.

The Husker defense wasn’t much to write home about in Scott Frost’s maiden voyage, but Frost runs a high-octane, high-scoring offense, so most of the ink was already dedicated to that side of the football anyway. It’s an offensive program now, some have said.

Two of the three Husker representatives for Big Ten Media Days in downtown Chicago were defensive players, yet the focus was still on what sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez might do in an improved attack. Even though they had the numbers, the defense was once again in the background.

“This program is made off the name ‘Blackshirts,’” said Barry, the senior linebacker. “You talk about Grant Wistrom, you talk about Jason Peter, you talk about Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David, Barrett Ruud, you talk about those men and what they did when they were here? It will always be about defense here, first and foremost.

“I love that our offense is great, and they will continue to be great, but we will be a well-rounded team. Don’t think it’s just an offensive school. I never want anyone to think that because this is a Blackshirt school. It’s a Blackshirt team. Whoever represents that legacy on the field better represent.”

If Nebraska is going to come close to living up to expectations, it’s going to need massive improvement on defense. That side of the ball ranked 87th in points per play last season and 107th in opponent rushing efficiency. After the season ended against Iowa, Frost said too often in 2018 he’d look across the field and see a bigger team standing on the other sideline. 

That manifests itself in the trenches, but where scheme is important on offense, physicality is paramount on defense. That was the priority this spring and summer.

“I think the defense had a little bit better [offseason] than the offense,” Frost said. “The mentality that I see, the energy in the weight room that I see, the confidence that I’m starting to see build, I’m really excited about. I said this to the team, if you went back and look at our season last year, if the defense could’ve gotten one more stop a game and the offense could’ve scored one more time a game our record would’ve been a lot different. I think our defense is ready to take that step.”

Frost said it was about belief. About trusting in coaching, trusting in the concept. He talked about when he was playing at Nebraska and strength testing was a big enough deal the local papers published the results. When he got back to Lincoln, he said strength coach Zach Duval didn’t want to even publish the team’s initial results. Now, guys on the defensive line are squatting seven, eight and nine plates. 

“Last year we had Zach Duval, but he’s doing more,” Davis said. “We may do a workout and then we’re going out and running. We’re just doing more, more than we did last year. The theme at the beginning for strength and conditioning was ‘One More.’”

Barry said he played last season at 225, sometimes 222. He’s now at 235 pounds and thinks he’s faster than he’s ever been. Darrion Daniels, the grad transfer nose guard from Oklahoma State is a difference-maker, Barry said; someone who can keep guards from free releasing to the linebackers after a season of not really playing with a true defensive tackle. 

“We have size now to compete with these teams,” Barry said.

The next step?

“Stop the run,” Barry said. “This is a man’s game. … If you stop the run in the Big Ten West, you will win the West.”

Asked about Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor averaging over 9 yards a carry against the Huskers the last two years, Barry said he doesn’t care. The past doesn’t matter to him at this point, only this upcoming season.

The defense isn’t really a fan of the preseason lovefest with the Huskers, either.

“We see it but we don’t talk about it because it’s earned,” Davis said.

And, as the Blackshirts see it, nothing has been earned yet. So they’re hungry. The spotlight has been on the other side of the ball for some time. “We underachieved the last several years and everyone knows it,” Barry said. He talks about Indianapolis as the goal, but he knows actions are louder than his words.

“I’m a Blackshirt,” he said. “I’m in a long line of great linebackers, Barrett Ruud to Lavonte David to me. I represent them and I represent this legacy that we’ve created. For me, every time I play, I want to make people like that proud. I want them to see the position and say it’s in good hands. I want to make the young cats in the room proud. I want to make everyone around this program proud. 

“I think we’re ready, but it’s up to us to prove that. I would love to just talk about it all day, but I know when it comes to proving it we’ll be ready.”

 
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