LINCOLN — Coach Bo Pelini momentarily searched for the right words Monday to describe why his defensive players have struggled to implement the concepts of his system during games this year.
He chose not to diagram it out. No need. He just relayed the same assessment he's shared on repeat with an inexperienced group of players.
“If you don't have your eyes on your right keys and you don't have the discipline (and) the focus to play your technique and see what you're being taught to see, you're going to have problems,” Pelini said.
It now appears that the search for the source of Nebraska's defensive woes is hovering around this principle, one that's basic in theory yet easily overlooked at the snap.
Where are your eyes?
The players keep hearing that question. And the answer the coaches are looking for almost always seems to contradict a defender's natural tendency to fixate on the football.
Sophomore cornerback Daniel Davie smiles when you bring it up. He still struggles with the concept.
Staring down his receiver, even when the route has been successfully cut off? It almost seems illogical.
But the moment you turn your head to spy on the quarterback (and the location of the football), that's when the receiver ad-libs, takes off downfield and beats you for a touchdown. Davie said he learned that the hard way. More than once.
Redshirt freshman Avery Moss has similar examples. He knows that in most cases the offensive tackle's first step gives away the play call — and that most everything else is a distraction. Yet Moss still gets caught with his eyes pointed toward the backfield while the offensive tackle he was supposed to be analyzing drives him out of position.
Coach Rick Kaczenski calls out the defensive linemen all the time in the film room, Moss says. Guys adamantly claim they were looking in the right spot. Then the game tape's paused and the truth's revealed.
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“It's actually really hard,” Moss said.
This is true. Pelini won't dispute it, either. Just watch NFL highlights. Said Pelini: “A lot of the big plays happen because of guys being undisciplined with where their eyes are.”
It has to be addressed, though. For Pelini's system to work, the assigned roles can't be compromised by wondering eyes.
That is why a Pelini-led film session with defensive backs and linebackers last week centered on the topic. They reviewed Wednesday's practice. Then applied some of the lessons on the field two days later.
Problem was, “the exact same things” showed up Sunday. “Maybe a different guy — but it happened to them on Sunday. The exact same things we talked about,” Pelini said.
He expected some of this, though.
While watching the spread offenses of two high school teams in game last weekend, Pelini was reminded of the development required for defensive players.
It's often assignment-based responsibilities on offense. But for the defense?
“You have to be able to react to things,” Pelini said. “You have to be able to understand concepts and make quick decisions.”
His players have struggled with that. They have the statistics — 463.8 yards allowed per game — to prove it.
But to Pelini, the blueprint for improving on those numbers isn't at all complex. At least in theory.
The mistakes all relate to the same issue. So his response never changes.
“It came back to eye discipline. It came back to reading your keys. It came back to their focus,” Pelini said. “It's why you have to keep putting them through it, putting them through it, putting them through it.”
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Video: Nebraska's Monday press conference