LINCOLN — Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s message to his defense before the spring game will be pretty simple. He’s just going to steal what former Husker defensive coordinator Charlie McBride told his team Thursday.
“We had an awful special guest with us the last couple days, Coach Charlie McBride was here,” Chinander said. “He gave a great message, so I’ll probably try and echo some of that. I want to keep that in-house, but he gave us some great stuff.”
McBride ran the defensive side of the ball for Nebraska for 23 seasons, including the great Husker defenses of the 1990s. Chinander said McBride was in town to “visit some old friends” and try and get back around the program. McBride spoke to the entire team following Thursday’s practice.
“He taught me a lot over the last couple days, and I want to continue with the message he gave the kids,” Chinander said.
Defense responds to criticism
After saying the defense needed to be more consistent and tougher in cold weather last week, Chinander saw a response from his guys over the last few practices.
“I’m gonna keep it real,” Chinander said. “When you keep it real, you’re honest with guys not in a demeaning way, but when you’re honest in your assessment, when you’re honest in what they need to improve on, they usually take that to heart.”
Chinander said it’s human nature to shut down a little when things get rough, but that’s when Nebraska needs to be at its best. That’s been a key message this spring.
“I’m trying to get that message across to them and they’re accepting it, and now they just need to conquer it a little bit,” Chinander said.
Focusing on picks
Chinander wants more consistency from his cornerbacks, but he also wants them to make more interceptions.
“We’re covering some people, we’re running side by side with them, we’re not getting the football,” Chinander said. “We need the football. I’d like to see the guys make some big plays in front of the big crowd.”
NU corners didn’t have an interception last season. Chinander said their ball skills — tracking passes in flight and actually catching the ball — are fine. Their mentality needs work.
“It’s no fear of failure, desire to excel, go get the football,” Chinander said. “If you whiff, let the safety make the tackle and let’s move on. But I need the football.”
Which is why Chinander was happy with the end of practice. In a two-minute drill, NU’s defense got an interception from Avery Anderson.
“Nothing better,” Chinander said. “I told those guys, we’re not out here to not lose the game, we win the game. When we take the field last, we win the game, period.”
In Central Florida’s three biggest wins last year — South Florida, Memphis and Auburn — the Knights forced turnovers to stop an opponent’s late drive and seal the victory.
Communication key for DBs
Nebraska has been blaring music in practice to simulate difficult conditions for communication. Sometimes the defensive backs speak verbally, and sometimes they use signals.
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said he imagines it will be pretty hard for the Huskers to hear each other during Saturday’s sold-out spring game.
“The juices flow a little bit more when you get out in front of that crowd,” Fisher said. “So I’m looking forward to seeing some juices flowing. We’ve got some guys I really want to see be in front of that crowd and let it go.”
Communication — leading to sound assignment football — is what Fisher will be watching Saturday. He hopes the Huskers’ performances won’t deviate much from what he’s seen through a dozen spring practices, but he knows certain players have a tendency to rise to the occasion of game day. Everyone has more to give, he said.
Fisher has used a performance chart all spring to track and evaluate the DBs, with points awarded for positive plays and taken away for missed opportunities. He said senior safety Aaron Williams and junior corners Dicaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson are among the “bunched up” leaders so far. Anderson scored a few points himself with an interception late in Thursday’s workout.
It takes players time to warm to the idea of a running production chart, Fisher said. For coaches, it makes evaluations simpler. For those on the field, it lets them know where they stand whenever they want an update.
“Right now, if I had to tell you exactly the temperature when it comes to the production chart in my room, I would tell you right now it’s probably about 70 percent how it’s supposed to be,” Fisher said.
The coach added that junior college transfer Deontai Williams will be manning a safety spot Saturday but that position overall remains clustered.
“In my mind there might be a little separation here and there (at safety), but they would never know it,” Fisher said. “They would never know it. There’s going to be competition all the way to fall camp, all the way to the first game.”
QB evaluation will continue
The four quarterbacks were split up without any rhyme or reason, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said Thursday.
Tristan Gebbia and Adrian Martinez will play with the Red team, Noah Vedral and Andrew Bunch the White. But don’t think too hard about that, Walters insisted.
“They’re all gonna get reps, they’re all gonna get evaluated,” Walters said. “And so we had to have two on each, so that’s what we did.”
Said quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco: “I seriously just want to make certain their feet and their eyeballs are in the right place. If receivers are open, hey, let’s get our ball placement where it needs to be. If receivers are closed, hey, let’s burn or burst and let’s make good decisions. And there’s going to be all that situational offense that comes up in terms of third-and-long, third-and-short, how they’re going to operate in the red zone and tight red zone.”
The quarterbacks will not be live, so they can’t be tackled in the scrimmage. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a full evaluation afterwards. The main message from Walters to the quarterbacks on Saturday will be to have fun. Enjoy it.
“Have fun and do what they’ve been doing,” Walters said. “We’re gonna limit the call sheet. We’re not going to have our whole offense in the game so that everyone on offense can execute. And they’ll know going into the game what the game plan is, what plays we’re going to run, and I’m just going to tell them to go out there have fun and do what they’ve been doing. Take control of the huddle and the offense, and if they do that then we should be fine.”
