Attitude adjustment makes Chinander confident in Husker ‘D’
LINCOLN, Neb. — Erik Chinander turned around a bad defense his first year at Central Florida, and he’s confident he can do the same as Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator.
The Cornhuskers allowed 54 or more points in four of their last six games during a 4-8 season and ranked in the 100s nationally in three of the four major defensive categories.
Chinander watched video of last year’s games shortly after Scott Frost and his staff were hired, and he said the collapse the second half of the season wasn’t caused by a lack of talent.
“When it starts going bad and people know it’s coming to the end, it really goes off the rails,” Chinander said Monday. “It’s hard to control. Really, us wrangling them back in and going the right direction is going to go a long way.”
The Huskers will continue to play in a 3-4 base alignment, but it will be noticeably different. Chinander’s system, compared with former coordinator Bob Diaco’s, places greater value on aggressiveness, especially when it comes to linemen pressuring the quarterback and getting after ball-carriers.
That’s not the biggest difference, Chinander said.
“We all think we’ve got great schemes,” he said. “But the effort the kids are giving right now, the attitude they have and the want they have to fix things is going to overcome a lot of what happened. Hopefully, we can put them in a great position to be successful. I think we have a good chance this year.”
A sign of progress, Chinander said, is that the six returning defensive starters are being pushed hard by newcomers and 2017 backups.
“The older guys must have done a great job teaching the young guys, and the young guys put some work in because they’re playing at a high level now,” Chinander said. “To be honest, we look like a completely different unit on both sides than in the spring. It’s knowledge of the system, it’s knowing how coach Frost wants them to practice and probably more competition out there than in the spring.”
Some of the keenest competition involves the defensive backs. Secondary coach Travis Fisher awards points for interceptions, pass breakups, fumble recoveries and other big plays. Standings are posted daily in the meeting room. The leader through four practices is freshman cornerback Cam Taylor, with junior cornerback Lamar Jackson in second place.
The secondary was a major concern coming out of spring. Safety Aaron Williams is the most experienced player, with 22 career starts, but he was limited to nine games because of injuries last season and remains limited because of offseason shoulder surgery.
The emergence of Taylor and the arrival of two junior-college transfers and graduate transfer safety Tre Neal (UCF) has made the secondary much deeper than in the spring.
“Definitely that’s the most improved unit on the team,” Chinander said. “By no stretch of the imagination are we ready to roll yet. We’re not ready to go out there and play a game yet. But that unit as a whole, that group has taken a huge step in fall camp, and we’re all pleasantly surprised.”
Three-year starter Freedom Akinmoladun and two-year starters Mick Stoltenberg and Carlos Davis are back on the defensive line, and a linebacker corps led by Dedrick Young II has been beefed up by junior-college All-American Will Honas and Mississippi transfer Breon Dixon.
Chinander has gone through a major rebuild before.
Frost and his staff took over a UCF program that was winless in 2015, and Chinander inherited a unit that ranked 113th in total defense and 117th in scoring defense. In 2016, UCF allowed 13 fewer points and 94 fewer yards per game and moved up 74 spots to 39th in total defense and 75 rungs to 42nd in scoring defense.
The Golden Knights’ overall defensive numbers weren’t as impressive during last year’s 13-0 season, but they were second in turnover margin.
A caveat: Frost’s no-huddle spread-option offense means Chinander’s defense must spend more time on the field. Last year, only nine teams averaged more defensive snaps than UCF’s 74.5 per game.
“You can’t take 70 snaps in the Big Ten every game as a defensive lineman,” Stoltenberg said. “That’s not going to work with the (length) of the season. You need bodies to roll, guys to be fresh to contribute. We’re making sure we’re developing everybody across the board.”
As for last season, well, that was last season.
“It’s a new year, new day,” Jackson said. “We’ve done a whole lot since January, since this whole staff got in here. Leaders are coming out naturally, and now that we’re out there banging you see who really is going to be our guys. I’m excited with where we’re going.”
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