LINCOLN, Neb. — Jovan Dewitt’s philosophy is simple when it comes to his players and their assignments and roles at outside linebacker: If they can teach it, they understand it.
Dewitt encourages his players to teach what they’re doing in a particular call to someone else. Grab a friend, girlfriend or sibling. Teach them. Help them understand. If they’re successful, then that player has it down.
“I do the same thing at my house with my kids,” Dewitt said following practice Thursday. “I’ll grab my 10-year-old son or my 14-year-old daughter and I teach them a defensive call. If I know they can understand it, I know that our guys can understand it.
“Once you can teach to a certain level, now you can adjust and adapt to everything that shows on an assignment.”
The approach has been especially helpful for players such as senior Luke Gifford. The outside linebacker is out of practice this spring as he recovers from a hip injury. Dewitt has appreciated Gifford’s willingness to learn and to step into the role of a co-coach at times.
“He’s done a really good job of being sharp mentally,” Dewitt said.
The mental sharpness is important, too. Practices are quick, and they can be mentally taxing for the players. In fact, Dewitt believes that’s what his players mean when they say they’re tired after practice.
“It’s really probably more mentally taxing than it is physically taxing in that they have to get lined up and they have to process so much faster than if they were just lining up and they were huddling and they can see the formation,” Dewitt said. “Now they have to see it and recognize it fast.”
The coaches are helping the defensive players accomplish this with the help of quizzes. During team meetings, Dewitt and the coaching staff will put a picture of a formation up on a screen for a second or two. The players then have to make the call.
And once they’re done with one quick call? They’re on to the next one. The quizzes move just about as fast as practice as Dewitt and the defensive staff work to strengthen players’ ability to adapt quickly.
Once on the practice field, the quizzes become reality. The pace never slows, and the players are asked to adapt to what they’re seeing in front of them at a moment’s notice. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s building in the right direction after practice No. 6.
“It looks a little slow and sloppy at the beginning because they’re learning what tools they have available to them,” Dewitt said. “When we get to a practice and the guys are making the calls, it really forces them to be mentally sharp all of the time. We talk about that pace because that pace really attacks them more mentally than it does physically.
“Right now, our guys are learning what tools they have in situations and they’re making calls, and then when we get back to film, we say, ‘Hey, that’s a good call but you might want to look at doing this.’ And they’re like, ‘I got you. It makes sense, coach.’ ”
Dewitt’s message of working with the tools available is key, too. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense focuses on allowing the players to do what they do best and to force opposing teams to beat them at that. Chinander’s defense also preaches aggressiveness.
And you’ll likely hear the defensive coaches say over and over again that it’s OK to make a mistake. They would rather see the players go full speed versus slowing down.
They’ll also be aggressive with the calls, but there’s a reason for that, which ties into the philosophy of understanding roles and assignments.
“It’s the nature of the calls sometimes that they’re going to have more aggression to it, more of an attack mentality and from that standpoint, they’re able to turn it loose,” Dewitt said. “And really, when you start to turn it loose is when you really show you have an understanding of what we’re trying to do.”