Defense is easy to ignore in many sports, and volleyball isn’t any different. Everyone loves to see a dominant kill or perfectly timed dump, but defense can win matches. It is even more important in the rally-score era as every dig can immediately turn into a scoring opportunity.
There’s nothing worse than facing a team that can dig. It’s demoralizing and exhausting for a team when it can’t generate kills. But defense isn’t just digging. Players first have to be in a position to dig and that involves covering when a team transitions from offense to defense following an attack.
That’s where positioning comes in and Nebraska has two primary defensive alignments, “White” and “Red.” Here’s a closer look at each of them.
This is Nebraska’s most common alignment when the opponent is in system. Each player will start in her base position before releasing back to play defense. For example, the right-back defender will start in a base position about a foot behind the 10-foot line, and slightly in from the sideline. The left-back is in a similar position on the opposite side of the court.
When those players release they’ll move two or three feet back at an angle toward the sideline. “Keep your butt on the sideline,” is a famous Coach John Cook saying. Keeping your back parallel to the sideline accomplishes a couple of things. First, it allows the defenders to know where the sideline is. Second, it can make it easier to read when a ball is headed out. Third, it puts the players in position where they can see everything that’s happening in front of them.
In Nebraska’s White defense, the middle-back will stay deep and try to read which way the block is taking and where the hitter is hoping to attack. Depending upon which pin the ball is set to, the off blocker will come off the net to the 10-foot line to play tips and roll shots to what’s known as the “doughnut,” the open space towards the middle of the court where the middle blocker used to be.
When Nebraska is in White the hope is that it will get two blockers up in front of the hitter no matter where the attack is coming from. That’s not always possible, so this alignment offers the most court coverage for a variety of attacks.
Nebraska’s Red defense is designed to make teams pay when they’re out of system and therefore more predictable. You can generally assume a team is going to set to the outside when it’s out of system, so the Huskers will often audible into Red in those situations, which allows them to commit to the block at the pin.
In Red, Nebraska will be putting two blockers against the outside hitter, and that changes the assignments elsewhere on the court. Say the attack is coming from Nebraska’s right side. Rather than dropping back from the 10-foot line to cover the sideline as she would in White, the right-back defender will stay up near the 10-foot line to cover any tips over the Nebraska block. With two players on the block, it’s assumed that the sideline is covered.
When the right-back positioned near the 10-foot line, the middle-back has to slide to her right to help cover the deep area behind the right-back. One of Coach Cook’s favorite movies is “Top Gun,” and he borrowed a famous saying from that movie: “Never leave your wingman.” He uses it all the time to describe a situation like this. He wants his right-back and middle-back moving as if they’re connected by a string. If the middle-black isn’t sliding over in Red, she’s leaving her wingman (right-back) exposed.
With the middle-back shifted over, the left-back also shifts a little closer to the middle of the court to cover some of what the middle-back covers in White. The left-front then comes off the net and behind the 10-foot line to help dig sharp crossing attacks and pick up any mid-court tips that might be out of reach for the right-back. A Red call can also go to the left if the opponent is attacking from that pin.
This defensive call is not only a way to get three people to the point of attack when a team is out of system, but it can also be based on personnel. If a team has a particularly skilled hitter, the game plan might call for Nebraska to be in Red any time she gets a set at the pin.
How important is defense at Nebraska? You could say it’s a cornerstone of the program’s overall philosophy. The Huskers are doing at least an hour of defense-specific drills each day. They’ll do defensive floor moves with a partner for 30 minutes and then team defense drills for another 30, but really every minute of a Nebraska practice is another opportunity to improve defensively. Even when the Huskers are working on offensive drills, they’re always pairing it with a couple of defenders on the other side of the net to work on blocking and digging.
Want more of The Lo-Down? Find all of Lauren's previous columns here.
Lauren joined Hail Varsity in 2017 as a contributing writer covering Nebraska Volleyball. Lauren played volleyball at UCLA in 2009 and then finished her collegiate volleyball career at the University of Nebraska from 2010-2012. After college, she played professional volleyball in Switzerland and Puerto Rico before making her way back to Lincoln. Lauren considers herself a wine connoisseur and a major “foodie” and she also loves to travel the world. Lauren and her husband, Jason, married in 2018.