LINCOLN — When Rick Kaczenski took over as Nebraska's defensive line coach in December, he inherited an experienced unit with touted young depth.
But one of football's most grueling positions has a way of shredding best-laid plans. That's why one of Kaczenski's mantras in position meetings is: “We don't want guys who do what's asked of them, we want guys who do a little more.”
After a humbling loss at Ohio State, Kaczenski realized he needed more from himself. And in the week leading up to the season-defining Northwestern game, he knew he needed more from the few healthy players he had.
“They weren't going to move the game back for us,” he said Monday.
That's why senior end Cameron Meredith — a veteran of so many different defensive assignments during his career — slid inside to tackle. And how Nebraska's line — maligned after one month of play — bounced back to play “pretty good,” Kaczenski said, in wins over Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State.
Kaczenski's had to work through injuries of varying degree to Todd Peat Jr., Kevin Williams, Thad Randle and Avery Moss. He's had to manage the temporary departure — and return — of Chase Rome. He's had to coach Meredith — at 255 pounds — on battling 600 pounds worth of a double team. And he's had to navigate through criticism for a two-gap defensive line strategy that fans struggle to grasp and reporters consistently question.
“Never a dull moment,” Kaczenski said, smiling. It won't get boring this week, either.
Penn State's offensive line is detailed, cohesive, physical and “very well-coached,” Kaczenski said. The Nittany Lions run a no-huddle “NASCAR” package designed to wear out an already-embattled line. And it's the fourth straight team that wants to play downhill, Big Ten football, right into the mouth of the Huskers' defense.
The circumstances aren't perfect, Kaczenski said. It's November, he said, and every line is beat up. A defense, at this point, won't always dominate. It just has to win — and reflect perseverance.
“When you play Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, they're going to make you look dumb every once in awhile,” he said. “It's playing that next play, that next snap. That's why you see so much resiliency.”
Resilient is a word Kaczenski likes for this unit. He sees it in Meredith, who “fights his tail off” at tackle, and has since Northwestern, when Kaczenski first approached the senior about playing the spot.
It's “kinda a mismatch,” Meredith concedes, adding that he's “getting blown off the ball every once in awhile.” But Kaczenski's good, Meredith said, about teaching counter techniques and correcting errors on the spot.
“He's adjusted to the personnel he has,” Meredith said. “He does a good job of coaching and understanding each person's strengths.”
Kaczenski sees resiliency in Rome, too. Rome briefly left the Husker program after a 36-30 loss to UCLA.
Rome returned roughly one week later. Kaczenski — who called Rome's presence on the team a “great marriage” for program and player — hinted that having his own two children — young as they may be — shaped his thinking on Rome's departure in ways it might not have several years ago. Drawing on his own college playing experience at Notre Dame helped, too.
“If you play college football on this level, there's times when it goes through your head: 'Man, this is a tough deal,'” he said. “Everybody questions their ability. People question the physical and mental beating. It's taxing. So everybody has to pull each other along.”
Nebraska's line is now encouraged to ask challenging questions in film study. Instead of reviewing only an opponent's tendencies, Kaczenski wants linemen to scout themselves. What would the tape tell your opponent about your weaknesses? What are you going to do to fix it?
Kaczenski asked himself those questions in the wake of a 63-38 loss to the Buckeyes, in which the Huskers gave up 385 rushing yards. NU's interior linemen struggled to shed blocks, while the ends occasionally went for too much in trying to make plays.
“There were some things I missed on the sideline,” Kaczenski said. “Some bad positions I put them in. Their performance was more on me than it was on them. There weren't any physical loafs. There were some physical errors. And that's on the coach.
“I had to take a step back and say 'Man, I have to do a better job.' I have to put these guys in better position.”
Coach Bo Pelini said Kaczenski's done that.
“Our guys have gotten better and have played better the last couple weeks,” Pelini said. “Hopefully that will continue. We've had to mix and match a little bit here and there.”
Penn State's offense — based on the New England Patriots' attack that coach Bill O'Brien coordinated for several years — will stress the line in different ways. PSU uses a variety of running backs, all with a different pace to them, and multiple tight ends.
Pelini said he has a plan outlined for how he wants to match up with the Nittany Lions' diversity. Kaczenski said Nebraska has to win the battle with its line playing smart and disciplined against a precision offense. And he expects the last three weeks have put NU in position to do it.
“Our guys have a better understanding of how they fit in the puzzle,” he said.
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