There won’t be a limit on offensive plays run, Walters said. They’re still going to go as fast as possible and get as many reps as they can.
“That’s what we’re looking at for this spring game, is guys to go out there and execute, take everything that they’ve learned up to this point and go out and be clean and be crisp and execute and have fun doing it,” Walters said.
Held gets to call plays
Running backs coach Ryan Held is fired up and ready to call some plays again.
With Frost “smelling the roses” on the sideline Saturday, he’s handing over play calling duties to Walters and Held. And the running backs coach is ready to get back to his roots.
“I won’t be the looney bird on the sideline, but I was a head coach for 12 years,” Held said. “Kinda brings back memories a little bit.”
Held said one of his main goals will also be to get the guys to realize this is a real game. With real TV cameras and real evaluations.
“It’s a great challenge and we’ll put in some different wrinkles and things like that and personally getting these guys, ‘Hey this is a game. It’s Big Ten network, let’s go,’” Held said. “We’re not gonna sit back and just concede anything. We’re trying to win the game. And that’s the mentality these guys need to (have). Doesn’t matter who it is against, they’re going out there trying to compete and score and get better.”
Big opportunity for TEs
There is no depth chart for Nebraska tight ends yet. That will change this weekend after their position coach, Sean Beckton, has a chance to see them perform in live action.
“Huge evaluation piece,” Beckton said of the spring game. Perhaps more than other position battles like quarterback, the Saturday scrimmage will go a long way in determining a pecking order entering the fall.
There will be details for the coach to chart, like who steps with the correct foot and understands “landmarks” in the passing game. Most of all, who plays with the most grit and toughness.
“There’s still competition going on there,” Beckton said. “Everybody’s going to get equal reps and we want to see what everybody’s going to end up doing. Sometimes kids are good practice players but when the lights turn on, those guys may be gamers. I just want to see those guys go out and compete on Saturday and play with a lot of passion and detail.”
The six Huskers working at tight end this spring are senior Bo Kitrell, sophomores Jack Stoll, David Engelhaupt and Branden Hohenstein and redshirt freshmen Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. Beckton said all have made significant gains in understanding the reasons why coaches ask them to do what they do. Now that the base fundamentals are in place, the next step is a summer of workouts and refining details.
But first, the spring game.
“I have an idea right now who the guys are (that are) gonna really help us next year,” Beckton said. “But I’ve been in the coaching ranks for a long time and a lot of guys step up and do some things in the spring game that kind of surprise you here and there at all positions. I kind of have an idea. I’m just wanting to figure out, from when we leave the stadium Saturday, who really, truly, are the guys there.”
Beckton will be on the Red sideline — he joked he might take over a series of play calling from Walters if he’s struggling — but following all of his players. Allen (6-foot-8, 210 pounds) and Rafdal (6-7, 230), for example, have the kind of size and athleticism that prompted him to offer UCF scholarships to both in recent years. Given that both were on the scout team last year and didn’t receive as much coaching, he said, they have shown the most progress physically and mentally in the new scheme.
The coach also singled out Rafdal as a Husker who has benefited noticeably from the “no fear of failure” mantra the coaching staff espouses.
“When he made a mistake, you knew it right away by his body language,” Beckton said. “…Now when he makes a mistake, he just turns his head and goes back to the next play. It’s working on a lot of guys. With him, for example, it has really, really helped him mature.”
>> Inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said the general excitement about Nebraska football has reached heights not felt since Tom Osborne retired following the 1997 season.
“It’s at a really high level,” Ruud said. “We’re 0-0 still, so that helps also.”
>> Ruud said the toughness at his position group is “not there yet,” but it isn’t for lack of effort. Rather, he added, that trait is a skill that needs to continue to be developed through good habits.
“If you’re always running to the ball,” Ruud said, “if you’re always playing with a chip on your shoulder, if you’re always playing fast, you’re going to be a tougher player.”
>> Beckton said he visited eight local high schools Wednesday. They were all new to the lifelong Florida native, who was one of a majority of Nebraska coaches who traveled the area.
“Being able to get in there and intermingle with some of those coaches, there’s always guys that are gonna fall through the cracks sometimes,” Beckton said. “We want to make sure as a staff we’re going in and seeing each individual kid and coach, making sure that we know who everybody is within the state of Nebraska.”
>> Outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said his guys may be switching jerseys during the game in order to “bank reps.” There’s no clear leaders at outside ‘backer headed into the spring game.
>> Walters said he likes juco receiver transfer Mike Williams because he “plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
> Reporters from USA Today and CBS Sports were in town for Thursday’s practice. Last week, Sports Illustrated and The Athletic visited practice, as did Big Ten Network, which interviewed Frost as part of special on the Huskers’ 1997 team that he quarterbacked to a national title.
Nebraska Red vs. White Spring Game
When: 11 a.m. Saturday (Radio coverage begins at 9 a.m.)
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM