John Papuchis took over as Nebraska's defensive coordinator last winter under the assumption that he understood exactly what he was getting into.
But he didn't realize one aspect of the job: When anything goes wrong on defense — no matter how small the mistake — he's not able to overlook it.
Sounds like common sense, right? Papuchis thought so too, well, until his mind started racing late at night and he couldn't fall asleep.
“(It's) the sense of responsibility for everything that takes place in a practice or a game,” Papuchis said Friday. “I knew that is the case, when you're in charge of the unit. Mentally, I kind of could grasp my mind around that idea. But the feeling of ownership and responsibility for everything that happens — that's new for me.”
Safe to say, Papuchis hasn't been sleeping soundly this past week.
Nebraska's defense littered the field with errors during a 36-30 loss to UCLA and Papuchis, promoted to defensive coordinator in December, spent 45 minutes trying to explain the reasons behind the disappointing performance as more than 250 Husker fans listened at the Big Red Breakfast inside the Ramada Plaza Omaha Hotel and Convention Center at 72nd and Grover Streets.
His audience was respectful and supportive, yet quite purposeful and direct as it rattled off specific observations and inquiries for Papuchis to address during the town-hall-meeting-style setting.
>> Why was the tackling so poor last Saturday? Papuchis pointed to practice. The Huskers don't complete tackles during every game-like drill, but players have to be focused on fundamentals. Feet and shoulder placement. Staying balanced. He assumes they'll be better against Arkansas State.
>> What's up with the pass rush? One of Nebraska's main goals defensively is to avoid giving up the big play, which often places some extra “stress” on the defensive line, Papuchis said. Containing the quarterback becomes top priority — not rushing so wildly up front that lanes are created, he said. Playing off the ball up front is required in this scheme, though Papuchis indicated that the linemen might move closer Saturday.
>> Why is the defense so difficult for young players to comprehend? Papuchis said the coaches are always trying to find the middle ground. Advanced enough to confuse opponents but simple enough for defenders to grasp. “In my opinion, is the defense too complicated? No,” Papuchis said.
>> Why did UCLA's pre-snap motions cause problems? And why did NU get caught in so many unfavorable matchups in space? More basic coverages, with less blitzing, would have made it easier to adjust to pre-snap movement, Papuchis said. As for leaving linebacker Will Compton man-to-man against a speedy running back? There were aspects of the game plan last week that coaches knew would be problematic, he said.
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Papuchis knew this was coming during Friday morning's speaking engagement, a sort of concerned-based questioning from the fans.
The issues facing his defense were on display Saturday, and he said the team is working to correct it all. He said he received text messages from players as early as 6 a.m. Sunday, asking what they needed to do to get better.
“The responsibility that we feel as a staff and as players to give you guys the best product we can possibly give — we take extremely seriously,” Papuchis said. “And when we feel like we've let people down, that's hard.”
It is why Papuchis, at one point Friday, shouted down a fan he thought was wrongly portraying the Huskers' objectives. National championships remain the goal.
“There's a perception that we've lowered our standards — and we haven't,” said Papuchis, who quickly apologized for raising his voice.
Most in attendance applauded him for his passion.
“As much as it hurts the greatest fan that we have when we don't play well, I promise you, it eats at my gut more,” Papuchis said.
But effort, enthusiasm and dedication only takes you so far. Papuchis knows that.
He wants to see better execution across the board defensively against Arkansas State. Better tackling, too. He said the defensive line needs to fight off blockers more effectively. The linebackers and defensive backs can't have missed assignments.
The keys Saturday? Don't allow the Red Wolves to have productive first down plays and control the line of scrimmage, Papuchis said.
Overall, though, Papuchis just wants to see improvement.
“I hope to God I can look into the mirror and feel like I coached a better game,” he said.
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