Nebraska was a dream job for Erik Chinander. That’s why when coach Scott Frost extended an offer to Chinander to join him as the Huskers’ new defensive coordinator, saying yes was an easy decision.
“I’m a Midwest guy,” Chinander said on the Husker Sports Network on Dec. 19. “Aside from getting to be at a job that I think is the best job in the country, getting my wife and kids back close to grandma and grandpa is pretty great, too.”
Now that Chinander has the job, Nebraska fans are eager to see what he does with it. The Huskers defense struggled mightily with Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator in 2017. Nebraska had the worst defense in the Big Ten last season, giving up an average of 436.2 yards per game. The Huskers were also 13th in scoring defense (36.4 points per game).
Diaco’s defense also allowed five opponents to score more than 40 points this past season and surrendered at least 199 yards rushing in the final seven games. Adding insult to injury, the 2017 Nebraska Blackshirts became only the second team in Huskers history to allow more than 400 points in a single season.
Needless to say, Nebraska fans are hoping for a much different defense in 2018. Those who tuned into the Peach Bowl last Monday got an early preview of what a Chinander-coached defense can do.
There appeared to be reason to worry about how Chinander’s unit would hold up against Auburn. In UCF’s previous two games — wins against South Florida (49-42) and Memphis (62-55 in double overtime) — the Knights had given up a whopping 97 points and 1,406 yards.
However, those two matchups hardly tell the story of Chinander’s defense in 2017. Outside of the South Florida and Memphis games, the Knights only allowed more than 24 points in a single game two more times during the 2017 season. Those two instances were a 73-33 victory over Austin Peay during the regular season, and the 34-27 win over Auburn.
Chinander wasn’t necessarily pleased with his defense’s numbers against South Florida and Memphis, but he understood how it happened. With Frost’s high-tempo offensive scheme, points and yards are to be expected from time to time.
“If you are with a pro-style offense, they get nine to 11 possessions a game,” Chinander said in Atlanta. “Points get cut dramatically and yards get cut dramatically. So, if I were worried about self-promoting me, you’d leave this deal and go to a team that was going to run the ball 50 times.
“I love the exciting pace of our game. I love Coach Frost, and I love our offense, and I love being in some shootouts sometimes.”
Against Auburn, Chinander highlighted what his defense excels at: attacking. UCF took advantage of the Tigers’ pass protection weakness from start to finish, getting after Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham from the beginning. The Knights defense brought Stidham down 5 times in the first half alone, and once more in the second.
Coming into the Peach Bowl matchup, the Knights were ranked fifth nationally in takeaways with 29. They were also tied for second in turnover margin at plus-15. Against Auburn, UCF forced 3 turnovers, ending up plus-2 in the turnover column for the day.
And adapting to the opposing team’s weakness is one of the things Chinander does best. Chinander succeeds by disguising the attack with shifts and stances, only making it clear what is happening in the last moments.
Chinander is also good at creating discomfort for an opposing offense. In the American Athletic Conference, for example, he focused heavily on stopping run-pass options and vertical routes. The Big Ten will be different, as his defense will switch its primary focus to preventing the run. The concept remains the same, though: prevent big plays.
“I think you have to mold [the defense] to who you’re playing,” Chinander said. “We’re not going to let them do what they do best, so we’re obviously coming into the Big Ten, so we have to limit running. We have to be able to stop the rush of a lot of opponents we’re going to play.
“Then once you can eliminate what they really want to do and what they do the best, then that’s when you can start creating turnovers because that’s when all of a sudden they become someone they’re not.”
Beyond that, Chinander also strongly believes in his team taking ownership of the final product. His players are as much a part of the decision making as he is, and he said he won’t issue any calls during the game.
Instead, players adjust based on what they’re seeing on the field. They also may remove a concept from game-week preparation if anyone feels uncomfortable with it. The joint ownership makes the players more confident and motivated.
“A lot of times when it’s only me and I just call it in and something doesn’t work — ‘Oh that was a crappy call. Coach put us in a crappy position, ” Chinander said. “When we all have an equal say, when we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction, it’s easy to get things fixed. So I like the kids to have a lot of ownership.”
Fans will get the first official glimpse at Chinander’s Nebraska defense during the annual spring game on Saturday, April 14. Until then, his past performances with UCF provide insight into what the Huskers can expect going forward.
And so far, there’s reason to be optimistic.