If Nebraska football fans weren’t already enjoying the Husker-red fruit punch of a new staff in the months since favorite son Scott Frost took over, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander busted through the wall like the Kool-Aid man Monday.
Speaking after Nebraska’s fourth practice of fall camp, Chinander was effusive in his praise of the progress made by both his defensive crew and the offense since the end of spring ball in April.
“To be honest with you, we look like a completely different unit on both sides, I think, than we did in the spring,” Chinander said. “I think 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.
“It’s very surprising. I didn’t know what we were going to get into. I didn’t know if it was going to be a deal where they were going to take the summer off and chill, but that’s not been the attitude around here and that’s been great to see.”
Older players mentoring young players and new players adding competition have all had a role in that development, Chinander said, as has the willingness of players to buy into helping each other.
There’s no one player leading the way, either, Chinander said.
“If something’s not right, somebody says something,” he explained. “I don’t know if we have three or four or whatever guys (talking) yet, but somebody says something and everybody listens.”
That last part is perhaps the biggest key. Rather than shrugging off advice from teammates, the Huskers have begun listening to and working off each other. In the spring, it was coaches doing the teaching. Now, the players are slowly growing into those roles.
“We’ve grown in the leadership, but we’ve also grown in the followership. It’s not anymore like, ‘F-you, I ain’t listening to you,’” Chinander said. “Now it’s, ‘Oh, somebody told me something, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, that’s my teammate, I’m going to do it that way.’”
Explosive freshman: Nebraska coaches were intent this summer on helping running back Maurice Washington become academically eligible to play this season.
Linebacker Will Honas understands why.
“There’s some explosive players here,” Honas said. “Somebody who’s really stood out to me so far is Maurice Washington. He really can move and is really explosive out of his cuts.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Washington averaged 10.2 yards per carry and 113.2 rushing yards per game last season for Trinity Christian Academy near Dallas. A four-star recruit, he turned down offers from Arizona State, Ohio State and USC, among others.
Pass rushers wanted: Nebraska defensive coaches are emphasizing the pass rush, which is no surprise, given the Huskers had only 14 sacks a year ago.
At least one veteran linebacker is showing signs he might be able to help in that area.
Luke Gifford, a senior outside linebacker from Lincoln who missed the spring with a hip injury, has been coming on strong in camp, says Husker assistant coach Jovan Dewitt.
“There was one surprising feature I saw today, or in the last two days really as we’ve gotten shoulder pads on: Luke has a better ability to pass rush than I initially anticipated,” Dewitt said. “He’s showing up quite a bit.”
In addition, Dewitt said Ole Miss transfer Breon Dixon “is really slippery,” and junior Tyrin Ferguson “is as consistent as can be.”
Alex Davis, another junior, also shows proficiency in rushing the passer, Dewitt said.
“He’s got long arms and can flip his hips. It’s been pretty fun.”
Ferguson’s rise continues: Ferguson has seen action only as a reserve to this point in his career.
It appears he could be on the verge of a breakthrough season.
The 6-2, 230-pounder from New Orleans picked up serious momentum in the spring, “and I think he’s accelerated it, to be honest with you,” Dewitt said. “I think he’s stepped up his game even more so than he did in the spring. I mean, I don’t think you can find anybody on the team that’s in the meeting room any more than he is, and then his practice intensity is as good as I’ve had in a really long time.
“He goes as hard as anybody I’ve had on the practice field. You combine those two things over time, it’s going to lead to him being a really good player for us.”
Dewitt said he gives Ferguson (and others) the liberty to make mistakes as long as players are moving fast — a mindset that is part of the program’s culture.
“Ferg is one of those guys who’s as hard on himself as anybody I’ve seen,” the coach said. “He internalizes a lot of mistakes. But once you free him up from that, it clears his mind and allows him to perform a little bit better.”
Tannor ‘calming the chaos:’ Dewitt was asked if true freshman Caleb Tannor, one of the most-touted members of Nebraska’s 2018 recruiting class, has made a quick impression.
“I think he’s exceeding expectations a little bit in terms of some pass-rush ability,” the coach said. “He’s got some natural football acumen, which is really nice, because a lot of times when freshmen come in and you’re expecting a lot out of them, sometimes the mental aspect takes over and they kind of struggle a little. I think Caleb has done a really good job of attacking the meeting room and getting to understand where he needs to fit.
“Now, there are some intricacies, obviously, in the defense he hasn’t quite picked up yet, but I think he’s doing a good job of getting lined up, which is the first step, and then calming the chaos that goes on in his mind.”
Nebraska’s offense can create chaos in practice with its rapid tempo. It can overwhelm a young player.
At this point, Dewitt said, Tannor isn’t a lock for immediate playing time.
“But I think he’s shown some flashes of potential to be able to some things for us.”
Kicker battle: Place-kickers Barret Pickering and Cole Frahm competed all spring for starting field-goal and extra-point duties, and the battle continues this month.
Anybody have an edge?
“Not in terms of place-kicking, it’s pretty much wide-open, to be honest,” said Dewitt, who coordinates special teams.
Dewitt was upbeat about both Pickering, a touted freshman from Birmingham, Alabama, and Frahm, a redshirt freshman from Omaha Burke.
“Those guys have done a really good job in terms of distance and accuracy,” Dewitt said.
Meanwhile, Pickering is challenging junior punter Caleb Lightbourn for kickoff duties. Lightbourn led that battle in the spring, Dewitt said.
“I would tell you right now, if you put a gun to my head and said I had to say one guy or the other, I’d say it would probably be Caleb right now, but I’m not telling Caleb that,” Dewitt said.
Heavy freshman walk-on presence in camp: With no media access for practice so far in camp, the exact makeup of NU’s 110-man camp roster is not known.
We do know, though, that there’s a heavy dose of walk-on freshmen.
The following list is likely not complete, but here are 10 that are in camp based on photos and videos distributed by the university and by attending post-practice media availability: DB Moses Bryant (Elkhorn South), OL Colin Shefke (Lincoln Southwest), LB Joey Johnson (Gretna), OLB Ryan Schommer (Norfolk), QB Matt Masker (Kearney Catholic), DB Isaiah Stalbird (Kearney), OL AJ Forbes (Bellevue West), LB Chris Cassidy (Lincoln Pius X), WR Bennett Folkers (Gothenburg) and OL Mitchell Balenger (Leonardtown, Maryland).