His boss got all the attention during last fall’s miserable start, but put yourself in Barrett Ruud’s shoes for a moment.
Nebraska’s all-time leading tackler returned to his alma mater and hometown in 2018 to coach his old position — his first year as a full-time assistant. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Except when you lose your season opener on the final drive to Colorado, the same team that spoiled your senior day in 2004. Losing to Troy didn’t lift Ruud’s mood. Nor did embarrassments against Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin. And just when he thought he’d get his first win, well, Northwestern drove 99 yards.
“After every game, you’re miserable,” said Ruud, the 35-year-old inside linebackers coach. But by Monday or Tuesday, the wallowing is over.
“Honestly, it may have been a good thing that I was coaching in it because you get so consumed with the next week that you do kinda forget about the 0 part of it.”
Ruud didn’t leave UCF wearing rose-colored glasses. Remember, he began his Husker linebacker career with 11 straight wins in 2001 and finished in ’04 with Nebraska’s first losing season in 43 years. The dream doesn’t always match reality. But with his rough rookie campaign behind him, Ruud expects significant progress in 2019.
“All guys year two in the system generally make a pretty big jump,” Ruud said. “We’re counting on that.”
Ruud entered spring ball with no returning lettermen other than senior anchor Mohamed Barry. That leaves plenty of opportunity for guys like Collin Miller, Will Honas and a freshman-to-be named Nick Henrich, who graduated early from Omaha Burke. More on him later.
The Huskers need more strength and versatility in the middle. Year one illustrated the difficulty of defense in the Big Ten.
At Central Florida, the Knights faced power spreads — one back, one tight end, three receivers — every week. They could sit back in a base defense. The Big Ten, on the other hand, presents the most versatile set of offenses in college football, Ruud said.
You might face Ohio State’s power spread, then Indiana’s true spread, then Wisconsin’s power game, then Purdue’s pro-style spread, then Iowa’s heavy dose of zone running and bootlegs.
“You have a few games where you have to play like Dick Butkus,” Ruud said, “but then the next week you have to be able to walk out and play in space as well.”
The range of offenses changed the way Ruud teaches. At Central Florida, he taught spread concepts first. The Big Ten demands he start with I-Pro sets.
“The first thing I used to learn back in the dinosaur age was two-back run fits — the fullback,” Ruud said. “That can’t be a foreign thing anymore. Down at UCF, I think we played two games with a fullback. Then last year we had five or six games where we had to deal with a fullback.
“So you have to be able to teach that in the offseason even though we don’t really see that on a day-to-day basis from our offense.”
Nebraska defensive coaches joked recently that the Blackshirts could handle the “outrageous concepts” from Frost’s offense. Plays that “just gash other teams” were second nature to Erik Chinander’s defenders.
“But all of a sudden you see (a basic old play like) ‘lead weak’ and they get jumpy because they don’t see it a whole lot,” Ruud said. “As coaches, we have to make sure they’re comfortable seeing that just like they’re comfortable seeing all these five-out crazy plays.”
Ruud’s inside linebackers must be “really, really versatile and comfortable doing a lot of things.” But coaches also need to build specialty packages, even if it means treating inside linebackers like modern-day basketball centers. One week they might play 50 snaps, one week they might play five.
Ruud played eight NFL seasons. He studied the game’s brightest defensive minds. But when things were going poorly in 2018, he said, he questioned himself first, not his players.
Even good performances — like Michigan State — prompt harsh self-criticism. There might be a run fit that Ruud considers “moronic” or “idiotic.” He’s a self-described “glass-half-empty guy.”
Ruud’s winter to-do list included a rigorous self-scout. Where did his players do well? Where did they struggle? If they were slow, how does he tweak his methods?
“That’s always the No. 1 goal as a coach. How do I make concepts simpler?”
Next he studied the experts. Which college defenses are playing best and why? His NFL teachers include Wade Phillips and Gus Bradley. He knows their 3-4 systems, so he doesn’t have to guess what they’re doing.
Seeing how they confront their “issues” is most educational. Every scheme has a weakness, Ruud said, and “it’s always a battle of how do you handle your problems.”
The hope is that Nebraska’s problems will be harder to expose once Ruud develops his young linebackers. That’s where Henrich’s early graduation gives him an edge.
“I used to kind of put down the midyear enrollees,” Ruud said. “Now I think it’s such a benefit.”
Recruiting and development timelines have moved up. Henrich can get acclimated to college life, learn the defensive system and get stronger, helping his chances of contributing early.
Henrich represents the silver lining of Ruud’s first year on the job. NU, with Ruud leading the way, offered five in-state prospects and landed all five.
“I hope I can do that again,” Ruud said.
Going 5 for 5 during a 4-8 season suggests that Ruud’s job may be easy going forward, but he feels the pressure to be perfect. Twenty years ago, Ruud said, competitors were scared to come to Nebraska. He didn’t even consider another school.
“Hopefully we get it back to the point where when we offer a kid from Nebraska, we’re just expecting a commit. Right now, we gotta prove it.”