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Nebraska’s defense, the talk of spring ball, wants to prove it’s more than talk

April 7, 2019

Absent a quarterback race, sometimes it takes time in the spring for storylines to develop.

For Nebraska the past month, those include sophomore running back Maurice Washington’s legal trouble, the battles for two starting jobs on the offensive line, a promising crop of young mid-year enrollees and the wide-open race for positioning at wide receiver.

Nothing in spring ball, though, has been as consistently clear as the feeling that the Blackshirts, maligned much of the past two seasons, seem to be making progress. And yes, Nebraska fans have heard that before. Many will say, well, that’s nice, progress is all well and good this time of year, but let’s see it in the fall. That’s true enough.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the manner in which players and coaches have talked about NU’s defensive progress and, maybe most importantly, the nature of the progress.

“We just want it more. I just understand more now more than ever,” junior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “Guys are out there flying around, understanding that, ‘If I don’t do my job a certain way, then you can’t do your job. And if you can’t do your and I can’t do my job, none of us have a job.’ Guys are out there just trying to get it.”

This is not a finished product by any means. At least one safety job is up for grabs. So, too, is an inside linebacker spot and an outside linebacker spot. There is precious little depth at linebacker overall and even less that’s played consistently at a quality, Big Ten level. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said if he was an NU defensive back, any NU defensive back, he wouldn’t feel secure in his job. The defensive line needs big strides from every regular player and needs Darrion Daniels to have the same sizable impact in the fall that he’s had in the spring.

This isn’t so much about the problems being fixed. It’s a so-far-so-good affair.

[ Watch: Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander on practice and linebackers ]

“We still got a ways to go to the spring game, but I think as a defense we’re starting to climb the ladder of going the right direction,” secondary coach Travis Fisher said. … “We can throw more on the plate for these guys, and it’s not just about installs — first year of spring had to be kind of limited — and now these guys understand the scheme and understand how to practice and tempo. Right now it’s throwing as much as you can at these guys at the right pace and they’re picking it up.”

Those sentiments, interestingly, are echoed by the offensive players and coaches. Running backs coach Ryan Held has marveled more than once this spring about the difference just in physical appearance of Nebraska’s defensive linemen. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters has said if his side doesn’t bring its best to practice, it will get “embarrassed.”

“I think they’ve got a lot better,” said quarterback Noah Vedral, who spent spring ball, fall camp and the first half of the regular season running the scout team against the top defensive units last year. “I think they’re familiar and they’re faster. Not physically, maybe, but their decision-making is a lot faster and they’ve (become) a lot more decisive.”

There was a time when that sort of praise would have probably heartened NU’s defensive coaches. Now, it’s less about hoping the progress comes and more about a continued sense of urgency over the coming months.

“I ain’t happy anymore with winning some practice,” Chinander barked during a recent practice in a video put out by the school. “I’m trying to win in September.”

Last year, Nebraska finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry allowed (5.0) and gave up 29 rushing touchdowns. It was stingier against the pass (sixth in the Big Ten at 6.7 yards per attempt allowed along with a 15-11 TD-INT ratio). Overall, NU was 10th in yards per play allowed (5.81) and 12th in yards per game (433.5). Those marks check in at No. 75 and No. 94 in the nation, respectively.

[ Two-Minute Drill: Frost on Hoiberg, practices and players ]

They don’t have to skyrocket into the top 10 necessarily for NU to be successful. But a jump into the top 50 or so? Combine that with an uptick from its 20 forced turnovers (T-57 in the nation), and that would be real progress.

“I’m not saying that we’re the Tampa Bay Bucs with Warren Sapp and the boys yet, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Chinander said.