LINCOLN, Neb. — In the span of a few throws at practice Thursday, Nebraska’s secondary changed the narrative of the Huskers quarterback battle.
Redshirt junior Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien switched off throwing in tight windows near the end zone during a 7-on-7-type drill. First, Lee was intercepted. Then O’Brien. Then Lee. Then Lee again. Then O’Brien again.
By the end of the drill, Nebraska’s defensive backs were swatting at nearly every ball. They seemed to expect incompletions from two quarterbacks who have been completing about 70 percent of their passes this spring.
After practice, Huskers coach Mike Riley wasn’t bashful. He likes his quarterbacks, but he loves his secondary.
“I think the secondary, it should be a strength with the veteran players we have and the growth of some young people like Lamar [Jackson],” Riley said. “I’m excited about that group.”
Nebraska’s corners and safeties have new coaches and are transitioning into a new set of obligations in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. And yet, it seems, they’ve grown the most in two weeks of spring practice.
Nebraska finished 10th in the Big Ten in passing defense last season and seventh in pass-defense efficiency. Using the small sample size this spring, Nebraska’s offensive coaches say the secondary is improving drastically.
“I think they’ve been really good in the back end showing something and then playing something else,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Thursday. “We’ve gotten caught a few times being wrong.”
Wide receivers coach Keith Williams says the defense is difficult to read for quarterbacks and receivers. And, later this year, that could be a problem for opposing offenses.
“It’s difficult even if you’re used to it because it can be something different every time, and even the same coverages are not necessarily ran the same by the defense,” Williams said. “So you have to think on the run, you have to read your playbook, you have to use all your clues pre-snap, you have to recognize what the defense is doing.
“So it’s not easy. That’s why it’s good if a defense can get away with playing like that. And ours can, it looks like.”
Sophomore safety Aaron Williams said the disguises aren’t much different than what the Blackshirts used last year in former defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s 4-3 defense. But the secondary’s job in Diaco’s defense is more fluid, which gives it more freedom.
“You gotta be able to play off each other and be able to think on the fly. Instead of going to one certain spot, you have to think and react,” Williams said.
Safeties coach Bob Elliott called Williams one of the smartest players he’s ever coached. Williams said Elliott was being “overgenerous,” and in reality the entire secondary is benefiting from Elliott’s direction and 40 years of coaching.
“His teaching is helpful because he can take what you’ve been doing and he can critique you with different techniques he taught in the past,” Williams said. “So he works with what you already know and what you already do, so you just improve on what you’re doing.”
One way Elliott’s done that is by moving incoming senior cornerback Joshua Kalu to safety next to Williams. Kalu was a starting corner last season but was recruited as a safety by Bo Pelini’s staff. On Thursday, for the first time, Kalu was moved to safety and sophomore Jackson filled in at corner, with senior corner Chris Jones on the other side.
The move puts Kalu in space to make more plays, Williams said. Plus, it puts Jackson on the field, which coaches have been trying to do for months.
“Kalu is a good athlete. He’s a smart player, so he can get it. He caught on well,” Williams said. “I think the transition, it was a nice look. I like it. I know Kalu was for it. He enjoyed it.”
Williams says he thinks the secondary has learned about half of the new defensive scheme. After spring break, the group likely will learn the rest before the end of spring practice.
This all means that if the secondary is a strength this early in the spring — with half of the defense implemented and just a few months working with new defensive coaches — there’s no telling the potential of the Huskers secondary.
“I’m excited about that group,” Riley said.