Talking Bob: What to Look For Early from the Blackshirts

In case you haven’t heard, Nebraska hired a new defensive coordinator.  They tell me he’s extremely handsome and some sort of football genius.  What he isn’t, apparently, is Kevin Steele, though I fail to see any relevance in that observation unless you’re a hopefully soon-to-be-retired local media scribe needing to drum up some material because you don’t have anything relevant to say once Tim Miles’s season is over.

Woooooosah.  In any event, Bob Diaco steps into an interesting position as the new coordinator of the Blackshirts.  On one hand, the Blackshirts were statistically a top 30 defense last year, so it’s apparent he’s got some toys to work with in the starting lineup.  On the other hand, Nebraska’s defense faltered down the stretch and at times looked completely overmatched, giving up 500+ yards twice in the last six games and allowing 6.86 yards per play in December and January.  

As always, expectations are high for the Huskers’ defensive coordinator, and he’ll try to meet them with his hybrid system blending 3-4 and 4-2-5 principles to create a variety of looks throughout the game.  Let’s take a look some things I’ll be focusing on against Arkansas State and Oregon.

Tempo, Tempo, Tempo

If you were a defensive coordinator installing a new defense at a place where you’re expected to hit the ground running, you’d probably want a nice helping of anemic, plodding opponents to get you started in the fall.  Well, that ain’t happening for Coach Diaco, and in fact it’s the exact opposite.  Arkansas State’s offense isn’t prolific, but they do keep the pedal down in hurry up mode almost the entire time:

After the Red Wolves in Lincoln, the Huskers travel out to Eugene to take on an Oregon offense loaded with talent and embracing the Gulf Coast Offense (anybody know what Willie’s calling it these days?) at a tempo just as fast as it was under Mark Helfrich.

Calling out personnel, formation strength, shifts, and motions is tough enough on players in a new defense when you get the full play clock or something close to it.  Reducing that time to 15 seconds or less puts a great deal of stress on a defense, and tempo often results in assignment busts early in the season.  Nebraska learned that in 2008 when Missouri put up 52 points in Bo Pelini’s fifth game, and they learned it again in 2015 when Miami came out in tempo and put up 17 points in the first quarter against a Blackshirts unit still trying to figure out which direction to go.

The seamless practice installation of Bob Diaco’s defense in Lincoln is the stuff of legend, and fall camp seems to indicate the Blackshirst are way ahead of the pace.  But funny things happen when the lights come on, and Nebraska will need to be sharp with its defensive communication early.  Look to see how many times the Huskers bust coverage or misalign to a formation in their first two games.  The fewer you see, the more likely Nebraska is to be 5-0 heading into October.

All Gas, No Brakes: Like Seriously, No Brakes This Year

Diaco’s defense is more toward the bend, don’t break end of the spectrum than the helter skelter, blitz from everywhere all the time defense of guys like Don Brown at Michigan.  When you play Diaco’s way out of a 3-4 defense, it means your defensive line is largely responsible for creating pressure on the QB in the passing game because it’s not going to be a game full of 6-man pressures.

Over the past year, defensive line coach John Parrella’s group has adopted the motto “All Gas, No Brakes.”  They’re going to earn it this year if Nebraska is to have success out of the gate against Arkansas State and Oregon.  The Red Wolves are a throw-to-run team, while Oregon flips that entirely and uses a power, spread-based running game to create throwing opportunities.  Against both, however, the Blackshirts will go as Parrella’s group goes.

So let’s talk personnel.  Last year, Carlos Davis had a productive year as a redshirt freshman playing defensive tackle in the three technique.  This year, he slides into the strongside defense end role, and the Huskers expect a big year out of him.  In the middle is monstrous Mick Stoltenberg, a guy whose myth has outpaced his actual play for much of his time in Lincoln.  A large part of that has been injuries, as Stoltenberg has twice torn his ACL and devoted a large part of his last four years to rehabbing.  This year, he appears fully healthy, and at times in camp he’s been unblockable by everyone on Nebraska’s roster.  Diaco needs that from him on Saturdays as well.  Finally, the guy who some consider the misfit toy of this 3-4: Freedom Akinmoladun.  Akinmoladun came into the program as a 230lb tight end, and he appeared to be a protypical 4-3 defensive end when Nebraska moved him there in 2015 to help plug a gap in the depth chart.  As if that wasn’t torture enough for him, Nebraska switched to a 3-4 and will now play him at weakside defensive end after he’s bulked up to 280 pounds in the offseason.  Is it an ideal fit?  Probably not.  But Freedom has grown into a pretty solid player in both run defense and rushing the quarterback, and I’m interested to see how he makes it work this year.

I expect the Blackshirts defensive line to surprise a few people this year.  Nebraska has been woefully deficient in disruptive plays from its front 7 since Randy Gregory left.  Maliek Collins and Vince Valentine had brilliant moments, but the latter was injured too often to make them a regular occurrence.  This year, I think Mick and Carlos in particular change that equation a bit, though nobody is confusing them for a Clemson or Alabama type group.  Both use their hands well, and I expect them to have more than a few meetings in the opponent’s backfield.  I don’t expect big sack numbers, but the tackles for loss should improve from last year (10.5 combined for Davis, Akinmoladun, and Stoltenberg).

Kalus from the Secondary

Josh Kalu is the man of the hour on Saturday, as I want to see variety in how Coach Diaco uses him.  I’ve long thought Kalu’s best position was at safety, and he’s got coverage skills from his time at corner that should allow Diaco to do some unique things with his secondary.  You won’t typically see safeties rolled down in press coverage on slot receivers, but Kalu’s comfort there after playing both corner and nickelback in his career gives Diaco the option to do just that.

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Nebraska Frequently Played Split Safety Coverage in the Spring Game

Also, will Diaco work to establish an 8-man front, playing single high coverages, or will he play split safeties and count on his front 7 to defend the run?  Is he rolling his safeties down from a pre-snap 2-high look or playing it vanilla in game 1?  Frankly, I’m not really sure what he’s going to do.  He played a lot of split field coverages in 2016 at UConn against traditional spread offenses, and we may see a lot of it Saturday against Arkansas State.

Finally, pay attention to how Diaco defends 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) with his own personnel.  Though teams frequently like to play Nickel packages (5 DBs) against 3-WR sets, I think Diaco will try to defend it primarily with base 3-4 personnel if he can.  I think he feels more comfortable right now using Marcus Newby or Luke Gifford at the DOG linebacker position than he does using another corner, be it DiCaprio Bootle or rotating Kalu down to play the nickelback while Antonio Reed or another safety comes in for the Nickel package.  Gifford as a former safety has some hybrid coverage abilities that make him extremely valuable in that role.  But while Diaco may have the luxury to stay in base 3-4 against Arkansas State, I’m not sure we can get it away with it the following week against Oregon given their team speed at WR.

Wrapping It Up

Diaco’s defense from March to September lived in mythology rather than reality, as he chose to play a bland 4-2-5 in the Spring Game.  That changes starting tomorrow, as we get the first glimpse of how he’ll utilize the Blackshirts’ personnel.  Candidly, I expect the Blackshirts to be tested early by Arkansas State’s tempo before they finally settle into things in the second half.  After that, it’s In Diaco We Trust.

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