LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Darin Erstad spent the past three months questioning as much as he could.
He'd be face-to-face with a hitter in his office, or sitting next to guys glancing at video clips, or standing outside the batting cage while his pupils took their swings. Erstad's objective: to mine deeper into the roots of players who grew up with different voices shaping their mentalities and mechanics at the plate.
Erstad hopes improved communication can reinforce his hitting principles and perhaps reshape NU's offense, what was a punchless and containable attack that likely cost it a regional bid in 2015.
"You could have 50 different hitting instructors teaching the exact same thing with different terminology, but if the words don't mean anything to the hitter, you're wasting your time," Erstad said. "So it's a lot of listening. It's a lot of asking questions."
That's what happened when practice ended in October. The staff — namely Erstad, who has vowed to take a more hands-on role — had two hours per week with each individual. Erstad said position players worked exclusively on hitting for the final eight weeks of the fall semester.
They tweaked mechanics, increasing bat speed and shortening swings. They developed strategies for handling breaking pitches, adjusting their approach based on the spin or the height of the pitch. They made changes to stances, particularly lower-body movements.
They discussed pitcher tendencies in counts — when to protect and when to swing for the fences.
All of the extra work ideally will help improve offensive production.
Last year, the Huskers ranked 11th in the Big Ten in runs per game (4.8), they tied for seventh in slugging percentage (.369), they were seventh in on-base percentage (.348) and hit the ninth-most home runs (22). They didn't get enough clutch hits, and they weren't productive with their outs, Erstad said.
They finished eighth in the standings, dropping 12 of their final 17 games and spoiling a chance at a second straight NCAA tournament berth. Seven key seniors have departed. Outside expectations are low — the league coaches didn't pick NU to finish in the top six this year.
No wonder Erstad went to work.
But for the improvements to take place, the coach must get his words to resonate with player. That's always been Erstad's main priority. He just thinks he's better at it now.
"It's a great challenge," he said. "I have a lot of knowledge, but being able to articulate that into something a kid can understand and relate to it — I feel like I've done a much better job of that."
His players have been encouraged by the results.
They had the benefit of knowing what pitches were coming as they took their swings during the first half of preseason practice, but they've had more game-like simulations lately.
Junior Ryan Boldt said each player had his own focus at the plate this offseason, which he liked. He wanted to better understand how to work himself into favorable counts and how to capitalize when he got there.
Shortstop Steven Reveles said there weren't drastic changes for anyone. Some of the lessons Erstad conveyed related to the what former hitting coach Will Bolt taught two seasons ago, Reveles said.
"We're a lot more approach-oriented this year," Reveles said. "It's been a good learning experience for all of us. I think it's really helped us get better."
The Huskers could use some positive results at the plate.
Last year, they had the pitching (a 3.12 ERA, ranked 24th nationally) and the defense (a fielding percentage of .979, ranked fifth), but they couldn't score enough.
Erstad analyzed it all. He's reviewed advanced statistics to see if he can make better decisions. He's taken over base-running drills. He'll send in all the offensive signals from the dugout this season, the first time he's done that in his tenure.
"It's on nobody but me," Erstad said. "That's why I'm taking a more hands-on approach to make those adjustments."