Past teams at Nebraska have been known for their potent offensive attack. Nancy Metcalf, Jordan Larsen and Sarah Pavan were all powerhouse Husker hitters, just to name a few. However, the Huskers have been dominant defensively as of late. Their lethal weapons patrol the backrow and make gravity look like it doesn’t exist.
So how has Coach John Cook and the rest of the Nebraska coaching staff transformed this program from an offensive mindset to a defensive one? Let’s dig, pun intended, into how this culture shift happened over the past couple of years.
Coach Cook has a saying that “if the setter has a bad day, then everyone has a bad day.” I think he needs to change that saying to “if the libero has a bad day, then everyone has a bad day.” What happens before the setter sets the ball? The libero has to touch the ball, whether that is a pass or a dig. So, technically, if the first contact is bad, then everything goes downhill from there.
If the set is off, the attacker probably won’t be able to get a good swing. If the hitter can’t get a good swing, they are probably getting blocked or making an error. That first contact can win you matches or cause you to lose matches. It is the most important contact. It keeps the ball from hitting the floor and provides another opportunity to score a point. We saw how important the first contact was against Minnesota on Saturday night when the Gophers out-dug the Huskers.
If you look back at years Nebraska has won championships (conference and national titles) you will notice that there is one common theme –– opponent attacking percentage. In the seasons Nebraska has won a title it has usually held opposing teams to the lowest hitting percentage. For example, right now, Nebraska is leading the nation in opponent attacking percentage (.112.) The Huskers are suffocating teams and it is hard for opponents have a successful offensive day when Nebraska can keep applying pressure with its defense.
When the defense slips a little, however, there can be problems. Three teams have hit better than .180 against Nebraska this season –– Florida, Creighton and Minnesota. The Gators and Gophers won, while Creighton took the first two sets against Nebraska before the Huskers mounted a big rally. Those matches offered on-court lessons on maintaining defensive intensity, which is a regular part of the Huskers’ preparations each week.
Every day in practice, Coach Cook spends more than an hour on defense. The players work on partner floor moves at the beginning. They will go through basic floor moves every single day. It’s the simplest moves that require the most repetition. Then they will go through some drills that require the coaches to attack. The coaching staff tries to simulate the attacks of the opposing team that the Huskers play that week. It is live-action preparation, which is usually why the Nebraska defense is so successful; they are beyond prepared.
At the end of practice, the liberos or defensive specialists participate in a drill called “bro dig drill” which is short for libero dig drill. Some of the tall, strong, male grad managers who played college volleyball at prestigious universities, will jump and attack as hard as they can (making it almost impossible to defend) at the Husker defender who is in the drill. She has to get five balls up to get out of the drill, but it is a lot harder and takes a lot longer than you would think. I believe that the bro dig drill is what propels a player like Kenzie Maloney to make some of the incredible plays that happen when she is on the court.
Coach Cook is also fond of the saying, “defense wins championships.” I completely agree with that statement, so I won’t be making any changes to that one, but you have to not only practice floor moves and be put in tough situations, you also have to instill a mindset that you are going to focus on playing defense. Coach Cook and the rest of the coaching staff (it helps to have two assistants who played libero during their playing careers and naturally have that defensive mindset) have definitely achieved both and we are seeing the results pay off.
The question is, will this year’s Nebraska defense continue to play consistently and win another conference championship or possibly even another national championship? Only time and the numbers will tell.
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.