Erik Chinander sat in front of a group of reporters two days before the Peach Bowl in late December. The group was split between those covering Chinander’s former team, Central Florida, and his new team, Nebraska. After running down what he expected UCF to see from Auburn and linebacker Shaquem Griffin’s potential, he switched gears.
Many of those in front of him wanted to understand how his defense worked. It’s a 3-4 base, which Nebraska had been running under the direction of former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Yet, Chinander’s defense was nothing like Diaco’s.
Chinander still had the Peach Bowl to coach — which provided a fine example of what to expect from the defensive coordinator — and winter conditioning with Nebraska before his defense would be installed. With spring football officially underway and installation in progress, the evaluation can now begin.
What are some of the biggest differences between Nebraska’s former 3-4 defense with Diaco and its new 3-4 defense with Chinander? Let’s break down a few of the more notable aspects.
Approach to preventing big plays
If there is one thing Diaco and Chinander agree upon, it’s that preventing the big play is crucial. Both defenses center around the idea of big-play prevention, but it’s how each defense goes about it that’s different.
Diaco’s defense centered around the idea of keeping points at a minimum while also limiting explosive plays. That approach didn’t pan out for Nebraska and the Huskers ended the 2017 season with a defense ranked 110th in S&P+. Nebraska allowed 5.6 yards per play on the ground and 7.3 yards per play, which ranked 124th and 66th in the nation.
Most Nebraska fans remember how the secondary struggled in Diaco’s scheme last season. However, the defensive line was also put in a tough spot. Diaco preferred a system that limited the defensive line from attacking the quarterback and ball carriers.
It was noticeable, too. Nebraska’s defensive line had only 9 sacks in 2017. One could even argue it was only 5½, since 3½ were ultimately credited to sophomore Ben Stille as an outside linebacker (who started the 2017 season as a defensive end).
Chinander’s defense is much more aggressive. He wants his players going after the quarterback.
“I think it’s more see ball, get ball mentality, and not just running downhill,” senior linebacker Dedrick Young said. “You know, with the two-gap and the guard all of the time, so it’s shuffling and reading the ball to get to it.”
Chinander knows his defense isn’t perfect. His Central Florida defense ranked 51st in the country in scoring defense with 25.2 points per game, 96th in total defense with 428.6 yards allowed per game and 97th in sacks with 21. The Knights were ranked 74th in S&P+.
Where Chinander’s defense makes up for its weaknesses? Takeaways, where the Knights averaged 2.5 per game, ranking Central Florida second in the country. Nebraska averaged only 1.0 takeaway per game, ranking the Huskers 115th.
And the Nebraska defense appears right on track after snagging a couple of interceptions during the first full week of spring practice. For Chinander, that was exactly what he wanted to see from a defense he’s pushing to play more aggressively and put pressure on the quarterback.
“It was very, very cool to get excited and watch those guys get on each others’ hats and understand that’s what this thing is about,” Chinander said. “We’re going to be some ballhawks back there.”
There’s a certain level of ownership that goes into playing for Chinander. For example, the defensive coordinator won’t make a call in-game. He wants players to adjust to the formations and alignments in front of them, as well as the splits of receivers. That freedom allows players to become more confident, while also providing motivation to read offenses and adjust quicker.
Chinander’s philosophy on player ownership is a simple one, too.
“A lot of times when it’s only me and I just call it in and something doesn’t work, [players may think] ‘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.”
That kind of freedom comes with its fair share of accountability, though. Junior cornerback Lamar Jackson knows this. While the coaches are providing more freedom to the players, it’s still up to the players to make the plays.
For Jackson, he prefers the approach.
“[Cornerbacks] Coach [Travis] Fisher kind of lets us have more fun [and] play little more free,” Jackson said. “As long as we have the big picture and as long as we’re making plays, he’s going to let us do our thing. That’s exciting and that just loosens us up a little more and gives us confidence.”
It will take some time to adjust, but Chinander is focused on building trust with his players for now. And with that trust, he’s providing more freedom to those on the defensive side of the ball.
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Diaco installed his defense in chunks, which was partially due to Nebraska’s change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and players moving to new positions. Coach Scott Frost has approached installation a little differently with both the offense and defense, opting to provide everything upfront versus providing bits and pieces to start.
It’s a bit of a fire hose mentality, with Frost saying he’d rather give the team everything right away. For senior defensive lineman Mick Stoltenberg, he appreciates the ability to see everything before breaking it down.
“You get the overall view first and then you get the chunks,” Stoltenberg said. “You get to see the ends to justify the means and the simple stuff you’re doing at the beginning. It’s good to see the whole picture, definitely, but it’s also good to break it down and go step by step.”
Looking at the defensive line specifically, Stoltenberg was pleased with Nebraska’s first full week of spring practice. Defensive line coach Mike Dawson has also said that he likes what he’s seen from Stoltenberg and the rest of the group, and that install has gone pretty well so far.
It’s still in a basic state. While both the offense and defense have the bigger pictures, the team is now spending time divvying up the playbook.
“There’s still some things that Coach Dawson has said we’re still kind of in the 101 stage and we’ll be in the 400 level soon,” Stoltenberg said. “We’re still moving around. We’re definitely going to have different alignments and jump into different gaps and stuff like that, and that could definitely throw that off. Reducing our front, playing in a one-gap system will give some a different look.
“We still have a long ways to go and a lot to learn but we’re kind of getting there.”